OPINION: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and the top levels of the Japanese government are being spied on by America, and the information shared with allies including Australia, according to secret intelligence documents published by WikiLeaks.

Leaked top secret reports and technical documents from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) reveal that the US has secured deep access to the inner workings of the Japanese government, routinely obtaining highly sensitive information on issues including US-Japanese relations, trade issues and climate change policy. This information is shared with its “Five Eyes” partners, including Australia.

The leaks show that the NSA has collected information from high-level policy discussions held at Abe’s official residence. Another NSA target is the minister for economy, trade and industry, Yoichi Miyazawa.

Other US and allied intelligence targets include the Japanese political leadership; the central government agency that directly supports the prime minister and cabinet, known as the Japanese Cabinet Office; and other key government ministries. The surveillance goes beyond government officials, with major Japanese corporations such as Mitsubishi targeted in a comprehensive economic intelligence collection program directed against the US and Australia’s most important Asian ally. The Bank of Japan is also targeted.

WikiLeaks’ publication of highly classified NSA intelligence reports comes as the US, Japan and Australia are engaged with nine other countries in ministerial talks in Hawaii to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. Bilateral negotiations between the US and Japan are expected to be critical to the final TPP outcome.

The leaked NSA reports show that confidential Japanese negotiating positions and tactics are routinely open to the US and its Five Eyes partners.

Embarrassment for allies

The disclosure of comprehensive and sustained US electronic espionage against the Japanese government will come as an embarrassment for Prime Minister Abe, who has long worked to strengthen Japan’s alliance with the US. At a meeting with Abe in Washington in April, President Barack Obama described Japan as “one of America’s closest allies in the world”. In recent months, however, the prime minister’s domestic popularity has slumped to an all-time low as he has pushed legislative changes that will expand the role of the Japan Self-Defence Forces and could see Japanese troops fighting abroad for the first time since World War II, alongside their American allies.

In 2013, Tony Abbott declared Japan Australia’s “closest friend in Asia”.

The revelation of Australia’s access to high-level intelligence on Japan will also cause awkwardness in Australian-Japanese relations. In 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared Japan Australia’s “closest friend in Asia” and his government has worked hard to strengthen Australian-Japanese ties, including on defence and intelligence co-operation. Japan is tipped as the most likely builder of the Royal Australian Navy’s next generation submarines and a high-level Japanese delegation is scheduled to visit Adelaide next month to negotiate roles for local industry should Japan win the contract.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday, Japan’s ambassador to Australia, Sumio Kusaka, declared “our relationship has never been so robust and warm” and described the Japanese and Australian governments’ common goal of concluding the TPP negotiations as “a game changer” for the Asia-Pacific region, including support for the US’s “rebalancing” towards Asia.

Climate change negotiations targeted

The spying on Japan is not limited to foreign affairs and trade negotiations, however; it also includes intelligence gathering on climate change agreements. The leaked NSA documents show that the US has spied on successive Japanese governments, including Prime Minister Abe’s previous administration from 2006 to 2007.

One report reveals the details of Japanese government deliberations on climate change policy before Abe visited Washington in April 2007 for talks with then US president George W. Bush.

The Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol had caused political embarrassment for the Japanese government and the NSA reported that Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) wanted to come up with “a simple message regarding climate change with which the US can agree”. Accordingly METI pushed three principles – technical development, energy conservation and nuclear energy – and participation of all countries, including China and India, in a future global framework to address climate change.

NSA intercepts showed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan wanted Abe to mention at the bilateral summit with President Bush Japan’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by half by 2050 as part of the “Abe initiative”, which was planned to be announced a month later. The NSA reported that the foreign ministry “was considering not informing the US in advance … because the ministry did not expect Washington to approve of such a goal, based on the US reaction to climate change issues so far”. However, it was “apparently decided at a briefing at the prime minister’s official residence that Abe will clearly state the goal at the bilateral summit, with advance notification to the United States”.

The NSA advised that Japanese policymakers anticipated “no major harm to the Japanese-US relationship as a result”. This proved to be correct, with Abe and Bush later issuing a joint statement that committed the US and Japan to a joint study of the economic, technological and climate change benefits of energy efficiency in the Asia-Pacific region.

Five Eyes network

The leaked NSA documents have been extracted from various editions of the “Global SIGINT Highlights – Executive Edition”, a top secret NSA round-up of particularly important signals intelligence reports for the most senior US policymakers, including the president and the secretaries of state, defence, treasury and energy.

They are classified secret and top secret. Some are marked “NF” or “NoForn” – that is not for distribution to non-US nationals. However, other material is marked for “REL[ease] TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL”, showing that top secret intelligence on Japan is shared between all Five Eyes partners – the US, Australia, Canada, Britain and New Zealand.

Previous disclosures of NSA documents by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden have revealed that the NSA and its partners, including the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), harvest global telecommunications and internet traffic through interception of undersea fibre-optic cables and satellite communications links. Australia makes a major contribution to intelligence collection in the Asia-Pacific region, including through the operation of satellite communications interception facilities near Geraldton and Darwin, as well as through the US-Australian Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.

The NSA and ASD also operate covert telecommunications interception facilities from embassies, in a program codenamed “Stateroom”. It’s a global electronic espionage program as much directed at economic and financial developments as diplomatic and national security information. Counterterrorism is only a small part of the overall intelligence effort.

