The ability of American whistleblower Edward Snowden to poach the Western intelligence community's most explosive secrets while working as a government contractor in Hawaii has left security experts around the world gobsmacked.
In Canberra, the public reaction of officials to the catastrophic failure of the US National Security Agency to protect either its own data or that of its allies has been muted. But behind closed doors, Australia's intelligence agency heads are livid. Former Labor foreign affairs minister Bob Carr spelt out just how fierce the reaction from Washington might have been if roles were reversed. "If there'd been some official in Canberra, some contractor in Canberra, who allowed a slew of material as sensitive as this to be plastered over the world's media, America would be saying very stern things to someone they'd be regarding as a woefully immature ally and partner," he said.
Former Defence Department deputy head Hugh White said the NSA security breach via Snowden bore "striking" similarities to the way in which then US Army private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning leaked a treasure trove of US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks in 2010. "In both cases it was junior officers whose real responsibilities related to a very small part of the picture having access to vast amounts of information which they had no legitimate reason to have access to," he said.
Former senior Defence strategist Allan Behm questioned the decision by the Australian Signals Directorate to put into a PowerPoint presentation its scheme for targeting the mobile phones of the Indonesian President and his inner circle. The slide show was passed to the NSA (from where it was filched by Snowden). "It looks almost like there was some conference of spooky people doing a show-and-tell kind of thing ..."
Australia's geographical location has long given it the prime role in eavesdropping on south-east Asia and that is unlikely to change, despite the massive collateral damage done to Canberra's relationship with Jakarta. Australia's partnering arrangements with the NSA give it access to vastly more intelligence than it could ever garner on its own.
But Canberra's intelligence chiefs have little idea what might lob next from Snowden, or when. Media reports in the US suggest Snowden hacked into the agency databases by leveraging access privileges attached to his role as a "systems administrator". He is also said to have inveigled up to 25 NSA fellow employees into revealing their passwords. NSA chief General Keith Alexander says he will cut the number of "systems administrators" by 90 per cent and two people must approve access to the most sensitive parts of the agency's databases. But the horse has already bolted.