news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull appears to have completely changed his view on the revelations by Edward Snowden about US spying activities, telling the ABC yesterday that the NSA whistleblower had caused “enormous damage”, despite having only six months ago described some of Snowden’s revelations as having “very significant” implications.
In June last year, The Guardian published classified documents created by the US National Security Agency and leaked by Snowden, which stated that the NSA was able to gain “direct access” to the servers of companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo and Skype. The access allowed US officials to collect information including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.
Subsequently, Snowden has leaked dozens, perhaps hundreds of other documents highlighting many other spying activities by other governments. The leaks have had significant implications for Australia’s relationship with neighbouring Indonesia and other countries, and have spurred significant pressure on Australia’s intelligence agencies to become more transparent and accountable.
In June last year, when the initial Snowden leaks occurred, Turnbull, then Shadow Communications Minister, demanded answers from the governments of Australia and the US, in relation to the scandal.
“Australians will be very troubled by the allegation in The Guardian and The New York Times that the US National Security Agency is engaged in large scale, covert surveillance of private data belonging to non-US citizens held by American companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Youtube,” said Turnbull in a statement at the time.
“I think Australians have always understood data housed on US servers is subject to US laws such as the Patriot Act, but the Guardian story about the so-called PRISM programme suggests there is extensive surveillance and interception of foreign citizens’ data without a court order and indeed without the knowledge of the internet companies themselves.”
“These reports have potentially very significant commercial implications,” the Liberal MP said. “There is a massive global trend to cloud services. The vast majority of the cloud service providers are US companies. These companies have, with US Government support and endorsement, been promoting their services globally, and have sought to allay concerns that data hosted by them would have less privacy protection than it would in Australia.”
“Today’s reports elevate those concerns to an even higher level especially since it has been alleged that foreign-owned data hosted by US Internet companies has lesser protection than data belonging to US citizens.”
However, asked about the ABC’s handling of material leaked by Snowden in an interview with ABC radio yesterday, especially relating to accounts of Australian spying activities on Indonesian officials, Turnbull appeared to change his view of the whistleblower substantially. We recommend you click here to listen to the full interview or read the transcript.
“… truthfully, I think it would have been wiser for the ABC not to have published that story with — broken that story, if you like, with the Guardian, because it wasn’t something that was the result of ABC investigative journalism; it’s not as though Sarah Ferguson had spent, you know, six months digging that up. This was basically presented to the ABC on a platter by the Guardian,” said Turnbull.
Host Mark Colvin pointed out to Turnbull that he had personally defended former UK intelligence operative Peter Wright in the so-called ‘Spycatcher’ case which took place in the 1980’s, in which Turnbull, then a lawyer, successfully stopped the UK Government from blocking the publication of Wright’s book exposing certain aspects of the UK’s intelligence services.
“Given your defence of Spycatcher, presumably you don’t believe that these things are beyond reporting,” said Colvin.
“… they’re two very different situations,” replied Turnbull. “I mean, the Snowden case is very different to the Peter Wright Spycatcher case. I mean, I just get this — just be very clear about this. Edward Snowden took what is reported to be millions of very current, highly classified documents, stole them from his employer, the NSA in the United States, and they are being dribbled out, and have done enormous damage.”
Turnbull additionally stated the Spycatcher case had been different from the Snowden issue because Wright’s book had largely been about intelligence cases “more than 30 years old”, although Colvin pointed out it also related to current affairs at the time it was published.
The Liberal MP’s comments represent only the latest time that a senior Australian politician has heavily criticised Snowden. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last week told a US conference that Snowden had “shamefully betrayed” the USA and was “no hero”. In December, Federal Attorney-General George Brandis reacted to the revelation of what a Queen’s Counsel lawyer stated were borderline illegal surveillance tactics by the Australian Signals Directorate by supporting the agency and accusing NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden of being an “American traitor”.
And in August last year, then-Labor Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus made the public statement that Snowden and accused WikiLeaks collaborator Bradley Manning were not technically “whistleblowers”, claiming that the information they had released publicly related to no wrongdoing by government agencies.
However, globally, Snowden’s revelations about the electronic surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency have been welcomed by many. Most Western countries have set up inquiries into the extent of NSA spying on their citizens. In Australia, the Greens in December successfully moved a motion in the Senate to establish a formal inquiry into Internet surveillance, through a review that will take place into the controversial Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.
In addition, following the ongoing Snowden revelations, US President Barack Obama last week called for ending the government’s control of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans and immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court’s permission before accessing such records.
Just this week, a former Norwegian Government Minister nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize, stating that the whistleblower had “contributed to revealing the extreme level of surveillance by nations against other nations and of citizens”.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting