ASIO: Joe Hockey slams Mike Burgess over ‘traitor’ politician claim

Joe Hockey has unleashed on spy boss Mike Burgess after the ASIO chief made the “extraordinary” claim that an unnamed Australian politician had “sold out” their country to a foreign adversary.

The former Treasurer and US ambassador told 2GB’s Ben Fordham that Mr Burgess — the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation — must name the “traitor” politician referenced in his annual threat assessment speech on Wednesday night.

“It’s a very serious statement,” a “pissed off” Mr Hockey said.

“And it’s not an allegation, it’s a statement of fact that a politician served the interests of a foreign nation against the interest of Australia, and Mr Burgess has to now name that politician, otherwise everyone who has ever served in politics is impugned. It’s as simple as that. You can’t make an allegation or a statement about someone being a traitor and then expect that no one will ask questions.”

Mr Hockey, who served as US ambassador until 2020 and now lives and works in Washington DC, said the situation was “unacceptable” and that the politician must be identified.

“I served nearly 20 years in parliament, I want to know who that person is, because I will reflect on what I said to them, what I gave to them, how I dealt with them, and potentially what they did with that information,” he said.

“I don’t know whether it was a Liberal or a Labor politician or a Green, or someone else, I don’t know if it was a male or a female, but what I do know is that if you are elected into office you are there to serve your nation and no other nation, and a suggestion that a politician or a former politician is a traitor and did it deliberately, and then is allowed to be forgiven and walk off into the sunset is unacceptable. It reflects on everyone, not just the people that have served in parliament.”

He added the fallout had already spread to America.

“Over here in Washington DC I was just asked about it,” he said.

“They’re wondering who they can trust. If it comes down to that, who is the politician that they dealt with that may have been the agent of a foreign nation. It’s extraordinary stuff, and I’m sure that if the reports are correct and Mr Burgess’ words are correct, then everyone serving in parliament now or who has served in parliament has a right to know who this person is.”

Mr Hockey said he was fired up “because it affects my reputation, it affects the reputation of my country, it affects all Australians”.

“This is not a flippant statement by a commentator or a journalist, this is a statement by the head of our secret intelligence service saying he has found a politician who served Australia’s interests then going and serving the interests of a foreign nation against the interest of Australia,” he said.

“He’s saying there’s a traitor amongst the ranks and he now has to say who that person is.”

Defence Minister Richard Marles told ABC News on Thursday that there may be a “whole range of reasons why individuals would not be named, and that detail is not out there”.

“So I respect the decision that ASIO have made in relation to this,” he said.

“I think what we take from this is just the threat that exists and the importance for all of us who are involved in what we do, but not just politicians … everyone involved in public administration. Our duty is to be acting in respect of Australia’s national interests and we need to be really vigilant in respect of actors who, in a covert way, are seeking to achieve the interests of other countries.”

Asked if the unnamed politician had committed a crime, Mr Marles said “I think they would have, in terms of the scenario that Mike Burgess outlined”.

“But much more than that, as the Director-General has said, they’ve completely undermined and sold out both their colleagues and their country,” Mr Marles said.

“And that’s really the issue here. But the issue also is we’ve got a threat out there, we need to be mindful of that, and we need to be really careful in all that we do to ensure that our focus, our primary interest, is on serving the people who put us here, and that’s the Australian people.”

Mr Marles said he had received briefings from ASIO about the threat of politicians being targeted by foreign spies.

“I’m not aware of specific people that have been targeted but I am aware of other efforts to target Australian politicians,” he said.

“We get briefings about the importance of being very careful in the way in which others seek to engage with us. But it’s not just politicians, I emphasise. It’s across those who are serving the public in a whole range of manners of public administration. Those in the public service but those in other agencies as well. Foreign espionage is taking place in this country and we live in a world where other countries have interest in influencing what happens here, and it’s really important that, in protecting our sovereignty, we are very focused on our own behaviours, our own interactions, so that we are always acting in the interests of the Australian people.”

