Secrets for sale: Australia’s intelligence boss warns of ‘cash before country’ security threats

Australia’s top intelligence official says a small but concerning number of former defence insiders are putting cash before country.

Feb 22, 2023, updated Feb 22, 2023
ASIO chief Mike Burgess. (Image: ABC News)

ASIO chief Mike Burgess. (Image: ABC News)

ASIO boss Mike Burgess revealed in his latest annual threat assessment his agency had been tracking veterans willing to sell their military training and expertise to foreign governments for several years.

But the issue has only come to public attention recently with media reports Western pilots had been approached by China to train its military.

“These individual are lackeys – more ‘top tools’ than ‘top guns’,” Burgess said.

“Selling our war-fighting skills is not different to selling our secrets – especially when the training and tactics are being transferred to countries that will use them … against us or our allies at some time in the future.”

He said in some cases former insiders had been stopped from travelling overseas to provide the training.

“But (in other cases) legal ambiguities have impeded law enforcement’s ability to intervene.”

He noted the overwhelming majority of veterans were Australian patriots in every sense.

“A small but concerning number are willing to put cash before country,” the spy chief said.

“Third-party companies have offered Australians hundreds of thousands of dollars and other significant perks to help authoritarian regimes improve their combat skills.”

He said since the announcement of AUKUS – the security cooperation deal between Australia, the US and UK – there had been a “distinct uptick in the online targeting of people working in Australia’s defence industry”.

“As we progress AUKUS, it’s critical our allies know we can keep our secrets, and keep their secrets.”

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says he’s concerned by the revelations, including those that Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said he had faced pressure from business, academics and bureaucrats to ease operations to “avoid upsetting foreign regimes”.

The treasurer said espionage was designed to undermine democracy, threatened Australia’s national security and would not be tolerated.

“We can’t let these things slide when our national interests are at stake. That’s ASIO’s view, it’s Mike Burgess’s view and it’s the government’s view as well,” Chalmers told ABC Radio National on Wednesday.

Australian National University international security expert John Blaxland said there was contention between the nation’s economic and security interests.

He told ABC Radio National there was a “compelling internal logic” from those with economic interests for security operations to stop being a roadblock to growth.

“But Australia is more than just the economic interests of major corporations,” he said.

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“It’s actually about us as a nation, how we position ourselves for the future, how we protect our intellectual property rights … (and) the idea of our open democratic society that we often take for granted.

“You need an organisation like ASIO to be vigilant to protect our open society.”

Opposition spokesman James Paterson said the director-general’s central message was Australia needed to take security seriously.

He said Burgess was right to call out people trying to interfere in operations due to concerns about economic relations.

‘There have been groups in our community who have sought to undermine bipartisan consensus of the policy changes … to protect and secure our democracy,” he told Sky News.

“While they are entitled to their views, like Mike Burgess, I think that should be ignored.”

Defence Minister Richard Marles said last week he had asked his department to review its policies to stop former soldiers and personnel sharing classified information with foreign powers.

He has also flagged possible law changes.

Burgess said his concerns were not limited to the defence sector.

“If we are to take security seriously, Australia needs to ensure its laws and obligations prevent former insiders transferring any form of sensitive know-how to authoritarian regimes,” he said.


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