Australia under ‘unprecedented’ threat from foreign interference, says spy chief

Clay Curtis
February 27, 2020

Director-General Mike Burgess warned of the rise of espionage, interference and right-wing extremism in the country at ASIO headquarters in Canberra on February 24 as he unveiled the agency's annual threat assessment.

"In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real and it is growing", Burgess said.

"Our view is that the threat of terrorism will remain a constant feature of the global security environment in 2020 and the threat to Australia and Australian interests will remain".

He said the sleeper agent from an unnamed country laid dormant for several years, building business and community links before he started to supply information about expatriate dissidents.

While highlighting the threat of foreign actors, Burgess also said the threat of right-wing extremists had grown, citing mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch in March in 2018.

"Wherever possible, ASIO seeks to "detect and protect" before damage is done". That information, Burgess said, was used to harass the dissidents in Australia and their relatives overseas.

"In suburbs close to Australia, modest cells regularly fulfill to salute Nazi flags, examine weapons, coach in beat and share their hateful ideology", he said. "These groups are more organised and security conscious than they were in previous years". "It is higher now than it was at the height of the cold war", Burgess said.

However, defence sources said the incident was more likely to be a "twisted joke" than genuine right-wing extremism.

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Children as young as 13 years old are being targeted by extremist recruiters, as the number of terrorism leads under investigation doubled over the past year. He said foreign interference and espionage laws were delivering dividends, with global intelligence services forced to change their tactics.

The Counter Foreign Interference Task Force, established a year ago to protect universities from foreign meddling, would "become a vital element of our strategy to defeat this threat", Burgess said.

Cases like this were rare at the moment but "concerning", he said.

"We needed to take advantage of the new powers within 10 days of the legislation coming into effect - a clear indication of its significance to our mission".

"We've seen visiting scientists and academics ingratiating themselves into university life with the aim of conducting clandestine intelligence collection".

"The degree of risk we encounter from overseas espionage and interference pursuits is now unparalleled", Burgess stated at ASIO headquarters in Canberra on Monday night as he unveiled the agency's once-a-year danger evaluation.

The mere passage of the foreign interference law had discomforted foreign intelligence services.

Mr Burgess revealed ASIO had recommended visa cancellations to stop foreign agents trying to travel to Australia, and intercepted foreign agents when they arrived. "In one particular case, the agents threatened the physical safety of an Australia-based individual as part of a foreign interference plot".

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