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Power Assymetries and Australian Hubris

Indonesia, Australia and Edward Snowden
By Richard Tanter

Courtesy of Edward Snowden, the Australian government is discovering that an asymmetry in electronic surveillance capacity does not trump the asymmetry of power between Australia and Indonesia, which geography, population size and importance in world affairs tilt in favour of Indonesia. The revelation that Australia’s premier intelligence agency monitored and intercepted the phone calls of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and inner circle of advisers has revealed a great deal about the technical capacities of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD; formerly the Defence Signals Directorate or DSD), as well as its managing partner in Five Eyes global intelligence collaboration, the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA).

Moreover, it has laid bare the lack of appropriate political and strategic supervision of the ASD’s activities. What strategic interest could conceivably have been in the minds of the ASD’s senior members, the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Defence and the Defence Minister himself, when these entities decided to engage in covert electronic surveillance of the most reformist and pro-Western group of Indonesian leaders in a generation?

Yet the most significant results are still unfolding. Firstly, at least some Australian senior political figures are starting to see the fundamental reality of the asymmetry of Australia’s strategic relationship with Indonesia, and that in security terms Australia
needs Indonesia far more than Indonesia needs Australia. Secondly, as a result of two unforced errors, the Australian government handed Indonesia a claim on what Australia has long taken to be its most important military advantage over Indonesia: ASD’s extraordinary signals intelligence collection capacities that provide Australian governments with comprehensive knowledge of any electronic transmission in the Indonesian ether, military, government, terrorist or commercial. Thirdly, the SBY spying affair, as it has come to be called, has given rise in the already volatile and brittle relationship between the two governments to a much deeper fracture that will persist long after the current Indonesian suspension of military relations and cooperation over border policing is resolved.

The Story Breaks in Three Acts
First, on 27 October, the German newspaper Der Spiegel published a 2010 NSA PowerPoint slide documenting the activities of NSA Special Collection Service units or Communications System Support Groups operating under diplomatic cover from within US embassies in Berlin and elsewhere, under a program code-named STATEROOM, which has the capacity to monitor ‘microwave, Wi- Fi, WiMAX, GSM, CDMA, and satellite signals’. While electronic spying from embassies (illegal unless approved by the host government) has been known to be taking place since the beginning of the Cold War by all concerned, including Australia, the Der Spiegel documents demonstrated that STATEROOM not only involved Australian embassies but that data intercepted by STATEROOM in Australian embassies was automatically shared with America’s NSA.

It has long been known that DSD conducted electronic interception from Australian embassies, most importantly in Jakarta (under a program codenamed REPRIEVE) since at least the 1970s and most likely much earlier. Three days after the STATEROOM document release, Philip Dorling reported in Fairfax Media that DSD electronic interception operations were conducted not only from the Jakarta and Bangkok embassies but also from the embassy in Dili, Timor Leste, and the consulate in Denpasar, Bali. This would not have been news to the Indonesian government, but the confirmation of cooperation between DSD and the NSA was troubling, and Indonesia called in the Australian ambassador to ask, as Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa put it, ‘If Australia was itself subjected to such an activity, do you consider it as being a friendly act or not?’

The second part of the story, with more troubling implications for Indonesia and its relations with Australia, appeared on 3 November when The Guardian wrote that another document in the Snowden trove revealed that ‘Australian spy agency the Defence Signals Directorate worked alongside America’s National Security Agency in mounting a massive surveillance operation on Indonesia during the United Nations climate change conference in Bali in 2007’. Beyond the issue of trust broached by Natalegawa, this document raised questions for Australians of what DSD and the NSA thought they were doing during new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s first major international activity, in a country with which Rudd had declared he wanted closer relations, and whose cooperation on climate change policy would be critical in his plans for an emissions trading scheme. Even for hard-line realists this was an indication that something was awry in DSD tasking and risk assessment.

The third and most damaging revelation came on 18 November when the ABC and The Guardian Australia released six more documents from the Snowden collection. This time, while the documents were downloaded by Snowden from the NSA, they consisted of six PowerPoint slides produced by DSD explaining its achievements in monitoring and intercepting 3G cell phone communications of ‘Indonesian leadership targets’, apparently commencing in ‘2nd quarter 2007’. Stunningly, the slide listed the top ten targets and their phone types, starting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, Vice-President Boediono, the preceding Vice-President, Yusuf Kalla, and six of Yudhoyono’s most senior ministers and closest advisers. Other slides portrayed ‘intercepts events’ of Yudhoyono’s phone and made clear that this was a model DSD was keen to apply elsewhere.

