Level of foreign interference highest within local government, ASIO boss says

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday October 20, 2020


Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director-general Mike Burgess has shone a light on some of the ways foreign governments may attempt to influence local politicians and members of the Australian intelligence community, including through “human targeting”.

The agency’s recently released annual report revealed that this year ASIO disrupted a plot to infiltrate the national intelligence community. The plot involved an Australia-based foreign national and a team of foreign intelligence officers who were attempting to recruit Australian security clearance holders.

At a Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday, Burgess said the officers were seeking information about Australia’s intelligence capabilities and “specifically what the Australian intelligence community was doing against the country that they came from”.

The plot had been “underway for at least a couple of years”, Burgess said, and has been effectively disrupted with no information lost.

“If [the information was] lost to us that means that the country would know what we might be doing that meets our own national interest. It may even include — particularly because they were after intelligence activities against their country — what we might know about them and obviously that would damage our capabilities,” he said.

Foreign interference activities like this example involve “human targeting”, Burgess said, where the attacker will “find people who can introduce them to people” in order to cultivate a relationship with the member of the intelligence community or the politician that they are targeting.

“Once you identify people who are perhaps vulnerable or susceptible to a line of questioning and they get you to a certain point, they may well even have you betray your country, either wittingly or unwittingly. We managed to stop that before that could happen,” Burgess said.

“I’m prepared to say we’ve successfully disrupted that plot.”

Burgess said he could not publicly state which country was behind the operation, only that it was the work of one foreign intelligence service.

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

ASIO’s annual report also revealed there have been attempts by foreign actors to “secretly co-opt” and “cultivate” current and future Australian politicians in order to advance their interests.

Senate estimates heard that while the level of foreign interference was high across all levels of government and in every jurisdiction, it was highest at the local level.

Burgess said this was because local government representatives may have a “political-level influence on society to have favour with certain other country’s foreign policies or intent” and because some federal MPs begin their careers in local government.

Independent senator Rex Patrick asked whether the cultivation process involved behaviours such as “wining and dining”, gifts, donations, and overseas trips. Burgess said it could involve some or all of those actions.

“It could just be simply developing a relationship with them, and being helpful in a lawful way. The real sinister part is where they don’t declare that, as they’re developing relationships, it’s because they’re doing that at the direction of a foreign power,” he said.

“The problem is simple, you’ve got foreign governments who covertly direct people to develop relationships to try and curry favour and one day they’ll call in that favour and some good people may not even understand they’ve been influenced in a way that is counter to a national interest.”

He noted that foreign intelligence services are skilled at knowing where they stand with the person they are trying to influence, and what they could potentially ask that person to do.

“Sometimes they will think they can chance their arm and do something more sinister and harmful, other times they recognise this individual won’t be subject to that and they won’t therefore ask them,” he said.

The inquiry also heard that ASIO officer and the Department of Home Affairs’ former national counter-foreign interference coordinator Chris Teal would be returning to Home Affairs on secondment on November 1 to take on the role of deputy secretary social cohesion and citizenship.

The current deputy secretary, Paul Grigson, is also the current counter-terrorism coordinator and counter-foreign interference coordinator.

Read more: Spy agencies and universities develop foreign interference guidelines


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