20 February 2022

ASIO boss reaffirms agency's apolitical role

| Ian Bushnell
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ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess: “ASIO is not here to be politicised, it should not be.” Photo: ASIO.

ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess has reaffirmed the spy agency’s apolitical position in the wake of Federal Government claims in Parliament that Labor was China’s preferred choice to win the upcoming election.

Appearing before Senate estimates on Monday night, Mr Burgess was asked about the importance of the agency’s apolitical stance, the misuse of information and his response generally if that were to occur.

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally questioned Mr Burgess in the context of his revelation about a foiled plot by a foreign country to interfere in the coming federal election, subsequent claims in parliament by Defence Minister Peter Dutton and the possible weaponisation of intelligence for political purposes.

Mr Dutton referred to media reports when he told parliament last Thursday: “We now see evidence, Mr Speaker, that the Chinese Communist party, the Chinese Government, has also made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next federal election, Mr Speaker, and that is open and that is obvious, and they have picked this bloke [Labor leader Anthony Albanese] as that candidate.”

This is despite, as Mr Burgess said in his opening statement to estimates, that he deliberately chose not to identify the “election, jurisdiction, party, the individuals who were targeted or the country attempting to conduct that interference parties”.

Media reports since Mr Burgess’s threat assessment have said China was behind a plot to bankroll certain NSW Labor candidates.

Mr Burgess confirmed in estimates the accuracy of a conversation he had with the Opposition Leader, about which Mr Albanese said the ASIO boss had not raised concerns about any Labor candidates.

“Attempts at political interference are not confined to one side of politics, and you’d be surprised at the range of countries involved,” he told Senators.

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Mr Burgess said that ASIO was proudly apolitical and was required by law to be so.

It took its reputation very seriously, and if any intelligence was not used in the national interest that would be a problem.

“ASIO is not here to be politicised, it should not be,” he said.

“We’re here to protect Australians from threats, we are guided by law and that law requires us to act in an apolitical fashion and not lend favour to one element of society or another, or one party or another,” Mr Burgess said.

He agreed with Senator Keneally’s statement that any misuse of intelligence could undermine the agency’s credibility and mission if it were to be seen as a partisan player.

“Absolutely, you need the confidence of the people we protect,” Mr Burgess said.

He reaffirmed that he was willing and able to take on politicians including ministers who might use information ASIO might provide for partisan advantage.

“I can be very clear that I am able and do have very robust conversations with all elements of the political class that I need to, and in the official world to make it very clear what I think is appropriate and not appropriate, and I have the ability to do that as a statutory officer, and I can assure you that I will continue to do that when things like this happen,” he said.

Mr Burgess also had some advice for public servants on how to respond to the threat environment he raised last week, including inadvertently revealing sensitive information on social media or being compromised or cultivated by foreign spies via dating apps.

“My key advice to anyone is be guided by the same instincts and values that guide you in every other form of your engagement and be open, transparent and accountable for the actions that you take,” he said.

“That’s a winning formula.”

Mr Burgess said last week that in the past two years, thousands of Australians with access to sensitive information had been targeted by foreign spies using social media profiles, making seemingly innocuous approaches such as job offers.

“This then progresses to direct messaging on different, encrypted platforms, or in-person meetings, before a recruitment pitch is made,” he said.

Mr Burgess said there had been a surge in approaches on professional networking sites and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp during the pandemic.

“It’s an easy way for foreign intelligence services to target employees of interest,” he said.

ASIO was also tracking suspicious approaches on dating platforms such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge that could compromise public servants with access to sensitive information.

“My message for any potential victims on these sites is a familiar one – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Mr Burgess warned.

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HiddenDragon7:51 pm 17 Feb 22

Such an entertaining week, and it’s not quite over yet – this aspect has been like watching Smiley’s People perform this –

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Let%27s_Be_Beastly_to_the_Germans

That’s interesting. I don’t recall any reaction to the Labor Government accusing John Howard our former LNP PM of using national security to secure an election win. It must be a case of it’s alright for Labor but not alright for a LNP PM. Well, I support the LNP PM on this one as it is a government’s FIRST DUTY to protect it’s citizens. I don’t fancy being jackbooted on by the Chinese or the Russians thank you.

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