More spies today in Australia than at the height of the Cold War, says intel chief

ASIO AustraliaThere are more foreign spies and their proxies operating today in Australia than during the height of the Cold War, according to the director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This claim was made on Monday by Mike Burgess, who in 2019 was appointed director of the ASIO —Australia’s primary domestic security agency. Burgess added that the level of threat Australia faces from foreign espionage and other foreign interference activities is “currently unprecedented”.

Burgess made these comments during the AFIO’s Annual Threat Assessment, a new project that aims to inform Australians about counterintelligence activities against their country and highlight AFIO’s response. The agency’s director said that Australia is being targeted by “sophisticated and persistent espionage and foreign interference activities” from “a range of nations”, which “are affecting parts of the community that they did not touch during the Cold War”.

Additionally, the instigators of espionage operations against Australia have “the requisite level of capability, the intent and the persistence to cause significant harm” to Australia’s national security, said Burgess. The country is being targeted due to its strategic position and its close alliances with the leading Western countries, he said, and added that Australia’s advanced science and technology posture also attracts foreign espionage.

Burgess illustrated his presentation using the example of an unnamed “foreign intelligence service” that allegedly sent what he described as “a sleeper agent” to Australia. The agent, said Burgess, remained dormant for a number of years, quietly building links with the business community. During that time, the agent remained in contact with his foreign handlers and provided “on-the-ground logistical support” for foreign spies who visited Australia to carry out espionage.

The ASIO director did not identify the alleged “sleeper agent”, or the foreign countries that he alleged are spying against Australia. When asked about Burgess’ claims, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the government would not name the countries behind the alleged espionage activities. Doing so, said Morrison, would not be in Australia’s national interest. Instead, “we’ll deal with this in Australia’s national interest, in the way we believe that’s best done”, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 February 2020 | Permalink

Unprecedented trial of ‘secret prisoner’ in Australia raises legal questions

Alexander Maconochie CentreAn unprecedented closed-door trial of a man identified only as “Witness J”, who was convicted earlier this year of a crime that cannot be revealed, has raised questions about the relationship between security and the law in Australia. The man, who is also known as “Prisoner 123458”, was sentenced to a jail sentence in February of this year. His sentencing came following a closed-door hearing, which was described by a judge as “generally undesirable” and “unusual”.

Witness J is believed to be in his mid-30s and to have served as an intelligence officer in the Australian military, with a Top Secret security clearance. According to ABC News, he served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor and had a distinguished service record. But he drew the attention of counterintelligence investigators in 2018, while undergoing a five-year re-evaluation of his security clearance status. During that time he was reportedly serving as a civilian in an undisclosed country in Southeast Asia.

ABC News said that “some anomalies in [Witness J’s] answers” —presumably while he was undergoing a polygraph test— raised further questions about whether “he could be compromised”. This, according to ABC News, coincided with the deterioration of his mental health, which led him to seek “internal help” from his employer on several occasions. Reportedly, his Top-Secret clearance status did not allow him to seek outside professional advice about his condition. Witness J was eventually jailed in mid-May 2018 and spent a month in solitary confinement. He was then placed in a high-security wing for serious sex offenders at the Alexander Maconochie Centre prison in Canberra. This was not because he was a sex offender, but because it was determined that he would be safer there than in the other wings of the prison.

In February of this year, Witness J was sentenced in a closed-door trial, held under the secrecy provisions of Australia’s 2004 National Security Act. Australia’s Attorney General, Christian Porter, told ABC that the information shared in Witness J’s hearing was “of a kind that could endanger the lives or safety of others”. The only reason why records of Witness J’s incarceration have appeared on the public record was because officers of the Australian Federal Police obtained a warrant to search his prison cell in order to confiscate a personal memoir that they allege the prisoner composed about his case during his incarceration.

