News you may have missed #902

asio australiaAustralian spy agency seeks expanded powers. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) says it needs expanded powers to question suspected foreign spies and their helpers, because there are more currently operating in the country than at the height of the Cold War. A bill introduced to parliament this month would expand ASIO’s existing powers to subject people to compulsory questioning, which it has used 16 times since 2003 but only for terrorism-related intelligence gathering. “The threats posed today by espionage and foreign interference operate at a scale, breadth and ambition that has not previously been seen in Australia”, ASIO says in its submission to parliament.
US Intelligence Community seeks new COIVD-19 tracking tools. In a call issued last week, the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or IARPA, said it is seeking new tools for rapidly diagnosing COVID in people with and without symptoms, via contact-less methods such as breath analysis. IARPA, which operates as the US Intelligence Community’s search lab, says it is also seeking tools for contact tracing among populations without mobile phones, via the Internet-of-things or other means -and do it while preserving privacy.
Why printers add secret tracking dots. These “microdots” are well known to security researchers and civil liberties campaigners. Many color printers add them to documents without people ever knowing they’re there. There is a long-running debate over whether it is ethical for printers to be attaching this information to documents without users knowing. In fact, there has even been a suggestion that it is a violation of human rights. Still, many believe that the use of covert measures to ensure the secrecy of classified documents remains necessary in some cases.

US threatens to end intelligence sharing if Australian state joins Chinese venture

Belt and Road InitiativeThe United States has warned that it might be forced to stop sharing intelligence with Australia if the country’s second most populous state enters into a much-heralded investment agreement with China. The Australian state of Victoria has said it intends to join Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a worldwide investment venture that was announced with much fanfare by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

The initial goal of the venture was to encourage economic cooperation between China and countries of the Eurasian region. Eventually, the project’s scope expanded to include agreements with countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, mostly through the Chinese-led construction of telecommunications and transportation networks, which trace the trading routes of the Silk Road of ancient times.

Although Australia is not a participant in the Belt and Road Initiative, the Australian state of Victoria announced its decision to join the project in late 2019. The decision has been criticized by senior Australian federal officials, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. These officials argue that any interference by China in the Australian national telecommunications network could compromise the national security of the country as a whole.

On Sunday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Australia that Washington would look “incredibly closely” at aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative affecting telecommunications. Pompeo, who was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency before his current post, told Sky News that some aspects of the project were designed to “build up the capacity of the Chinese Communist Party to do harm” around the world.

In his interview, Pompeo referred to the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance (also known as “UKUSA”), which is a longstanding intelligence-sharing agreement between the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He added that the US government was concerned that the Victoria state government’s decision to participate in the Chinese venture project could “have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens, or security networks for our defense and intelligence communities”.

If that were to happen, said Pompeo, then the US would “not take any risks to our telecommunications infrastructure, [or] any risk to the national security elements of what we need to do with our Five Eyes partners”. In the US government determined that these risks were real, “we simply disconnect, we will simply separate”, Pompeo concluded.

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

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

Australian police offer reward for information about murder of ex-KGB colonel

Gennadi BernovskiPolice in the Australian state of Queensland have offered a $250,000 (US $182,000) reward for information that can help solve the murder of a former Soviet KGB colonel 18 years ago. The victim, Gennadi Bernovski, worked in the domestic wing of the Soviet KGB, until his retirement, which coincided with the dissolution of the USSR. In 1996, he moved to Australia with his family and bought a house in Benowa Waters, a luxury suburb of Gold Coast, a city located south of Brisbane on the country’s east coast. But on the evening of July 24, 2000, Bernovski was shot to death outside his home by what witnesses said were two men in combat diver suits. They reportedly opened fire on Bernovski with a semi-automatic weapon, wounding him fatally in the stomach. He was dead within a few minutes. It is believed that the assailants sailed to Bernovski’s waterfront property on an inflatable boat, or swam there, having first sailed to the nearby seaside.

Since Bernovski’s murder, Australian authorities have refused to answer questions about how the former KGB colonel came to settle in the country, and whether he was given political asylum by the Australian government. They have also refused to answer questions relating to Bernovski’s citizenship at the time of his murder. Some reports have pointed out that he was an Australian citizen when he was murdered. Furthermore, little is known about his financial status or sources of income, though it is believed that he had access to “multiple bank accounts in Russia and Australia”. On Thursday, spokespersons for the Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Police Department refused to provide information on the investigators’ current working hypothesis about who might have been responsible for Bernovski’s murder. They were also asked whether some family members of the late former KGB officer continue to reside in Australia under assumed names, but declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Department of the Australian Attorney-General said that the new reward offer was aimed at “cracking a cold case”, which is a routine police practice for unsolved crimes. She did not comment, however, on media speculation that police sought to interview another Russian national, Oleg Kouzmine, who was living in Gold Coast during the time of Bernovski’s murder. According to reports, Kouzmine is now living in another country, which means that Australian authorities would need to seek the cooperation of a foreign law enforcement agency in order to gain access to him. However, the Attorney-General Department spokeswoman told reporters on Thursday that, “as a matter of longstanding practice, the Australian government does not confirm whether it has made a request for assistance to a foreign country in a criminal matter”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 November 2018 | Permalink

