ASIO Director General Mike Burgess. Picture Kym Smith
ASIO Director General Mike Burgess. Picture Kym Smith

How ‘sleeper agent’ operated in Australia

Australia's intelligence chief has revealed the nation is facing an "unprecedented'' threat from foreign spies.

ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess said the threat posed by foreign espionage and interference was higher now than at the height of the Cold War.

And he said the number of foreign intelligence officers and their proxies operating on Australian soil was greater than during the cold war period, and many of them had the "capability, intent and the persistence to cause significant harm to our national security.''

"Some of the tactics being used against us are so sophisticated, they sound like they've sprung from the pages of a cold war thriller,'' Mr Burgess said in Canberra on Tuesday night as he delivered his first threat assessment since taking over the domestic spy agency last year.

"Regardless of the methods employed by hostile services and nation states, Australia is currently the target of sophisticated and persistent espionage and foreign interference activities from a range of nations.''

Mr Burgess, speaking before an audience which included members of the Five-Eyes intelligence community, gave some detail on disrupted foreign spying operations, including:

• Cases where foreign spies travelled to Australia to set up sophisticated hacking infrastructure targeting computers containing sensitive and classified information;

• Visiting scientists and academics "ingratiating themselves into university life with the aim of conducting clandestine intelligence collection.'';

• "Hostile'' intelligence services threatening and intimidating Australians on home soil; and

• A "sleeper agent'' sent to Australia who lay dormant for years, building business and community links before feeding information to his spymasters offshore about Australian-based expatriate dissidents.

Mr Burgess said the sleeper agent had also taken "significant cash payments'' to provide logistic support for visiting spies.

"These are the sort of insidious activities ASIO works to detect and disrupt every day,'' he said.

Mr Burgess also said Islamic extremism remained the most significant threat to Australian security, and the number of terrorism leads ASIO was investigating had doubled since this time last year.

"The threat of terrorism at home is probable and will remain unacceptably high for the foreseeable future,'' he said, warning that extremists were trying to recruit children as young as 13.


ASIO Director General Mike Burgess. Picture: AAP
ASIO Director General Mike Burgess. Picture: AAP


He said events in the UK had shown the risk posed by convicted jihadis being released from jail.

"We cannot afford to become complacent about the potential threat posed by terrorists after their release from prison.''

He also said Right-wing extremist groups remained a threat and while any attack carried out by such a group would likely be "low capability'', involving a knife, gun or vehicle, "more sophisticated attacks were possible''.





"Earlier this year, ASIO advice led to an Australian being stopped from leaving the country to fight with an extreme right wing group on a foreign battlefield,'' he said.

He also said encrypted communications "damaged intelligence coverage'' in nine out of 10 priority counter-terrorism cases.

Those comments come at a time when the Government is considering giving Australia's cyber-spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, new powers to use its cyber attacking capacities on domestic cases for the first time.