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