In a rare insight into the workings of the country’s spy agency, Mr Burgess delivered his annual threat assessment on Wednesday night, in which he revealed that a foreign intelligence service uses professional networking sites to target Australians with privileged information.

He warned there was at least one nation state laying the groundwork to potentially sabotage key Australian infrastructure in the future.

He said while ASIO still believed a terrorist attack was “possible”, the risk of espionage and foreign interference was more like “certain”.

“The threat is real. The threat is now. And the threat is deeper and broader than you might think,” he said.

He said the “A-team” – a spy network operating within a “particular foreign intelligence service” – had come to be one of the most significant threats the agency was fighting against, speaking about them publicly because “we want the A-team to know its cover is blown”.

Mr Burgess said the A-team trawls professional networking sites looking for Australians with access to high-level security, defence and risk information.

Mr Burgess said the team used “false, anglicised personas”, posing as consultants, headhunters, officials, academics and researchers from fictional companies to approach the targets.

He said they had tried to recruit students, academics, business people, police and public servants across all levels of government.

Even elected officials have fallen for the A-team, with Mr Burgess speaking of one former politician who had been “successfully cultivated and recruited” by the A-team “several years ago”.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime,” Mr Burgess said.

“At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a prime minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit.

“Fortunately, that plot did not go ahead, but other schemes did.”

Mr Burgess did not make clear who the former politician was, or whether they had unwittingly engaged with the A-team, or done so deliberately.

In one such other scheme, leading Australian political figures and academics went overseas for an all-expenses paid conference attended by a host of A-team spies purporting to be bureaucrats, who built relationships with the Australians and “aggressively targeted” them.

“A few weeks after the conference wrapped up, one of the academics started giving the A-team information about Australia’s national security and defence priorities,” Mr Burgess said.

“Another Australian, an aspiring politician, provided insights into the factional dynamics of his party, analysis of a recent election and the names of up-and- comers – presumably so the A-team could target them too.

“ASIO disrupted this scheme and confronted the Australians involved. While some were unwitting, others knew they were working for a foreign intelligence service.”

Mr Burgess said ASIO had helped extract the unaware ones, severed the links between the others and the foreign actors, and added: “several individuals should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective”.

Mr Burgess said ASIO confronted the A-team directly online last year.

“The spy was being spied on. The player was being played,” Mr Burgess said.

He said too many Australians were missing the warning signs or were making the A-team’s work “too easy”.

“On just one professional networking site, there are 14,000 Australians publicly boasting about having a security clearance or working in the intelligence community. Some even out themselves as intelligence officers – even while proving they’re not particularly good ones!” he said.

“I appreciate that people need to market themselves but please be smart and be discreet – don’t make yourself an easy target.”

Also during his speech, Mr Burgess made a chilling warning that he feared sabotage – the principal security concerns in the 1950s – could re-emerge, particularly in relation to critical infrastructure.

“There aren’t a lot of things that terrorists and spies have in common, but sabotage is one of them,” he said.

“ASIO is seeing both cohorts talking about sabotage, researching sabotage, sometimes conducting reconnaissance for sabotage – but, I stress, not planning to conduct sabotage at this time.”

He said ASIO was aware of one nation state conducting “multiple attempts to scan critical infrastructure” in Australia and elsewhere, targeting water, energy, and transport energy networks.

Describing the reconnaissance as “highly sophisticated” and a means of mapping out networks and testing digital locks, Mr Burgess said there was a chance the nation could conduct sabotage in the future.

Citing the impact the Optus network outage last year – unrelated to sabotage – had on Australia, Mr Burgess questioned what it would mean for the country if a foreign state “took down all the networks, or turned off the power during a heatwave?”

“I assure you, these are not hypotheticals,” he said.

“Foreign governments have crack cyber teams investigating these possibilities right now, although they are only likely to materialise during a conflict or near conflict.”

— with NCA NewsWire

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