'Unprecedented treachery': Australian minister lashes out at Edward Snowden
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop speaks during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 22, 2014 in Washington, DC [AFP]

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop lashed out Wednesday at Edward Snowden, accusing the US intelligence leaker of "unprecedented treachery" after he unveiled Canberra's efforts to spy on Indonesia.

Bishop praised cooperation with Washington and reserved harsh words for Snowden, whose revelations led Indonesia to halt work with Australia to stem people smuggling, a key priority for new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Shortly before a meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, Bishop said Snowden "continues to shamefully betray his nation while skulking in Russia.

"This represents unprecedented treachery; he is no hero," she added, in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Snowden claims his actions were driven by a desire for transparency, but in fact they strike at the heart of the collaboration between those nations in world affairs that stand at the forefront of protecting human freedom," she said.

Reports based on Snowden's leaks said that the close US ally tried to bug the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and members of his inner circle in 2009.

Indonesia protested by recalling its ambassador and suspending military and immigration cooperation.

More recently, Indonesia responded furiously as Australia entered Indonesian waters in search of would-be refugees, incursions that led to an apology from Canberra.

Snowden, a 30-year-old intelligence contractor, fled the United States in May last year after unveiling that his government was collecting telephone data from millions of US citizens, monitoring vast amounts of private Internet traffic and eavesdropping on the conversations of foreign friends and foes alike.

He fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, which granted him asylum for a year.

Snowden has strongly denied allegations of betraying the United States, saying that he has not cooperated with foreign agencies and wanted to expose wrongdoing as he had no means to air concerns internally.

Snowden, described by his Russian lawyer as fearing for his life, has said that he is working with journalists who exercise discretion in deciding which revelations to publish.

He has come under heavy criticism from US officials but the public view is more nuanced.

A recent Pew Research Center/USA Today poll found that 45 percent of Americans believed his disclosures served the public interest.

Faced with an uproar, Obama curtailed the reach of the National Security Agency on Friday but has said that Snowden's disclosures would hurt the United States for years.

'Constant contact' with Indonesia

Bishop welcomed Obama's reforms but said that Australia already had a sufficient level of oversight over its own operations.

"Our intelligence activities are about our national security and national interest and protecting the safety and security of our citizens. It's about saving lives," Bishop told reporters before her speech.

Bishop said that she had been "in constant contact" with her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa despite the recent tensions between the neighbors.

Since winning elections in September, Abbott's government has launched an operation against people smugglers -- who often work through of Indonesia -- that includes turning back boats of asylum-seekers, who generally come from the Middle East or South Asia.

Human Rights Watch recently denounced the "draconian" policies and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the navy was accused of mistreating asylum-seekers, with 10 people requiring medical treatment in Indonesia for burns or other injuries.

Bishop said she "cannot imagine for a moment" that the allegations were true but that Australia was willing to work with Indonesia "to ensure that these allegations are scotched."

"I reject utterly any notion that the Australian government in any way would condone that sort of behavior," Bishop told reporters.

Abbott, speaking earlier in Davos, Switzerland, defended turning back asylum-seekers as "a matter of sovereignty."

[Image via Agence France-Presse]