Spies Under the Bed
On Monday the Director General of ASIO, Michael Burgess, delivered ASIO’s annual threat assessment and it was difficult to separate reality from fantasy in the low key presentation. There is no doubt that there is a genuine threat from terrorism at the hands of Islamic extremists and right wing neo-Nazi groups. There are also plausible threats from cyber-attacks by Russian and Chinese actors. However the claims of foreign influence and espionage being at greater heights than the cold war defy credibility.
Mr Burgess’ comments on the rise of right wing groups are particularly disturbing. He said in his address: "small cells of right-wing extremists were regularly gathering to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons and to dispense their hateful ideology".
He also emphasised violent Islamic extremism", embodied by Islamic State and al'Qaida, remained ASIO's top concern.
"The number of terrorism leads we are investigating right now has doubled since this time last year," Mr Burgess told an audience of diplomats and intelligence officers.
"The character of terrorism will continue to evolve and we believe that it will take on a more dispersed and diversified face."
The Director General did not mention left wing terrorism but the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, did in a comment to journalists on Tuesday morning.
“If somebody is going to cause harm to Australians, I just don’t care whether they’re on the far right, far left, somewhere in between, they will be dealt with,” the home affairs minister said. “And if the proliferation of information into the hands of right wing lunatics or left wing lunatics is leading to a threat in our country, then my responsibility is to make sure our agencies are dealing with it and they are.”
This led the Opposition and some commentators to mock the minister for trying to claim equivalence between left and right wing groups some commentators claimed there was no such thing as left wing terrorism. But as Professor Greg Barton, the terrorism expert from Deakin University pointed out on Wednesday, there were numerous left wing terrorist groups around the world in the seventies, eighties and nineties such as the Red Brigade, the Baader Meinhof Gang, the Japanese Red Army and the Tamil Tigers. There is a recent tendency for some Australian groups such as animal rights groups to veer towards terrorism through actions such home invasions.
When it came to espionage Mr Burgess made some assertions that can’t be verified. He disclosed for the first time that there had been a sleeper agent from an unspecified country who had operated in Australia.
"The agent lay dormant for many years, quietly building community and business links, all the while secretly maintaining contact with his offshore handlers," Mr Burgess revealed.
"The agent started feeding his spymasters information about Australia-based expatriate dissidents, which directly led to harassment of the dissidents in Australia and their relatives overseas."
According to Mr Burgess, the agent received "significant cash payments" in exchange for providing "on-the-ground logistical support for spies who traveled to Australia to conduct intelligence activities".
"These are the sort of insidious activities ASIO works to detect and disrupt every day," Mr Burgess said, while confirming ASIO had disrupted the operation.
He also claimed that foreign powers were placing spies in universities to steal secrets. Strangely none of these spies has been caught and prosecuted. Indeed the only person to have been charged at the instigation of ASIO over the past twenty years is a former public servant who was charged last year.
The accused in this case is alleged to have taken home some classified documents to work on over 20 years ago. The Australian Federal Police have testified in court that no one but the accused handled or read the documents in the ensuing years. It makes one wonder what ASIO thinks espionage is.