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Australians Are Increasingly Being Targeted For Espionage

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Foreign spies are going after Australians more than ever before, and the country’s intelligence chief says they are trying to convince or use a wide range of public employees and professionals.

Every year, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) makes a public statement about the threats to the country. This is one of the few times that the country’s main intelligence agency comes out of the shadows and shows how it works.

Mr. Mike Burgess’s most recent message on Tuesday was far from encouraging.

According to the long-serving intelligence official, ASIO today faces greater risks than at any point since its inception in 1949, surpassing the Cold War, the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the advent of the terrorist organisation Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

He claims that nations with strong governments are not the only ones attacking Australia; also, nations that get along well with Canberra.

He says that foreign spies have tried to get information from government officials, judges, journalists, bankers, doctors, and police officers, among other people.

“Anybody who says such things should reconsider their loyalty to Australia’s democracy, sovereignty, and principles.”

– Mike Burgess

He claims that rivalry between the US and China and territorial disputes like those over the South China Sea are the main causes of rising Indo-Pacific tensions. This is making people want “inside information and a taste for covert influence,” he says.

Mr Burgess avoided naming the governments involved in the numerous conspiracies he described. However, intelligence officials and lawmakers have repeatedly warned—on and off the record—that China is Australia’s primary source of covert influence.

Indeed, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, “We know that the most active state and political party aiming to influence public affairs in Australia is that of China and the Communist Party of China.”

“From what ASIO is seeing, more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign meddling than at any time in Australia’s history,” Mr Burgess said of the country’s challenges.

“From where I am, it appears to be hand-to-hand battle.”

“I don’t want anyone to think that espionage is a romantic idea from the Cold War,” he said.”That isn’t; it is a very real and present risk.”

“It’s critical that our allies know we can keep our secrets as well as theirs as we move forward on Aukus,” Mr Burgess continued. He was referring to a security agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in which nuclear submarine technology would be transferred to Australia.

Much of the Australian media coverage of the speech focused on specific spying revelations. A “hive” of undercover spies was set up years ago by a foreign intelligence organisation to establish a larger network of operatives and acquire vital information.

Mr Burgess reportedly proposed a plan to target leading journalists and give them a sponsored study tour to a foreign nation, where spies posing as local officials would collect data from the journalists’ phones and laptops.

He also said certain former military members have been given hundreds of thousands of dollars by totalitarian regimes to improve their combat skills, describing individuals who accepted such offers as “more ‘top tools’ than ‘top guns'”.

This frank and terrifying account of Australia’s threats seems to have three key objectives.

The ASIO building on Parkes Way. (Image by: Graham Tidy)

First, Mr Burgess seems to be genuinely worried that Australians are underestimating the scope of the threat posed by foreign operatives. Indeed, he began a targeted attack on members of the business world, academia, and bureaucracy who had advised him that ASIO’s operations should be simplified in order to avoid upsetting foreign countries.

“Anybody who says such things should reconsider their loyalty to Australia’s democracy, sovereignty, and principles,” he said.

Second, Mr Burgess intended to show the scope of ASIO’s workload and expertise, in part to justify to the public the large amount of funding that the agency received.

ASIO’s main office is in Canberra, and its budget for this year is about AUD 800 million (USD 729 million). In fact, one reason the director-general started giving an annual review in 2020 was to give ASIO a chance to defend its powers and status in public.

Mr Burgess will also want to ensure that the Labor government, which was elected in May, continues to support ASIO. Thus far, the government has indicated a strong commitment to addressing domestic security challenges.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said in mid-February that the government would do more to “call out” the actions of foreign agencies. She used an Iranian plot against an Iranian-Australian in Australia who had been critical of Teheran as an example. 

Info source – The Straits Times

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