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  • Australia’s top spy agency has revealed a “significant number” of spies have been found operating in the country over the last year
  • The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)’s Director-General of Security provided an annual update on its operations, revealing a “nest of spies” were seeking to access defence secrets
  • Mike Burgess also confirmed the agency would no longer use the terms “Islamic extremist” and “right-wing extremist” going forward
  • The move is in line with Australia’s Five Eyes partners, which argue agencies’ focus should be on the threat of violence, not someone’s political views

Australia’s top spy agency has revealed a “significant number” of spies have been found operating in the country over the last year.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)’s Director-General of Security provided an annual update on its operations to Senators in Canberra on Wednesday.

Nest of spies

Mike Burgess used the opportunity to reveal a “nest of spies” had been discovered trying to seek access to Australia’s defence secrets.

“We have hunted, we have discovered and we have dealt with multiple attempts —from multiple countries — to steal Australia’s secrets and undermine its sovereignty,” he said.

“We’ve used all of the human and technical capabilities, partnerships and legislative instruments at our disposal to discover, disrupt and deter threats to Australia and Australians,” the ASIO Chief added.

No confirmation was given on the nationality of the spies found operating in Australia, just that they’d been removed.

“The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service. They monitored their country’s diaspora community. They tried to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships,” Mike explained.

“They asked a public servant to provide information on security protocols at a major airport. They successfully cultivated and recruited an Australian Government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of defence technology,” he said.

“ASIO acted. We investigated, identified and verified the activity. We cancelled the government employee’s security clearance. We confronted the foreign spies, and quietly and professionally removed them from Australia,” he concluded.

Language change

The Director-General of Security also confirmed Australia’s spy agency would no longer use the terms “Islamic extremist” and “right-wing extremist” going forward.

The move is in line with Australia’s Five Eyes partners, which include the U.S. and U.K., which argue agencies’ focus should be on the threat of violence, not someone’s political views.

Explaining the change, Mike Burgess stated “the current labels are no longer fit for purpose.”

“As an example, when thinking about the proliferation of violent groups that subscribe to various political ideologies, it’s unhelpful to categorise such groups as simply ‘extreme left wing’ and ‘extreme right wing’,” he said.

“ASIO does not investigate people solely because of their political views, so labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ often distract from the real nature of the threat,” he added.

“While the views advocated by many extremists groups are appalling, as a security service, ASIO’s focus is the threat of violence,” the ASIO chief concluded.

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