BEIJING — Australia, a close ally of the United States, has used its embassies in Asia to collect intelligence as part of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance efforts, according to a document leaked by the former agency contractor Edward J. Snowden and published this week in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted angrily on Thursday to the assertions in the document, which also said that the American Embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai and Chengdu operated special intelligence gathering facilities, and it demanded an explanation from the United States.
“We demand that foreign entities and personnel in China strictly abide by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and other international treaties, and they must not, in any form, engage in activities that are incompatible with their position and status and that are harmful to China’s national security and interest,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said at a daily briefing for reporters.
Australia is one of the so-called Five Eyes countries that share highly classified intelligence and agree not to spy on one another; the other four are the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
The report by Der Spiegel and a report in The Sydney Morning Herald said that the intelligence collection program was conducted from Australian Embassies in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and East Timor, and the country’s high commissions — the equivalent of embassies among Commonwealth countries — in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
The N.S.A. program was called Stateroom, and was operated by the Australian Defense Signals Directorate, Der Spiegel quoted the N.S.A. document as saying.
A former Australian official with knowledge of Australia’s relationship with the United States said that Australia took part in the intelligence gathering to further its own national interests as well as to contribute to its alliance with Washington. The Australian intelligence operations had been going on in various forms for 20 to 30 years, the former official said.
Australia has long felt a need to gather information in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, which lies just to the north of Australia, the former official said. The country’s volatile politics and security problems were of the highest priority to Australia for many years, and more recently the rise in the smuggling of people to Australia from there had increased the need, the former official said.
“This was done not as a favor to the United States,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “It was more cooperative than at the U.S.’s request.”
Describing the surveillance operations at the Australian facilities, the N.S.A. document quoted by Der Spiegel said they were “small in size and in number of personnel staffing them.” The document added, “They are covert, and their true mission is not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff at the facility where they are assigned.”
An email to the Australian agency assigned to answer questions about the program, the Attorney General’s Department in Canberra, was not immediately answered.
The reports were an embarrassment to the new conservative government in Australia, especially regarding the Australian Embassy in Beijing. The buoyant Australian economy depends on China’s appetite for Australian iron ore, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott said this month that he wanted to complete a free-trade agreement with China within a year.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Ms. Hua, alluded to the relationship in her comments on Thursday. China and Australia had a consensus to increase cooperation, she said, and “we hope and expect that Australia can work hard with China in this regard.”
The New York Times
October 31, 2013
By JANE PERLEZ
© 2013 The New York Times Company