Australia reveals details of foreign spy operation

Australia reveals details of foreign spy operation

Former politician ‘sold out’ country to agents of unnamed state, says intelligence chief

Headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. (Photo: Canley via Wikimedia Commons)
Headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. (Photo: Canley via Wikimedia Commons)

CANBERRA - Australia’s spy chief has revealed details of a foreign intelligence service’s efforts to target Australians for information and said his agency had confronted the spy masters to let them know they had been caught.

Mike Burgess, the director-general of security for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), said he had declassified details of the operation, which used professional networking platforms, email and social media to target Australians.

He did not name the country involved.

Burgess referred to the foreign spies as the “A Team” and said they had tried to attract Australians with national security information by offering them consulting roles.

He said the foreign agency had also “successfully cultivated and recruited a former Australian politician” several years ago. He did not identify the politician.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime. At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a Prime Minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit,” he said.

This plot did not go ahead, he added, but others did.

Australian academics and political figures attending an overseas conference were met by “spies in disguise”, he said.

One academic gave the so-called A Team information about Australia’s national security and defence priorities, while an “aspiring politician” provided political information, he said.

“ASIO disrupted this scheme and confronted the Australians involved. While some were unwitting, others knew they were working for a foreign intelligence service,” he said.

ASIO severed links between the Australians and the foreign intelligence service, he said, adding that several individuals “should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective”.

Burgess said ASIO had “confronted the A-team directly” late last year, during an online encounter with an ASIO officer, and told it to stop.

“We want the A-team to know its cover is blown,” he said.

ASIO has issued a notice to Australian public services warning government employees about the threat, he said.

“We have seen it try to recruit students, academics, politicians, business people, researchers, law enforcement officials and public servants at all levels of government,” he said.

Australia’s foreign interference taskforce has conducted 120 operations since it was formed in 2020, he said in the speech.

Australia introduced foreign interference laws in 2018. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who introduced the laws, later said the “key purpose” of the measures was to expose China’s activities.

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