Rats in the ranks: ASIO boss faces demands to name ex-MP ‘traitor’

A former federal treasurer and ambassador to the US has called for the head of Australia’s intelligence organisation to name the ex-politician who sold out his country.

Feb 29, 2024, updated Feb 29, 2024
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses for a portrait ahead of his annual threat assessment speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Wednesday, February 28, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses for a portrait ahead of his annual threat assessment speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Wednesday, February 28, 2024. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

If he doesn’t, Joe Hockey says, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess is allowing all former and current politicians to be smeared and is creating distrust amongst Australia’s allies.

Mr Burgess used his annual threat assessment address to reveal a dedicated unit within a foreign spy service is targeting Australia.

The “A-team”, or Australia team, managed to recruit the former politician who “sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime”, he said on Wednesday night.

The former politician also flagged introducing a prime minister’s family member to the spies but the plot did not go ahead.

The person was not active any more and had been “neutralised”, Mr Burgess said.

“They’re not doing it now, they’re not breaking the law,” he told reporters and intelligence community brass at his annual address.

“If we see them go active again, I can guarantee they’ll get caught.”

“Several individuals should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective,” Mr Burgess said.

But a furious Mr Hockey, who was also an ex-federal treasurer, said that is “unacceptable” and the perpetrator must be named.

“That’s a statement of fact, that a politician served the interests of a foreign nation again the interests of Australia,” he told Sydney radio 2GB on Thursday.

“You can’t make an allegation about someone being a traitor and then expect that no one will ask questions.

“I served 20 years in parliament – I want to know who that person is.”

Mr Hockey, who is in Washington and runs advisory firm Bondi Partners, said he had already been asked who it was.

Mr Burgess’ revelation reflected badly on all current and serving politicians.

“This is not a flippant statement … this is a statement by the head of our secret intelligence service … he now has to say who that person is,” Mr Hockey said.

Federal Labor government minister Anika Wells said she had “not been approached by any bad spies”.

“It is a glimpse of the sophistication with which they (foreign spies) are all operating now and we are all, clearly, going to have to be far more vigilant,” she told Nine’s Today show.

Ms Wells added there might be “legal issues” that precluded Mr Burgess from naming the ex-politician.

Defence Minister Richard Marles said speculation about the ex-politician wasn’t helpful and that the main issue was the threat of foreign interference in Australia’s affairs.

“There’s a whole range of reasons why individuals would not be named, and that detail is not out there, so I respect the decision that ASIO have made in relation to this,” he told ABC television.

Mr Burgess said the foreign spies posed as consultants, head hunters, local government officials, academics and researchers and targeted students, academics, politicians, businesspeople, law enforcement officials and public servants.

They offered cash for information, with premiums for insider details.

The ring also flew academics and political figures to another country for an all-expenses-paid trip where they ended up meeting spies disguised as bureaucrats.

Weeks later, the A-team then managed to pry information about Australia’s national security and defence from an academic.

Mr Burgess put the unit on notice after declassifying the information.

“We want the A-team’s bosses to know its cover is blown,” he said.

“I want the A-team and its masters to understand if they target Australia, ASIO will target them.

“We will make their jobs as difficult, costly and painful as possible.”

Arrests were not the only way of breaking up these rings or countering foreign interference, he said.

Other actions included working with partners to cancel visas or directly confronting spies or their organisations.

Mr Burgess said he had spoken with his counterparts from other nations and told them to stop their actions or face reprisals “and they usually do”.

While the usual suspects were conducting espionage, so were friendly nations, he said.

ASIO’s Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce has conducted more than 120 operations since it was stood up in mid-2020.

Plots included a foreign agent trying to track a dissident in Australia and getting a quote from someone to “take severe action” against them and another spy agency trying to find an Australian willing to make a dissident “disappear”.

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