Australia spy says interference poses unprecedented threat

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia faces an unprecedented threat from espionage and foreign interference but bans on such covert meddling are paying dividends, an Australian spymaster said.

Security Intelligence Organization Director-General Mike Burgess did not identify the countries behind the threats to Australia.

“The level of threat we face from foreign espionage and activities is currently unprecedented,” Burgess said in a speech late Monday that was his first annual threat assessment.

Minor party Sen. Rex Patrick called on the Australian government to call out China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, as a major source of the interference.

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“One thing that is missing from the dialogue is calling out the state actor involved,” Patrick said Tuesday.

“It’s almost certain that in a number of foreign interference circumstances that it is China and we should be calling them out, as the Canadians do, as the U.S. does and the Czechs do,” he added.

But Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who is responsible for Burgess’ secret service, said the threat was multi-pronged.

“We’re not just talking about China. We’re talking about Russia, we’re talking about Iran and we’re talking about others,” Dutton told Sky News television.

Chinas has long denied any foreign interference.

Burgess said the foreign interference in Australia was unprecedented “because of its scale, breadth and ambition.”

Almost every sector was at risk including government, media and universities.

“We’ve seen visiting scientists and academics ingratiating themselves into university life with the aim of conducting clandestine intelligence collection,” Burgess said. “This strikes at the very heart of our notions of free and fair academic exchange.”

Australia angered China in 2018 by enacting sweeping national security legislation that banned covert foreign interference in domestic politics and made industrial espionage for a foreign power a crime.

Individuals lobbying for foreign governments now have to be listed on a public register in a step toward making foreign influence on Australian politics more transparent.

Burgess said the legislation “is already bringing dividends and is likely to grow in importance for us.”

The Counter Foreign Interference Task Force, established last year to protect universities from foreign meddling, would “become a vital element of our strategy to defeat this threat,” Burgess said.

The task force also includes a research and intellectual property working group to protect academic freedom and intellectual property. It also safeguards universities against deception and undue influence.

A foreign collaboration working group ensures that collaborations with foreign entities are transparent and don’t harm Australia’s interests.

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