Foreign intelligence service has Australia as its priority target, ASIO boss Mike Burgess reveals

Kimberley Caines
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director General Mike Burgess.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director General Mike Burgess. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

A foreign intelligence service that has been targeting Australia has blown its cover, our top spy warns.

But the service, dubbed the “A-Team” by ASIO in order to not reveal the foreign country, has achieved some success here with ASIO’s director-general Mike Burgess revealing a former Australian politician had “sold out” the country to help the foreign regime.

In his annual threat assessment in Canberra on Wednesday, Mr Burgess said the threat level from foreign spies is at its highest level with Australia’s national security agency more worried about espionage and foreign interference than terrorism.

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He did not reveal who the politician was but said the incident happened a “few years ago”.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime,” he said.

“At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a Prime Minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit. Fortunately that plot did not go ahead but other schemes did.”

Mr Burgess warned the “A-Team” that if it continues to target Australia, his agency will “target them (and) make their jobs as difficult, costly and painful as possible”.

He has also urged Australians, particularly those in public service, to be wary of a group on LinkedIn, social media and messaging platforms who claim to be from fictional companies such as Data 31 and adopt names that include Sophy, Amy, Ben and Eric.

“The team is aggressive and experienced — its tradecraft is good but not good enough. ASIO and our partners have been able to map out its activities and identify its members,” Mr Burgess said.

“We want the A-team to know its cover is blown. We want the A-team’s bosses to know its cover is blown. If the team leader failed to report our conversation to his spymasters, he will now have to explain why he didn’t, along with how ASIO knows so much about his team’s operations and identities.”

The spies pose as consultants, head hunters, local government officials, academics and think tank researchers and target university students, politicians, businesspeople, law enforcement officials and public servants.

Currently, there are 14,000 Australians publicly boasting about having a security clearance or working in the intelligence community on LinkedIn.

These are the types of people the group is targeting, Mr Burgess said.

“I appreciate that people need to market themselves but please be smart and be discreet — don’t make yourself an easy target,” he said.

“This form of espionage is low-cost, low-risk, low-effort — and can be conducted at scale. Hundreds of friend requests can be sent each day... Unfortunately, too many Australians miss the warning signs or make the A-team’s work too easy.”

Since the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce was created in 2020, it has conducted more than 120 operations to mitigate threats against Australian communities, political systems and classified information.

Despite the threat growing, successful disruptions have increased by 265 per cent.

“In 2024, threats to our way of life have surpassed terrorism as Australia’s principal security concern,” Mr Burgess said.

“We have come full circle. While the terrorism threat level is possible, if we had a threat level for espionage and foreign interference it would be at certain — the highest level on the scale.”

The nation’s security agency boss said there was another emerging threat he was concerned about that both terrorists and spies had in common.

“The sabotage threat has receded in recent decades but I worry it could re-emerge, particularly in relation to critical infrastructure,” he said.

“ASIO is aware of one nation-state conducting multiple attempts to scan critical infrastructure in Australia and other countries, targeting water, transport and energy networks.”

ASIO will later this year publish a framework to help organisations build and maintain a robust security culture.

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