The head of ASIO has warned that hacking and foreign intervention will soon overtake terrorism as the top security concern.
Australia's spy chief has warned that the country is facing a serious threat that will quickly overtake terrorism as the country's most serious security concern.
If world events do not improve, the head of Australia's intelligence agency has warned that espionage and foreign intervention would soon overtake terrorism as the country's primary security concern.
Director-General of Security Mike Burgess of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said the department looked at "threats to life" and "threats to way of life" in a rare interview with Sky News on Thursday.
Mr Burgess said, "They're both extremely significant."
“You can't get any more extreme than someone losing their life as a result of a violent terrorist killing them.”
But, of course, if nations are intervening in another country covertly, then it's a slow-burning, corrosive process, we can change our way of life. It is a very serious matter, and we must focus our attention on what is happening and how we can prevent it.”
Currently, terrorism is ASIO's "principal security concern," but Mr Burgess said that espionage and foreign interference were at a "unacceptably high level," and that "I expect espionage and foreign interference to supplant terrorism as our principal security concern" in the future.
Terrorism, politically or ideologically motivated crime, spying, foreign intervention, attacks on defense networks, border protection, and sabotage are all issues that ASIO is worried about, according to Mr Burgess.
“Sabotage is just what it sounds like,” he said. “When you consider global tensions and the modern world in which we live, we are worried that malicious software may be placed on networks for the purpose of disruption or sabotage — that is a real concern. I can also inform you and your audience that steps are being taken at all levels of government to resolve those concerns.”
ASIO announced earlier this month that it had destroyed a "nest of spies" operating in Australia last year.
The spies allegedly formed relationships with current and former officials, a foreign embassy, and a state police service. Their country of origin was not identified by ASIO, but terror expert Greg Barton described it as "almost definitely" Russia.
They also tried to acquire confidential information about Australia's trading ties and enlisted the help of an Australian government security clearance holder with access to sensitive Defence technology data.
Mr Burgess told Sky News that spying is carried out by almost every country in the world, and that "many countries are attempting to do so here in Australia."
“The stuff I've spoken about – military secrets, policymakers' intentions, what they're really thinking, our export markets, research, tech sector, and medical skills – would be of interest to many countries,” he said.
However, he stated that ASIO's job was to "identify the danger and deal with it," rather than to publicly criticize other countries.
“That is obviously a government matter,” he said, “because when a government decides to assign some kind of spying or intervention activity to a nation, they have to weigh a whole range of other factors that I really wouldn't and don't need to get involved in.”
“I believe that attribution is a waste of time because, in the end, we all do it. If I aim my finger at you and accuse you of espionage, three fingers would point back at me — Australia does the same thing. As a result, use caution when naming countries.
“Sometimes, however, it is right for governments to do it when someone has crossed a line — it's not just the stealing of a military secret, it's something more, more offensive or harmful to our country, and governments are better positioned to make that judgment.”
Mr Burgess was also questioned about the growing danger posed by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other politically oriented groups, which now account for 40% of the agency's caseload.
He stressed the importance of distinguishing between religious extremism and ideological extremism.
“The key skills for penetrating and obtaining knowledge are the same,” he explained, “but the people you're working with are different, so you need different approaches and methods.”
When asked why it was called "religiously inspired" rather than "Islamic terrorism," which he said was responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks, Mr Burgess said that was "not true."
“There is no denying that has been a dominant force over the last 20 years, but that is not actually true over the history of this world,” he said.
“Students of history will know that other sects have done heinous things in the name of their faith, so it isn't entirely accurate.”
However, he added that another reason to differentiate between faith and ideology is the changing nature of the threats, citing the example of "incels," or "involuntary celibates."
“Those who hold this view of forced celibacy, the philosophy, the ‘incel' movement – it is not religious, it is something entirely new, and it does not fit into the traditional categories we previously used,” he explained.
“We need words to help us understand what we're seeing,” says the researcher.
Mr Burgess was questioned about why more right-wing groups were not formally designated as terrorist organizations, as Labor had demanded.
The neo-Nazi Sonnenkrieg Division, based in the United Kingdom, is currently the only party in the process of being classified.
Mr Burgess said that his priority was “identifying the people who are going to commit violence against Australians and working with our police partners to prevent that.”
If listing or not, he said, "we're watching." However, he said that many of the groups targeted by ASIO "simply wouldn't meet the legal threshold" to be classified as terrorist organizations.
“The other important thing to remember is that some of the groups we're looking at today can't be compared to ISIL or al-Qaeda because there is no Caliphate in the Grampians,” he said.
“You may have a meeting of the National Socialist Network there, but that is not the same as ISIL.
Yes, their philosophy is repulsive to people like me and most ordinary Australians, but is that the same as encouraging violence and terrorism? When comparing the two, we must exercise extreme caution. That's why ASIO's attention is on figuring out whether what they're saying is just talk or whether they're really going to do anything. Identify those that may cause harm and take action against them. That must be our primary focus.”
Mr Burgess said it was a "very hard" question to pinpoint the turning point that would prompt authorities to act.
He said, "Some of these groups we're looking at are really nice, they understand the law."
“So they know what to say and do while they're together in their clubhouses or chatting in the Grampians, they know not to break the rule. That could be because they aren't planning to break the law or commit acts of crime, or it could simply be that they don't want to reveal it.
“That's our opportunity, that's our intelligence mission; we need to get close to them so we can figure out what they're doing and what they want to do.”
Mr Burgess is speaking out in order to inspire more Australians to volunteer for positions in ASIO and other security agencies.
The best and brightest in Australia's shadowy intelligence services may not make as much money as they might in the private sector, but "they're here to make a difference, not to make a buck," says one insider.
“There's something unique about the motivation; you can see how your job benefits this country and the welfare of your fellow Australians — there's something really important about that,” he said.
“People are intelligent. We seek intelligent, curious individuals who are imaginative, inventive problem solvers from all walks of life. Musicians, electricians, tradies, engineers, physicians, nurses, scientists, and even journalists are within our ranks. We're looking for a diverse group of people.”