Director-General's Review

ASIO is Australia’s security service.

Every day, across Australia and in select locations around the world, ASIO officers do extraordinary things. They do not do them for recognition, status or accolades. They do them because they believe in ASIO’s purpose: to protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security.

Our people are mission-focused, innovative, creative and diverse.

And they make a difference.

In 2020–21, not only did we maintain our hold on high-priority targets, we also stepped up our efforts against some of Australia’s most challenging adversaries.

We detected and defeated extremists who are acutely security aware and tech-savvy.

We out-imagined and out-manoeuvred sophisticated foreign adversaries who are effectively unconstrained by law, ethics and resources.

And we did this in the context of a pandemic that had a significant impact on our operating environment. I am proud of the agility and ingenuity that ASIO’s officers demonstrated in overcoming the challenges posed by COVID-19.

Threat environment

Australia’s threat environment is complex, challenging and changing.

Based on current trends, we anticipate that espionage and foreign interference will supplant terrorism as Australia’s principal security concern over the next five years. This is not to downplay the threat of terrorism, which represents an ongoing and evolving challenge. Countering threats to life will always be a priority for ASIO.

Terrorism

Australia’s national terrorism threat level remains at PROBABLE. This means we have credible intelligence that there are individuals in Australia with the intent and capability to conduct an act of terrorism.

Religiously motivated violent extremists want to kill Australians. Groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continue to urge attacks, 24 convicted terrorism offenders are eligible for release over the next 10 years, and some battle-hardened foreign fighters may yet return to Australia.

At the same time, our investigations into ideologically motivated violent extremists, such as racist and nationalist violent extremists, have grown. During 2020–21, these investigations approached 50 per cent of our onshore priority counter-terrorism caseload.

One of the most concerning aspects of these investigations is the growing number of young people—predominantly young men—who are being radicalised by these ideologies.

It is ASIO’s job to identify these threats—to be alert to, and to distinguish the difference between aspiration and capable intent to do harm.

While the possibility of a terrorist attack in Australia—particularly by a lone perpetrator—remains real, we and our law enforcement partners are well positioned to counter this threat.

Espionage and foreign interference

At the same time, espionage and foreign interference attempts by multiple countries remain unacceptably high.

These attempts occur on a daily basis. They are sophisticated and wide-ranging. They are enabled and accelerated by technology. And they take place in every state and territory, targeting all levels of government, as well as industry and academia.

Foreign spies are attempting to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships, defence and intelligence capabilities.

They are seeking to develop targeted relationships with current and former politicians, and current and former security clearance holders.

They are monitoring diaspora communities in Australia and, in some cases, threatening to physically harm members of these communities.

Preparation for sabotage

I remain concerned about the potential for Australia’s adversaries to pre-position malicious code in critical infrastructure, particularly in areas such as telecommunications and energy. Such cyber enabled activities could be used to damage critical networks in the future.

All these activities represent threats to Australia’s way of life. They can undermine Australia’s sovereignty, democratic institutions, economy and national security capabilities.

ASIO’s response

ASIO has responded to espionage and foreign interference threats with targeted investigations and campaigns that have meaningfully reduced harm. Working with our partners, our activity led to law enforcement outcomes and intelligence-led disruptions. Visas were cancelled and spy networks were dismantled.

These activities have led to a significant reduction in the number of foreign spies and their proxies operating in Australia.

At the same time, we intensified our work with government and industry stakeholders to harden the environment and make it as difficult as possible for foreign spies to operate in Australia.

In late 2020, we launched the Think Before You Link campaign, part of a broader initiative to reduce the risks associated with approaches from foreign intelligence services on social media platforms.

We continue to adapt our counter-terrorism efforts to respond to the changing security environment. Our unique collection capabilities, investigations and analysis continue to identify threats. And our advice has contributed to broader government understanding of the terrorist threat environment within Australia, our near region, and globally. In cooperation with our law enforcement partners, our work has led to arrests and convictions.

In early 2021, we changed the language we use to describe terrorism and violent extremism to better reflect the evolving threat environment. Terms like ‘left-wing extremism’ and ‘right-wing extremism’ are no longer fit for purpose when a growing number of extremists do not sit on the left–right spectrum at all.

Instead, we now use religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremism as umbrella terms, with more specific terminology available when we refer to particular threats. This new language allows us to more accurately, objectively and flexibly describe the threats Australia faces.

Capability

In May 2021, the Australian Government announced a significant new investment in ASIO’s sensitive capabilities. The allocation of $1.25 billion over 10 years will enhance ASIO’s ability to “connect the dots” through a human-led, data-driven, technology-enabled approach to threat detection. We will work with the Australian technology sector to deliver this capability.

This investment will also ensure we can maintain our core capabilities and infrastructure.

Late last year, legislation was passed that allows us to be more flexible in our use of less intrusive tracking devices, and to compel suspected spies to attend interviews. We have since used both of these powers; evidence that an evolving threat environment requires evolving capabilities—and that we don’t ask for new powers or resources unless we need them.

Transparency

We recognise the importance of using our capabilities and statutory powers responsibly, proportionately, and with propriety. ASIO is committed to acting within the letter and the spirit of the law.

ASIO is subject to stringent oversight, including by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, who has powers akin to a Royal Commission. We welcome this, because it allows us to demonstrate that we operate lawfully and with integrity.

While there will always be a need to protect and safeguard our people and capabilities, I believe in being as transparent as I can with the community about what we do and the nature of the threats facing this country.

This year I appeared regularly at Senate Estimates hearings, and my team engaged regularly with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor.

In March 2021, I delivered my second Annual Threat Assessment. This public address is an important foundation for our efforts to be as open and informative as we can be.

In August 2020, we joined the world of Twitter—another avenue to communicate with the public about who we are and what we do. This was complemented by our recent launch of the ASIO Instagram account.

This annual report is another way in which we demonstrate our commitment to transparency. It sets out our performance against our key priorities of the last 12 months, and shows how we have managed our resources. A copy of this report is available on ASIO’s website, as well as at the Australian Government Transparency Portal (transparency.gov.au), which promotes access to annual report content and data across the Australian Public Service.

Mike Burgess
Director-General of Security