It is believed that Witness J was released from prison in August of this year, 16 months before completing his sentence. He is not able to speak to the press, or identify himself in public in connection with this case. According to ABC News, he is only allowed to refer to his conviction as having been for “mishandling classified information”. Several experts have commented on the secret trial of Witness J One expert, Bret Walker, a barrister and former independent national security legislation monitor, told “ABC News that the case of Witness J was “a perfectly well-intentioned piece of national security legislation might not be operating in the way one would like”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 December 2019 | Permalink

As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Chinese defector reveals identities of Chinese undercover spies in Asia and Australia

Wang LiqiangA Chinese intelligence defector has reportedly given the Australian government information about entire networks of Chinese undercover spies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to reports. The story of Wang “William” Liqiang, made headlines all over Australia during the weekend, culminating in an entire episode of 60 Minutes Australia about him airing on Sunday. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son, who live in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai claim that Mr. Wang is a small-time criminal who has been found guilty of using fraudulent documents and has a 15-month suspended prison sentence on his record. In a statement issued on Sunday, China’s embassy in Canberra described Mr. Wang as a “convicted fraudster” who was “wanted by police after fleeing [China] on a fake passport”. But according to reports in the Australian media, Mr. Wang has provided the ASIO with a 17-page sworn statement, in which he details his work as an undercover intelligence officer. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they organize and implement espionage operations on behalf of Bejing.

In a leading article published on Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Mr. Wang as “the first Chinese operative to ever blow his cover” and claimed that he had given the ASIO “a trove of unprecedented inside intelligence” about Chinese espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The newspaper said that the defector had revealed details about entire networks of Chinese intelligence operatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also reportedly provided identifying information about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, Australian media said yesterday that the ASIO was examining allegations that a Chinese espionage ring tried to recruit an Australian businessman of Chinese background and convince him to run for parliament. According to reports, the spy ring approached Nick Zhao, a successful luxury car dealer, and offered to fund his political campaign with nearly $700,000 (AUS$1 million) if he run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Australia. Zhao reportedly told the ASIO about the incident last year, shortly before he was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. His death remains under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2019 | Permalink

Spies are known to use journalistic cover, claims Australian intelligence agency

ASIO AustraliaForeign spies are known to pose as journalists, which is why journalists should not be exempted from national security investigations, according to testimony by a senior Australian counterintelligence official. The testimony was given on Wednesday at a public hearing held in the Australian parliament to address a series of raids of journalists’ homes and offices by Australian Federal Police in June. The raids were carried out to assist in the investigation of a leak of classified documents in April of last year. According to the leaked documents, Australian government officials have been considering the possibility of authorizing the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to collect information on Australians for the first time in the country’s history. The ASD is Australia’s signals intelligence agency, and is equivalent to the Government Communications Headquarters in Britain and the National Security Agency in the United States. It is currently not allowed to collect information on Australian citizens.

At the parliamentary inquiry that started on Monday, members of the media have argued that journalists should have the right to scrutinize the government’s actions and that journalism in the public interest is not harmful to the national security of Australia. But this argument was refuted yesterday by Heather Cook, deputy director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australia’s primary counterintelligence agency. Cook warned that if Australia exempted journalists from national security investigations, hostile foreign powers would exploit journalism to spy on the country. She added that the journalistic profession was being “used nefariously” by foreign intelligence agencies to spy on Australia. “In Australia today, journalism is being used as a cover by foreign intelligence actors”, said Cook, and went on to note that “there is a long history of this worldwide”. She said that journalism offers a convenient cover for spies because it provides “access to senior people and sensitive information” held by those in power.

