Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Australia's interest in Indonesia is no secret

EDWARD Snowden, like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, is feted by the so-called intellectual Left as a whistleblower. Yet the damaging, pointless and unnecessary spat between Canberra and Jakarta shows how Snowden's arbitrary release of secret information does great harm for no benefit. 

The senseless release of state secrets by disaffected attention-seekers is the political equivalent of rioting vandals smashing shopfronts; making a statement without having anything to say. The lauding of these breaches by the liberal media including our own Fairfax Media and ABC seems to be motivated by a jejune desire to undermine the established order, embarrass nation states (especially the US) and just to reveal secrets for whatever end. If there are lessons to be learned, they are self-defeating - what US agencies should do to ensure secrets don't fall into the hands of such people.

No one could be surprised that our intelligence agencies cover Indonesia. This expansive, populous and at times troubled nation has been of prime concern to our regional engagement and security since the end of World War II. From the independence struggle, Konfrontasi with Malaysia, concerns about communism, the annexation of West Irian and East Timor, the push towards democracy, the independence of East Timor and the modern scourge of Islamic terrorism, the fate of Indonesia and its 250 million people has been of vital interest to Australia. No government in Canberra would be fulfilling its duty if it failed to fully inform itself about our northern neighbour. And no one aware of basic technology would be surprised at mobile phones being monitored.

Still, the specific revelations about the phones of senior Indonesian politicians including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are clearly embarrassing. Intelligence-gathering is necessarily discreet not just to protect secrets but also to avoid diplomatic humiliations. Whether or not Dr Yudhoyono was surprised by this news, its public airing creates a domestic political situation that leaves him no option but to remonstrate with Canberra, as much to demonstrate his nationalist credentials as to make a serious point. With his nation facing representative and presidential elections next year, it is unfortunate the President, a friend of Australia, has been put in this position. Still, he would be wise to moderate his reaction and that of his Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, lest the past decade's progress is undermined.

While much of the recent focus on relations between our two nations has been on asylum-seekers, the most crucial area of security and intelligence co-operation remains counter-terrorism. For the past decade the spectres of the Bali, Jakarta embassy and Marriott Hotel bombings have loomed large. The arrest of dozens of Jemaah Islamiah terrorists, successful prosecutions and some subsequent executions relied on intricate police operations supported by sophisticated intelligence gathering - largely by Australian agencies. Other attacks have been thwarted, and collectively our governments appear to be winning this battle against violent extremism. But there is no excuse for complacency and with joint operations ongoing, we can ill-afford a cooling of relations between our governments, let alone any disruption to our security co-operation. Indonesian and Australian lives depend on effective joint efforts.

Only The Guardian and the ABC can answer whether they adequately considered the possible repercussions when they decided to publish the material provided to them. But it behoves a mature media to understand these consequences in subsequent reporting. If the timing of the release was orchestrated for any practical or political effect, they should say so. Regardless, any sensible discussion of this controversy should avoid the defensive and self-loathing tone of those who suggest Australia should admit fault and promise concessions in the future. This flies in the face of our national security interests and, of course, ignores the important point that Indonesia admitted in 2004 to spying in Australia on political figures and bugging our embassy in Jakarta.

Tony Abbott is right to adopt a firm stance. He has expressed regret for the embarrassment caused by the media revelations but is unapologetic about his nation's security and intelligence actions - even those conducted in a previous time by an ALP government. "There is no greater responsibility for a prime minister than ensuring the safety of Australian citizens and the security our borders," he said, "and that, indeed, is why we do collect intelligence." This presents a tough diplomatic challenge at a pivotal time in the task of border protection, but Canberra flailing itself won't help. "It is in everyone's interests, Indonesia's no less than Australia's," said Mr Abbott, "that cool heads prevail and that our relationship grows closer, not more distant."

Dr Yudhoyono's angry tweets (no less) have heightened tensions, and cool heads have been sorely lacking outside government in Australia. Greens MP Adam Bandt recklessly zeroed in, calling for an inquiry, former foreign minister Bob Carr urged an apology, and even though the Prime Minister stood by Labor's security actions, Bill Shorten couldn't resist feeding the frenzy by obliquely echoing Indonesia's demand for contrition.

As former foreign minister Alexander Downer explains on our opinion page, this would break the protocol of never confirming or denying intelligence claims and direct our agencies on a slippery slope of apologies, non-apologies, denials and non-denials. Australia needs politicians (even those from the opposition and minor parties) to rise above this kerfuffle rather than inflame it. And is the Opposition Leader serious that he'd follow President Barack Obama's assurances in this case? What if General Prabowo is elected president next year?

Many commentators who now claim intelligence overreach have previously criticised inadequate coverage of Indonesia before the Bali bombings. In October 2002, The Sydney Morning Herald favoured an inquiry into our intelligence-gathering. "If we discover that Australia's multi-million-dollar 'eavesdropping' on Indonesia sounded no alarms," it editorialised, "might not Australia want to reconsider the way it conducts such operations?" Our future intelligence and security depends on this controversy being quelled. Covert information gathering should not be an irritant between nations. History shows that most of the time it is more likely to prevent conflict and foster harmony.

- See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/editorials/australias-interest-in-indonesia-is-no-secret/story-e6frg71x-1226763767295#sthash.QMi8CkWD.dpuf

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