These three Snowden document revelations set the scene for an extraordinarily rapid collapse in Australian relations with Indonesia, a collapse almost entirely of Australia’s own making.

Firstly, it seems that the DSD slides became available to the NSA because DSD was simply boasting of its achievements. As former Assistant Defence Secretary Alan Behm noted, ‘It’s saying, “Hey look how clever we are”, and, “We’ve got all this … That’s juvenile cockiness. What was the purpose of writing it down? Was it to impress somebody?’ The second Australian error came with the response of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Refusing the tactic Barack Obama had employed in similar circumstances with German Chancellor Angela Merkel—apologise, and promise to not do it again—Abbott said his government would follow ‘normal practice’ and not comment on intelligence matters. The matter might have rested there, albeit uneasily, since Indonesia had not asked for an
apology, except that Abbott went on to say:

Australia should not be expected to apologise for the steps we take to protect our country now or in the past, any more than other governments should be expected to apologise for the similar steps that they have taken … Importantly, in Australia’s case, we use all our resources, including information, to help our friends and allies—not to harm them.

Abbott then managed to make things worse still by expressing his ‘deep and sincere regret about the embarrassment to the President and to Indonesia that’s been caused by recent media reporting’, as if that was the most salient problem.

Over the next week everything went downhill for Australia, with Yudhoyono tweeting his anger, furious outbursts in the Indonesian parliament and media, and well-publicised protests in the streets of Jakarta, if mostly from the conflict entrepreneurs the Islamic Defenders Front. The Indonesian policy response was swift: withdrawing its ambassador from Canberra and cutting off of all military cooperation, exercises and intelligence sharing, and police and maritime cooperation regarding Australian border and immigration controls (aka ‘people smuggling’). This was capped off by a demand from Yudhoyono that Australia reach ‘a new intelligence accord’ with Indonesia.

Intelligence, Strategy, Culture, Power
The Abbott government has no choice but to agree to such a request, but will have every reason to make sure that any intelligence commitments made are unenforceable and hollow. The REPRIEVE operation, and its STATEROOM components in association with the NSA, make up only a small part of the extraordinarily effective Australian capacity to intercept virtually all Indonesian cell phone, radio, microwave and satellite communications. While the Jakarta embassy operation is very effective, its capacities are dwarfed by the satellite communications interception capacities of the Shoal Bay Receiving Station in Darwin.

Since its establishment in 1974, Shoal Bay’s antennas have focused on Indonesia’s communications satellites (and those of many other countries) hanging over the equator in geo-stationary orbit above Southeast Asia. Shoal Bay listened to the orders given by Indonesian army officers to execute five Australian journalists captured in the preliminary invasion of East Timor in October 1975. Through Shoal Bay the Australian government was given complete information on the activities of the Indonesian army and its Timorese militia clients in their planning of the terror in the leadup to the 1999 Timorese vote for self-determination. There can be little doubt that ASD, through Shoal Bay in particular, but also possibly through other platforms, has a very complete picture of the military, political and economic activities of the Indonesian army (and those of its special forces, Kopassus in particular, with its appalling record of ongoing human rights abuses) in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (Papua Barat).

While all Indonesian governments for almost four decades have known the functions of Shoal Bay at a general level, it is a very different matter for Indonesian military and government communications security specialists to be sure of exactly what the facility can and cannot do technically. The Australian government will be very anxious to protect that uncertainty. And the same is true of any acknowledgement of the REPRIEVE and STATEROOM operations.

Little is known of the precise contents of current intelligence accords, which under agreements signed between the two countries since 2000, concentrate on shared concerns about counter-terrorism and the Australian preoccupation with border maintenance activities at sea and disrupting people smuggling
activities within Indonesia. What Indonesia will be asking for in the new round of negotiations is unclear, but it will certainly seek to take the 2006 Framework Agreement on Security Cooperation Agreement (the Lombok Agreement) much further. In negotiations over that agreement, Indonesia persuaded the Australian government to guarantee to inhibit support for any threat to the
territorial integrity of Indonesia, effectively requiring the Australian government to restrict civil society activities in support of West Papuan self-determination.