Another leaked NSA intercept shows the Japanese government “working to narrow down climate change goals for [the] G8 summit”, which then prime minister Yasuo Fukuda hosted at Lake Toya, Hokkaido, in July 2008.

The NSA reported that Japanese officials from METI and the ministries of foreign affairs, finance and environment briefed the chief cabinet secretary, Nobutaka Machimura, on February 20, 2008, about the environmental issues at the G8 summit and that agreement on “a sector-based cumulative approach for medium-term emissions reduction targets for individual countries was mentioned as one of the key objectives”.

Climate change policy also features in further leaked 2008 NSA intercepts in which Japanese officials were revealed to be continuing to promote their sectoral approach despite criticism from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and European Union officials. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol warned the Japanese in May 2008 that they were pushing too hard and could be perceived as offering their sectoral approach as the only option for reducing carbon emissions.

Senior METI official Masakazu Toyoda expressed frustration at this criticism and laid out what Japan considered the advantages of the sectoral approach, including that it was designed to get China, India and the US on board. He said it would “not result in any economic or industrial loss for developed or developing nations.” Toyoda claimed that businesses from energy intensive sectors including steel, aluminium, cement, and petroleum were threatening to cease their European operations if the European Union’s emissions trading scheme continued.

Comprehensive harvesting

In January 2014, following revelations of US electronic espionage activity from Edward Snowden, President Obama announced a ban on NSA spying on the leaders of close American allies. This step was designed to smooth over strained relations between the US and Germany after reports surfaced that the NSA had monitored the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had also postponed a state visit to Washington in protest over the NSA spying on her email and mobile phone.

“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” Obama said.

However, the latest WikiLeaks disclosures show that the main characteristic of US electronic espionage has been less the targeting of individual leaders than the comprehensive harvesting of information from foreign governments including very close allies such as Japan.

NSA interception targets include the Japanese Cabinet Office, currently headed by the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga. Phone numbers targeted include the cabinet office switchboard and the phone of Suga’s executive secretary. The chief cabinet secretary and the cabinet office play highly influential roles in both domestic and foreign policy. Suga also serves as chief government spokesman and is regarded as Abe’s enforcer within the bureaucracy.

The Japanese minister for economy, trade and industry, Yoichi Miyazawa, is another NSA priority. The NSA is also targeting numerous telephones in Japan’s Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Japan.

Interception targets at Japan’s central bank include phone numbers associated with Governor Haruhiko Kuroda; deputy and assistant governors; the secretariat of the bank’s policy board, its highest decision-making body; as well as the financial markets, international and monetary affairs departments. The home phone of at least one Bank of Japan official is listed as an intelligence collection target.

The priority given by the NSA and its Five Eyes partners to collection of Japanese economic intelligence is further demonstrated in top secret interception reports from 2009. These include intercepted communications revealing draft talking points for then minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries Shigeru Ishiba’s use at a meeting with US trade representative Ron Kirk to discuss issues in the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation negotiations.

Ishiba’s talking points covered agriculture negotiations, fisheries subsidies and bilateral consultations on tariffs on forestry and fishery products. Ishiba now serves as secretary-general of Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

A further NSA intercept, from 2009, reveals the deep reach of US intelligence into the Japanese bureaucracy, with details of private discussions between officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries after Japan delayed on the importation of cherries of US origin, a decision driven by Japanese politics and lobbying by Japanese growers.

Alarmed by the US Department of Agriculture’s “very stsrong reaction”, Japanese officials were reported as discussing the possibility of diplomatically resolving tension by admitting through back channels that the decision had been the result of political pressure, and that imports would soon proceed after quarantine inspections. “The principal fear among the Japanese is that the issue will become similarly politicised,” the NSA reported, “possibly at senior levels, in Washington.”

Corporations also bugged

The sample of interception “selectors” – listed phone numbers – published by WikiLeaks also shows that intelligence collection by the US and other Five Eyes partners extends to major Japanese corporations.

Among the interception targets leaked is the Mitsubishi Group’s natural gas division, which is participating in major liquid natural gas development projects in the Middle East, the Russian Far East, Indonesia, Africa and Western Australia. Another intelligence target is the petroleum division of Mitsui Corporation, which owns oil and gas assets in the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, Europe and Western Australia.

US diplomatic cables previously published by WikiLeaks have shown that the US, Japan and Australia have been working for a number of years to strengthen intelligence co-operation, especially in relation to China and North Korea. In December 2014 Japan, South Korea and the US signed a memorandum of understanding on the sharing and safeguarding of classified information about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service has been training personnel for Japan’s new covert external intelligence agency and Australian-Japanese intelligence co-operation has reportedly been going from strength to strength.

However, spying on allies is a particularly sensitive issue. The revelation that Australia is connected with US intelligence gathering that targets the highest levels of Japanese government and industry may not be looked upon lightly by Tokyo, especially as tricky negotiations continue towards finalising the TPP. Other trading partners and regional neighbours might also be given pause to wonder about the extent of such activities.

Philip Dorling is a journalist and UNSW Visiting Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra.

This opinion piece was first published in The Saturday Paper