The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) cancelled a government staffer’s security clearance last year after foreign spies successfully recruited the employee, agency head Mike Burgess has revealed.
In his second annual threat assessment on Wednesday, the director-general said that one of ASIO’s investigations in 2020 focused on a “nest of spies” that was operating in Australia.
The spies, according to Burgess “developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service”.
They also monitored their country’s diaspora community, tried to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships, and even asked a public servant to provide information on security protocols at a major airport.
“They successfully cultivated and recruited an Australian government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of defence technology,” Burgess revealed.
“ASIO acted. We investigated, identified and verified the activity. We cancelled the government employee’s security clearance. We confronted the foreign spies, and quietly and professionally removed them from Australia.”
The spies were from a particular foreign intelligence service that was “not from a country in our region”, Burgess noted.
“And no, I’m not going to name the country. That would be an unnecessary distraction. My focus is on detecting harm and dealing with it—professionally and privately, wherever possible, just as we did in the instance I’ve described,” he said.
He warned that Australia’s secrets, sovereignty and safety is at stake, and rejected suggestions that ASIO should “turn a blind eye to espionage and interference to avoid upsetting the foreign governments”.
The director-general revealed that over the past year, a “significant number” — in the double figures — of foreign spies and their proxies have either been removed from Australia or “rendered inoperative”.
Last year Burgess told Senate Estimates that ASIO had disrupted a plot to infiltrate the national intelligence community, involving an Australia-based foreign national and a team of foreign intelligence officers.
They were attempting to recruit Australian security clearance holders to obtain information about Australia’s intelligence capabilities, but ASIO disrupted the plot.