Thu, 04 Mar 1999

Ministers wary over telephone bugging

By Kornelius Purba

JAKARTA (JP): The uproar over the recently leaked telephone conversation between President B.J. Habibie and Attorney General Lt. Gen. A.M. Ghalib has forced some ministers to reduce usage of their telephones, especially the cellular variety.

One of the ministers warned phonetappers their activities were a major sin.

When asked by journalists before attending a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, six ministers pointed out they have used the tapping uproar as a valuable lesson on the maintenance of their own security. Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Gen. (ret) Feisal Tanjung angrily replied he never used telephones.

"On confidential matters, we must be careful, but for other subjects, go ahead," Coordinating Minister for Development Supervision and Administrative Reforms Hartarto said.

"Tapping is not tolerable. The people who tapped the conversation of Habibie must be found. It is a sin," Minister of Food and Horticulture A.M. Saefuddin said before attending a Cabinet meeting on political and security affairs at the Bina Graha presidential office.

Saefuddin likened bugging to voyeurism, which is forbidden and deserves divine punishment in the afterlife.

"Bugging is similar to peeping. In my religion, if anyone is a voyeur, his eyes will be poked by angels' fingers," Saefuddin said.

The news weekly Panji Masyarakat sparked controversy last month by carrying the full transcript of a conversation allegedly between Habibie and Ghalib. The conversation apparently took place not long after Ghalib questioned former president Soeharto for three hours on Dec. 9.

"If we had held the questioning for only two hours, people would be wondering what other comedies we were staging," Ghalib told Habibie, according to the transcript.

Habibie has yet to make any official comment on the authenticity of the conversation, but blasted the bugging as a violation of his rights.

Ghalib insisted the conversation never occurred. He also said it was impossible any tapping could happen at his office, while palace officials insisted that telephone lines in the palace and Habibie's private residence in Kuningan had been secured.

Politicians, students and government critics have condemned Habibie, taking the conversation as proof that he did not have the guts to bring Soeharto, his former mentor, to court as mandated by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR).

"We must realize that we must be cautious when speaking on the phone. If there is any conversation which should not be known to the public, then it is better not to use the telephone," Minister of Social Services Justika Baharsjah said.

"No, I never use my telephone. OK?!" Feisal snapped at The Jakarta Post when asked about his reaction to the scandal.

Ghalib could not be asked on Wednesday, because, along with Minister of Justice Muladi, he is on a visit to the United States to attend an international conference on corruption eradication.

Ghalib once compared the investigation into Soeharto's alleged corruption and abuses of power with the probe of a chicken theft. Then he said the thief could not be punished if the stolen chicken could not be presented as evidence.

"In their mastery of the technology, people should take into account morals and ethics because if we must deal with all tapping crimes, it will be very costly," State Minister of Research and Technology Zuhal commented.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Alatas said his ministry had its own ways of averting possible tapping of its telecommunications traffic.

"We have a closed communication system which has been encoded and scrambled. It is something routine at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," Alatas said.

The minister took the opportunity then to blast press reports of the telephone conversation.

"Bugging can happen especially in this high technology era, and of course it remains regrettable, especially the publicity," the senior diplomat said.

Minister of Education Juwono Sudarsono gave a cautious response. He said his comment might worsen the situation.

"The best lesson from this tapping controversy is not to give too much comment," he said with a big smile.

Minister of Manpower Fahmi Idris described how he was mistakenly called Herman by an unidentified caller who asked him about the fate of the caller's logs.

"I replied, oh, I have burned them," he recalled.

"We must be cautious, we must not talk too much on the phone," Fahmi added.

Justika said she once received a strange call on her cellular phone in which the caller warned her that her telephone might be tapped.

"Ibu, our voices may be bugged," the mysterious caller said.