Jakarta - Indonesia's former spy chief has said intelligence agencies tapping the phones of national leaders is "normal", and dismissed as an overreaction Jakarta's furious response to reports Australia spied on the president's calls.
A M Hendropriyono also poured cold water on the government's insistence that Jakarta would never tap the phones of Australian politicians, in comments likely to undermine the tough stance taken by the Indonesian leadership.
Jakarta has reacted angrily to reports Australian spies tried to listen to the phones of the president and his inner circle, recalling its ambassador from Canberra and suspending co-operation in the key area of people smuggling.
The row has pushed ties between the neighbours to their lowest level since Australian forces went into East Timor in 1999 as Indonesia pulled troops out of its former territory.
However Hendropriyono, who led Indonesia's national intelligence agency from 2001 to late 2004, played down the seriousness of spy agencies tapping leaders' phones, in interviews published on Friday.
"For intelligence, its normal," he told Australia's Fairfax Media, referring to the reported Australian attempts to spy on the conversations of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and ministers in 2009.
"The function of intelligence is to collect as much information as possible, which is as accurate as possible. The easiest way to do that is by wiretapping," he told Indonesian news website Liputan6.com.
The former army general also batted aside comments by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa that Indonesia would never tap the phones of Australian politicians.
Indonesian intelligence agencies had a responsibility to try to tap the phones of foreign politicians, whether they are "friend or foe", he told Fairfax.
Quid pro quo
"We are fighting for life. We have to compete with many competitors so we should collect as much as possible information," he said.
He also criticised the angry reaction from Indonesian leaders to the scandal, telling the Indonesian news site: "I think this is an overreaction to a failed Australian intelligence operation. The reaction is a little too much."
"I once tapped Australians, and they stayed quiet," he added.
The scandal exploded earlier this week when Australian media revealed the spying allegations, basing their reports on leaked documents from US intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden.
The documents showed that Australia's electronic intelligence agency tracked Yudhoyono's activity on his mobile phone for 15 days in August 2009, when Labour’s Kevin Rudd was prime minister.
At least one phone call was reportedly intercepted.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he regrets any embarrassment caused but has so far refused to apologise, further infuriating Jakarta.