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Oh, those Russians: Moscow outed for running spy hive out of embassy

A hive of foreign spies busted by Australia’s intelligence agency in the past year was reportedly linked to Russia.

Feb 24, 2023, updated Feb 24, 2023
ASIO chief Mike Burgess said intelligence officers had uncovered a group of spies and had them removed from the country. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

ASIO chief Mike Burgess said intelligence officers had uncovered a group of spies and had them removed from the country. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Nine newspapers on Friday cited unnamed sources as saying the spies posed as diplomats and had been operating for more than 18 months in multiple locations, including the Russian embassy in Canberra.

They were reportedly trying to recruit Australians with access to classified information and steal data.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who held the defence portfolio under the previous coalition government, said many countries were looking at Australia.

“The ASIO director-general hasn’t confirmed the nationality of this ring,” he told Sky News on Friday.

“I don’t think it would come as a surprise to anyone that certain countries are involved in those (espionage) activities on a daily basis.

“It’s not just Russia and China but many other countries trying to work out their opportunities in Australia.”

Despite the report, Trade Minister Don Farrell rejected calls for the Russian ambassador to Australia to be expelled.

“If you expel the Russian ambassador, then you have no mechanism of communicating our displeasure with the decisions that the Russian government are taking,” he told ABC Radio on Friday.

“These are operational matters, of course, and they’re not the sort of matters that we will discuss publicly.”

In his annual threat assessment delivered earlier this week, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief said intelligence officers uncovered a group of spies and had them removed from the country.

Director-General Mike Burgess said the “hive” was working undercover, and some of the spies had been put in place years earlier.

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Proxies and agents were recruited as part of a wider network.

“Among other malicious activities, they wanted to steal sensitive information,” Mr Burgess said on Tuesday.

“We watched them. We mapped their activities. We mounted an intense and sustained campaign of operational activity.

“We confronted them. And, working with our partners, we removed them from this country, privately and professionally. The hive is history.”

Farrell said he was confident in leaving the matter in the hands of the director-general.

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the speech by the ASIO boss earlier this week showed the dangers being faced by the country.

“The events following (the speech) show that our country has never faced more sophisticated and difficult foreign interference threats than we do right now,” Watt told Sky News.

“That’s exactly why we’re putting in place with ASIO the kind of mechanisms to keep Australian information and Australian people safe.”

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