The head of Australia’s spy agency has warned that espionage and foreign interference could soon eclipse terrorism as the country’s principal security concern “if world events don’t change”.
Speaking to Sky News in a rare interview Thursday, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General of Security Mike Burgess said the agency looked at “threats to life” and “threats to way of life”.
“They’re both really important,” Mr Burgess said.
“If someone loses their life as a result of some violent extremist who kills them … you can’t get much more serious than that.
“But of course if you’ve got nations interfering in another nation and they’re doing it covertly, so it’s a slow burn, corrosive thing, you can change our way of life. That’s really a serious matter and we have to draw our mind to that happening and how we stop it.”
Right now terrorism is ASIO’s “principal security concern”, but Mr Burgess said espionage and foreign interference was at an “unacceptably high level” and looking forward, “I expect espionage and foreign interference to supplant terrorism as our principal security concern”.
Mr Burgess said ASIO was concerned with terrorism, politically or ideologically motivated violence, espionage, foreign interference, attacks on defence systems, border security and sabotage.
“Sabotage is what it says on the tin,” he said. “If you think about global tensions and the digital world in which we live, we are concerned that you could see the placement of malicious software on networks that could be there for disruption or sabotage — that is a real concern.
“I can also reassure you and your viewers that there are actions being taken across government to address those issues.”
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Earlier this month ASIO revealed that it had disrupted a “nest of spies” working in Australia last year.
The spies — whose country of origin was not identified by ASIO but was described by terror expert Greg Barton as “almost certainly” Russia — reportedly had developed relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.
They also attempted to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships and recruited an Australian government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of Defence technology.
Mr Burgess told Sky News that virtually every country in the world conducts espionage and “multiple countries are attempting to do that here in Australia”.
“There are many countries who will have an interest in the things I’ve talked about – military secrets, governments’ plans, what are they really thinking, our export industries, research, tech sector, medical expertise,” he said.
But he said the role of ASIO was to “identify the threat and deal with it”, not publicly call out other countries.
“That is clearly a matter for government, because when a government chooses to attribute some form of espionage or interference activity to a country, they have to take into (consideration) a whole range of other factors which I simply wouldn’t and don’t need to get involved in,” he said.
“I think attribution is actually a distraction because in the end, we all do it. If I’m pointing my finger at you accusing you of espionage, I’ve got three fingers pointing back at me — Australia does it as well. So be very careful when you call countries out.
“Sometimes, though, it is right that governments do it because someone’s overstepped a line — it’s not just the theft of a military secret, it’s something else, more offensive to our nation or damaging to our nation, and that’s the judgement governments are best placed to make.”
Mr Burgess was also asked about the rising threat from white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other ideologically motivated groups, which the agency recently revealed now make up 40 per cent of its caseload.
He said it was important to distinguish between religiously motivated and ideologically motivated extremism.
“The skills to penetrate and get insights, the core skills are the same, but the people you’re dealing with are different and therefore you need different approaches and methods,” he said.
Asked by host Kieran Gilbert why it was referred to as “religiously motivated” and not specifically Islamic extremism, which he said was responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks, Mr Burgess said that was “not true”.
“There’s no doubt that’s been a dominant factor over the last 20 years, but over the history of this world that’s not actually true,” he said.
“Students of history will know there’s other religions that have done vile things in a name of their religion, so it’s not actually true.”
But he added another reason to distinguish between religion and ideology was due to the evolving nature of the threats — citing the example of “incels”, or “involuntary celibates”.
“Those who have this view of involuntary celibate, the ideology, the ‘incel’ movement – that’s not religious, that’s something completely different and doesn’t fit into the standard categories we previously used,” he said.
“We need terminology that helps us explain what we’re seeing.”
On the issue of right-wing groups being officially declared terrorist organisations, Mr Burgess was asked why more were not being proscribed, as Labor has requested.
Currently the UK-based neo-Nazi Sonnenkrieg Division is the only group in the process of being listed.
Mr Burgess said his focus was not on listing groups but “identifying the people who are going to conduct violence against Australians and with our police partners trying to stop that”.
He added that “we’re watching” — listing or not. But he said many such groups in ASIO’s sights “simply wouldn’t meet the legal threshold” to be declared terrorist organisations.
“The other important thing, though, is you can’t compare some of the groups we’re looking at today with ISIL or al-Qaeda — there is no Caliphate in the Grampians,” he said.
“You might have the National Socialist Network meeting there, but that group is completely different to ISIL.
“Yes, their ideology is abhorrent to people like me and most normal Australians, but is that stepping over the line and promoting violence and acts of terrorism? We’ve got to be very careful to compare the two.
“That’s why ASIO’s focus is we have that critically important job of understanding, is that just talk or are they really going to go to action? Identify those who can conduct harm and have them dealt with. That has to be our focus.”
As for where the tipping point was that would spur authorities to act, Mr Burgess said it was a “really hard” question.
“Some of these groups we’re looking at are very good, they understand the law,” he said.
“So when they’re together in their clubhouses or when they’re talking in the Grampians, they know what to say and do, they know not to step over the law. That may be because they’re not actually going to step over the law and they’re not going to conduct acts of terrorism, (or) maybe they’re just choosing not to disclose it.
“That’s the challenge we have, that’s the intelligence task we have, we’ve got to get close to them so we know what they’re plotting and what they intend to do.”
Mr Burgess is speaking out to encourage more Australians to put their hand up to serve in ASIO and other security organisations.
The best and brightest inside Australia’s secretive intelligence services may not earn as much as they might in the private sector, but “they’re here to make a difference, they’re not here to make a buck”.
“There is something special about the motivation, you can see the work you do and how it contributes positively to this country and the safety of your fellow Australians — there’s something very powerful in that,” he said.
“People are smart. We look for clever, curious people who are creative, innovative problem solvers, and actually from all walks of life. We have musicians, electricians, tradies, engineers, doctors, nurses, scientists, even journalists. We look for a wide variety of people.”