ASIO says espionage in Australia ‘extensive, unrelenting, increasingly sophisticated’
16th June 2017
Domestic spy agency ASIO has warned espionage and foreign interference in Australia is “extensive and unrelenting”, and poses as great a threat to national security as terrorism.
Appearing before the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, ASIO’s acting director of security, Heather Cook, said while terrorism occupied most of the agency’s time, the threat posed by spies was “extreme” because it is happening now.
She called for broader powers to tackle the problem, warning foreign interference activity against Australia’s interests is “extensive, unrelenting and increasingly sophisticated”.
“Foreign interference is happening in Australia; foreign powers want to gain advantage for their nation or to disadvantage us,” she said.
A recent Four Corners-Fairfax investigation into Beijing’s power and influence in Australia revealed ASIO had warned both major parties against accepting money from two big Chinese donors.
China’s Ambassador to Australia on Thursday dismissed the reporting and accused the ABC of trying to stir “China panic”.
While Ms Cook would not name the “adversaries” engaged in espionage activities, former Defence secretary Dennis Richardson was far more frank, revealing “it is no secret that China is very active in intelligence activities directed against us” in a farewell speech last month.
The committee was told foreign powers were using a “wide range of techniques” to obtain intelligence about Australia’s intelligence and defence capabilities as well as its alliance relationships.
“They try to influence our polity, bureaucracy and civil society … and clandestinely interfere in Australia’s affairs,” Ms Cook said.
Broaden special powers
ASIO wants Federal Parliament to broaden special coercive powers that currently allow the agency to detain and question a person suspected of taking part in terrorist activities for up to seven days.
Ms Cook said the power should extend to “all elements of security” to mitigate the threat posed by espionage.
“The current framework for our questioning powers does not provide the agility and speed regularly demanded of ASIO in current terrorism investigations,” Ms Cook said.
“It also does not assist us with the very real threats posed by espionage, sabotage, acts of communal violence and foreign interference.”