‘Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail’

By November 22, 2013Books, History, Politics, Society

At the moment we are having a wonderful exhibition of the theatre of international affairs, with Australia and Indonesia in a contretemps about allegations that Australia was tapping the phones of the Indonesian President and his wife. Indonesia is insisting that Australia apologise, and declare that it will not do anything so impertinent again, while Australia is saying, essentially, that it doesn’t talk about such matters, and therefore can’t apologise for something that may or may not have happened, the source of which seems to be the files of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

There are moves countries can make in such impasse. You can call in the ambassador of the offending country and rap him over the knuckles (diplomatically). You can recall your own ambassador ‘for consultation’ and leave the offending country only with a charge d’affaires — meaning that offending country is not really thought to be very important. Going further up the scale, you can ‘review’ all current forms of collaboration, not answer correspondence, refuse to accept boat people who have left your country, decline to sign things that have been agreed to, and so on. You can expel the offending country’s ambassador. Indonesia has done all of that save the last tactic, which is still available.

It’s theatre, and sometimes that is what has to happen. The realist view of international relations is that countries don’t have ‘friends’, only ‘interests’. The use of ‘friends’ is rhetoric, and available to political leaders all the time. But the serious discussions around the Cabinet table and its equivalents will not be about embarrassing friends, but how the current imbroglio is damaging our interests — and those of Indonesia, which is a great beneficiary of Australian aid and help in other ways.

But some of it is just funny, at least to an outsider. The offences, if true, were caused during the first Rudd Government, and with almost certainly the knowledge of the two responsible ministers, those of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade. Mr Abbott has behaved predictably in refusing to comment on any of it, a bi-partisan approach by Australian Ministers that has been in force for many years. It is absurdly hypocritical for former Foreign Minister Bob Carr to criticise the present Government for its handling of something for which his own colleagues were responsible.

And there seems to be a large section of the Australian public that thinks it’s awful that we would eavesdrop on anyone. They would probably agree with Henry Stimson, the US Secretary of State, who closed the Americans’ Cipher Bureau, jointly funded by the US Army and the State Department, by withdrawing funding for it in 1929 when he discovered what it actually did, coining at the time  the memorable remark that is the title of this post. I wonder what parallel universe they think we live in. Countries have been eavesdropping on one another’s messages since at least the time of the Great War, and are doing it right now.

I find it hard to believe that the Indonesians do not do so, though they may not have the IT capacities or the skilled staff that are available to the developed countries. One of my favourite books is David Kahn’s The Codebreakers (would whoever has my copy kindly return it to me?), and there are wonderful stories in it about how ‘signals intelligence’ (SIGINT) was indispensable in the way not only the hot wars were carried out, but the cold wars too.

Perhaps those who believe we have behaved shockingly think that picking up radio waves and decoding the messages in them from foreign ambassadors to their home departments is OK. After all, it’s not really break-and-enter. My hunch is that, especially in the context of the London enquiries into phone-hacking, the thought that an Australian somewhere was listening to the phone conversations of the wife of the Indonesian President was a little too close to home. And of course it is. The same people, or others like them, might be listening to our own phone conversations. And I’m pretty sure someone is. Gentlemen who don’t read other gentlemen’s mails have long gone, in the media as well as in politics.

What will happen now? In both countries, other matters will take precedence in the news and in politics. There are many ways in which the Indonesian President can say that he is satisfied, or announce that he has done something that amounts to a real smack on the hand for Australia. I assume Mr Abbott will keep pursuing his current line and wait for it all to blow over. As for the Labor Party, the less it says about all this the better. Joel Fitzgibbon, John Faulkner and Stephen Smith were the relevant Labor Ministers in August 2009. I may be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve heard a peep out of any of them about this.


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Walter Starck says:

    It is important to recognise the cultural differences involved in this matter. Australia is probably the least pompous of any society. Asian cultures pay a much greater respect to their leaders. Indonesians are deeply offended that agents of the Australian government would eavesdrop on the private conversations of their leader and even his wife. Worse yet, this was presumably not done remotely but by guests in their own country. Compounding the offense is also a degree of loss of dignity or face.

    If the situation were reversed it is difficult to imagine outraged mobs of Aussies gathered outside the Indonesian embassy. What we see as simply a minor slight they perceive as a mortal insult. The simplest least damaging response for everyone would seem to be to simply offer an apology, Providing, of course, that our own pompousness does not prevent this.

    Beyond the immediate situation, it would also seem worthwhile to also have a careful reassessment of just how valuable this kind of surveillance actually is and how much freedom and privacy we wish to give up for the sake of security.

    It has been suggested that the reason terrorists attack liberal democratic societies is because they hate our freedom. If this is so, they seem to have been remarkably successful in provoking us to ourselves restrict our freedoms and impose ever more authoritarian government.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      A most thoughtful response, Walter. I’m no expert, but I would imagine that phone messages can be tapped externally, perhaps via satellite. If not, then you are right about the extra offence, as the Indonesians would see it, with respect to the behaviour of guests.

      • Mike O'Ceirin says:

        Well said and I hope TA maintains his resolve. Indonesia has it’s own intelligence gathering which must spy in kind on us. The problem is that it has become public.

        As I understand it one of the principal abilities of our submarines is
        intelligence gathering. They can sit close to a countries coastline and monitor communications. Modern encryption techniques are

        unbreakable and available to all so other ways must be sort. For instance we could set up an absolute secure method to pass messages back and forth. That in itself raises suspicion so other communications between us our friends and family would be watched.
        By doing that more than likely our secrets would be revealed.

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