A counter-espionage unit has been created within the Department of Home Affairs to link ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, Defence and other key government agencies in operations against foreign spies, following advice that more resources were needed to tackle unprecedented foreign interference.
The Australian has confirmed that cabinet approved the transfer of a senior ASIO official to act as a deputy secretary level co-ordinator for foreign espionage policy, operations and community engagement, with a new cross-agency taskforce also expected to be funded in the May budget.
It is understood the creation of a “national countering foreign interference co-ordinator”, to be based in the Department of Home Affairs, was signed off last week in a move that will elevate the threat response to a similar footing as counter-terrorism. After an internal departmental memo was circulated last week, The Australian has confirmed that cabinet had approved the appointment of senior ASIO operative Chris Teal to the new role.
ASIO has recently warned that foreign interference and espionage activities being conducted within Australia have reached a level greater than at the height of the Cold War.
While the agency itself has not identified or named specific countries it suspects of high-level interference, China and Russia have been singled out by Malcolm Turnbull. The Prime Minister last year cited “disturbing reports” about China’s activities.
A departmental source said the national countering foreign interference co-ordinator — as with the counter-terrorism co-ordinator — would be at a deputy secretary level and would be responsible for drawing agencies together across key policy and operations, including Home Affairs portfolios such as ASIO and AFP, but also Defence, and Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“The co-ordinator will be concerned with coercive, clandestine or deceptive activities undertaken on behalf of foreign powers that exploit our open systems and erode our sovereignty,” the source said. “They will receive threat assessments and advice directly from ASIO, and ASIO will continue to lead security intelligence operational responses. They will not take over existing roles of our national security agencies — it is a new function to link those agencies with other arms of government into a cohesive effort.”
The AFP recently flagged to a parliamentary committee that it had sought increased government funding for the establishment of a foreign espionage team to conduct operations that it had previously not been involved in.
The government is in the process of redrafting its foreign interference bill, which could give effect to new powers for ASIO and the AFP to investigate and prosecute and jail Australians involved in aiding subversive activities of foreign agents.
The parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security recently ticked off on a bipartisan report giving support to legislation that would transfer responsibility for ASIO from the Attorney-General’s Department, under which it was created in 1949, to the new Department of Home Affairs. It is expected this final piece of enabling architecture for the full function of the Home Affairs office will receive bipartisan support when legislation is introduced in May.
ASIO has argued that new laws are needed to counter the rising threat because the existing criminal code does not allow for prosecution of the types of activities that the agency is now facing. Whereas espionage laws were designed against a backdrop of traditional state-on-state Cold War activities, such as stealing secrets to harm national security, the rise of foreign interference included acting on behalf of a foreign agent or agency in a covert way that sought to influence the outcome of policy or an election.
Unlike in other countries, there is a gap in criminal law that doesn’t allow agencies to prosecute known cases of interference.
Under the legislation, it would be the Attorney-General’s Department, rather than the Department of Home Affairs, that would have the powers to investigate and prosecute.
The proposed laws are not without controversy, with media companies arguing against provisions that would effectively criminalise journalism in cases where journalists might be in possession of classified material. ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis has argued against exemptions for media on the basis that spies could use journalists as cover for their operations.
Mr Turnbull asked ASIO to compile a classified report into foreign interference just before revelations of links between Chinese interests and Labor senator Sam Dastyari emerged last year.
A spokeswoman for Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said: “Foreign powers are actively undertaking espionage and foreign interference in Australia. The national countering foreign interference co-ordinator will work to safeguard Australian sovereignty and the rights of all citizens from a range of foreign threats.
“This position has been established to protect our integrity and sovereignty from foreign interference.
“The Department of Home Affairs will ensure a unified and co-ordinated response to foreign interference.”
Source: The Australian