ASIO foiled foreign interference plot in lead up to election

By Jackson Graham

February 10, 2022

Mike Burgess, ASIO
Spy agency boss Mike Burgess. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

ASIO foiled a foreign interference plot in the lead up to an election in Australia, the spy agency’s boss Mike Burgess says. 

Burgess said in an annual threat assessment speech on Wednesday that a wealthy individual acted as a “puppeteer” for a foreign government in attempting to instal political candidates. 

He did not disclose which election the plot was aimed to infiltrate. 

Burgess said the puppeteer hired an employee to pilot ways of advancing candidates’ political prospects through financial support and favourable stories in foreign language news. 

The aim was not just to get the candidates into positions of power, but also to generate a sense of appreciation, obligation and indebtedness that could subsequently be exploited,” Burgess said. 

“The political candidates had no knowledge of the plot. Even if the plan had proceeded, they would not have known who was pulling the strings.” 

ASIO’s intervention ensured harm was avoided, Burgess says, but he used the case as a warning to show what foreign interference could infiltrate. 

“It’s impossible to know exactly what would have happened without ASIO’s disruption but I can offer an informed scenario,” he said. 

“Some of the candidates get elected. The puppeteer’s employee then recommends they hire certain other associates as political staffers.” 

Based on other more advanced scenarios the agency was aware of, Burgess said those people could then become agents for the foreign government and influence the politician to shape decision-making.  

“Down the track, the new parliamentarians might be asked for information about the party’s position on defence policy, human rights, foreign investment or trade,” he said.

“This information will be sent to the foreign power without the knowledge of the parliamentarian.” 

Burgess said foreign interference and espionage had replaced terrorism as the “principal security concern” for Australia. 

“This is not to downplay the significance of terrorism,” he said. “In terms of scale and sophistication, though, espionage and foreign interference threats are outpacing terrorism threats, and therefore demanding more attention and more resources.”

He said multiple countries were seeking to conduct espionage against Australia, not just those considered traditional adversaries. “In some instances, espionage is conducted by countries we consider friends — friends with sharp elbows and voracious intelligence requirements,” Burgess said.

ASIO overall saw its terrorism caseload decrease in the past year, with a lone wolf still considered the most likely threat. 

But the spy agency has seen an increase in minors involved in counter-terrorism investigations. 

“Minors made up 15% of our new counter-terrorism investigations, and more than half of our highest priority investigations each week,” Burgess said.


READ MORE:

Foreign spies recruited government employee for classified information, says ASIO 

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