Australia’s spooks just dropped an explosive annual ‘Threat Assessment’


The head of Australia’s domestic intelligence agency (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, aka ‘ASIO’) delivered his annual Threat Assessment address on Wednesday night local time. It was a doozy.

Here are five intriguing quotes from the ASIO chief, Mike Burgess:

  1. “I appreciate that people need to market themselves but please be smart and be discreet – don’t make yourself an easy target.”

Early on, Burgess dunks on the “14,000 Australians publicly boasting [on LinkedIn] about having a security clearance or working in the intelligence community”, leaving themselves vulnerable to targeting by foreign spies.

  1. “A foreign intelligence service tried to find an Australian who would be willing to make a dissident ‘disappear’”.

He then goes on to describe how foreign spooks seek to harm members of migrant communities who’ve criticised regimes in their countries of origin. It’s an intriguing comment, particularly in the context of recent allegations in Canada and the US that Indian intelligence had ordered the assassination of Sikh activists. We wouldn’t be surprised if similar allegations emerge out of Australia.

  1. “Right now there is a particular team in a particular foreign intelligence service with a particular focus on Australia – we are its priority target.”

The ASIO chief then goes into detail about a team of foreign spooks which he nicknames ‘the A-team’ – he says they’re running a large-scale operation targeting Australians with access to privileged information.

As above, these spies often approach Australians via LinkedIn, claiming to work for fictitious companies and offering lucrative consulting gigs and trips abroad. Their conversations then shift to encrypted apps, and requests for insider info. 

Burgess declines to name names, but the widespread speculation (combined with the A-team’s reported interest in the AUKUS submarine program) is that the elephant in the room is actually a dragon – China.

  1. “This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime.”

This is where the intrigue really thickens. 

Burgess drops the explosive revelation that a former politician betrayed their country to help a foreign regime. He doesn’t name names, but gives some hints:

  • It happened “several years ago”, seemingly before Australia’s foreign interference laws were strengthened (in 2018), and
  • The spies attempted (but failed) to involve a prime minister’s family

In response, the son of a former prime minister has now revealed he once reported a “brazen” approach by presumed Chinese spies with links to a former politician.

This led many to believe the ASIO chief could be referring to stories already in the public domain. Without suggesting any of the following are the ex-politician in question, here are just some of the stories previously reported in local media:

  • A former rising-star senator was once caught warning a Beijing-linked billionaire about surveillance by Australian intelligence. This ex-senator has denied it’s him.
  • Another ex-politician was found to have engaged in “serious corrupt conduct” in relation to Beijing-linked political donations, but he’s also denying it’s him.
  • And a former Australian foreign minister – with links to the same controversial billionaire above – once irked Australian intelligence agencies for seemingly revealing classified information in his memoirs.

So, whodunnit? We’ve been passed a name. But ASIO is warning that naming the culprit could expose its sources – and our lawyers are warning that Australia’s defamation laws are aggressive – so we’re gonna sit tight for now. More on that below. 🤐

  1. “We want the A-team to know its cover is blown.”

Burgess then describes how late last year, the A-team leader thought he was grooming yet another Australian online, before that Australian revealed he was actually an ASIO officer – “the spy was being spied on, the player was being played”. Maybe the big revelation here is that Australia’s spy chief has a flair for the dramatic.

Interestingly, Burgess then effectively says he’s publicising all this now in part to sow suspicion and turmoil within the rival intelligence agency – did the A-team report back to HQ that it had been sprung by ASIO? If not, why not?

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

So why have we devoted a briefing to Australia’s annual threat assessment? Because it touches on issues that are relevant everywhere.

First, Burgess is one of several spy chiefs now trying to bring his agency’s work out of the shadows – this is partly about bolstering their social licence to operate. But judging by the largely uncritical response from Australia’s public, the real issue here might be less about a lack of social licence, and more about a lack of public debate around the trade-offs that free societies make with their spies. Maybe that’s a reflection of today’s higher-risk environment.

Second, Burgess also justifies his speech as a kind of “disinfectant light” to raise public awareness around foreign spy tactics, and build up Australia’s resistance. The public frenzy to identify this politician has clearly drawn the country’s attention, but it’s arguably done some damage in the process:

  • The list of names circulating is alarmingly long (and often plausible), and risks undermining the public’s faith in elected representatives
  • It’s triggered infighting, suspicion, and paranoia – ie, the very same things Burgess was seeking to trigger among the rival spooks, and
  • Although no countries were mentioned, this has all still inevitably made life difficult again for many Chinese-Australians, who form a key part of Australia’s ability to manage the China relationship effectively.

And that brings us to our third and final point: China’s rise is such a complex issue for governments and societies everywhere. To respond, we must be able to debate and think through the issues clearly. And that means folks being able to critique their own government’s approach without fear of being labelled unpatriotic, or worse. It’s a balancing act, and this week felt wobbly.

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