Australia continues to detain whistleblower who revealed espionage behind oil deal

Bernard CollaeryAustralia continues to deny freedom of movement to a former intelligence officer who revealed that Canberra bugged government offices in the small island nation of Timor-Leste, in an effort to secure a lucrative oil deal. The former intelligence officer, known only as “Witness K.”, is believed to be a former 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, known also as East Timor.

According to Witness K., a group of ASIS officers disguised themselves as members of a renovation crew and planted numerous electronic surveillance devices in an East Timorese government complex. The inside information collected 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 claimed that during the sensitive negotiations that preceded the CMATS treaty, the Australian government was in possession of intelligence acquired through ASIS 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. But 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 disclosed 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

Espionage threat is greater now than in Cold War, Australian agency warns

ASIO AustraliaForeign intelligence collection and espionage threats against Australia are greater today than at any time during the Cold War, according to a senior Australian intelligence official. The claim was made on Wednesday by Peter Vickery, deputy director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s primary counterintelligence agency. He was speaking before a parliamentary committee that is considering aspects of a proposed bill, which aims to combat foreign influence on Australian political and economic life. If enacted, the bill would require anyone who is professionally advocating or campaigning in favor of “foreign entities” to register with the government. Several opposition parties and groups, including the Catholic Church, have expressed concern, saying that the bill is too broad and could curtail the political and religious freedoms of Australians.

But ASIO has come out strongly in favor of the proposed bill. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Vickery warned that Australia is today facing more threats from espionage than during the Cold War. “Whilst [the Cold War] was obviously a very busy time” for ASIO, said Vickery, his agency’s assessment is that Cold War espionage was “not on the scale we are experiencing today” in Australia. During the Cold War, ASIO was cognizant and aware of the major adversaries, he added. But today, the espionage landscape features “a raft of unknown players”, many of whom operate on behalf of non-state actors, said Vickery. The phenomenon of globalization further-complicates counterintelligence efforts, he added, because foreign espionage can be conducted from afar with little effort. Vickery noted that espionage and foreign influence in Australia “is not something that we think might happen, or possibly could happen. It is happening now against Australian interests in Australia and Australian interests abroad”. He also warned that the public knows little about the extent of espionage and foreign-influence operations taking place “at a local, state and federal level” throughout the country.

Earlier this week, the Catholic Church of Australia came out in opposition to the proposed legislation, which it sees as too broad. The religious denomination, which represents approximately 20 percent of the country’s population, said that the bill was too broad and could force Australian Catholics to register as agents of a foreign power. Technically, the Catholic Church is headquartered at the Vatican, which would make the organization a foreign entity under the proposed bill, the Church said in a statement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2018 | Permalink

Australian spy agency says it is facing ‘unprecedented’ espionage threat

ASIO AustraliaThe primary intelligence agency of Australia says its resources are overextended as the country faces “espionage and foreign interference [of an] unprecedented” scale. In its annual report to the Australian houses of parliament, which was produced on Tuesday, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) says it lacks resources to counter “harmful espionage” and “malicious activity” against the country. The unclassified report is published every year as a summary of a much longer classified report, which is shared with senior government officials and senior civil servants. It is endorsed by ASIO Director Duncan Lewis, who serves as Australia’s Director-General of Security.

In its report for 2016-2017, the ASIO said its officers identified “a number of states and other actors” that were “conducting espionage and foreign interference against Australia”. Many of these were “foreign intelligence services”, which used a variety of intelligence-collection methods of seeking “access to privileged and/or classified information on Australia’s alliances and partnerships”. Foreign intelligence services also spied for information on Canberra’s position on various economic, diplomatic and military issues, and sought information on the country’s energy policy and the volume of its energy and mineral resources. Additionally, espionage was detected against Australian scientific and technical research centers, says the report.

The report goes on to describe the ASIO’s counterterrorism investigations and operations as being of “high volume and tempo”, and states that its services were sought “in higher levels” than ever by “many across both government and industry”. Combined with the “unprecedented scale” of espionage and foreign interference against Australia that it is called to combat, these demands meant that ASIO’s resources would “remain overextended” in the new year, according to the report.

