Flat White

From Moscow to Tony Abbott, via Annika Smethurst’s underwear drawer

2 December 2019

1:03 PM

2 December 2019

1:03 PM

Edward Snowden’s dad and a mate of mine are on the same page: Ed Snowden is “the greatest American patriot since Paul Revere”.

My pal added, in a letter not long ago, “I hope that he runs for president one day.”

Other people — connected people — tell me that Snowden is a Russian agent.

Edward Snowden dramatically exposed the global, mass surveillance operations of the US National Security Agency during a closeted week between June 3-9, 2013, in the Mira Hotel, Hong Kong, with three journalists: Laura Poitras, Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.

That Snowden disappeared from Honolulu and his NSA job between May 19-20, 2013, ultimately to find sanctuary in Moscow proves, I’ve been assured, his perfidy.

Over time, the spy thesis has become more nuanced.  It goes like this: Snowden didn’t work for the Russians from inside the NSA but, after having ended up in Moscow, he did give them information that went far beyond the surveillance issues that had prompted Snowden to rat in the first place.

By its nature, the evidence for such claims can’t be laid on the table. The authority for them rests upon the secret court of assurances provided by intelligence agencies and those on their periphery.

In the end, it’s a matter of who you trust.

Take a look at Snowden’s own account of how he ended up in Moscow.

After disappearing from the Mira Hotel on June 10, Snowden flew out of Hong Kong on June 23, accompanied by Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks, bound for Ecuador.

In his recently published memoir, Permanent Record,* Snowden says he chose Ecuador by process of elimination. The problem was getting there.

Back in London, operating from the Ecuadorian embassy where he was then holed up, Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, reached out to Snowden while underground in HK and co-ordinated his extraction from the territory and flight to Ecuador. The plan was to fly via Moscow, Havana and Caracas and thence to Quito. Snowden, however, never made it beyond Moscow.

In what was surely a blunder, US authorities cancelled Snowden’s passport while he was mid-air between HK and Moscow. No passport, no fly. So Snowden became stuck at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.  There, a KGB welcoming committee, appraised before Snowden of Washington’s snafu, was awaiting his arrival armed with a proposal:

Life for a person in your situation can be very difficult without friends who can help.

After rebuffing the KGB’s kindly offer and enduring 40 days corralled in an airport lounge firing off doomed asylum applications — 27 in all — Snowden was granted something he’d earlier ruled out, asylum in Russia.

“That’s his story,” the guardians fume. “It was all a ruse designed as cover.”

Snowden’s alternative asylum options were thwarted — it seems, however, to me — by three decisive factors.


The first was the immense pressure that the USA could (and did) bring to bear against potential asylum countries.

The second brutally illustrated the first.  President Ivo Morales of Bolivia, having stepped up to offer asylum, abandoned his bold idea after his plane, returning from an international conference in Moscow, was forced down in Vienna on July 3 and unsuccessfully searched for Snowden by CIA agents.

Finally, Ecuador, angered by the way Julian Assange had hijacked, in its view, a decision properly belonging to the Ecuadorian government, also walked away from offering asylum.

My view?

I believe Snowden. But what would it matter if I were wrong?

What’s important are hard facts: namely, the evidence Snowden provided of the USA’s global surveillance operations and the parts played in them by America’s “Five Eyes” intelligence partners – the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The astounding details you can find in Permanent Record and, more extensively, in Glen Greenwald’s earlier No Place to Hide. (I wrote about the latter here.)

To sum up, if you make international phone calls, use Yahoo, Gmail and the like, send text messages, chat via Skype, do Google searches, or post on Facebook there’s a good chance that the NSA will scoop up your communications, scan them and — even if they’re of zero present intelligence value —  store them indefinitely.

What needs to be understood is that mass surveillance US-style is a private enterprise operation plugged into, and managed from above, by the NSA.

Australia’s intelligence agencies, moreover, aspire to a slice of the action.

