Indonesia Says Australian Defense of Spying Is ‘Mind Boggling’

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Australia’s response to new spying allegations was “mind boggling,” as the New York Times reported a document leaked by U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed monitoring of trade talks.

Australia only collects intelligence to “save Australian lives,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said today, after the Times reported his nation had monitored communications between Indonesian officials and a U.S. law firm retained to help in talks over matters including Indonesian shrimp exports.

“I find it a bit mind boggling and a little bit difficult how I can connect or reconcile discussion about shrimps and how it impacts on Australian security,” Natalegawa told reporters in Jakarta today. Indonesia and Australia should be “listening to one another, not listening in,” he said.

The reported Snowden leak threatens to further strain ties between Abbott’s government and Indonesia after reports late last year that Australia tapped the phones of senior officials in Jakarta. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in November called a halt to cooperation with Australia on military operations, intelligence sharing and stemming the flow of asylum seekers to Australia as the dispute escalated.

The Australian Signals Directorate told the U.S. National Security Agency it was conducting surveillance of communications between Indonesian officials and the American law firm and offered to share the information, the Times reported yesterday, citing a February 2013 classified document.

‘Commercial Purposes’

“We don’t collect intelligence for commercial purposes,” Abbott told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio when asked to comment on the report. “Australia does need to have a strong intelligence operation.”

Yudhoyono’s mobile phone activity was tracked for 15 days in August 2009, the ABC said on its website Nov. 18, citing documents leaked by Snowden.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in November, again citing documents leaked by Snowden, that Singapore had helped Australian and U.S. intelligence gathering on Indonesia and Malaysia since the 1970s.

“Malaysia regards Australia as a close friend and an important regional neighbor,” Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Anifah Aman told reporters today after talks with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Putrajaya, outside of Kuala Lumpur. He said he was satisfied with Australia’s earlier explanation of the spying allegations.

Bishop said Australia was in constant touch with Indonesia to resolve outstanding issues, such as the Snowden leaks.

“We acknowledge that there will be challenges for us to go through, but there is political room for improvements with Indonesia,” she said.

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