ASIO chief warns of 'unprecedented' foreign interference with more spies now than during the Cold War

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  • The director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) warned that foreign interference is happening on an “unprecedented scale.”
  • Duncan Lewis told a Senate hearing there were now more foreign agents than during the Cold War.
  • There has been growing concern over China’s influence and interference in Australia, which has strained tensions with Beijing.
  • Lewis’ comments come days after a shock claim that an Australian businessman funded a bribe of the UN president.

The head of Australia’s intelligence agency has warned that foreign interference is happening on an “unprecedented scale,” and that there are more foreign agents than ever before.

Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), said in a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday evening that espionage and interference activities have reached new and dangerous heights.

“The grim reality is that there are more foreign intelligence officers today than during the Cold War, and they have more ways of attacking us – that is, there’s more vectors, and the cyber vector is a very good example,” Lewis said. “Espionage, interference, sabotage and malicious insider activities can inflict catastrophic harm on our country’s interests.”

Lewis described attempts to access classified information on Australia’s alliances, diplomacy, military, mineral resources, and technological innovations. But the former Department of Defence head appeared particularly concerned about more subtle campaigns targeting “strategically important” commercial, political, economic, defence, security, foreign policy and diaspora issues.

“Foreign actors covertly attempt to influence and shape the views of members of the Australian public, the Australian media and officials in the Australian government, as well as members of the diaspora communities here in Australia,” Lewis said. “Clandestine interference is designed to advance the objectives of the foreign actor to the detriment of Australia and to our national interests.”

Lewis added this is “not a theoretical proposition.”

“In some instances the harm from espionage and foreign interference is immediately in evidence, and in other instances… the harm doesn’t materialise for years and potentially for decades.”

Despite not naming any countries, Lewis’ comments echo those of John Garnaut, a former adviser on China to Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who spoke to the US House Armed Services Committee in March.

Garnaut, speaking explicitly about Chinese foreign interference, made a clear distinction between the way both China and Russia attempt to interfere with other sovereign nations.

“Unlike Russia, which seems to be as much for a good time rather than a long time, the Chinese are strategic, patient, and they set down foundations of organisations and very consistent narratives over a long period of time, Garnaut said.

Garnaut was speaking to the US Senators about Australia’s proposal to target and broaden the definition of foreign interference, after a wave of claims regarding China’s local influence campaigns. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even cited “disturbing reports about Chinese influence.”

The government’s actions have angered Beijing, and relations between the two countries have become severely strained.

It’s unlikely matters between Canberra and Beijing were helped this week by an Australian MP claimed in parliament a Chinese-born Australian billionaire funded a $US200,000 bribe to the president of the UN General Assembly in 2013.

The MP said he received the information from US authorities. Nine News’ Chris Uhlmann reported on Friday the information came from an unclassified briefing from the US Attorney’s office and that some officials were “delighted” with the MP’s speech.

Asked about the implications of the public disclosure, Lewis said there has been no fallout from Australian allies.

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