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Change needed in intelligence approach

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 4 November 2013

Over the last week the German newspaper Der Spiegel and the Sydney Morning Herald disclosed that the Australian Government was carrying out electronic surveillance and eavesdropping on phone and internet communications. The security organization Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) concealed special electronic equipment within the Australian High Commissions in Kuala Lumpur and Port Moresby, PNG, and embassies in Bangkok, Beijing, Dili, Jakarta, and Hanoi, based upon information released by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden and a former Australian intelligence officer.

Although these revelations are not new and have most probably already been suspected by the host governments concerned, the exposing of espionage activities from Australia's diplomatic missions have caused the Australian Government great embarrassment which will potentially strain relations within the region for years to come. So far the only comment that has come from a "shell shocked" Abbott Government was from foreign Minister Julie Bishop who said that "it was not policy of the Australian Government to comment on intelligence matters", hardly sufficient to placate some very angry governments within the region.

Ms. Bishop certainly has a good cause for concern because last week's revelations according to other documentation and former Australian diplomats are only the tip of the iceberg.


Australiahas been collecting intelligence in the South-East Asian region for decades through a multitude of methods from a large array of facilities. In addition to the electronic surveillance activities revealed last week, Australian operatives stationed under diplomatic cover across diplomatic missions in the region carry out continuous 'on the ground' Humint (human intelligence) operations.

Australiahas developed a very complex intelligence structure, similar to the US. In addition to a number of data analysis groups like the Office of National Assessments (ONA) and Defence Intelligence organization (DIO), under the Defence Intelligence and Security Group; a number of data collecting and operational agencies carry out surveillance and covert operations around the world. These include the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) which was said to be the agency responsible for eavesdropping from Australian diplomatic missions. In addition, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organization (DIGO) is responsible for imagery intelligence collection. Under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) which carries out overseas intelligence gathering and operations. Under the Australian Parliament and responsible to the Attorney General is the Australian Security Intelligence Agency (ASIO) which looks after Australia's internal national security through surveillance, data collection and analysis of threats to Australian interests both domestically and overseas. A host of other agencies with various functions also exist.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, the Australian intelligence community has been considered an equal partner with the US and operates almost in a totally integrated fashion. There are a number of important facilities on Australian territory which make important contributions to the NSA network. The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) as well as using diplomatic missions to collect telephone and internet data under a program called STATEROOM, a term referring to covert signals-intelligence gathering bases hidden in diplomatic missions, has a number of dedicated signals collection facilities in Australia. Intelligence operatives are placed within the technical side of these firms with access to data, where X-Keystone is in operation.

Pine Gap just around 20 KMs from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory is a joint facility responsible for signals collection. Here the ECHELON software undertakes a meta-collection of phone, fax, email and other data traffic from satellite transmissions, public switched phone networks and microwave signals. This data is screened for pre-programmed keywords and is linked to the British eavesdropping facility at Menwith Hill and a chain of other intercepting facilities around the world. Pine Gap collected important intelligence during the Indo-China conflicts on North Vietnam, the Laotian Pathet Lao, and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge during the 1970s and 80s. The facility also played a significant role in the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan campaigns. After 9/11 there has been a focus on the collection of intelligence on terrorism suspects. Through combining imagery with radio and mobile phone transmissions, potential targets can be pinpointed for drone strikes. This information is fed to the US Drone Strike Program.

Pine gap is also part of the X-Keystone network collecting and analysing online data. Access to Pine Gap is so important to the US because many of its spy satellites are controlled from this facility, and houses an early missile launch detection system.

A satellite communications facility at Kojarena, near Geraldton, Western Australia is responsible for intercepting signals and mobile phone communications from China, Russia, Japan, India, and Pakistan through a regional satellite network. Another satellite station at Shoal Bay in the Northern Territory focuses primarily on intercepting Indonesian phone communications and military signals. This facility was instrumental in monitoring East Timor in 1999 during the referendum for independence.


There is a small remotely controlled facility on the Cocos Islands also used for signals collection, which feeds into the ASD headquarters at Russell Hill in Canberra. The Washington Post reports that the Cocos Islands is now an important base in South China Sea surveillance as a counter to the Chinese presence. Former Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith last year announced that the Cocos Islands might be used for US drone flights over the South China Sea. These activities suggest that China is the main surveillance target, even though Australia's latest Defence Policy White Paper stated otherwise.

Australiahas also developed a listening post connected to major undersea communication cables that carry voice and internet traffic between the US and Asia, an action far beyond any legislative authority.

Several years ago some Australian members of parliament were given a security briefing where a video conference intercept of two of the most senior Malaysian military commanders was proudly shown to demonstrate Australia's electronic surveillance abilities, where it implied the ability to access some of the most sensitive military and diplomatic communications in the region. Speculation exists that Australia regularly intercepts Indonesian President Susilo Bambamg Yudhoyono's and other high ranking officials mobile phone conversations. Australia has been regularly reading Indonesian diplomatic traffic since the 1950s, which played an important role in helping the US undermine the Sukarno regime and install Suharto as President back in 1995.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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