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

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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

Australia concerned about Chinese firm’s involvement in undersea cable project

Sogavare and TurnbullAustralia has expressed concern about a plan by a Chinese telecommunications company to provide high-speed Internet to the Solomon Islands, a small Pacific island nation with which Australia shares Internet resources. The company, Huawei Technologies, a private Chinese venture, is one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers. In recent years, however, it has come under scrutiny by Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China.

One of Huawei’s most recent large-scale projects involves the Solomon Islands, a former British overseas territory that became independent in 1978 and is today a sovereign nation. The Pacific country consist of a complex of nearly 1,000 islands of different sizes, scattered over a distance of 11,000 square miles. It lies northeast of Australia and directly east of Papua New Guinea. In 2014, the government of the Solomon Islands began an ambitious project to connect its Internet servers to those of Australia via a 2,700-mile undersea fiber optic cable. The ultimate goal of the project is to provide Solomon Islands inhabitants with reliable high-speed Internet. The project was approved by Canberra (Australian government) and Sydney (Australian private sector) and given the green light by the Asian Development Bank, which promised to fund it. But in 2016 the Solomon Islands government suddenly named Huawei Marine as the project’s main contractor. Huawei Marine, a subsidiary of Huawei Technologies, is a joint venture between the Chinese firm and Global Marine Systems, a British-headquartered company that installs undersea telecommunications cables.

The news was greeted with concern in Canberra. The Australian intelligence community has previously warned that Huawei operates as an arm of the Chinese spy services. Intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom and the United States have issued similar warnings. In 2011, a report by a research unit of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Huawei Technologies relied on a series of formal and informal contacts with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of State Security. But a subsequent 18-month review commissioned by the White House found no evidence that Huawei spied for the Chinese government.

Canberra is concerned that, by constructing the Solomon Islands undersea cable, Huawei would be “plugging into Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure backbone”, something that, according to some intelligence officials, “presents a fundamental security issue”. To further-complicate things, opposition officials in the Solomon Islands allege that the country’s government contracted the services of Huawei after the Chinese company promised to make a multi-million dollar donation to the ruling political party. Last June, the director of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Nick Warner, visited the Solomon Islands and tried to convince the country’s Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, to drop Huawei from the project. The topic was also discussed in a meeting between Mr. Sogavare and his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, in Canberra last week. Following the meeting, the Solomon Islands leader said that his government would “continue to have discussions with the Australian government to see how we can solve that […] security issue”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 August 2017 | Permalink

Indonesia halts joint military training with Australia ‘over espionage fears’

Indonesia AustraliaThe Indonesian military has halted all forms of cooperation with the armed forces of Australia, with some media reports suggesting that the decision was prompted by fears of espionage. Indonesia and Australia have held joined military training sessions for many decades. In recent weeks, members of the Kopassus, the elite special forces of the Indonesian military, were training on a base in Perth, Australia, with their counterparts in the Australian Special Air Service. On Wednesday, however, the Indonesian government said that it was suspending all military cooperation with Canberra, effective immediately.

The unexpected announcement was made by a spokesman of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, who said that “all forms of cooperation with the Australian military, including joint training” would be “temporarily withheld”. When asked about the reasons behind the sudden move, the spokesman said it was “due to multiple reasons”, but refused to give specifics. Later on Wednesday, Indonesian officials said some print material had been found at the training center in Perth, which offended the Indonesian people. But Australian media suggested that the Indonesian government had decided to terminate the joint military training program because it feared that its special forces troops would be recruited as spies by the Australians. Some reports brought up some relevant comments made in November of last year by a senior Indonesian military official, General Gatot Nurmantyo. The general said he had ended military cooperation between troops under his command and their Australian colleagues due to fears that his troops may be compromised by the Australians during training.

But Australia’s Minister of Defense, Marise Payne, rejected that Australian espionage activities were behind Jakarta’s surprise decision. Speaking on ABC Radio on Wednesday, Payne said it was “not the case” that Australian intelligence officers had tried to recruit Indonesian soldiers. That “is something which we would not countenance”, she said. In 2013, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador from Canberra and terminated all military and intelligence cooperation with Australia, after it emerged that Australian spies had targeted the communications of the Indonesian President and other senior officials. But tensions subsided in August of 2014, when the two countries signed a joint agreement aimed at curbing their intelligence activities against each other. The last time Australia and Indonesia halted military cooperation was in 1999, when it was revealed that Kopassus troops had taken part in human rights abuses in East Timor. But the joint training was resumed in 2002, after the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, many of them Australian tourists.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 January | Permalink

Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink

Is Chinese salvage ship searching for flight MH370 spying on Australia?

DONG HAI JIU 101The Chinese embassy in Canberra has strongly denied accusations that a Chinese government ship involved in the international effort to find the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is spying on the Royal Australian Navy. The ship, the Dong Hai Jiu 101, is a salvage and rescue vessel built in Shanghai in 2012 and currently sailing under the Chinese flag. In April, the Chinese government contracted the Dong Hai Jiu 101 to join the international search effort for the wreckage of Flight MH370. The Boeing 777 aircraft disappeared over the South China Sea on March 8, 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, to the Beijing Capital International Airport in China.

Only a few pieces of debris, purportedly belonging to the plane, have been found, despite the most extensive and costly search in aviation history. The coordinated international search began off the coast of Thailand last year and is currently focused on the seabed off the city of Perth in Western Australia. The Dong Hai Jiu 101 has been sailing in the area since April of this year, along with three other search and rescue vessels. Last week, however, The Australian newspaper published interviews with several security experts who expressed the opinion that the Dong Hai Jiu 101 may be collecting intelligence on Australia for the Chinese government. The alleged intelligence collection is probably of maritime nature and probably involves hydrophonic instrumentation to track submarine movements, said the experts.

But the Chinese government responded quickly, issuing a strong denial through its embassy in Canberra. An embassy spokesman reminded The Australian that 154 of 239 passengers and crew on Flight MH370 were Chinese, and therefore Beijing has a “strong obligation” to participate in the international search effort. Additionally, said the statement, the Chinese vessel is sailing off the Australian coast with the consent of the Australian government, and in coordination with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, using underwater search equipment supplied by an American-based company. The Australian government has not made a statement on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 September 2016 | Permalink