Journalistic covers are therefore used by “foreign intelligence actors” who seek to “exploit vulnerabilities” and harm the security of Australia, said Cook. She went on to claim that members of foreign intelligence agencies regularly attempt to recruit Australian journalists for purposes of espionage. “In light of this”, said Cook, “ASIO has concern about the concept of exemptions for particular classes of people in the community, such as journalists. Broad exemptions for the media and journalists would invite exploitation by foreign intelligence actors and may increase the intelligence threat faced by Australian journalists”, she concluded. Also on Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police said that it would not rule out further raids on journalists’ offices and homes.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2019 | Permalink

Australian ex-intelligence officer pleads guilty to disclosing spy operation

Bernard CollaeryAn Australian former intelligence officer will plead guilty to revealing an Australian spy operation against the impoverished nation of East Timor, which prompted international outcry and damaged Canberra’s reputation. IntelNews has covered the case of the former intelligence officer, known only as “Witness K.” since 2013, when it was first revealed. It is believed that Witness K. served as director of technical operations in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australia’s foreign-intelligence agency. In 2013, he publicly objected to an intelligence-collection operation that targeted the impoverished Pacific island nation of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor.

According to Witness K., a group of ASIS officers disguised themselves as members of a renovation crew and planted several electronic surveillance devices in an East Timorese government complex. The inside information gathered from those devices allegedly allowed the Australian government to gain the upper hand in a series of complex negotiations that led to the 2004 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty. The treaty awards Australia a share from profits from oil exploration in the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, which is claimed by both Australia and East Timor. But in 2013, the East Timorese government took Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, claiming that the CMATS treaty should be scrapped. The East Timorese argued that during the sensitive negotiations that preceded the CMATS treaty, the Australian government was in possession of intelligence acquired through illegal bugging.

The claim of the East Timorese government was supported by Witness K., who argued that ASIS’ espionage operation was both “immoral and wrong” because it was designed to benefit the interests of large energy conglomerates and had nothing to do with Australian national security. It is worth noting that Witness K. said he decided to reveal the ASIS bugging operation in 2012, after he learned that Australia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, had been hired as an adviser to Woodside Petroleum, an energy company that was directly benefiting from the CMATS treaty.

However, as soon as the East Timorese told the Permanent Court of Arbitration that they would be questioning a witness from ASIS, officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, raided the Canberra law offices of Bernard Collaery, East Timor’s lawyer in the case. The raiders took away documents that revealed the identity of Witness K., and then proceeded to detain him for questioning. They also confiscated his passport, which prevented him from traveling to the Netherlands to testify in the case. Read more of this post

New law to give Australian intelligence officers more rights to use firearms

Australian Secret Intelligence ServiceThe Australian government has proposed a new law that would give intelligence officers broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. If it is approved by parliament, the new law would apply to the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), a civilian intelligence agency that carries out covert and clandestine operations abroad. Modeled after Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), ASIS was established in 1952, but its existence was not officially acknowledged by the Australian government until 25 years later, in 1977.

In 2004, ASIS was given legal permission for the first time to use firearms during undercover operations abroad. However, under current Australian law, this is allowed only as a last resort. ASIS personnel engaged in overseas operations are allowed to employ firearms in self-defense or to protect their agents —foreigners that have been recruited by ASIS to spy for Australia. However, the current government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison argues that ASIS personnel must be given broader powers to exercise “reasonable force” via the use of firearms during overseas operations. In a speech on Wednesday, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said that the overseas environment in which ASIS operates today is more complex than that of 2004, when the current laws of engagement were enacted. She added that nowadays ASIS personnel work in more hazardous locations, including warzones, and carry out “more dangerous missions in new places and circumstances”.

The government argues that the proposed changes will allow ASIS personnel to “protect a broader range of people and use reasonable force if someone poses a risk to an operation”. The new law will give ASIS officers permission to open fire against adversaries in order to protect parties other than themselves —such as hostages— or to avoid getting captured. This, says the government, will allow them to efficiently “protect Australia and its interests”. The last time that the Australian government flirted with the idea of giving ASIS broader powers to use firearms during undercover operations was in 2010. That year, the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned a multimillion dollar independent review of the Australian intelligence community’s mission and operations. The review proposed that ASIS personnel be allowed more powers to carry and handle weapons while engaging in “paramilitary activities” outside Australia. But the proposal was never enacted into law.

The latest proposal by the Morrison administration is scheduled to be discussed in the Australian Parliament today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2018 | Permalink