Unintelligent Intelligence

JAKARTA – It is as embarrassing as it gets in government to be caught spying on a friendly country. Just ask officials in the United States in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. And the US is not alone: Now Australia has been caught listening in on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and inner circle.

These revelations, from material leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, will reverberate politically for some time. The fallout is particularly damaging for the Australia-Indonesia relationship, as I can now attest while visiting Jakarta.

Indonesia’s friendship with the new Australian government has already been stretched over the issue of turning back boats laden with asylum-seekers. Now Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s refusal (unlike President Barack Obama) to apologize to his counterpart for the electronic surveillance has generated a massive public outcry. The issue is fueling nationalist sentiment in Indonesia – already elevated in the run-up to next year’s general election.

One time-honored reaction to being caught spying on a foreign government is to batten down the hatches, wait for the storm to pass, and maintain technical operations as usual. This may be appropriate when the target is a traditional adversary or international troublemaker, a major national interest is involved, and the spying in question is as likely as not to be mutual.