Former politician caught in spy ring ‘neutralised’

Dominic Giannini |

ASIO chief Mike Burgess revealed a foreign “A-team” managed to recruit a former politician.
ASIO chief Mike Burgess revealed a foreign “A-team” managed to recruit a former politician.

A former Australian politician who was caught up in a foreign spy ring and was accused of selling out their country will not be pursued. 

The director-general of intelligence organisation ASIO used an annual threat assessment address to unveil a dedicated unit within a foreign spy service was targeting Australia. 

The “A-team”, or Australia team, had managed to recruit a former politician who “sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime”, director-general Mike Burgess said. 

The former politician also flagged introducing a prime minister’s family member to the spies but the plot did not go ahead.

The person was not active any more and had been “neutralised”, he said.

“They’re not doing it now, they’re not breaking the law,” he told reporters and intelligence community brass at his annual address on Wednesday.

“If we see them go active again, I can guarantee they’ll get caught.”

“Several individuals should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective,” Mr Burgess said.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess
Mr Burgess put the “A-team” unit on notice after declassifying the information. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

The spies posed as consultants, head-hunters, local government officials, academics and researchers and targeted students, academics, politicians, businesspeople, law enforcement officials and public servants.

The offered cash for information, with premiums for insider details. 

The ring also flew academics and political figures to another country for an all-expenses-paid trip where they ended up meeting spies disguised as bureaucrats.

The A-team then managed to pry information about Australia’s national security and defence from one academic weeks later.

Mr Burgess put the unit on notice after declassifying the information.

 “We want the A-team’s bosses to know its cover is blown,” he said.

“I want the A-team and its masters to understand if they target Australia, ASIO will target them.

“We will make their jobs as difficult, costly and painful as possible.”

Arrests were not the only way of breaking up these rings or countering foreign interference, he said. 

Other actions included working with partners to cancel visas or directly confronting spies or their organisations. 

Mr Burgess said he had spoken with his counterparts from other nations and told them to stop their actions or face reprisals “and they usually do”.

While the usual suspects were conducting espionage, so were friendly nations, he said.

ASIO’s Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce has conducted more than 120 operations since it was stood up in mid-2020.

Plots included a foreign agent trying to track a dissident in Australia and getting a quote from someone to “take severe action” against them and another spy agency trying to find an Australian willing to make a dissident “disappear”.

Sabotage is also an increasing threat, with one nation trying to scan critical infrastructure in Australia, including water, transport and energy networks in a highly sophisticated and secretive manner, Mr Burgess said.

While companies were moving ahead with bolstering cybersecurity and vulnerabilities, it was not “as fast as we should”, the director-general said. 

Terrorism also remained a threat, with ASIO investigating multiple people who had discussed committing terrorism in Australia, Mr Burgess said.

And although the threat of terrorism had reduced in scale, it had increased in complexity, he said.