Moreover, if the question of the operations, capacities and sharing of products of Australian signals intelligence is to be discussed with Indonesia, the United States is immediately a third party in the room. The STATEROOM and other Snowden documents have made clear that ASD’s signals intelligence operations are integrated with those of the NSA and the CIA at levels far deeper than in previous decades.

Most importantly, in July 2013, Philip Dorling revealed in Fairfax Media that four ASD facilities are involved in a US global signals intelligence and internet intercept collection and analysis program code-named X-KEYSCORE. In addition to Shoal Bay Receiving Station, these include the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap outside Alice Springs, the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena, near Geraldton in Western Australia, and HMAS Harman Naval Communication Station in Canberra. These facilities have expanded considerably in recent years, and all are closely connected with US intelligence or military operations in other respects. That web of technical, legal and organisational relationships will complicate discussions between Australia and Indonesia on any new intelligence accord.

There are three further consequences of the Yudhoyono spying affair for Australia. The first is the realisation that Australia’s defence preoccupation with maintaining ‘a technological edge’ over Indonesia’s military and intelligence capacities comes at a price, which is substantially political in nature, at least in the intelligence area. Australian security elites value the technological benefits of close alliance with the United States while minimising the costs, in some cases a matter of political and military dependence, and in other cases, as here, a matter of political embarrassment and more. An alliance-derived asymmetry of military and intelligence capacities does not automatically translate into enduring strategic advantage.

The second range of consequences has been cultural, revealing a great deal about the deep structure of Australia’s relationship with
Indonesia. In the lead-up to the spying affair, the dynamics of Australian electoral politics had driven the leadership of both major political parties to claim that the Australian–Indonesian relationship was the country’s most important, and that both countries were confident of the depth and quality of the understanding between them. At the same time both of Australia’s major parties in fact treated the relationship in an openly instrumental manner, concerned only with what Indonesia could contribute to assuaging the moral panic and driving election campaign issue of ‘stopping the boats’.

After the election Immigration Minister Scott Morrison found that contrary to what he had asserted throughout the Australian election campaign, Indonesian officials like Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had been entirely serious in their earlier indications that they were unhappy with what they saw as Australia’s unilateral approach to people smuggling. Once in the ministerial seat, Morrison found that Natalegawa’s pre-election warning that
Indonesia would not accept asylum seekers intercepted by Australia being returned to Indonesia was precisely the Indonesian government’s position.

It was ‘very frustrating’, Morrison said on 11 November, in the early stages of the spying affair; he could see ‘no real rhyme or reason’ in some Indonesian actions. Morrison’s implicit suggestion that Indonesia was not being rational echoed an old trope in Australian politics. Almost half a century ago, at the birth of the New Order in April 1966, The Age editorialised on Indonesians being ‘experts at double-talk’, for whom ‘it is too much to hope that the new Indonesian regime will be logical; our best hope is that it will be practical’. On 23 November, Paul Kelly, one of Australia’s most senior newspaper editors, responded to the likelihood of the Indonesian government weakening Australia’s regional position and ruining Abbott’s ‘stop the boats’ pledge in words that could have been written half a century ago: ‘A rational
Indonesia would do none of this. So Abbott must encourage the forces of rationality in Jakarta’.

Condescension, ethnocentrism and an often racialised view of cultural differences are never far from the surface in Australian dealings with Asia. Another example was the view of Indonesia expressed by the Liberal Party’s pollster and campaign strategist Mark Textor, who in a tweet said of the Indonesian foreign minister: ‘Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970s Pilipino [sic] porn star and has ethics to match’. The sexualised insult in Textor’s remark may well have expressed what many Australians think about Indonesia at a deeper level. Power, race and sexuality are usually more closely related than is considered polite to talk about in international relations. More than three-quarters of a million Australians visited Bali in 2011, and very few to other parts of Indonesia. Many Indonesians have very mixed feelings about the flood of foreign tourists, particularly Australians, to Bali, and in both countries there is an association
of Australians in Bali with sex.

Three days after Textor’s text, the Jakarta daily Rakyat Merdeka replied with a specially commissioned cartoon that depicted Tony Abbott in his trademark ‘budgie-smugglers’ ‘as a peeping tom, cracking open a doorway marked “Indonesia” while apparently masturbating and exclaiming “Oh my God Indo … So Sexy”’. Of course, like Textor’s tweet, the Indonesian cartoon was intentionally offensive and provocative, and probably just as revealing of at least one strand of popular Indonesian attitudes to Australia.

