Australia fears Asia backlash over PRISM surveillance revelations

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.

8 Responses to Australia fears Asia backlash over PRISM surveillance revelations

  1. Pete says:

    Thanks for a great post Joseph

    The Sydney Morning Herald article that you cite is unusually revealing about the damage Snowden is doing to America’s allies, so far mainly the UK.

    Unlike the US Australia has very limited power to drive political and media debates. Hence :

    “Defence intelligence officials speaking on condition of anonymity have acknowledged there had been “intense exchanges” on Mr Snowden’s disclosures through liaison channels between the US National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency and Australia’s intelligence agencies.

    …”The US may be able to brush aside some of the diplomatic fallout from the Snowden leak, but that may not be the case for Australia. China, Malaysia, other countries may respond to us in ways that they would not to Washington.”

    Snowden has done the American people and its allies a disservice. Though he’s proving a great asset to the Chinese and now Russian regimes.



  2. Pete says:

    UK GCHQ’s trust in US security is a cautionary tale for those UKUSA allies less hit (so far) that is Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by US Snowdenitus :

    “The NSA Has No Idea How Much Secret Data Edward Snowden Took, And That Has Them Very Worried”

    US surprise suggests governments should avoid user (even network security administrator) access to mass classified databases.

    Transferring Top Secret databases to USBs and especially, ummm Laptops, should be made laborious (even to respond to political requests) and some (or many) downloading patterns should trigger red flags…

    All too late – yes

  3. TFH says:

    Bit strange to come out and say that you expect your neighbor to find out you did something he is not going to like. Even if Snowden had the access (he claimed to have access to everything) he has said that he chose with care what to reveal and what not, mostly he is pointing out the effort of US government to spy on it’s citizens and allies but Australia and China aren’t allies. Is Australia making this statement for purpose of PR gains by US, does US need to point to a damage done to its allies by the revelations to take the heat off its domestic situation?

  4. mopsie says:

    exposing a secret often causes damage to someone. the truth hurts. but the secret created its own destruction.
    if snowden were a chinese guy revealing to the US that the chinese gov had a chinese version of prism, he’d be a hero in the US for having the courage to expose china’s oppressive, evil, sneaky, world threatening snooping.
    if you have a single standard of morality, its not possible for him to be a good guy or a bad guy depending on which side of the world you are judging him from.
    he exposed a truth. truth should be in the light. “‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”

  5. Pete says:

    Reported on Australia’s ABC today: :

    “Steve Meekin, the deputy secretary of intelligence and security, is directly responsible for the operations of the Australian Signals Directorate – our equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.

    In rare public comments, Mr Meekin said the revelations cut to the core of privacy and probity, but there was a fair bit of mythology in the reporting about what has occurred.

    Mr Meekin would not comment on Australian capability but said any involvement Australia had in the PRISM program was consistent with Australian law and that “Australians should have confidence that what we do is in accordance with the law”.

    …He said managers have to be on the lookout not just for potential “traitors” but also for employees who might find themselves confronting mental illness or messy and difficult personal circumstances”

  6. TFH says:

    @Pete: Go Rogues !) Or Nukenin as Ronin Ninjas are known as.

  7. Pete says:


    Well on the Soccer Scale: Snowden 10, NSA 0 (including several own goals).

    Australian security has advantages in dealing with a smaller population than the US – hence fewer potential rogues – but UKUSA alliance interconnectivity permits allied rogues ie ES from spill Australian beans – see



We welcome informed comments and corrections. Comments attacking or deriding the author(s), instead of addressing the content of articles, will NOT be approved for publication.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: