ASIO has revealed it has uncovered a “sleeper” agent running a major spy ring which provides logistical and financial support for foreign agents engaged in intelligence gathering missions as well as harassing dissidents in Australia.  The domestic security agency has also apprehended an increasing number of spies entering or trying to enter the country as it warned that more foreign agents were now operating on Australian soil than during the height of the Cold War.  Without directly naming China or other countries known to aggressively engage in espionage, there were cases where “hostile intelligence services” had directly threatened Australians.

Delivering the Annual Threat Assessment in Canberra, ASIO director general Mike Burgess said that counterterrorism and protecting lives was still the agency’s “number one mission,” revealing the number of active terrorist leads it was investigating had doubled in the past year.  Burgess revealed that Australia was operating in an increasingly hostile environment with the agency facing rapidly evolving technology used by foreign governments and terrorist groups.  Burgess confirmed that the agency was forced to use the controversial encryption laws almost immediately upon their passage through parliament in 2018 to thwart a potential terrorist attack that posed “serious harm” to Australians.

“I can confirm that ASIO has used the Assistance and Access Act to protect Australians from serious harm,” Mr Burgess said in a written copy of his speech delivered to 400 government officials, members of the intelligence community and diplomats.  “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.  “The bottom line was this, these new powers helped ASIO prevent a real risk of injury to Australians.”  He said he was disturbed by the extent to which extremists were known to be actively trying to recruit schoolchildren as young as 13.

Mr Burgess was the former head of the Australian Signals Directorate before taking over as the head of ASIO last September after the retirement of Major General Duncan Lewis.  In his first Annual Threat Assessment he outlined the current level of threat posed to Australia’s national security in a speech partly designed to demystify the secret operations of the domestic spy agency.  The country’s top spy boss took the rare step of revealing several recent cases in which terrorism or espionage had been foiled including scientists and academics who had infiltrated university campuses with the “aim of conducting clandestine intelligence collection”.

“ASIO has uncovered cases where foreign spies have travelled to Australia with the intention of setting up sophisticated hacking infrastructure targeting computers containing sensitive and classified information,” Mr Burgess said.  “And perhaps most disturbingly, hostile intelligence services have directly threatened and intimidated Australians in this country.  In one particular case, the agents threatened the physical safety of an Australia-based individual as part of a foreign interference plot.  The level of threat we face from foreign espionage and interference activities is currently unprecedented.”

In another case, Mr Burgess said ASIO had intercepted and disrupted a foreign intelligence service agent sent as a ‘sleeper’ agent to Australia. “The agent lay dormant for many years, quietly building community and business links, all the while secretly maintaining contact with his offshore handlers,” Mr Burgess said.  “The agent started feeding his spymasters information about Australia-based expatriate dissidents, which directly led to harassment of the dissidents in Australia and their relatives overseas.  “In exchange for significant cash payments, the agent also provided on-the-ground logistical support for spies who travelled to Australia to conduct intelligence activities.

“These are the sort of insidious activities ASIO works to detect and disrupt every day.”  ASIO would not reveal what had happened to the agent but a government source said that it was reasonable to assume that they had been thrown out of the country.  The threat level in Australia remains at “probable” with Mr Burgess confirming that credible intelligence has led to a number of individuals and cells intent on conducting onshore terrorism now being on ASIO’s radar.  “ASIO has previously assessed and stated publicly that the threat posed by terrorism in Australia has plateaued at an unacceptable level,” Mr Burgess said.  “This is sometimes misunderstood as the fact that the threat has simply plateaued.”

“So let me be clear: the threat of terrorism at home is ‘probable’ and will remain unacceptably high for the foreseeable future.  “I am particularly concerned that we continue to see vulnerable and impressionable young people at risk from being ensnared in the streams of hate being spread across the internet by extremists of every ideology.  “As a father, I find it truly disturbing to see cases where extremists are actively trying to recruit children who have only just started high school and are as young as 13 or 14.”  At the heart of the increasing challenges faced by ASIO on cyber security, espionage and terrorism, was the technological advancements in communications encryption.

“Encrypted communications damage intelligence coverage in nine out of 10 priority counter terrorism cases,” Mr Burgess said.  “That’s 90 per cent of priority cases.  “And that’s just counter-terrorism. In the counter-espionage world we are dealing with even more sophisticated targets. “The government recognises this dilemma as do senior executives in the tech sector.  Technology should not be beyond the rule of law.” Seeking to engage the agency in a broader public dialogue, Mr Burgess said he had wanted to “move beyond the bureaucratic language of annual reports and help everyone understand the significant threats we see directed at Australia and Australians”.

“We are not seeking to be a secret organisation with secret powers,” Mr Burgess said.  “We do need to keep secret the precise nature of many of our operational capabilities and operational activity.  These are the tools of our trade but I will never knowingly put any of my team at additional risk by carelessly talking about their operations.  The people who work alongside me every day are ordinary Australians just like you.  When they are not at work they are ordinary members of our community who have family and caring responsibilities, mortgages and who worry about the same sorts of things that we all do or they may be your neighbours or friends.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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