Outrage Over NSA Spying Spreads to Asia
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

Outrage Over NSA Spying Spreads to Asia


The controversy over the U.S. National Security Agency’s global espionage operations appears to be spreading to Asia, where it is already sparking outrage among some of America’s allies and partner states.

Readers will recall that the NSA story began in Asia when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first fled to Hong Kong immediately before news organizations began publishing stories about the documents he leaked. During Snowden’s brief stay in Hong Kong, some stories came to light about U.S. spying operations in Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although these attracted a lot of attention in China, they failed to garner much interest elsewhere amid Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s domestic spying operations and his dramatic stay in Moscow's airport. Ultimately, no one was particularly surprised to learn the U.S. was spying on China.

Since that time, Asia has remained largely on the periphery of the NSA controversy, which has more prominently focused on the agency's domestic operations as well as ones targeting Latin America and European countries. One of the only major exceptions to this came in early July when it was revealed that the NSA was spying on 38 foreign embassies in DC, including key U.S. allies and partners in Asia such as South Korea, Japan, and India.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Events over the last month or so, and especially in the last week, strongly suggest the NSA controversy is starting to engulf the Asia-Pacific as well.

Some of the NSA’s troubles in Asia began last week when reports emerged claiming the U.S. had monitored the communications of 35 world leaders. This immediately prompted some Asian nations, notably South Korea, to demand information on whether their leaders were among the 35 being monitored.

“We are checking with the U.S. side for verification,” an unnamed South Korean official told local media outlets, referring to whether or not South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun was among those being spied on by the U.S. back in 2006. The official added: “The government is closely following the issue and is determined to respond strictly.”

Other countries were more confident they had evaded the NSA’s detection. India, for instance, said there was no cause for concern that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been one of the world leaders the NSA was monitoring. “The Prime Minister doesn't use a mobile phone and he doesn't have an email account,” a spokesperson for Singh’s office explained. “His office uses email, but he has no personal email… We have no information and no cause for concern.”

This contrasted sharply from where India stood just a month ago.  At that time, Edward Snowden provided documents to The Hindu which, according to the newspaper, showed that of the five BRICS nations, the NSA spied on India the most. Overall, India ranked as the fifth most targeted country by the U.S. signals intelligence agency (Pakistan was reportedly the second most targeted behind Iran).

Around the same time that The Guardian reported the NSA had monitored 35 world leaders, Kyodo News reported that the NSA approached the Japanese government in 2011 about tapping optical fiber cables carrying phone and internet communications that pass through Japan on their way to other destinations in the Asia-Pacific. According to the report, which was based on information first published in The Guardian, Tokyo rejected the NSA’s requests citing a lack of legislative authority and personnel.  

The same cannot be said about Australia, which is one of four English-speaking countries who have bilateral agreements with the U.S. not to spy on each other and also have a multilateral signal intelligence gathering alliance known informally as the "Five Eyes." In late August it was reported that Australia’s Signals Directorate has, in partnership with its American and British counterparts, been tapping underwater fiber optic cables that carry information across Asia and parts of the Middle East and Europe.

In following up on this revelations, Australian newspapers were told by former and current Australian officials that Singapore is intimately involved in the tapping of fiber optic cables as well. When asked about the usefulness of the fiber optic cable operation, one former Australian Defense intelligence officer told Fairfax Media that it gives the parties involved a “stranglehold on communications across the Eastern Hemisphere.” 

Following up on these initial revelations, new Snowden inspired reports this week show that Australian embassies throughout the Asia-Pacific are secretly used to gather signals intelligence that is shared with the NSA. Earlier this week a report in the German daily Der Spiegel revealed a program codenamed STATEROOM where U.S. and other "Five Eye" nations' embassies and consulates around the world are used to collect signals intelligence on their host countries, often without the knowledge of most of the diplomats stationed at the embassy or consulate. The document directly named Australia’s’ Signals Directorate as one of the participants in the program, although it didn't provide many details about the extent of its involvement.

Based on this report, The Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier this week that the NSA maintains signal intelligence equipment at its embassies in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Yangon, but not in its embassies in "Five Eye" nations New Zealand and Australia, or at the U.S. embassies in Japan and Signapore. It also said that China is by far the NSA’s main target in Asia.

On Thursday, the SMH published another extensive article detailing Australia’s role in the STATEROOM program.

“Fairfax Media [which owns the SMH] has been told that signals intelligence collection takes place from [Australian] embassies in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Beijing and Dili, and High Commissions in Kuala Lumpur and Port Moresby, as well as other diplomatic posts,” the report said.

A former Australian intelligence officer quoted in the report said that STATEROOM operations in Indonesia have been particularly successful.

“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 former officer told Fairfax Media.

The report goes on to note that this is hardly the first time Australia has been caught using its embassies to spy on Asian neighbors. In one of the many previous incidents recounted in the SMH report, during the 1980s leaks to the media revealed that Australia had extremely sophisticated signals intelligence equipment installed in its embassies in Jakarta and Bangkok.

This doesn’t appear to have made the target countries any less offended by the latest revelations of spying, however. Even before the Thursday SMH report was published, Indonesia blasted the U.S. on Tuesday for the initial Der Spiegel report. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the issue had been raised with the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city.

"Indonesia cannot accept and protests strongly over the report about wiretapping facilities at the US embassy in Jakarta. If confirmed, such action is not only a breach of security, but also a serious breach of diplomatic norms and ethics and certainly not in the spirit of friendly relations between nations,” Marty told reporters.

Not surprisingly, China is also strongly protesting the information contained in the leaks.

"China is severely concerned about the reports, and demands a clarification and explanation," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in response to the new reports.

The U.S. State Department has also listed South Korea and India as two of the handful of countries it is now directly consulting with regarding the latest Snowden leaks.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief