It all started, as is so often the case, with an insult to a powerful man’s wife.
But the man who divulged it was in another hemisphere.
Edward Snowden was roughly 15,000 kilometers away in Russia when the Asia-Pacific erupted with revelations that Australia had spied on the cellphones of the president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as well as eight members of his inner circle and, most provocatively, his wife of 37 years.
The suspension of relations between Australia and Indonesia, two of the most powerful nations in the region, was swift and dramatic. And the consequences of this latest leak from Mr. Snowden’s cache of documents — for politicians, asylum seekers and, possibly, journalists — have been severe.
It was not, of course, a great surprise that either country spied on the other. What was most offensive to Indonesians was the public revelation of the reach of Australia’s spying: even into the bedroom of the president.
As often occurs when male politicians wed intelligent women, Mr. Yudhoyono’s wife, Kristiani Herawati, is widely suspected of exercising a forceful influence on her husband. In 2007, a WikiLeaks cable revealed that diplomats described her as Mr. Yudhoyono’s “cabinet of one”: He is understood to be very protective of her.
In the absence of the ability to duel, Mr. Yudhoyono had to respond forcefully and coldly.
First, brushing aside the declaration of the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, that “all governments gather information,” Mr. Yudhoyono recalled the Indonesian ambassador to Australia.
Second, as any world leader would do in such a situation, Mr. Yudhoyono took to Twitter. He announced a review of bilateral cooperation and declared, “These US & Australian actions have certainly damaged the strategic partnerships with Indonesia, as fellow democracies.” Since then, despite Australia’s expressions of regret, all cooperative military and strategic efforts on human smuggling, as well as intelligence sharing, have been suspended. This has prompted those in the region who make a living from herding asylum seekers across borders to tell prospective clients that they should be emboldened to try to sail to Australia on one of their boats, as Indonesia will no longer stop them.
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, flew to Jakarta to try to patch things up, but Indonesia is in no rush to resume relations. As Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said, “The road is still long, and even winding.”
This is extremely awkward for Australia’s new government; Mr. Abbott repeatedly promised to “stop the boats” during the election campaign, and has launched a military style strategy, headed by a general and called “Operation Sovereign Borders,” to do so. The lack of cooperation from Indonesians — who are keenly aware of Australia’s acute need for help in accepting returned boats and thwarting the people-smuggling trade — is a substantial blow.
It is also deeply concerning to think of what this might mean for those attempting the journey across the Timor Sea in often unsafe, ill-equipped boats: Since 2008 more than 860 asylum seekers have drowned trying to reach Australia by sea.
The debate in Australia, oddly, was less about potential overreach by intelligence agencies than whether — and how — the story should have been published.
The spying story was broken by The Guardian’s Australia edition in cooperation with the publicly funded independent Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The government turned its wrath on the ABC for having exercised what Mr. Abbott called “very, very poor judgment” in working with the “left wing” Guardian, and Rupert Murdoch’s broadsheet paper, The Australian, ran a series of stories about staff wages, alleged bias and need for reform of the ABC, which it views as a competitor.
A prominent crowd of conservatives, who have long accused the ABC of having a left-wing slant, immediately began calling for it to be privatized, split in two and severely admonished. Others said its funding should be cut and its journalists paid less, and some called for its respected managing director, Mark Scott, to resign.
It was as though the ABC, and not Mr. Snowden, was responsible for the leak.
Mr. Scott, with the support of his board, defended the decision to publish, saying: “If you look around the world, stories of this big leak of N.S.A. material have been covered in newspapers, television stations, nearly 20 major media outlets have done it. Yes, it has caused short-term difficulty, but we feel it was in the public interest.”
The ABC is no stranger to attack. But it would be ironic if the work of a man determined to drag covert — potentially illegal — operations into the light were to result in the muzzling of an independent, nonpartisan broadcaster, rated the most trusted and respected source of news by 70 percent of Australians.
As we watched Mr. Scott being roasted here, the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, was being grilled by a parliamentary committee in Britain — also for publishing Snowden stories — with questions like, “Do you love this country?”
Is this about journalism versus patriotism or transparency versus surveillance and apathy versus active consent?
Mr. Snowden, who was nominated as Person of the Year by The Guardian, Slate and The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, said recently in a speech in Russia, “If we can’t understand the policies and the programs of our government, we cannot grant our consent.”
It is ridiculous how quickly a crucial debate about an unprecedented degree of data collection can be drowned out by charges of lack of patriotism.
The Guardian says it has published only 1 percent of Mr. Snowden’s documents: As each one is detonated, an unprecedented debate about the invisible, omnipresent tentacles of modern surveillance is gathering momentum.
But in the desperate casting about for someone to blame, let’s not forget that public floggings of any particular editors or journalists will not stop these stories from rolling out.
Governments worldwide are girding their loins. Journalists should, too.
Julia Baird is an author, a journalist and a television presenter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.