In the past year, the agency says it was able to identify “foreign powers” that secretly sought to influence Australian public opinion, and shape the views of Australian media professionals, industry and government officials, and others, on matters that advanced the interests of other countries, says the report. There was also espionage by foreign powers against members of ethnic communities in Australia, as well as harassment and other covert influence operations that sought to minimize criticism of foreign governments by members of those ethic communities.

The unclassified ASIO report does not identify the “foreign powers” that allegedly sponsored espionage operations against Australia, nor does it specify whether any foreign agents were apprehended, jailed or expelled from the country for carrying out espionage.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 October 2017 | Permalink

Australia rejected CIA request to open embassy in North Korea

PyongyangAustralia rejected a secret request by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to open an embassy in North Korea, which the Americans hoped to use as a base from where to collect intelligence on the communist state. According to The Australian newspaper, Washington approached the Australian government because it is one of the few pro-Western governments that continue to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Up until 1975, Australia was a rare example of a country that hosted embassies of both South Korea and North Korea on its soil. But when Canberra took South Korea’s side in a United Nations vote, the North Koreans objected by shutting down their embassy in Australia. A quarter of a century later, in 2000, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in the Australian capital, only to close it down again in 2008, due to financial constraints.

Throughout that time, Australia has maintained relatively smooth diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has refrained from opening a residential mission in the communist country. Instead, employees of Australia’s embassy in South Korea occasionally travel to the North to perform diplomatic tasks. But in 2014, the US Department of State reached out to Canberra to request that the Australian government consider the possibility of establishing a permanent residential mission in Pyongyang. According to The Australian, the request came from the CIA, which hoped to use the Australian embassy as a base from where to collect intelligence on the isolated country. The US, which lacks an embassy in North Korea, has always found it difficult to collect intelligence there.

The American request was promptly communicated to the then-Prime Minister Tonny Abbott and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Both appeared willing to consider Washington’s proposal. But the civil servants of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were tasked with putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the request, came back with a negative response. They allegedly contacted their colleagues working in other countries who maintain permanent residential diplomatic missions in Pyongyang. They told them that their consular employees are kept in complete isolation from North Korean society and government. Additionally, they are subjected to constant surveillance by the North Koreans, who are extremely suspicious of all foreign diplomats. Moreover, Canberra was worried that opening an embassy in Pyongyang would inevitably be seen by the North Koreans as an invitation to reopen their embassy in Australia. It would require significant effort and resources to monitor the activities of North Korean diplomats, who are notorious for abusing their diplomatic status by engaging in illicit activities of all kinds.

Eventually, therefore, the US request was rejected by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The latter concluded that Canberra should not proceed with opening a new embassy in Pyongyang, despite the allegedly “strong suggestion” of the CIA. The matter, said The Australian, never reach the cabinet and Washington never brought it up again.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2017 | Permalink

Australian parliament reviews use of Chinese-made cell phones

ZTE CorporationThe Parliament of Australia is reportedly reviewing the use of cell phones built by a Chinese manufacturer, after an Australian news agency expressed concerns about the manufacturer’s links with the Chinese military. The cell phone in question is the popular Telstra Tough T55 handset. It is made available to Australian parliamentarians though the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) unit of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DST). Any parliamentarian or worker in Australia’s Parliament House can order the device through the Parliament’s ICT website. According to data provided by the DST, 90 Telstra Tough T55 cell phones have been ordered through the ICT in the current financial year.

The handset is manufactured by ZTE Corporation, a leading Chinese telecommunications equipment and systems company that is headquartered in the city of Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province. On Monday, the News Corp Australia Network, a major Australian news agency, said it had contacted the parliament with information that ZTE Corporation’s links to the Chinese military may be of concern. News Corp said it informed the DST that members of the United States Congress and the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, have expressed serious concerns about the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer in recent years.

As intelNews reported in 2010, three American senators told the US Federal Communications Commission that the ZTE was “effectively controlled by China’s civilian and military intelligence establishment”. The senators were trying to prevent a proposed collaboration between American wireless telecommunications manufacturers and two Chinese companies, including ZTE Corporation. In 2012, the intelligence committee of the US House of Representatives investigated similar concerns. It concluded that telephone handsets manufactured by ZTE should not be used by US government employees due to the company’s strong links with the Chinese state. And in 2016, US-based security firm Kryptowire warned that some ZTE cell phone handsets contained a suspicious backdoor feature that could potentially allow their users’ private data to be shared with remote servers at regular intervals.

A DST spokesman told the News Corp Australia Network that the ZTE-manufactured cell phones had been selected for use by Australian parliamentarians based on “technical and support requirements, [DST] customers’ feedback and cost”. The spokesman added that the DST “is currently reviewing the ongoing suitability” of the T55 handsets, following reports about ZTE’s links with China’s security establishment.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 September 2017 | Permalink