Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Australia has long spied on its neighbours, especially Indonesia, and we've long sought to take advantage of that in our diplomacy.

Australia's embassy in Jakarta was the location of the first overseas station of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service

The unpublished diaries of one senior diplomat show Australian Defence Signals Bureau, now the Defence Signals Directorate, was routinely reading Indonesia's diplomatic cables from the mid-1950s onwards.

Our spying began in close co-operation with British intelligence, MI6 and the Government Communications Headquarters and, as time went by, in ever more intimate collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. And we've never stopped spying. Four decades later leaks of top secret Defence Intelligence reports on Indonesia and East Timor in 1999 showed Australian intelligence had extensive access to Indonesian military and civilian communications.

The burning of Dili by the Indonesian military and militias in September 1999 came as no surprise to Australian intelligence.

Malaysia too has long been a target. Several years ago, when a group of MPs was given a classified briefing on the work of the Defence Signals Directorate, it was treated to a series of intelligence scoops that included a recording of an intercepted video conference call between Malaysia's most senior military commanders.

The implication was clear - Australian intelligence could access some of the most sensitive military and diplomatic communications of our neighbours.

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne on Wednesday called on the government to review our regional intelligence collection. She says Australia can't tell its neighbours we are friends while being "right up to our necks" spying with the United States.

Time will tell whether therewill be any diplomatic backlash to the revelation that we are operating surveillance posts in our embassies.
The Australian government will do all in its power to avoid comment and controversy. There may be some political rumblings in Indonesia or Malaysia but there will be strong inclinations to continue business as usual.

Australia also isn't above playing diplomatic hardball if need be, and reading everyone else's mail can be pretty handy.

Whether free-range espionage is the best way of winning friends and influencing people in the long term is perhaps a more debatable point.

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