Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Australia yesterday in a furious response to reports that Australian spy agencies tried to listen to the telephone calls of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as well as his wife and ministers.
Jakarta also said that all cooperation with Canberra would be reviewed after secret documents leaked by US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden named the president and nine of his inner circle as targets of the surveillance.
The escalating row came with ties between the strategic allies already strained over previous spying allegations and ways to deal with boatpeople heading for Australia via Indonesia.
“This is an unfriendly, unbecoming act between strategic partners,” Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa told reporters as he announced the ambassador would be recalled for consultations. “This isn’t a smart thing to do,” he said, adding that it “hasn’t been a good day in the relationship between Indonesia and Australia.”
Secret documents leaked by Snowden, obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and the Guardian newspaper, name the president and nine of his inner circle as targets of the surveillance.
The documents show that Australia’s electronic intelligence agency tracked Yudhoyono’s activity on his mobile phone for 15 days in August 2009, when Labor’s Kevin Rudd was prime minister.
Weeks before, twin blasts at luxury hotels in the Indonesian capital — the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton — had killed seven people, including three Australians.
The directorate reportedly intercepted at least one call.
A list of targets also included Yudhoyono’s wife Ani, Indonesian Vice President Boediono — who was in Australia last week, former Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla, the Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman, the security minister and the information minister, the reports said.
Yudhoyono’s office demanded an explanation from Canberra.
“The Australian government urgently needs to clarify on this news to avoid further damage,” spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said in a text message.
“The damage has been done,” he added.
Another name on the list, former Indonesian minister for state-owned enterprises and communication Sofyan Djalil said: “We are not happy.”
However, he added: “Diplomatic relations always have their ups and downs. This has caused anger in the short-term, but in the long-term, we are still neighbors and I think we will overcome this.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to comment on the latest claims when pressed in parliament, but said Indonesia was an important partner.
“I will never say or do anything that might damage the strong relationship and the close cooperation that we have with Indonesia, which is all in all, our most important relationship,” he said, adding that he wanted it to “grow stronger in the months and years ahead.”
The ABC said one of the documents was titled “3G impact and update” and appeared to chart attempts by Australian intelligence to keep pace with the rollout of 3G technology in Indonesia and across Southeast Asia. A number of intercept options were listed and a recommendation was made to choose one of them and to apply it to a target — in this case the Indonesian leadership, the broadcaster said.
The latest release of Snowden documents comes just weeks after reports claimed Canberra’s overseas diplomatic posts, including in Jakarta, were involved in a vast US-led surveillance network, which sparked an angry reaction from Natalegawa.
This was followed by claims that Australia and the US mounted a joint surveillance operation on Indonesia during 2007 UN climate talks in Bali.
In an interview with the ABC on Sunday, before the latest revelations, Boediono played down suggestions of a rift with Australia, shrugging off the disputes as normal neighborly problems.
“It’s normal for next-door neighbors to have problems,” he said, but admitted to public concern in Indonesia over the espionage allegations.
Alexander Downer, the foreign minister under John Howard’s conservative government, said the revelations were damaging to Australia.
“It’s a shocking situation in which Australia will pay a big price,” he told Sky News, while Greens leader Christine Milne said it showed the “extent to which this country has slipped down the US path of universal surveillance.”