JAKARTA – It is as embarrassing as it gets in government to be caught spying on a friendly country. Just ask officials in the United States in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. And the US is not alone: Now Australia has been caught listening in on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and inner circle.
These revelations, from material leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, will reverberate politically for some time. The fallout is particularly damaging for the Australia-Indonesia relationship, as I can now attest while visiting Jakarta.
Indonesia’s friendship with the new Australian government has already been stretched over the issue of turning back boats laden with asylum-seekers. Now Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s refusal (unlike President Barack Obama) to apologize to his counterpart for the electronic surveillance has generated a massive public outcry. The issue is fueling nationalist sentiment in Indonesia – already elevated in the run-up to next year’s general election.
One time-honored reaction to being caught spying on a foreign government is to batten down the hatches, wait for the storm to pass, and maintain technical operations as usual. This may be appropriate when the target is a traditional adversary or international troublemaker, a major national interest is involved, and the spying in question is as likely as not to be mutual.
In such cases, the only sin is to be caught. Officials might then attempt the Casablanca gambit (“I’m shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on in here!”); then, after a suitable pause, life goes on. I have been there and done that, as have many of my former ministerial colleagues who had oversight of these kinds of operations on one side or the other during the Cold War.
But it seems to me much less defensible to try to brazen it out, as Australia is trying to do in the current case. Indonesia, like Germany, is an unthreatening, open, democratic society. Information flows freely, and, for all but the most sensitive of issues, it is available for the asking to a friendly neighbor like Australia.
Here, as elsewhere, problems arise from time to time in the bilateral relationship. But resolving them depends much more on having personal relationships of trust and confidence at the highest level – the kind that have now been put at serious risk – than on having access to some “killer” piece of intelligence.
The irony in these cases is that so little of the information obtained by clandestine means, electronic or human, is ever remotely in this knockout category. From conversations with former foreign-ministerial colleagues around the world, I don’t think my experience in this respect is unique. For all the excitement of receiving hand-delivered multi-layered envelopes festooned with “For Your Eyes Only” stickers – a thrill to which our leaders seem particularly susceptible – such material, far more often than not, adds nothing more than gossip to what is available through open-source material.
It is time for the intelligence agencies and their political masters to rethink the costs and benefits of different types of spying and surveillance operations. What must concentrate their minds is the ever-present risk that one’s most secret operations will not remain secret – as the Snowden and WikiLeaks cases now amply demonstrate.
It is crucial to differentiate between different kinds of intelligence operations. Most people have a high level of tolerance for whatever invasions of privacy may be involved in dragnet electronic eavesdropping operations designed to identify potential terrorist conspiracies. Global experience since the attacks of September 11, 2001, suggests that while such operations may do little to detect kitchen bomb-makers, they are very effective indeed in uncovering more complex and dangerous plots involving multiple players.
Likewise, it is not unconscionable to devote intelligence resources to revealing the military capabilities and intentions of states that are not fully transparent, to obtaining better information about potential sources of crisis and conflict, or to getting a better handle on specific potential risks to vital national interests. That is what intelligence agencies have always done, and these roles are universally understood.
But what should be abundantly clear from the US and Australian cases is that no government should ever mount an intelligence operation, particularly against an ally or friend, simply because it can. The value added is likely to be minimal, and the cost of getting things wrong is enormous.
Indonesia’s anger, like Germany’s before it, at the gross breaches of their leaders’ privacy has not been feigned, and will not be short-lived. An apology is the least that Australia can now offer, accompanied by a commitment to review its intelligence-gathering methods and priorities. But even with this, a long and rocky ride for the bilateral relationship is inevitable. The most valuable currency in international diplomacy is personal trust; we breach it at our peril.