22 Feb 2023

Australia has taken out 'hive' of spies, security chief says

8:14 pm on 22 February 2023
The Australian Parliament House, Canberra.

Australia's national parliament buildings in Canberra Photo: Long Zheng/ CC BY-SA 2.0

By Tom Housden, Sydney

Australia has busted a "hive" of spies operating in the country for years, its intelligence chief says.

Mike Burgess did not identify any countries behind the network, but claimed the undercover operatives appeared to be "highly trained".

The group would study and "potentially seduce" targets, including judges, journalists and veterans, he claimed.

It showed the threat posed by foreign spies was at an all-time high, he said.

While delivering his annual threat assessment in Canberra, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) chief outlined a "concerted campaign" to infiltrate the Australian media to shape reporting and gain information on sources.

A "lackey" planned to offer journalists all-expenses-paid study tours of a foreign country, he said, where spies with the "home-ground advantage" would seek to gain information to leverage.

Burgess also detailed thwarted plots from two different countries to physically harm Australian residents - a week after the government revealed that an Iranian plot targeting a dissident in Australia had been disrupted.

He again did not name the countries, but said the targets were critics of foreign regimes.

"In one case, the intelligence service started monitoring a human rights activist and plotted to lure the target offshore, where the individual could be - quote - 'disposed of'," he said.

"In another, a lackey was dispatched to locate specific dissidents and - quote - 'deal with them'."

Burgess said ASIO had weeded out the spies after an "intense and sustained" campaign.

"They were good - but ASIO was better... working with our partners, we removed them. The hive is history," he said.

But the threat posed by foreign intelligence had been worsening, Burgess said, particularly since Australia signed the AUKUS security agreement with the US and the UK.

"ASIO is... busier than any time in our 74-year history. Busier than the Cold War, busier than 9/11, busier than the height of the caliphate."

"From where I sit, it looks like hand-to-hand combat."

Burgess also used the speech to criticise thousands of "reckless" Australians advertising their security clearances on social media networking sites, as well as former Australian defence personnel involved in foreign military training programmes.

"It is critical our allies know we can keep our secrets, and keep their secrets," Burgess said.


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