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International espionage: Why not just bug everyone?

Image credit: The White House (commons.wikimedia: Creative Commons)

It’s understood that in international politics, not everyone is on a level playing field. Different countries have different capabilities, giving them access to greater political leverage.

This is certainly the case between Australia and East Timor, which only became independent in 2004. In 2012, it was revealed that Australia bugged the cabinet room of East Timor during negotiations over maritime boundaries and the sharing of oil resources.

Under parliamentary privilege, Australian MP Andrew Wilkie summed up the situation succinctly. ‘...One of the richest countries in the world [Australia], forced East Timor, the poorest country in Asia, to sign a treaty which stopped them obtaining their fair share of oil and gas revenue’.

Bugging a potential ally before a big trade deal reeks of underhanded tactics. The only conceivable reason to do this is to understand what the other country wants, and then use it against them in negotiations.

East Timor’s Prime Minister, Rui Maria De Araujo belittled the actions of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). ‘Having that as an advantage for you to negotiate something that is a matter of death and life for a small country, I think it’s – at least morally – it’s a crime’.

Fast forward to July 2018, and the former ASIS agent and his lawyer that leaked the information about the bugging, were prosecuted for their actions by the Attorney General.

Can the prosecution of the former ASIS agent be seen as an attack against the public’s personal freedom? After all, the agent received clearance from the inspector general of intelligence security to reveal the information, and yet is still being prosecuted by the government as a whistleblower.

In the past 14 years since the incident, none of the perpetrators that bugged East Timor’s cabinet room have been pursued for the incident, yet someone with clearance to leak the information is being prosecuted. What does this say about international politics, and what does this say about the acceptance of using surveillance on other countries to gain an advantage?

In 2013, a WikiLeaks article revealed that during the Obama administration, the National Security Agency (NSA) tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone for years. WikiLeaks claims that the NSA targeted 125 phone numbers of top German officials for long-term surveillance, as well as tapping two French finance ministers to collect information concerning French export contracts, trade and budget talks.

With regards to German wiretapping, such acts are illegal on German soil, therefore the US Government is liable for prosecution. Yet, no judicial action occurred. In contrast, in August 2014 German intelligence "accidentally" eavesdropped on the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, as well as Hillary Clinton. Revealingly, no action was taken by the US.

In a radio interview, former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner boldly claimed: ‘let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else’.

It’s understandable that countries use various surveillance methods under the guise of "national security" and for other reasons, but how far can this be legitimised? Australia used private information, obtained without a court order or justifiable security risk, in order to leverage East Timor into giving up greater access to its natural resources.

Politicians in East Timor were furious, but dropped the case in an act of goodwill ahead of signing a new resources treaty that would give both countries access to $53bn worth of oil reserves. Based on this logic, Australia should bug officials in many countries to create better-informed foreign policy. Or, Canberra should bug and wiretap countries which it has political leverage over, so that if caught, the other country won’t take judicial action.

If Kouchner’s claims are true, then realistically, no country should be surprised or upset when it finds out that it is under surveillance. However, despite Kouchner’s former position, we cannot take his words as gospel. The capacities of each country are different and it’s unlikely that a smaller nation would have the means to bug a politically powerful nation. Even if these capabilities were somehow developed, the ramifications when caught doing so would be too disastrous and unjustifiable for smaller nations to incur.

In all examples provided, either the culprits or the victims of surveillance were willing to forget about the incidents. However, would this change if, for example, Iran were found wiretapping politicians in the US? Australia and East Timor, as well as the US and Germany, are allies, and in the midst of good relations these things can normally be swept under the rug. Ultimately, it seems that surveillance is a balancing beam with its legitimacy predicated on certain political scenarios.

If international privacy is a cookie jar, then many children are stealing from it. Wiretapping, bugging and other surveillance methods will continue to be acceptable under certain circumstances until more children are ousted as the gluttons they truly are.

George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics, based in Adelaide.

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