An Australian security agency’s pleas for help from the American surveillance community has sparked a debate within the Commonwealth down under. The matter came to a head as a result of the publishing of an excerpt from the recently released book by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald entitled, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State. In the book Greenwald produces an extract from a Feb. 2013 document which the Australian Signal Directorate (ASD) celebrates the partnership with the NSA and asks that their activities be expanded on behalf of the Australian people. The request has drawn a quick response from civil liberty groups.
In citing its particular worry over Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a targeted terrorist clan under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, the ASD said it welcomes the collaboration and wishes to continue gaining access to “US warranted collection against our highest value terrorist targets in Indonesia”. Fresh in their minds and singled out in particular was the arrest of fugitive Bali bomber, Umar Patek. Patek was involved in the 2002 Bali bombings in which 202 people died including 88 Australians.
However, voices have been raised over potential clandestine cooperation between the two countries. The secretary of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, Stephen Banks, worried about interference from foreign surveillance entities. “If Australia’s security agencies have difficulty with obtaining regular and reliable access to communications of Australians who are suspected of involvement in international extremist activities, the proper course would be for them to ask the Australian government for whatever additional powers are required rather than to go secretly to the US agencies,” he said.
The Australian defence department refused to comment on the specific allegation by Banks except to say that all communication interception activities executed by the ASD are done so in accordance with Australian law. Furthermore, according to the response, in certain security matters the Attorney-General must also be on board. So must the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.
The alliance goes beyond just that of the US and Australia. Greenwald writes about a “Five Eyes” bond on intelligence gathering and input. The five include the US, Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. The partners meet annually to share information and compare results. In his book Greenwald tells of offers by the ASD to share information gathered on ordinary Australian citizens with its “Five Eyes” partners.
And, according to the text, Australian spy agencies have targeted the personal phone conversations of the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. This, of course is not welcome information even in light of the amount of terrorist activity emanating from that corner of the world.
In fairness, it must be pointed out that there is nothing inherently wrong or sinister in a nation looking to another nation who has greater experience and capabilities in the terrorist spying game. It makes common sense. The danger here as elsewhere is in ordinary, law-abiding, citizens getting caught up in the dragnet.