How to Appear Properly Annoyed by a Wiretap - Pacific Standard

How to Appear Properly Annoyed by a Wiretap

Australia's security service tapped some phones in Indonesia. It hasn't ended well.
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(PHOTO: ROBODREAD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: ROBODREAD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Barely two months since the first revelations that the United States had been wiretapping, data mining, and otherwise listening in on various allies in Europe, we finally have an example of a proper freakout over such revelations. A few days ago, Der Spiegel revealed, via information originating with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, that Australia had been listening in on senior officials from Indonesia, its more populous Pacific neighbor. The Indonesians did not take this well, recalling their ambassador and now threatening to cut various ties with Australia, including joint immigration patrols and war game-like exercises.

The South Pacific is a long way from the North Atlantic, but it's an interesting test case for whatever might come next in the spying cases between Washington and the E.U.

European reactions to similar behavior by the U.S.—including allegations of tapping the German chancellor's private cell—were not nearly as public and, after it became apparent that various European Union members' own security services had cooperated with the U.S. effort, looked suspiciously like a public relations exercise. The stronger Indonesian reaction, though, has its own curiosities. Indonesia itself is no stranger to wiretaps, and has famously relied on Australian assistance to listen in on members of several extremist networks that had carried off violent attacks in the archipelago in the years after 9/11. It would be a little daft for the Indonesians to have become so intimately aware of the Australian capacity for listening in and not imagine that they might use those tools for purposes other than chasing down terrorists.

Indonesia itself has had a few high-profile wiretap cases. In 2009, one of the country's top law enforcement figures was forced to resign after a wiretap investigation caught him trying to frame anti-graft investigators in the country. The investigation was widely lauded at the time as an appropriate use of listening tools, in this case to fight the country's crippling corruption problem.

Does this mean the Indonesian reaction to Australia's snooping fits under the "shocked, shocked" school of diplomacy, and the island nation is just putting one over on its richer but smaller neighbor, and longtime frenemy? Whatever the motivation, officials in Jakarta have managed to make themselves the first government since the Snowden leaks to learn of such activity and actually throw a punch back at the people who were spying on them. The South Pacific is a long way from the North Atlantic, but it's an interesting test case for whatever might come next in the spying cases between Washington and the spied-upon states of the E.U. Like the U.S. and E.U., Indonesia and Australia need each other. This week though, that inter-dependence hasn't meant they won't threaten real consequences, even for show, if one feels there's been a meaningful breach of trust.

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