28 November 2013

No Real Friends

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was upset when it was revealed that Australia had listened in on his telephone calls.

He ordered military and people-smuggling cooperation with Australia to be frozen and down-graded relations with Australia.

Both Mr Yudhoyono and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa have explicitly denied that Indonesia taps the telephone calls of its "friends", describing such behaviour as illegal and immoral.

But according to Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, former head of Badan Intelijen Negara[1]:

▪ Attempts by foreign intelligence agencies to snoop on national leaders were normal.

▪ Indonesia had bugged the phones of Australian politicians previously.

▪ Indonesia not only has the capacity to tap Australians' phones, but also has the responsibility to try it. It is fighting for its life as it has to compete with many countries. So it needs to collect as much information as possible.

▪ Tapping and counter-tapping are quite common and are one of the primary roles of intelligence.

▪ There is no permanent friend or permanent foe. A country must spy on friends as well as enemies.

Now it appears that Singapore may have been involved in facilitating the on-going spying.

Singapore Telecoms reportedly has been helping local and Australian intelligence agencies tap communications on SEA-ME-WE-3, a major undersea cable carrying Internet traffic between Singapore and Perth[2].

United States
The US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand have a Five-Eyes alliance, in which the common understanding is that none of them will spy on another country's citizens or persons.

However, a draft 2005 directive by the National Security Agency reveals that the NSA prepared policies enabling its staff to spy on Five-Eyes citizens, even where the partner country has refused permission to do so:

"... when it is in the best interest of each nation, each reserved the right to conduct unilateral COMINT action against each other's citizens or persons. Therefore, under certain circumstances, it may be advisable and allowable to target Second Party [another party in the Five-Eye arrangement] persons and second party communications systems unilaterally when it is in the best interests of the US and necessary for US national security."[3]

If Indonesia does not spy on friends, and assuming the fellow ASEAN countries are its friends, which countries does Indonesia spy on?

Perhaps, what Mr Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono said — there are no permanent friends or permanent foes — is closest to the truth.

Perhaps too, there are no real friends. Every country is our friend if its actions are in our best interest. And any country that threatens, or hints of threats to, our survival can hardly be our friend.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said:

"Now, are we not vulnerable? If we are not vulnerable, why do we spend 5 to 6 per cent of GDP year after year on defence?
We dug a deep tunnel for the sewers at the cost of $3.65 billion in order to use the sewage water for Newater, to be independent.
We are not vulnerable? They can besiege you. You'll be dead. Your sea lanes are cut off and your business comes to a halt. What is our reply? Security Council, plus defence capabilities of our own, plus the Security Framework Agreement with the Americans.
They stopped [selling] sand [to us]. Why? To conscribe us. As [former Malaysian Prime Minister] Mahathir [Mohamad] says, 'Even at their present size they are trouble; you let them grow some more, they will be more trouble'.
We've got friendly neighbours? Grow up.[4]"

It's very likely that all the ASEAN countries which have the capability to spy on one another do spy on one another. It's a matter of national interest. And, I think it's an open secret. Just don't get exposed in the media by the likes of Edward Snowden. And don't tap conversations between a political leader and his wife.


1. Phone Tapping National Leaders 'Normal', Says Former Indonesian Spy Chief The Sydney Morning Herald 21 Nov 2013.

2. Singapore, South Korea Revealed As Five Eyes Spying Partners The Sydney Morning Herald 25 Nov 2013.

3. US and UK Struck Secret Deal to Allow NSA to 'Unmask' Britons' Personal Data The Guardian 20 Nov 2013.

4. LEE KUAN YEW Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going — Interview The Straits Times 16 Jan 2011.

This article was updated on 28 November 2013 at 3:25 pm.

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