Snowden affair : is Australia the United States’ trojan horse in Asia ?

Chloé Rochereuil, traduit par Aurélie Da Rocha
17 Mai 2014

Last October, Australian daily newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald and the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel pinpointed the cooperative action of the Australian Signals Directorate surveillance agency (ASD) in the American large-scale surveillance operation revealed by former NSA employee Edward Snowden.

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The recent revelations pointed to the “Stateroom” collaborative listening device that involves several Australian embassies and consulates in Asia (Jakarta, Hanoi, Beijing, Bangkok or Dili in East Timor). Antennae that were concealed in the crannies of those buildings allowed the interception of thousands of radio, telephone and internet communications : a meticulous work of hide-and-seek brought only to the knowledge of a minority of the diplomatic staff. The embarrassing image of the United States’ deputy sheriff quickly reappears, so much so that commentators soon picture Australia as the United States’ Trojan Horse in Asia. This is flashback to a topic that caused a lot of uproar and that is caught up in the whirlwind of Snowden’s revelations.

Spying on indonesia : between national interest and american agendas

The United States’ spying on its Indonesian neighbour was the most controversial topic. Not only was it the most intense espionage but also the most dangerous : Indonesia remains a key interface to ensure Australia’s development in the region and cooperation in the fields of illegal immigration and terrorism. For Mr Abbot, the new Australian Prime Minister who wanted to strengthen the partnership, it was difficult to justify the large scale exploitation of Indonesian telecommunications networks, especially since the communications concerned are those of high-ranked officials. The mobile phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and major figures of his inner circle were tapped for several weeks in August 2009.

Those processes ensure Australia’s regional interests but also those of the United States, which increase trade disputes with Indonesia. In February, The New York Times revealed that communications between the Indonesian government and Mayer Brown, an American consulting company, had been intercepted by the Australian surveillance agency in the framework of the Stateroom program. A disturbing anecdote that the Australian Prime Minister quickly justified : Australia does not gather intelligence “to the detriment of other countries”, “we use it for the benefit of our friends (…) and we certainly don’t use it for commercial purposes”.

This was followed by the affair of the Climate Change summit in Bali in 2007 during which the Australian and American agencies allegedly gathered intelligence concerning Indonesian security officers. Revealed by the Guardian, this only resulted in intensifying the suspicion of Asian people.

"REVEAL THEIR SECRETS, PROTECT OUR OWN" : true collaboration between the NSA and the ASD 

With more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians and an annual budget of several millions of dollars, the Australian intelligence agency is a giant. According to Professor Desmond Ball, expert in espionage at the Australian National University, the ASD shares a lot of information with the NSA. It is, for one, a question of physical collaboration materialised by the Pine Gap shared base near Alice Springs, in the North Territory. Jointly run by Australia and the United States since 1966, it has at its disposal staff who are specialised in the espionage of Indonesia and China.

Although autonomously run by the ASD, three other sites participate in NSA’s cooperation program XKeyscore. Stations of Shoal Bay next to Darwin, Geraldton in the West and HMAS Harman in Canberra are involved. A fourth site, recently identified in the Cocos Islands (Indian Ocean) by the Sydney Morning Herald, is in charge of monitoring the communications of the Indonesian Navy, Army and Air Force. That is in addition to a number of listening stations set up on the major submarine cables transporting the majority of the internet traffic between Asia and North America. 


At the end of World War II, the UK-USA treaty (United Kingdom-United States of America Agreement) created a secret association of the intelligence services of Great Britain, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This cooperation objectively includes Australia, which at the time was a British Dominion, to put it permanently under American protection. It provides for the distribution of communications interception zones and makes the Oceania giant responsible for tapping the lines of the neighbouring countries, South of China and Indochina. 

This system, conceived during the Cold War, rose from the ashes of the 9/11 attacks, to which the Patriot Act gave the tools for revenge: total freedom to gather intelligence with regard to terrorism. A multitude of cooperation programs followed one another, the most famous of them remains Echelon, uncovered at the end of the 90s. Amongst the most recent exposed by the Snowden affair are Prism, Xkeyscore and Stateroom, that all involve the Australian surveillance agency. 

Embarrassing revelations, AUSTRALIA’S geopolitical dilemma

If interests between Americans and Australians are real, the Australian giant really intends to strengthen its relations with its Asian priority partners such as China, Japan, India, but also South Korea and Indonesia. A series of bilateral agreements have already been reached, and they undeniably imply significant business opportunities, migration and military challenges for Australia. Hugh White, former senior official and professor at the University of Canberra summarises it well : “For the first time in our history, we find ourselves in a situation in which China, our biggest trade partner, is in direct competition with our historic ally, the United States". 

It would be wrong to draw hasty conclusions on the regional role played by Australia towards the United States. If Edward Snowden’s revelations undoubtedly point out close historical connections and cooperation that is still strong, Australia seems to be on the road towards a singular diplomacy, judging by the multiplication of economic, political and cultural efforts towards its Asian partners. And let us not forget that spying is still a common practice and that it serves national interests, if not more.