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  • Exposed: Australia’s Asia spy network

    Leading intelligence and security academic Prof. Des Ball discusses the history of embassy spying and says Australia is a target in our own capital.

    Australian embassies are being secretly used to intercept phone calls and data across Asia as part of a US-led global spying network, according to whistleblower Edward Snowden and a former Australian intelligence officer.

    The top secret Defence Signals Directorate operates the clandestine surveillance facilities at embassies without the knowledge of most Australian diplomats.

    International outcry: A Stop Watching US Rally in Washington D.C. Photo: Getty Images

    The revelations come as the US has been left red-faced by news it has been eavesdropping on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

    US President Barack Obama is said to be on the verge of ordering a halt to spying on the heads of allied governments following the international outcry.

    Fairfax Media has been told that signals intelligence collection takes place from embassies in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Beijing and Dili, and High Commissions in Kuala Lumpur and Port Moresby, as well as other diplomatic posts.

    Edward Snowden: Leaked a secret US National Security Agency document. Photo: Reuters

    A secret US National Security Agency document leaked by Mr Snowden and published by Germany’s Der Speigel reveals the existence of a highly sensitive signals intelligence collection program conducted from sites at US embassies and consulates and from the diplomatic missions of other “Five eyes” intelligence partners including Australia, Britain and Canada.

    Codenamed STATEROOM, the program involves the interception of radio, telecommunications and internet traffic.

    The document explicitly states that the Australian Defence Signals Directorate operates STATEROOM facilities “at Australian diplomatic facilities”.

    The document notes that the surveillance facilities “are small in size and in number of personnel staffing them”.

    “They are covert, and their true mission is not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff at the facility where they are assigned,” the document says.

    The National Security Agency document also observed the facilities were carefully concealed: “For example antennas are sometimes hidden in false architectural features or roof maintenance sheds.”

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade declined to comment on the potential diplomatic implications of the disclosure. A departmental spokesperson said: “It is the long-standing practice of Australian governments not to comment on intelligence matters.”

    The leaked NSA document does not identify the location of specific Defence Signals Directorate facilities overseas.

    However, a former Australian Defence Intelligence officer has told Fairfax Media the directorate conducts surveillance operations from Australian embassies across Asia and the Pacific.

    The former intelligence officer said the interception facility at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta played an important role in collecting intelligence on terrorist threats and people-smuggling, “but the main focus is political, diplomatic and economic intelligence”.

    “The huge growth of mobile phone networks has been a great boon and Jakarta’s political elite are a loquacious bunch; even when they think their own intelligence services are listening they just keep talking,” the source said.

    He said the Australian Consulate in Denpasar, Bali, has also been used for signals intelligence collection.

    In June the East Timorese government complained publicly about Australian spying, including communications interception and bugging government offices during negotiations on the future of the Timor Gap oil and gas reserves.

    Intelligence leaks to the media in the 1980s disclosed installation of ”extraordinarily sophisticated” intercept equipment in Australia’s High Commission in Port Moresby and in the Australian embassies in Jakarta and Bangkok.

    Further leaks of top secret Defence Intelligence reports on Indonesia and East Timor in 1999 also indicated that Australia intelligence has extensive access to sensitive Indonesian military and civilian communications.

    Intelligence expert Des Ball said the Defence Signals Directorate had long co-operated with the US in monitoring the Asia-Pacific region, including using listening posts in embassies and consulates.

    “Knowing what our neighbours are really thinking is important for all sorts of diplomatic and trade negotiations,” Professor Ball told Fairfax Media.

    October 31, 2013
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    Philip Dorling

    Find this story at 31 October 2013

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    Fairfax Media