ASIO has revealed it uncovered a “sleeper” agent running a major spy ring and providing logistical and financial support for foreign agents engaged in intelligence-gathering missions and harassing dissidents in Australia.
Source: Simon Benson, News Corp
ASIO uncovers sleeper agent running spy ring
The domestic security agency has also apprehended an increasing number of spies entering or trying to enter the country as it warns that more foreign agents are operating on Australian soil than during the height of the Cold War.
Without directly naming China or other countries known to engage aggressively in espionage, there were cases where “hostile intelligence services” had directly threatened Australians, with the country now being targeted by several foreign governments.
Delivering the Annual Threat Assessment in Canberra on Monday night, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said countering terrorism was still the agency’s “number one mission”.
He also revealed that the number of active terrorist leads it was investigating had doubled in the past year.
The address revealed that Australia was operating in an increasingly hostile environment as the agency faced rapidly evolving technology used by foreign governments and terrorist groups.
Mr Burgess said the agency was forced to use the controversial encryption laws almost immediately after 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 at ASIO headquarters in Canberra 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.”
Mr Burgess 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 Duncan Lewis. In his first Annual Threat Assessment, he outlined the current level of threat posed to 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,” he 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 the spy had been thrown out of the country.
Mr Burgess said credible intelligence had put a number of individuals and cells intent on conducting onshore terrorism on ASIO’s radar.
“The threat of terrorism at home is ‘probable’ and will remain unacceptably high for the foreseeable future,” he said.
“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 ASIO’s increasing challenges were technological advancements in communications encryption.
“Encrypted communications damage intelligence coverage in nine out of 10 priority counter-terrorism cases … In the counter-espionage world we are dealing with even more sophisticated targets,” he said.
Mr Burgess said he wanted to “move beyond the bureaucratic language of annual reports and help everyone understand the significant threats we see directed at Australia and Australians”.