SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's main intelligence and spying agencies have briefed the government on the PRISM internet surveillance program amid fears former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden may release information damaging to Australia's relations with Asian neighbors, local media reported on Wednesday.
Canberra, a close U.S. ally, shares intelligence with Washington and is a member of the 'Five Eyes" global security and surveillance network, along with New Zealand, Britain and Canada.
The heads of domestic spy agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the military's main electronic eavesdropping operation - the Defence Signals Directorate, Canberra's NSA equivalent - had spoken to parliament's powerful intelligence committee about the security breach and its potential to embarrass Australia's relations with neighboring Asian countries, Fairfax media reported.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus confirmed an interagency taskforce was monitoring events and coordinating the government's response.
"Agencies have been meeting formally on this important issue and have been coordinated in their consideration of the matter and their briefing of ministers," a spokeswoman for Dreyfus told Fairfax.
Snowden, who worked as a U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, has been charged with disclosing secret U.S. surveillance programs to media. He left Hong Kong for Moscow on Sunday and the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group said he was headed for Ecuador.
Australian defence intelligence officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said there was little doubt Snowden had "very wide access, including access to much detail of communications intelligence cooperation between the US and Australia."
"Disclosure of highly sensitive collection operations and methodology will damage Australia's intelligence capabilities. It already has done so. But there's also risk of serious complications in our relations with our neighbors," one official told Fairfax.
"The U.S. may be able to brush aside some of the diplomatic fallout from the Snowden leak, but that may not be the case for Australia. China, Malaysia, other countries may respond to us in ways that they would not to Washington."
The Department of Defence and Attorney General's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment to Reuters.
(Reporting by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry)