“We don’t discuss intelligence matters,” Australia’s bewildered Prime Minister told the media again this morning, making him the only person left on earth not discussing intelligence matters. Finally, seven months after the fuse was lit, the scandal of the US National Security Agency surveillance state has finally detonated in Australia.
That’s how long it has been since the general public got a look at the first cheesy powerpoint presentations originating from deep within the US national security establishment.
The first slide deck was a brash sales pitch to agency ‘customers’ of the NSA. It described the degree to which major US tech companies including household names like Microsoft, Google and Apple had been wormholed, silently spilling the private data of hundreds of millions of people onto the NSA’s servers and establishing real-time surveillance of a large fraction of the public internet. The target of US intelligence, it seems, is everyone.
The revelations of a single brave whistleblower, combined with journalists willing to risk offending some of the most powerful and secretive institutions on earth, started an avalanche. Congressional inquiries, international delegations, UN resolutions; and still the revelations kept coming. The NSA and its affiliate ‘five eyes’ agencies have gradually unmoored themselves from the rule of law, and it is no longer clear on exactly whose authority they operate. As the scandal reached the highest levels of Government in Europe and North America, in Australia we’ve been subjected to a bipartisan consensus of angry silence. Nothing to see here, move along.
This relaxed attitude is nowhere better described than in a wonderfully illuminating exchange I had during a budget estimates committee hearing with the head of IT services for the Australian Parliament. Every device in Parliament House has been backdoored, but all is well, because, well… (LINK)
So fast forward to November, and it’s not the NSA’s logo on the slideset, it’s the Australian Signals Directorate (formerly the DSD), an agency whose mission statement reads ‘Reveal their secrets – protect our own’. With the apparent help of the NSA’s equipment and expertise, at least since 2009 our security agencies have hacked the private phones of the President of Indonesia, his wife, and senior Indonesian leaders. Finally, the consequences of indiscriminate surveillance overkill have made it to Australia.
Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that:
1. Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.
So we are probably in breach of international law, thus the ferocious reaction from Jakarta. But in every interview I’ve fielded since the story broke, I’ve been asked what the big deal is – don’t all governments do this stuff? Is it a problem that we engage in this behaviour, or just that we got caught?
Clandestine intelligence agencies spy on people: it’s their job. We grant them extraordinary powers justified by the dangerous work they do – go after violent extremists, organised crime syndicates, transnational terror networks; legitimate targets of surveillance and prosecution using every tool in the box. There are, after all, people in the world who think flying aircraft into buildings is an acceptable form of political communication.
Since when did the President of Indonesia join this company? The Chancellor of Germany? Glenn Greenwald’s partner? When did everyone who ever used facebook or searched Google become a target of counterterrorism agencies? As a global society we are now reaping the consequences of the deliberate and systematic blurring of the boundaries between terrorism, journalism, whistleblowing and democratic dissent. The counter-movement is alive and well everywhere else on earth; today I feel for the first time that maybe we can advance the conversation here in Australia.
Step one: an undertaking by Prime Minister Abbott to the Indonesian Government that we don’t tap the phones of democratically elected leaders, and that distrust is corrosive of genuine security (this did, after all, happen on his predecessor’s watch). Step two: the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (the IGIS) should undertake and publish a review of how the former Government came to approve such activity. Step three: an open Parliamentary inquiry into the damage that the unregulated surveillance state is doing to our diplomatic relationships and our human right to privacy, and to draw up some institutional remedies to tip the balance back in the direction of the rule of law.
Mr Abbott, it’s time to discuss intelligence matters.
First published at the Guardian online on November 19, 2013