ASIO ramps up investigations into foreign attempts to ‘secretly co-opt’ Australian politicians

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday October 16, 2020

Jurisdictions complaining about the digital influence of countries such as Russia and China themselves play in the digital shadows. Australia included.
Jurisdictions complaining about the digital influence of countries such as Russia and China themselves play in the digital shadows. Australia included. (Photobank/Adobe)

This year the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation disrupted a plot to infiltrate the national intelligence community, the spy agency has revealed.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said the plot involved an Australia-based foreign national who had worked with a team of foreign intelligence officers. The officers were trying to recruit multiple Australian security clearance holders.

“The agents wanted sensitive information about the intelligence community’s operations, particularly those directed against their home country,” he wrote in the agency’s annual report, tabled on Thursday.

Over the past year, foreign governments have sought information about Australia’s capabilities, research and technology, and domestic and foreign policy. Almost every sector of Australian society has been a potential target of foreign interference, Burgess warned.

He said ASIO has “stepped up” its investigations into attempts to “secretly co-opt current and future Australian politicians”.

“In all states and territories, at every level of government, intelligence services are seeking to cultivate politicians who will advance the interests of the foreign country,” he wrote.

The report noted that foreign state actors and their proxies have “persistently” sought to develop relationships with federal government political figures, academia, commercial interests and individuals, to pursue objectives “detrimental” to Australian interests.

Foreign interference activities have also targeted Australia’s culturally diverse communities, Burgess said, with these communities having being monitored, harassed and intimidated.

“We have uncovered many cases — involving multiple countries — where Australian community members and their families have been threatened for expressing views at odds with the foreign government’s policies or values,” he wrote.

“It is unacceptable that people in Australia are being intimidated simply for advocating democratic reforms or criticising human rights abuses. Seen in this context, foreign interference can be nothing less than an attack on Australia’s sovereignty, multicultural communities, values and freedoms.”

Foreign interference and espionage has also been occurring online. The report warned that an increased number of people working from home during COVID-19 has heightened Australia’s exposure to hostile actors in cyberspace.

“Cyber espionage is targeting all levels of government, universities and academia — and Defence-related and corporate information networks — to gain access to sensitive and commercially valuable information. As a relatively low-risk, scalable and at times non-attributable means of obtaining privileged and timely information, it is an attractive tool by which foreign intelligence services (FIS) can target Australians,” it said.

“FIS are seeking to recruit Australians online through social media platforms … Australians overseas are also targeted by FIS for their current or future potential to undertake espionage and foreign interference activities on behalf of FIS.

“In some instances, FIS approach Australians through professional networking sites, seeking non-public or sensitive information under the guise of representing think tanks and recruitment agencies. FIS also entice Australians to travel overseas where they are more vulnerable — FIS use their home ground advantage to cultivate and recruit Australians for espionage or foreign interference activities.”

Read more: ASIO boss Mike Burgess warns of rise of extremism in Australia during COVID-19

Burgess said that while Sunni Islamic extremism “remains ASIO’s greatest concern”, right-wing extremists have become more organised, sophisticated, ideological and active than previous years.

“While we have been actively monitoring the threat for some time, this year extreme right-wing individuals comprised around one-third of our counter-terrorism investigative subjects,” he wrote.

“Many of these groups and individuals have seized on COVID-19, believing it reinforces the narratives and conspiracies at the core of their ideologies. They see the pandemic as proof of the failure of globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy, and confirmation that societal collapse and a ‘race war’ are inevitable.”

Investigations relating to right-wing extremists have occurred in all states and territories in the past year, according to the report. It noted that a right-wing extremist was, for the first time, prevented from travelling offshore to fight on a foreign battlefield due to a passport cancellation based on an ASIO adverse security assessment.

ASIO’s subject matter experts have also provided more than 50 briefings and presentations on the issue of right-wing extremism at the request of partners and clients over the past year.

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