22 May, 2024
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Spy ring that recruited former politician uncovered

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A foreign spy ring recruited a former Australian politician and tried to get close to a prime minister’s family member before it was uncovered by the nation’s intelligence agency.

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess revealed a dedicated espionage team from an unspecified country had been set up to specifically target Australia.

“The team is aggressive and experienced, its tradecraft is good but not good enough,” he said in his annual threat assessment on Wednesday.

 Mike Burgess says a foreign spy agency tried to find an Australian to make a dissident “disappear”. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

ASIO and partners mapped out the activities and members of the hive dubbed the “A-team”, or Australia-team.

The spies posed as consultants, head-hunters, local government officials, academics and researchers and claimed to be from fake companies, including one called Data 31.

They targeted students, academics, politicians, business people, law enforcement officials and public servants and promised to pay thousands of dollars for information and extra cash was offered for insider material.

The ring successfully recruited a former politician who “sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime”, Mr Burgess revealed. 

The former politician also flagged introducing a prime minister’s family member to the spies. 

They weren’t identified but Mr Burgess confirmed they were no longer active. 

“If they start again, so will we,” ” he told reporters and intelligence community brass following his address.

A second scheme resulted in academics and political figures being introduced to spies presenting as bureaucrats overseas during a conference they were invited to and where all costs, including airfares, were covered.

One of the academics provided information about Australia’s national security and defence weeks later while another aspiring politician provided insight into party factions and names of “up and comers”.

The purpose of declassifying the ring was to raise awareness in the community about the practice and put the spy ring on notice, Mr Burgess said.

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

“I want the A-team and its masters to understand if they target Australia, ASIO will target them – we will make their jobs as difficult, costly and painful as possible.”

 ASIO wants to make the jobs of foreign spies as difficult, costly and painful as possible. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

People were also being targeted through social media.

One professional networking platform has 14,000 Australians publicly revealing they had security clearances or worked in the intelligence community.

ASIO’s Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce has conducted more than 120 operations since it was stood up in mid-2020.

One foiled plot included a person working on behalf of a foreign government who wanted to physically hurt an Australia-based critic of the regime. 

The person tried to find out the target’s address and bank details, hired someone to take photos of the house and asked how much money was needed to “take severe action” against the dissident.

A second case involved a foreign spy agency that tried to find an Australian willing to make a dissident “disappear”.

 Mike Burgess warns espionage is one of the biggest threats to Australia. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

One country is trying to scan critical infrastructure in Australia, including water, transport and energy networks in a highly sophisticated and secretive manner to test for vulnerabilities, Mr Burgess said.

But he refused to name any countries, saying while the usual suspects were spying on Australia, so were friendly nations.

Mr Burgess also didn’t want to instil a sense of complacency in the community as they would often be approached by social media profiles with anglicised names and he wanted people to focus on the behaviour rather than the nationality. 

While espionage was Australia’s biggest security threat, the risk of sabotage had increased, Mr Burgess said. 

There had been an uptick in nationalist and racist violent extremists advocating for sabotage in private conversations over the past 18 months, he revealed, but noted none were actively seeking to take action.

There has also been an increase in hate speech targeting the Israeli and Jewish communities as well as the Muslim and Palestinian ones as the conflict in Gaza had heightened tensions at home.

ASIO is investigating multiple people who have discussed committing terrorism in Australia, Mr Burgess confirmed.

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