Australian specialist in Indonesian politics Richard
Chauvel has pointed to one cultural aspect of the many asymmetries between the two countries that may help explain why the Australian government has been consistently wrongfooted. In the senior Indonesian leadership there is now a cohort of officials who know Australia well, have lived here, and have wellfounded and often complex views about the country—not always complimentary. Three key players in Indonesian foreign policy and opinion leaders in recent years who have been deeply involved in the dynamics of the present affair are Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Vice-President Boediono, and Boediono’s foreign policy adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar. All three earned masters or doctoral degrees at Australian universities and know Australian society well. No doubt their knowledge of Australia has fed into the advice President Yudhoyono has received about how to play the cards dealt to Indonesia by Australia’s mistakes. The problem for Australia is that there are remarkably few senior Australian political or bureaucratic figures with anything like their knowledge of or direct experience in Indonesia.

Realities in Intelligence Tasking and Oversight
From the Australian side, there are clearly strategically important tasks and targets for Australian intelligence in Indonesia today. The
list begins with the standard military requirements for any and all neighbouring countries in peacetime: force structure, order of battle, bases, doctrines, personnel, staff structure, budgets and armed forces politics. In Indonesia’s case its Papuan provinces are a strategic concern because of the likely impact of any serious disturbances on Papua New Guinea, and a moral concern to many
Australians because of the appalling human rights situation in those provinces. As during the Timor colonial project, it is essential that Australian governments be informed of such activities by the Indonesian military. And at times of serious potential or actual policy disagreement or conflict, political intelligence on the thinking and policy directions of the Indonesian leadership is essential, but with two caveats, neither of which appears to have
been satisfied in the present case.

The first is that since intelligence is a policy tool rather an end in itself, there must always be an assessment of strategic advantage versus risk, including the risk of being caught out and the cost of the consequences. Behm’s remarks on the hubris that lay behind the ASD’s boastful PowerPoint presentation are salient here. Beyond that, there is the condition that any operation must meet: a serious strategic or tactical requirement. This should be the most disturbing aspect of the affair for Australians: what possessed a Minister of Defence to sign off on targeting the leadership of the most pro-Australian Indonesian administration ever, at a time when the level of genuinely shared interests on issues such as climate change was at last becoming evident?

The explanation finally must come down to one of three possibilities, none of them comforting, and all pointing to an acute need for reform in the supervision and oversight of Australia’s rapidly growing intelligence services. One may simply be ASD arrogance and over-confidence.

A second is that ASD’s priorities did not register a change in the designation, by successive governments, of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia being one of formal strategic partnership after the Timor and Suharto years. Given the normal assessments of neighbouring defence establishments and activities, ongoing problems caused by Kopassus operations in the Papuan provinces, the need for ongoing electronic surveillance for counterterrorism purposes, and perhaps government pressure for ASD assistance to disrupt people-smuggling operations, ASD would understandably have a sizeable Indonesian task list. But none of this would lead to any need for a deeply intrusive, high risk/low yield surveillance of the top leadership of a friendly country that has been more cooperative with Australia than has been good for its own political interests.

A third possibility is more disturbing still: that ASD undertook these operations as part of a wider pattern of cooperation with its US counterpart, at its request, either implicitly or explicitly. At this point little is known about any differences between Australian
embassy operations over many years under the REPRIEVE program and more recent operations under the US-led STATEROOM program. An implicit request may have involved something as simple as a global list of similar target categories in each country—say ‘3G cell phones of leadership groups’—whatever the character of the government concerned or its relationship to the particular member of the Five Eyes coalition actually carrying out the surveillance. US interests in Indonesia are likely to be differently conceived than those of Australia, and it is possible the habit of cooperation developed over many decades of DSD–NSA collaboration overrode any note of Australian caution. The enthusiastic hubris of the PowerPoint presentation, in the context of the broadening and deepening of ADF cooperation with the US, lends some plausibility to this scenario.

Without an open inquiry, we may never know, but all three explanations point to an urgent need for much more serious ministerial supervision and parliamentary oversight of the Australian Signals Directorate. As many people have noted in the countries that have been the subject of revelations from the Snowden files there is undoubtedly more to come, and more for
Australians to learn about their out-of-control intelligence services.

Full references can be found in the extended version
of this article published at the Nautilus Institute, NAPSNet
Special Reports.