Outrage at alleged U.S. spying efforts gathers steam in Asian capitals

October 31, 2013

Allegations in an Australian newspaper that the United States and its allies use embassies in Asian capitals as hubs for electronic data collection triggered a new wave of outrage at Washington on Thursday.

China’s government is “severely concerned about the reports and demands a clarification and explanation,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. Government officials in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand — all U.S. allies — made similarly angry statements.

“Indonesia strongly protests the existence of a tapping facility in the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said. “If it’s confirmed, such action is not only a breach of security, but also a serious violation of diplomatic norms and ethics, and certainly not in tune with the spirit of friendly relations between nations.”

The Asian leaders were reacting to a report this week in the German magazine Der Spiegel and a Sydney Morning Herald article Thursday that named cities in which embassies are used for electronic surveillance by the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand — a group of intelligence partners known as the “5-eyes.”

The reports were based on a secret National Security Agency document that was leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden and first published by Der Spiegel. The Sydney newspaper, part of the Fairfax Media group, also included information provided by an unidentified former Australian intelligence officer.

Code-named STATEROOM, the program used disguised surveillance equipment in about 80 embassies and consulates worldwide, the Herald reported, adding that the equipment is concealed in roof maintenance sheds or as features of the building itself.

Nineteen of the diplomatic facilities are in Europe. The Asian embassies involved include those in Jakarta; Bangkok; Hanoi; Beijing; Dili, East Timor; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to discuss the Herald report in detail, but he told reporters, “Every Australian governmental agency, every Australian official at home and abroad operates in accordance with the law, and that’s the assurance that I can give people at home and abroad.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, Australian intelligence expert Desmond Ball said he had seen covert antennas in five of the embassies named in the Australian media report. But Ball, a professor with the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, declined to specify which embassies.

Notably absent from the list of countries reportedly under surveillance in the program are the staunchest U.S. allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea. This week, Japanese media reported that the NSA had asked the Japanese government in 2011 for permission to tap fiber-optic cables in Japan, which carries much traffic throughout East Asia, as a way to collect surveillance on China. But the Japanese government refused, citing legal hurdles and lack of manpower.

On Wednesday, in response to reports of U.S. surveillance of European leaders, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called cybersecurity “a matter of sovereignty” and said China was taking steps to increase its security, as well as joining Russia in backing a U.N. proposal to address such surveillance.

China’s state-run media have also roundly criticized the United States, with headlines declaring that the revelations would weaken U.S. global influence. Commentators accused the United States, which for years has complained of Chinese cyberattacks, of hypocrisy and demanded U.S. apologies.

According to U.S. security experts, Chinese cyberspies, including hackers affiliated with the Chinese military, have stolen industrial secrets for years and have penetrated powerful Washington institutions, including law firms, think tanks, news organizations, human rights groups, contractors, congressional offices, embassies and federal agencies.

Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said his government takes the reports seriously and is trying to confirm whether such intelligence gathering had taken place. “It is a sensitive issue since it involves several countries,” Zahid said.

The opposition party criticized Malaysia’s government for being too “submissive” in its reaction to the United States.

Lt. Gen. Paradorn Pattanatabut, secretary-general of Thailand’s National Security Council, said his government would tell Washington that such surveillance is against Thai law and that Thai security agencies have been put on alert.

If asked, Paradorn said, Thailand would not cooperate with such U.S. spying programs. But he also emphasized that “we believe that Thailand and the U.S. still enjoy good and cordial relations.”

Chico Harlan in Seoul contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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