1 December 2013
Snowden's drip-feed means tricky time for all
December 02, 2013 12:00AM
AUSTRALIA could be in for a very rough patch in some key Asian relationships
as a result of what could be another two years of diabolical revelations
from US intelligence documents stolen by Edward Snowden.
This will be a searching test for the Abbott government but it will also
be a test of the maturity and sophistication of the Australian political
class as a whole.
The revelations are likely to be eye-watering in their extent and detail,
but they will not show any Australian official or agency doing anything illegal.
Not only that, while they will reveal a good deal of secret information,
responsible institutions and participants in the national debate will also
need to keep in mind the fact that crucial elements of context, such as specific
threat assessments, will not be known to the public.
The prospect of future Snowden-based revelations is one of the important
limitations on the Abbott government in the way it can respond to the recent
controversy concerning Defence Signals Directorate phone-tapping directed
at the Indonesian President in 2009.
So far, Tony Abbott and his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, have handled
these matters well. They have identified and articulated core national interests,
especially in the relationship with Indonesia, and have safeguarded as far
as possible Australia's national security assets. There is no other responsible
course for an Australian government to take.
Politically, they are somewhat assisted by the widening web of nations being
caught up in these revelations, other Asian nations who also helped the US.
These revelations will produce their own political fallout in time, but they
certainly spread the load for Australia and demonstrate that Australian agencies
were only doing what most other countries do when they can.
The Abbott government may yet be able to salvage something positive out of
this difficulty with Indonesia.
If the protocols to be negotiated over future intelligence arrangements between
the two countries are done well, then they could be very useful to both nations
in the future.
Canberra could do more to help Jakarta manage its own issues of cyber security.
The Indonesians, like most other nations in the region, have been subject
to Chinese and Russian cyber intrusion.
Canberra could also help Indonesia with more extensive intelligence training.
However, some analysts and commentators are overestimating how much such
an agreement can insulate the relationship from trouble arising out of the
Australia and Indonesia already have detailed intelligence-sharing and other
protocols, and extensive consultative and symbolic security agreements, chief
among them the Lombok Treaty on mutual security.
No such agreement ever insulates you against damage of the kind arising out
of the recent phone-tapping revelations.
This is all a problem from hell for the Abbott government. It cannot control
the timing or extent of any future revelations and it cannot control the
political fallout in nations these revelations affect. Nor can it affect
the hysteria with which institutions that already dislike it, such as the
ABC, respond to the Snowden revelations.
But these issues are also a huge challenge for Bill Shorten's Labor opposition.
In the nature of the timing of these things, the most sensational matters
will be ones that occurred under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments,
although there is every chance that older operations under John Howard will
also be revealed. If Labor tries to make political mileage out of future
Snowden revelations, it will not only be hypocritical - it will run the danger
of looking irresponsible on national security.
In the past, this has been devastating for Labor's electoral chances, whatever
the short-term attraction might be from scoring a political point.
Michael Wesley, professor of national security at the Australian National
University and a former senior analyst with the Office of National Assessments,
told me he thinks the Snowden affair "the most important intelligence crisis
and intelligence failure the West has suffered since the end of World War
He believes it will have an effect not only on the trust the US and its tight
allies enjoy with other countries, but also will substantially affect relations
within the "five eyes" intelligence alliance, which consists of the US,
Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
"It will move us back to a culture of intensely protecting intelligence and
sharing it only on a strict need-to-know basis," he says. "It will reverse
all the advances we have made since 9/11 on intelligence sharing and take
us back to the intelligence culture of the early 1990s."
We have no idea where the Snowden revelations will ultimately lead us
But this issue is likely to challenge the maturity, sophistication and devotion
to the national interest of all the significant institutions that deal with
these matters in Australia.
A great deal is at stake.