Given Australia’s boast of being the “most successful multicultural” society on the planet, our authorities are much in need of intelligence on internal threats to our security: threats that arise from alienated members of certain ethnic and religious groups. But there are technical and legal limits on what our security agencies can do.

So, in February 2011, our Defence Signals Directorate — later renamed Australian Signals Directorate — wrote to its NSA counterpart requesting it to increase surveillance on the communications of certain “Australians involved in international extremist activities …” (Greenwald, p. 122. Look it up.)

The ASD has responsibility for gathering foreign signals intelligence and is prohibited from operating in the domestic domain. Its letter to the NSA, therefore, seemed to be asking for either one or both of two things: a foreign-sourced supplement to the ASD’s foreign intelligence or a domestic-sourced supplement forbidden to the ASD but technically open to the NSA.

Let that sink in.

Seven years later, on April 29, 2018, the Sunday Telegraph broke a big story by Annika Smethurst. It reported a proposal, then allegedly being explored, to extend the ASD’s remit to domestic intelligence gathering in support of ASIO and the AFP.

Smethurst ’s scoop blew up this year like a long-delayed time bomb. There’ve been AFP raids: on Smethurst and on Cameron Jon Gill, a former ASD official suspected of leaking to her. These triggered a rolling cross-media campaign in defence of press freedom while the warrant under which police searched Smethurst’s home and equipment has been challenged in the High Court.

Less remarked, perhaps, was the immediate impact of Smethurst’s story. The proposal to turn the ASD’s antennae to harvesting our “signals” seems to have been shelved. Instead, we got the Assistance and Access Bill 2018.  Introduced into the federal parliament five months later, it became law in December last year. (I wrote about it and its alarming features here.)

If the ASD can’t raise domestic intelligence — and if a proposal to change that had been dropped — then our security agencies would need, so government ministers might have reasoned, powers to compel ISPs, phone companies and global tech giants to share their corporate data on domestic intelligence targets. This is what Assistance and Access sought to achieve.

Make no mistake, the government isn’t trying to create a system of mass surveillance. It exists already. It’s a giant business enterprise dominated by global corporations. Our federal government and its agencies want to tap into that; albeit, as they argue, only to pursue explicit security threats and criminal organisations.

Sounds reasonable. Yet to accomplish this ‘tapping in’, the federal parliament voted government a power that can be exercised, ultimately, without legal warrant. It’s a portentous step — and headed in a direction of which our security-conscious Ministers and MPs appear scarcely conscious.

It should then have come to them as disconcerting — if not a shock — to discover that the Attorney-General’s Department has just spent seven months investigating former PM, Tony Abbott, and LibertyWorks founder, Andrew Cooper, for being agents of foreign influence.

Having generated 1,300 pages of documents on Abbott and Cooper, AG’s issued demands that they register under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme as “foreign agents”.

In what did their “betrayal” of Australia consist? In Cooper’s case, organising, in collaboration with the American Conservative Union, the August Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney. In Abbott’s, delivering an address at the same.

AG’s, however, proved even more concerned about another Abbott speech. This he delivered in September at the Third Budapest Demographic Summit; opened, with great praise for Abbott (and Australia), by Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

 

The attempt to ping Abbott and Cooper — obviously for their being “conservative” — was a try on, a step-too-far, taken prematurely by the kind of people who, with patience, stand to inherit the kingdom – our future guardians. And when they do, they will have at their disposal a machinery apt to enforcing their world views, be they globalist, climatist, culturally Marxist, whatever.

At a time when the potential threats posed to Australia’s security by China are far more perilous than anything Islamic radicals have so far thrown at us, our regularly reinforced national security apparatus is being embraced less critically the more needful to us it has seemed to become.

One doesn’t have to dream, like my mate, of a future President Snowden to recognise in his story Juvenal’s perennial question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 

Which I translate freely, ‘Who’ll watch those very watchmen … and their political agendas?’

*Permanent Record by Edward Snowden; Macmillan, London, 2019; pp. 339.

Gary Scarrabelotti blogs at Scarra Blog.

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