Australia faces an unprecedented threat of espionage and foreign interference with more Australians being targeted by agents than ever before, the head of the nation’s main domestic spy agency said on Tuesday.
Multiple nations were using espionage and foreign interference to advance their interests and undermine Australia’s, Mike Burgess, secretary-general of security at the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, said in his 21-page assessment speech.
“They are using espionage to covertly understand Australia’s politics and decision-making, our alliances and partnerships, and our economic and policy priorities,” Burgess said.
“Based on what ASIO is seeing, more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any time in Australia’s history – more hostile foreign intelligence services, more spies, more targeting, more harm, more ASIO investigations, more ASIO disruptions.”
He added, “From where I sit, it feels like hand-to-hand combat.”
His comments were released to the media before the speech at ASIO headquarters in the Australian capital Canberra.
He said his agency had noticed an uptick in online targeting of people working in Australia’s defense industry since September 2021, when U.S. President Joe Biden, then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a three-way agreement known as AUKUS to provide Australia with a fleet of submarines powered by U.S. nuclear technology.
“As we progress AUKUS, it’s critical our allies know we can keep our secrets and keep their secrets,” Burgess said.
Australians being targeted by foreign governments include judges, media commentators and journalists, Burgess said, adding that a small number of “judicial figures” has been subjected to “suspicious approaches.”
Spies were seeking to use litigation as an “intelligence collection toll,” Burgess said.
ASIO had uncovered and stopped a plot to potentially recruit Australian journalists through all-expenses paid “study tours” of a foreign country. The agency also had been tracking for several years former Australian military personnel who were willing to sell their training and expertise to foreign governments, Burgess said.
Australian, British and Canadian defense officials have voiced concerns in recent months that China is attempting to poach military expertise such as fighter jet pilots. The United States is attempting to extradite from Sydney former U.S. pilot Daniel Duggan on an indictment that he conspired with others to provide training to Chinese pilots in 2010 and 2012.
“Third party companies have offered Australians hundreds of thousands of dollars and other significant perks to help authoritarian regimes improve their combat skills,” Burgess said.
He said that in some cases, authorities have been able to stop the former insiders travelling overseas to provide the training, but in others, legal ambiguities have impeded law enforcement’s ability to intervene.
ASIO last year downgraded Australia’s terrorism threat level from “probable” to “possible” for the first time since 2014.
ASIO assesses that Australia remains a potential terrorist target, but there were fewer extremists with the intention to conduct an attack in Australia than there were when the threat level of raised in 2014, Burgess said.