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Analysis

Manila mutes US spying outrage

/ 09:14 PM November 07, 2013

CANBERRA—China and several Southeast Asian nations, except the Philippines, have demanded an explanation from the United States and its allies in reaction to media reports that US and Australian embassies in the region were being used as hubs for Washington’s secret electronic surveillance worldwide, according to an Associated Press report from Sydney on Oct. 31.

The reports came amid an international outcry over allegations that the United States was spying on the telephone conversations of as many as 35 foreign leaders. The outcry was sparked by a document from the US National Security Agency (NSA), which was leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden and published by the German magazine Der Spiegel. According to the AP, the document describes a signals intelligence program called “Stateroom” in which US, British, Australian and Canadian embassies secretly house surveillance equipment to collect electronic communications. Those countries, along with New Zealand, supposedly have an intelligence-sharing agreement known as “Five Eyes.”

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According to the Australian Broadcasting Co. (ABC News), a secret map released by Snowden reveals that the United States had also set up surveillance facilities in embassies and consulates in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Yangon, Manila, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai and Beijing. Prof. Des Ball, an Australian spy expert, claims that the Australian Signals directorate is sharing information with the NSA. Ball said: “Australia itself has used foreign embassies for listening purposes [in] an operation code-named Reprieve… in which we’ve used embassies in our region to monitor local, essentially microwave-relayed telephone conversations.

“The fact that the United States has special collection elements that are doing these today is no different from what many other countries are doing today. It’s not unusual.”

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that diplomatic posts in Asia were being used to intercept phone calls and data. Some critics are reported to have concerns about the extent of the NSA spying program, suggesting that the communications of ordinary Australians may have been pried into. Ball says that Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada have a long-standing “five eyes” agreement not to spy on each other, and that he believes it has not been breached. But an independent senator, Nick Xenophon, says the Australian government should do more to ensure that Australians are not subject to the surveillance of US agencies. “At the very least, the Australian government should be calling in the US ambassador and asking whether the level of scrutiny, the level of access to citizens’ phone records in Germany, France and Spain has been happening here,” he said.

US President Barack Obama is under fierce criticism over allegations that the NSA has tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and conducted widespread electronic snooping in France, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere.

Of particular relevance to Filipinos is the fact that among the US allies in Asia and in contrast to the strong protests from our neighbors, the Philippine government muted the reports on the US surveillance.

Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma brushed aside the reports as though they were a minor inconvenience, saying that Malacañang would check with the Departments of National Defense and of Foreign Affairs if “they have

verified such reports.” Perhaps he may have been too preoccupied defending the administration’s Disbursement Acceleration Program, which is under fire for being a mechanism designed to seize control of the pork barrel funds of legislators.

The Philippine government was oblivious of the international furor over the NSA’s global spying network. Elsewhere, BBC reports that Indonesia has summoned the Australian ambassador in reaction to reports that Australian embassies were used as part of a US-led spying network in Asia. In a statement, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said: “The government cannot accept and strongly protests the existence of wiretapping facilities at the US embassy in Jakarta. If confirmed, such action is not only a breach of security but also a breach of diplomatic norms and ethics. The reported activities absolutely do not reflect the spirit of a close and friendly relationship between two neighbors and are unacceptable by the government of Indonesia.”

China has also demanded an explanation for the allegations. The Chinese foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said Beijing was “extremely concerned” about the report: “China demands that the United States offer a clarification and explanation. We demand that foreign embassies in China and their staff respect the

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Vienna Convention.”

In a statement, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said that it was seeking clarification on the issue from the US envoy in Kuala Lumpur and that Malaysia’s “security and sovereignty” remained a priority.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Merkel has angrily complained to Obama that “spying between friends is simply unacceptable,” and emphatically said there had been a breach of trust that would have to be repaired. The row came as a damaging blow to the relations between the United States and Germany, one of the former’s strongest European allies after World War II.

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TAGS: amando doronila, column, electronic surveillance, espionage, Philippines, US
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