Skip to main content

The Snowden Revelation That Might Start a War

For the first time since June, a Snowden revelation could have serious life and death consequences. Australia and Indonesia are face-to-face in a military standoff at sea that was instigated by a November article in The Guardian based on a leaked Snowden document.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

(Photo: Indonesian soldiers, left, and navy special forces line up during a security parade last year. AFP)

For the first time since June, a Snowden revelation could have serious life and death consequences.

Not widely reported in the United States, a November article by The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill revealed that in 2009 Australia's NSA counterpart, the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD), eavesdropped on the cellphone of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as well as his wife Ani.

The timing of the article couldn't have been worse. Australia and Indonesia have been struggling to curtail what's known as "people smuggling," a refugee crisis in which people from the Middle East and South Asia have been using Indonesia as a launching-off point for harrowing journeys across the Banda and Timor Seas to seek asylum in Australia.

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was elected last year on a platform that included a promise to crack down on the people-smuggling issue. Meanwhile, Indonesia had been working with Australia to curb the problem.

As a consequence of the MacAskill/Snowden news, however, National Police Chief General Sutarman announced that Indonesia would no longer help Australia turn the boats around, further exacerbating a seriously low ebb in diplomatic relations between the two nations.

It gets worse.

Late last week, as part of Australia's now unilateral struggle to turn around the refugee boats and tow them back, several Australian Navy vessels sailed into Indonesian waters, a move which Australia claimed was an accident. Accident or not, this move prompted Indonesia to ramp up its military presence, deploying its Navy and concentrating Air Force radar to monitor the waters along the nation's border.

According to The Jakarta Post, Indonesia's deployment includes: "frigates, fast torpedo craft (KCT), fast missile craft (KCR) and corvettes as well as maritime patrol aircraft." The Indonesian Air Force's 11th squadron could also be deployed against Australia if another incursion takes place, accidental or otherwise. The 11th squadron includes "16 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flankers."

One official said that a maritime clash between the two nations was "imminent."

To be clear, Australia/Indonesia tensions didn't begin with Snowden, but that makes the publishing of this Snowden revelation even more irresponsible and ill-conceived. Consequently, relations have heated up and worsened as a direct result of it. Had it not been for this particular Snowden revelation, it's very likely that Indonesia would've continued to assist Australia in patrolling for refugees, and a shooting war at sea wouldn't be "imminent." Indeed, The Guardian's article was the inciting incident leading to the current military dilemma.

This might be the clearest example of the recklessness of the Snowden leaks -- how the former NSA systems administrator indiscriminately dumped thousands if not more than a million documents to a growing roster of journalists with nothing more than a gentleman's agreement about making sure the articles were in the public interest. In that regard, it's unclear how this news fits the ongoing narrative of a rogue, unconstitutional American/British surveillance state.

If the goal of Snowden and his team of reporters has shifted to something broader than alleged NSA and GCHQ trespasses, and will now include the exposing of any and all nations who spy on other nations irrespective of how those revelations might spark military tensions and possible war, we're looking at a very different and very dangerous new chapter in the Snowden saga.

It's worth mentioning that in addition to the Australia/Indonesia revelation, there was also a revelation published in Norway's Dagbladat tabloid about Norway spying on Russia. (How the Dagbladat received the Snowden document is unclear, while this news once again raises the salient question: is there anyone who doesn't have copies of Snowden's files?) And there's no way of knowing what's next or how deeply The Guardian and others will dig for a Snowden-based story. But if we're already down to Australia spying on Indonesia, the Snowden saga has descended into the deadly serious game of instigating military standoffs.