Director-General's Review

The view from the Director-General’s office is dominated by two buildings–Parliament House and the High Court.

To me, they are concrete reminders that Parliament grants ASIO extraordinary powers, but those powers must always be exercised legally and ethically, with rigorous oversight.

This is something I reflect on every day. When I am approached to apply for a warrant so we can track a potential terrorist, approve an investigation into a suspected spy or consider security advice that might result in a visa cancellation, I ask:

  • Are our proposed activities proportionate to the threat?
  • Are we using the least intrusive methods possible?
  • Are we acting within the letter and the spirit of the law?

In 2019–20 an evolving security environment forced ASIO to use its powers on multiple occasions. Not even a global pandemic could curtail the threats facing Australia. In some cases, it amplified them.

Threat environment

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

The terrorism threat level remains at PROBABLE, and I see no prospect it will be lowered in the foreseeable future. Sunni Islamic extremism remains ASIO’s greatest concern.

We know that:

  • Groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continue to call on their supporters to conduct terrorist attacks, with Australia specifically identified as a target.
  • Around 80 Australians who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for or support Islamic extremist groups are still in the region, and some may bring extremist ideology back to Australia.
  • Individuals in Australia continue to be radicalised, and the online amplification of radicalisation messages is reaching ever-younger targets.
  • Multiple terrorism offenders are scheduled for release from Australian prisons over the next five years.

At the same time, right-wing extremists are more organised, sophisticated, ideological and active than previous years.

While we have been actively monitoring the threat for some time, this year extreme right-wing individuals comprised around one-third of our counter-terrorism investigative subjects.

Many of these groups and individuals have seized on COVID-19, believing it reinforces the narratives and conspiracies at the core of their ideologies. They see the pandemic as proof of the failure of globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy, and confirmation that societal collapse and a ‘race war’ are inevitable.

Foreign interference

While terrorism is a threat to life, espionage and foreign interference represent threats to our way of life.

There are more foreign spies and their proxies operating in Australia than there were at the height of the Cold War.

Foreign governments are seeking information about Australia’s capabilities, research and technology, and domestic and foreign policy.

This year, for example, ASIO discovered and disrupted a plot to penetrate Australia’s intelligence community.

An Australia-based foreign national was working with a team of foreign intelligence officers, who were trying to recruit multiple Australian security clearance holders. The agents wanted sensitive information about the intelligence community’s operations, particularly those directed against their home country.

While the concept of espionage is well known, ‘foreign interference’ is often misunderstood. Simply praising a foreign country or publicly taking its side is not, of itself, foreign interference.

But when the advocacy is being covertly orchestrated by a foreign government and is contrary to Australia’s national interest, it may well constitute foreign interference.

Almost every sector of Australian society is a potential target of foreign interference, and the threat manifests itself in different but equally unacceptable ways.

In 2019–20, ASIO stepped up its investigations into attempts to secretly co-opt current and future Australian politicians. In all states and territories, at every level of government, intelligence services are seeking to cultivate politicians who will advance the interests of the foreign country.

Foreign interference also manifests in the monitoring, harassing and intimidating of Australia’s culturally diverse communities.

We have uncovered many cases—involving multiple countries—where Australian community members and their families have been threatened for expressing views at odds with the foreign government’s policies or values.

It is unacceptable that people in Australia are being intimidated simply for advocating democratic reforms or criticising human rights abuses. Seen in this context, foreign interference can be nothing less than an attack on Australia’s sovereignty, multicultural communities, values and freedoms.

Performance

This year has been a challenging time for all Australians. ASIO has continued to perform well under difficult circumstances, and my team has shown professionalism and dedication to our mission to deliver outstanding results.

Working with our law enforcement partners, ASIO’s intelligence led to terrorist arrests, convictions and disruptions.

In addition to our actions directly targeting espionage and foreign interference, we continued to provide government and industry with trusted advice to help them protect themselves. We know our efforts have been successful because we have seen foreign intelligence services reassessing the risks of operating in Australia, and in some cases ceasing their activities.

Close readers of this report may notice changes to our staffing and structures. This year, I took the opportunity to clarify the lines of authority and responsibility in our senior workforce.

The number of senior executive officers is now more appropriate for an organisation of ASIO’s size. One consequence of these reforms was a further improvement in the proportion of women in senior roles. For example, women now make up 60 per cent of our Executive Committee.

Transparency

As Director-General, I am committed to ensuring we don’t just do what it is legal, we do what is right.

ASIO recognises we are granted extraordinary powers. We must use these responsibly, and be accountable to Australians and their parliament. This is why new Minister’s Guidelines were issued this year, updating the legal obligations placed on ASIO to make sure our work is lawful, proportionate and ethical.

During the reporting period, we met with the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) on at least a bi-monthly basis, supported by fortnightly meetings with senior staff from the Office of the IGIS. The IGIS possesses powers akin to a standing royal commission and is a key pillar of our rigorous oversight framework.

I intend to be as open as I can be about ASIO’s work. This reflects my personal belief in the power of transparency, a desire to dispel myths about our Organisation, and the importance of explaining the true nature of the threats facing our country.

In 2019–20, ASIO provided nine unclassified submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and appeared before five of its public hearings. ASIO also appeared before a Senate inquiry into press freedom and a public hearing on Australia’s telecommunications access legislation conducted by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. In February, I delivered my first Annual Threat Assessment. We also began implementing a strategy to take our Organisation into the spotlight of social media.

This report will provide further context to the work ASIO’s people do every day to protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security. We are your security service. And we make a difference.

Mike Burgess
Director-General of Security