Australia’s domestic spy chief Mike Burgess has warned that foreign spies are posing as diplomats or reporters to engage and influence journalists.
Burgess is the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
In his wide-ranging Annual Threat Assessment speech, Burgess also revealed his agency recently disrupted a “hive of spies” implanted in society for many years.
“I am telling you this for two reasons,” he said.
“First, it’s an example of ASIO’s more aggressive counter-espionage posture.
“We are stepping up our investigations, expanding our capabilities, sharpening our responses, and hardening Australia’s security environment.”
“There’s another reason for highlighting the hive.
“I want to dispel any sense that espionage is some romantic cold war notion.
“It’s not; it is a real and present danger that demands we take security seriously,” he added.
He continued by noting that foreign intelligence services were “aggressively seeking secrets from government, research, defense, and a range of professions.”
“Some of the other professions being targeted might surprise you,” Burgess said.
“In the last year, a small number of Australian judicial figures have been subjected to suspicious approaches.
“The foreign spies have been even more brazen in the United States recently, seeking to obstruct prosecutions and manipulate outcomes in what is nothing short of an assault on the rule of law.”
In October last year, two Chinese intelligence officers were charged with attempting to obstruct a criminal prosecution in the Eastern District of New York.
The chief of ASIO said there was a “discernable and concerning uptick” in activities targeting the media industry.
“The watchers are being watched; the reporters are being reported on; the press is being pressed,” he said.
“We have seen repeated attempts to hack into scores of Australian media outlets—so many, it appears to be a concerted campaign.”
Burgess said the intent of the spies was still to be determined, but ASIO suspect they were looking for signs of stories relevant to a foreign government, a way to shape the reporting, and insights on how to potentially coerce and recruit media staff.
“This influence, coercion, and recruitment can take many forms,” he said.
“Foreign intelligence services have used cut-outs and front companies to offer funding for programs, almost certainly with the intent to shape the coverage in favor of the foreign government.
“The spies can use diplomatic or journalistic cover or even pose as sources themselves.
“They use face-to-face meetings to scan for vulnerabilities, develop trusted relationships and generate feelings of indebtedness, all of which can be exploited at a later stage.”
At one point, an Australian-born individual not associated with an overseas government drew up a list of influential journalists and planned to offer all-expenses-paid “study tours” to a foreign country.
“Study tours” previously have been commonly conducted in countries such as China.
The “lackey”—as ASIO referred to them—would introduce the journalists to supposed “local officials” who were actually spies.
“The spies would use these opportunities to ingratiate themselves with the reporters, try to elicit insights on political, economic, defense, and other issues, and identify any vulnerabilities that could be leveraged later,” Burgess said.
“Almost certainly, the journalists’ phones, laptops, and tablets would also have been targeted.
“If left unattended, even in a locked hotel room safe, the spies would have downloaded data and potentially installed malware, giving them ongoing access to contacts, stories, emails, and calls.”
The spy chief also criticized recent media commentary around terrorist or “lone wolf” incidents, with parts of the media or political class linking these actions to an ideology.
“It takes careful, nuanced work to disentangle groups and individuals that will engage in violence, from groups and individuals that may have views that are awful—but still lawful,” he said.
“It is equally critical to understand that every ideologically motivated extremist is not automatically a left-wing or right-wing extremist.
“There is a cohort of individuals motivated by a toxic cocktail of conspiracies, grievances, and anti-authority beliefs.”
Burgess said it was not a case of just semantics.
“Words matter. Facts matter. Actions matter.
“If we, as a community, persist in getting the diagnosis wrong, we will struggle to find a cure.”