Phone-tapping not a one-way street

Phone-tapping not a one-way street
Indonesia's Dr Yudhoyono (right) suspended cooperation with Australia over people smuggling after allegations that its spies tapped his phone. Australia's Mr Abbott (left) has so far refused to apologise.

IT HAS always been my belief that the damage done by so-called whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning is not so much in the actual information they leak, but the harm that information inflicts on the ability of countries to engage with one another.

So it is with Australia and Indonesia, now embroiled in yet another diplomatic spat, this time over Snowden's revelations that Canberra's spy agencies tapped the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and members of his inner circle.

Like any journalist, I am a fervent believer in freedom of information. But I also believe governments should have secrets - and also secretive methods of finding out what is going on over the horizon. That's what intelligence is for: to protect citizens against unpleasant surprises.

Every country, friend and foe, does it, though those with superior satellite and digital technology obviously have the edge over less developed nations, some of them too preoccupied with their own problems to worry about what goes on next door.

It must be assumed Dr Yudhoyono uses an encrypted phone for official business, so the questionable value of eavesdropping on the personal 3G cellphones of national leaders these days should now be balanced by the very real possibility that it will not stay covert for long.

Once this particular dirty little secret was out in the open, it was clear the Indonesian government had to vent its outrage. It suspended cooperation on the hot asylum-seeker issue and cancelled a joint air exercise over the Northern Territory. There may be more.

Dr Yudhoyono was well justified in calling Canberra's snooping an unfriendly act. He conveyed his feelings on Twitter, suggesting he sees this as an opportunity to regain some lost political ground domestically after a torrid year in which his majority Democrat Party has been shredded by corruption allegations.

If that is the case, then it could be some time before relations return to an even keel. Notoriously thin-skinned at best, Dr Yudhoyono took over the rhetorical charge from Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa the moment the scandal affected him personally.

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