News National The only crime when spying is getting caught
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The only crime when spying is getting caught

The Australian Signals Directorate makes its mission clear. Photo: asd.gov.au/
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With spying, the crime is getting caught. Everything else is absolutely fine.

That’s the reality of Australia’s efforts to sneak into other countries’ Cabinet rooms and bedrooms, just as other countries try to sneak into ours.

As part of the “Five Eyes” group, Australia is as much involved in spying as any nation and has no ethical problem with where or how it eavesdrops.

Which makes some of the outrage about an attack on the Parliament House email system more than a little hypocritical.

“This is an astounding assault on our democracy,” thundered Chris Uhlmann in the Nine press.

Australian democracy actually didn’t feel a thing. No votes were stolen, no government overthrown. Our own politicians are doing quite well at damaging democracy themselves and don’t need outside help.

Also in the Nine newspapers, Peter Hartcher fretted about how much “pain and intimidation” Australia was prepared to suffer before naming the “bully” behind the Parliament House hacking.

Both Uhlmann and Hartcher say the attack was made by China.

What China is doing to its own citizens is much worse, but its prickly international actions and reactions aren’t winning any friends.

It is very unfortunate that China is becoming increasingly boorish as tensions between it and the US-led West escalate, but it’s also not a surprise.

China might be stretching the envelope on what’s considered acceptable espionage, but it’s basically trying to do to us what the US and Australia try to do to it.

If you want an example of outrageous bullying and assaults on democracy, you need look no further than Australia’s treatment of Timor-Leste and our efforts to bug the phones of the democratically-elected Indonesian president and his wife.

Never mind hacking Parliamentary emails, we planted a couple of hundred bugs in Dili’s cabinet rooms to spy on the fledgling nation’s government while it was negotiating its maritime boundary involving extensive oil and gas rights.

This wasn’t spying for Australia’s national security, but for the commercial advantage of an oil company, Woodside.

Former foreign minister and, more recently, Woodside consultant, Alexander Downer, publicly defended the closeness of the Australian government to Woodside during those negotiations.

The only thing unusual about our spying on the Timor-Leste government is that we know about it.

That’s thanks to a whistle blower “Witness K” who, along with his lawyer, is now being pursued by the government in a court case the government wants to keep secret.

If the Australian government wants to hack another government’s emails, it turns to the Australian Signals Directorate, formerly known as the Defence Signals Directorate.

The old DSD was the most secretive of our spook organisations, but the ASD has become somewhat brazen about its job. Front and centre of its website home page is the mission statement: “REVEAL THEIR SECRETS. PROTECT OUR OWN.”

And there’s nothing subtle about the directorate’s description of its job: “ASD’s work sits across three areas which are best described as inform, protect and disrupt.

As Australia’s cryptologic agency ASD:

  • Informs through covertly accessing information not publicly available (signals intelligence).
  • Protects by comprehensively understanding the cyber threat. The agency provides leading advice and proactive assistance to shape the environment and influence others to ensure governments, business and the community are able to better manage cyber security risk
  • Disrupts by delivering high-impact, full-spectrum offensive cyber operations to support a range of Australian government priorities including supporting military operations, law enforcement and criminal intelligence activity against cyber criminals, and responding to serious cyber incidents against Australian networks.

“ASD operates in the slim area between the difficult and the impossible.”

(A couple of generations of more discrete spooks would shudder over that last sentence.)

So that’s what we boast of doing. As part of the US alliance, we actually do substantially more.

As hinted in the ASD job description, if there is another major confrontation, it is likely to be more cyber than guns and missiles. The cyber arms race is mutual, in the nature of all arms races.

The spook industry is self-serving in pushing alarm over what China is doing, while hoping nobody notices the reciprocity. The Nine newspapers sometimes give the impression that our security agencies spend half their time telling journalists their supposed secrets.

The result is that we tend to get a one-sided view of the contest between China and the US.

As a small example, yes, China is behaving very badly in the South China Sea, building its advance defensive rim, but at least China is building new islands, not seizing existing ones the way rising powers have traditionally done.

The US didn’t seize Puerto Rico from the Spanish for the benefit of Puerto Ricans. Nobody except the Cubans cares that the US continues to operate a military base on part of Cuba.

It would have been nice if China was able to achieve its destiny of again being the world’s biggest economy without throwing its weight around and antagonising neighbours. Unfortunately Sinophobes in the US as well as overtly nationalistic elements in China have made that an opportunity lost.

And the belligerence and projection of power remains relative. Challenging ships and planes in the South China Sea is one thing. Invading Iraq is quite another.

The United States’ claim to extraterritorial power is simply astounding and goes unremarked by Australian politicians and media.

As the ANU emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur has argued, it’s at the core of the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer in Canada. Meng Wanzhou had not broken any Canadian, Chinese or international law.

Professor Thakur also gave the example of Cuba’s ambassador to Japan and a colleague being refused rooms by the Hilton hotel in Fukuoka in October.

“As a US-based firm, a company official explained, Hilton is obliged to comply with worldwide US sanctions on Cuban officials.”

It’s 60 years since Fidel Castro won and America’s preferred corrupt dictator lost. The US can still teach China plenty about bullying.

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