Saturday, June 29, 2013

Australia fears Asia backlash over PRISM surveillance revelations

Australia fears Asia backlash over PRISM surveillance revelations

June 26, 2013 by Joseph Fitsanakis


The government of Australia is concerned that American whistleblower Edward Snowden may leak classified information that could damage Australia’s relations with its Asian neighbors, including China and Malaysia. Early this month, Snowden, a former technical assistant for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), disclosed the existence of PRISM, a clandestine electronic surveillance program operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

Information provided by Snowden to British newspaper The Guardian suggests that Washington routinely shares PRISM intelligence with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia. These four countries, along with the United States, are signatories to the so-called UKUSA agreement, a multilateral accord for cooperation in signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection, which was established secretly in 1946. Australian media reported on Wednesday that the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security had been briefed by senior intelligence officials on Australia’s role in PRISM.

The Sydney Morning Herald said that David Irvine, Director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and Ian McKenzie, who heads Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate, were among those who briefed the parliamentary Committee. Its members were reportedly told that the disclosures about PRISM were likely to damage Canberra’s relations with several Asian countries, in ways that are difficult to predict. One unidentified Australian intelligence official told The Herald that Snowden had “very wide access” to classified information held by the NSA, and that some of it probably includes “much detail of communications intelligence cooperation between the US and Australia”. One source went as far as to say that Snowden’s disclosures have already “damaged [...] Australia’s intelligence capabilities”.

Australian intelligence officials are also concerned about the potential of “serious complications” of Australia’s relations with its immediate geographical neighbors. The consensus seems to be that, while the US may be able to gradually “brush aside” most of the diplomatic fallout emanating from the PRISM controversy, Australia will find it more difficult to clean up its image. Asian nations such as China or Malaysia, which are targeted by PRISM, may respond to Canberra “in ways that they would not to Washington”, a source told The Herald. Australian government officials refused to respond to a query filed yesterday by the Reuters news agency. Later on Wednesday, Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, refused to confirm or deny that he had communicated with his American counterpart, Bob Kerry, about PRISM.

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