Even Educated Fleas Do It

The Consequences of the Spy Feast

I am not sure what is the right term in Australian terminology.  I guess it’s not cricket.

— Marty Natalegawa, The Guardian, November 3, 2013

Everyone is doing it to everybody else.  A norm, perhaps, or something like a misguided custom that evolves over time.  The test in international law as to what the comity of nations accepts is often one of persistent usage over time.  Repeated acts of espionage by countries against others has been accepted as a custom in the negative – one to be stamped out, to be controlled or deterred with the harshest penalties. The traditional disposition by security forces to the spy was capital punishment.  The current response to the global espionage claims by various countries is rather lukewarm by comparison, a tepid reaction to what has been deemed matters of utmost gravity.

Current headlines are rife with suggestions that state espionage agencies, at the behest of their nervous masters, have taken of a distinctly insane root.  “Germany calls in British ambassador over spy allegations,” writes the Times of India.  “Malaysia summons Australian Ambassador over spying allegations,” claimed ABC news Australia some four days ago.  Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal chipped in with “Brazil Lawmakers to Probe Spy Allegation.”

It is absolutely true that states are engaged in a dance of peering purposes.  Deceptions of mutual interest are practised.  Theatrical posturing may well take place for domestic audiences in one sense, while diplomats seek a quiet resolution of disputes behind the scenes. Courtesy has been deemed the most sincere form of hypocrisy, and the international political scene is more hypocritical than most.

An example of this latest stage show of espionage, exposure and reaction can be found in the Australian-Indonesian meltdown, a well simulated action that has Jakarta fuming, at least in public, at the activities of its Australian ally.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has gone on a vigorous attack ahead of the Bali Democracy Forum at Nusa Dua, surveying the “various agreements the two countries have committed to”. He is convinced that Indonesia must “review our co-operation, our information exchange with the two countries concerned, both the US and Australia”. Natalegawa speaks of the “official framework” as to what both Canberra and Washington could have legally gathered information, something both strayed from.

We can hazard a guess as to what the official uses of information cover.  Matters of people smuggling or targeting terrorist groups figure prominently.  Natalegawa points his threatening finger at Canberra, claiming that these “information flows have been rather effective”, though the spying allegations would require a review of them.

Nusa Dua offers some poignancy in this regard. It was the same venue where Australia and the US ran a vast spying operation in 2007 during a UN conference on climate change.  Then, a newly elected and insufferably pompous Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, grasped at the lime light.  All this as members of Australia’s spy agency and the Defence Signals Directorate worked in a joint operation with the NSA. In a fine, generous spirit, their target was the host, Indonesia.

The operation seemed to be an attempt to gild refined gold and paint the lily, and it proved as much.  For the time and money spent on the operation, the only thing netted of any value, if it could be termed that, was the mobile phone number of Bali’s chief of police (The Guardian, November 3).  That operation may prove dearer than that.

For all its ire, Jakarta is entirely aware that Australia is deep in bed with such agencies as the NSA, insofar as the NSA will allow them a degree of modest, low-level intercourse. (The intercourse is never equal, but it would be foolish to assume that no exchange, however brief, is taking place.)

Officially, all three states share information on supposedly key areas of the security portfolio. Unofficially, they are happy to peer into each other’s bed rooms, though the telescopic lenses of Washington tend to be sharper, and more paparazzi-enhanced, than most.

As the Dean of the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific, Andrew MacIntyre observes, “It’s conceivable that something might be said offline, bilaterally, but even there there’s only so much that can be said because both sides know what routinely takes place” (Asia Pacific ANU, November 6).

The reaction from Canberra has been in complete contrast to the boisterous response from Jakarta: total silence.  For every screamer, there is the reticent one, the mute, perhaps even the idiot of history, sitting as the allegations are fired.  In intelligence circles, such silence is almost always a concession.  We do it, but you knew we were doing it.

As Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who tends to resemble a taxidermist’s work of art, suggested, “I do not intend to discuss intelligence matters to the matter.”  In fact, the new conservative government in Canberra prefers to stick to the long held view that the Australian government doesn’t discuss such matters publicly, a view respected by MacIntyre.  “Julie Bishop is saying the only thing she sensibly can in this situation.”

Naturally, such a view simply invites the usual conclusions, suggestions of allegiances, and threats of lingering consequences.  The chairman of Indonesia’s foreign affairs commission, Mahfudz Siddiq, has put forth an almost comic test: that espionage can only take place with full knowledge of the ambassador.  “If they are unofficial officers, unofficial agents, not under the control of your ambassadors in Jakarta, they should go back.  You should throw out the personnel.” Only official spies need apply, something which takes out all the fun.

Natalegawa has summed up his reaction to Bishop’s silence.  “In the absence of such assurances to the contrary, of course we must assume that such activities are taking place.”  They are, and whether a concrete response will follow is a vast and open question.  Should Indonesia retreat from various agreements with Canberra on matters dear to it – people smuggling, for instance – Australia will again show itself as a low-IQ deputy sheriff doing someone else’s bidding for the cheapest of assurances.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.