Australia under ‘unprecedented’ foreign threat, says spy chief

SYDNEY: Australia is under an “unprecedented” threat of foreign espionage and interference, one of the country’s most senior spy chiefs said on Monday.

In a rare speech, Mike Burgess, Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) said a range of nations are seeking to influence lawmakers, government officials, media figures, business leaders and academics.

“The level of threat we face from foreign espionage and interference activities is currently unprecedented. It is higher now, than it was at the height of the Cold War,” Burgess said in a speech in Canberra.

Burgess did not identify the countries seeking to interfere, but Reuters reported in September that Australia’s intelligence agencies concluded China was responsible for a cyber-attack on the Australian parliament and three largest political parties.

China denies responsibility for the attack, which came just months before a general election in May 2018.

Australia decided not to reveal the identity of the attackers in order to protect its trading relationship with China, sources familiar with the decision told Reuters.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner, buying more than a third of its total exports, including much of its iron ore, coal and agricultural goods, and sending more than a million tourists and students to Australia each year.

Burgess did not name specific attacks on Australia, but he referenced a spate of cyber-attacks.

ASIO had 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, Burgess said.

The speech comes just a few months after Australia’s leading universities agreed to name overseas research partners, list financial dealings with other countries and share cyber intelligence with national security agencies to curb foreign interference.

Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its escalating action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, has been on high alert for attacks by home-grown militants. This has mostly concentrated on extremists returning from fighting in the Middle East or their supporters.

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.

“In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology,” Burgess said.