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Espionage takes off the fake nose, glasses

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CANBERRA -- A spy scandal has erupted across the Asia Pacific with Australia accused of tapping Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's phone in 2009.

And if there is a lesson to emerge from the most recent intelligence debacle it's this -- espionage has lost its mojo.

The phone-tapping revelations, sparked by the release of former National Security Agency worker Edward Snowdon's documents, has presented Australia's conservative government with its first major crisis since it won office in early September.

By Thursday morning, Indonesia had suspended co-operation with Australia on people smuggling, stopped all combined military patrols, military training exercises and intelligence exchanges while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott expressed "regret" but delivered no apology.

"Australia should not be expected to apologize for the steps we take to protect our country now or in the past," Abbott told Parliament.

Australia and Indonesia are good friends and will doubtless resolve this issue.

But the remarkable aspect of this affair, as with America's phone tapping in Germany, is the absence of the "we will not confirm nor deny" routine.

Instead of refusing to comment on intelligence issues, western democracies suddenly appear to be answering spying accusations with: "Yeah, sure, we got Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five on the next plane over."

"We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes," U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper said last month in an admission that would have had James Bond choking on his martini swizzle stick.

Even international man of mystery Austin Powers might find his glasses fogging up as he watches the raison d'etre for his beloved profession blown to bits, like that exploding cigar that was supposed to dispatch Fidel Castro.

"Deny everything" was supposed to be the spy's motto but today, the rise of the communication age has smothered their ancient craft with it blanket of banality.

The trench coat, the brown envelope and the silent exchanges on a snow-crusted Moscow park bench have gone the way of the shoe phone and the laser gun in the button of a sports jacket.

Instead of Maxwell Smart we have an army of Shermans from the Big Bang Theory, all gormlessly tapping into phones and computers like teenage hackers in mum's basement.

Secrecy and an almost artistic approach to identity fraud, once as vital to espionage as gull- winged car and a theme song is to a Bond movie, is being elbowed aside by a generation who don't appreciate the efforts of the likes of Mata Hari who managed to extract information from British generals while pretending to be an exotic dancer.

At least we have one man from the old school holding the line.

Australia's longest-serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has supported Abbott's position, but says the less said about spying the better for all involved.

"I think the best way to handle these issues, stick with the time-worn formula that you never confirm or deny allegations in relation to intelligence," he said.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2013 A15

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