Geoff Miller is a former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.
Yesterday Sam Roggeveen canvased six possible reasons why the Indonesians seem so upset at Snowden’s revelations of electronic espionage by the US and its allies, including ourselves.
In considering this, it’s worth looking back at how intelligence has developed over the last 75 years, and how we’ve got to where we seem to be today. World War II of course was a war for survival on the part of the Western world, with intelligence ruses and breakthroughs (eg. cracking the Japanese naval cipher, an essential part of eventual success). It was unfortunately followed by the rise of the Communist great powers, Russia and China, both totalitarian, frighteningly powerful in different ways, extraordinarily opaque but very clear in their intention to do no good to Western interests. We actually fought a war with China, in Korea.
Eventually these threats decreased, with the collapse first of the 'Sino-Soviet bloc' and later of the Soviet Union itself, and the increasing 'socialisation' of both Russia and China into the generally accepted international system. Still opaque, to varying degrees, still powerful, less of an existential threat than they had been thought to be, but still what most people would regard as legitimate targets of a prudent Western intelligence effort, an effort which had become immensely more sophisticated and capable over the years.
Then of course we had 9/11, and suddenly the whole world seemed to require the most intense intelligence scrutiny to prevent more terrorist attacks on innocent civilian populations. No one would disagree with the validity and importance of this intelligence objective, and indeed there is no reason to disbelieve American claims that dedicated intelligence efforts have prevented many planned terrorist attacks.
But it all seems to have led to a situation in which the machinery has gone on to some sort of auto-pilot, collecting because it’s possible to collect, not because there’s a reason to collect.
German complaints about the American bugging of Angela Merkel’s phone seem the best illustration. When the German outrage became known there was a flurry of 'realistic' put-downs in the US and elsewhere: 'everybody does it', they said, or would if they could.
Senior US intelligence officials called before Congress said 'leadership intentions' were a prime intelligence target. But whose leadership intentions? Angela Merkel was regarded, apparently by Obama himself, as his prime ally in Europe. They gave each other high awards as signs of esteem. If Obama wanted to know Merkel's intentions, surely he could just ask her, as a trusted ally, rather than have his intelligence minions trawl through her private communications.
This is the sound point which the Germans were making with their protests about excessive surveillance, and it relates to what is and is not appropriate between countries which are allies or are endeavouring to strengthen a bilateral relationship.
Strengthening the relationship is what our government is trying very hard to do with Indonesia at the moment, and of course it doesn’t sit well with covert efforts to eavesdrop on Indonesian leadership communications, which seems to be what Snowden has alleged and which, in at least one Australian press report, an Australian 'former intelligence officer' has boasted about. (This is of course a different matter from efforts, made by both sides, to combat terrorism and people smuggling in and from Indonesia, from which both sides benefit.)
So Sam’s sixth reason for Indonesia’s upset — 'perhaps they’re really annoyed with us' — should not be lightly dismissed. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs contains an article on Snowden and US foreign policy by Farrell and Finnemore which concludes that in the 'age of leaks', secret behaviour can no longer be kept secret, leading to 'an accelerating hypocrisy collapse'.
That’s a conclusion which our government needs to think about as it considers next steps in our relationship with Indonesia, a relationship which our prime minister has described as Australia's most important.
Photo by Flickr user Creativity103.