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Australian spies sought US assistance to listen in on Australian citizens

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Philip Dorling

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Journalist Glenn Greenwald's new book No Place to Hide reveals more about Australia and its spying relationship with the US.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald's new book No Place to Hide reveals more about Australia and its spying relationship with the US. Photo: AP

Australia's electronic espionage agency sought the help of American spies to monitor the communications of Australian citizens suspected of terrorist connections, according to a new book by American journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Drawing on documents provided by former United States intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, Mr Greenwald has revealed that in 2011 the top secret Australian Signals Directorate "explicitly pleaded" with the US National Security agency to "extend" their intelligence partnership and subject Australian citizens to greater surveillance. 

The newly released documents also show that the Australian Signals Directorate and the National Security Agency worked together to collect intelligence resulting in the arrest of one of the terrorists responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings. 

Mr Greenwald's new book has previously undisclosed documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in it.

Mr Greenwald's new book has previously undisclosed documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in it. Photo: Reuters

In a February 2011 letter reported in Mr Greenwald's newly published book, No Place to Hide, the acting director of the Australian Signals Directorate, then known as the Defence Signals Directorate, wrote to the National Security Agency seeking assistance to targeting the communications of "home grown" terrorists "active both abroad and within Australia".

"While we have invested significant analytic and collection effort of our own to find and exploit these communications", the letter states, "the difficulties we face in obtaining regular and reliable access to such communications impacts on our ability to detect and prevent terrorist acts and diminishes our capacity to protect the life and safety of Australian citizens and those of our close friends and allies".

"We have enjoyed a long and very productive partnership with NSA in obtaining minimised access to United States warranted collection against our highest value terrorist targets in Indonesia. This access has been critical to DSD's efforts to disrupt and contain the operational capabilities of terrorists in our region as highlighted by the recent arrest of fugitive Bali bomber Umar Patek."

Mr Greenwald's new book.

Mr Greenwald's new book.

Umar Patek was captured by Pakisanti security forces in Abbotabad, in January 2011. He was extradited to Indonesia in August 2011 and in June 2012 was convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings as well as terrorist attacks against churches in Indonesia two years earlier.

In February 2011 the Australian Signals Directorate asked to extend its "partnership" with NSA "to cover the increasing number of Australians involved in international terrorist activities – in particular Australians involves with AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula)".

A leaked US Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks that revealed in early 2010 the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation recommended 23 Australians suspected of terrorism links for inclusion on US no-fly and border-control watch lists. Nine of the 23 people listed were overseas and most were alleged to be associated with AQAP. 

The Australian Signals Directorate is allowed with ministerial authorisation to collect intelligence relating to Australian citizens overseas if they are suspected of involvement with terrorist activities, espionage, arms trafficking or serious crime. 

In a recent public talk to the Law Society of NSW, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Vivien Thom said that Australia's spy agencies couldn't access intelligence collected by foreign partners, such as the National Security Agency, unless accessing such data would be authorised in Australia. However she emphasised that intelligence sharing was allowed subject to "limits and boundaries" which her office monitored.

Mr Greenwald's book does not reveal whether the National Security Agency agreed to the February 2011 request for assistance in intercepting the communications of Australian citizens overseas, though it is likely such cooperation has increased in the context of current concerns about Australians who have travelled to fight in the Syrian civil war. 

In a speech in Washington last month, Attorney-General George Brandis hit out at Edward Snowdon as a "traitor" for disclosing details of US and allied capabilities, and called for continued intelligence co-operation between the "5-eyes" partners –  the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – in the "post-Snowdon environment".

"That collaboration must continue unaffected by the Snowden fallout and I am confident that it will," Senator Brandis said.