The most nefarious spy networks in Australia are its own and its allies’

27 March 2024
Mick Armstrong

In the latest outburst of national security hysteria, ASIO spy chief Mike Burgess declared, in a speech on 28 February, that an unnamed former Australian politician had betrayed our beloved country by clandestinely working for an evil foreign spy network—which he called “the A-team”—to provide secret information to a rival power.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues”, he declared, “to advance the interests of the foreign regime. At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a prime minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit”. Unbelievable! Simply not cricket!

The media lapped up this manna from heaven and naturally went on a furious round of China bashing. After all, the foreign power in question couldn’t be the Indians or New Zealanders. They play cricket!

Peter Dutton and a coterie of Liberal politicians waded in with calls to out the evil “traitor” and clear the supposed “good name” of other politicians. But if ASIO was to release a full list of Australian politicians, journalists and trade union officials who have provided information to foreign powers, it would be an extremely long one indeed and would include Dutton himself.

Back in 2010 Wikileaks published a swathe of secret US embassy cables that revealed that Mark Arbib—then a federal Labor cabinet minister and a former NSW ALP state secretary—had long been a “protected” US source.

Arbib wasn’t alone. Other Labor contacts of the US embassy include current cabinet ministers Bill Shorten and Richard Marles, former minister Bob McMullan, former union leader Paul Howes and a string of right-wing Labor MPs including David Feeney, Peter Khalil and the one-time member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby.

Danby is a special case as he operated as a kind of double agent, also providing help and advice to the Israeli government. In fact, Danby didn’t just provide information to the Israeli state—he worked, in effect, as an operative for it. In one case, while spuriously claiming he couldn’t attend parliament because of illness, he flew to Israel, among other things to attack the worthy charity World Vision for its mild-mannered criticisms of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Burgess’ latest expose was flagrant grandstanding, aimed at demonstrating what a fantastic job ASIO is doing protecting us all from nefarious foreign operatives like “the A-team”. No doubt he thought this would encourage further increases to the agency’s bloated budget.

In reality, though, the bulk of ASIO’s budget—which totalled $514.1 million for the current financial year (an increase of $33.9 million from 2021-22)—has always gone into covert operations to protect the interests of the business establishment against protesters, union activists and political dissidents here in Australia rather than into combating foreign spies.

Indeed, ASIO and the other Australian spy agencies such as the Australian Signals Directorate actively facilitate the operations of the great bulk of foreign spies based on Australian soil. They work closely, for example, with the hundreds of US spies who operate out of the Pine Gap base located just outside Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

The CIA-controlled Pine Gap is a vital base for monitoring information from US spy satellites and directing US military operations around the world. Pine Gap played a central role during the US invasion of Iraq and numerous other wars, and continues to play that role in US-backed wars like Israel’s assault on Gaza today.

Pine Gap is also used for the geolocation of cellphones operated by people throughout the world, from the Pacific to the edge of Africa. This enables the US military to pinpoint airstrikes and drone strikes and to carry out covert operations such as the assassination of dissidents.

In 2013 former US National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden revealed that Pine Gap, as well as three other locations in Australia and one in New Zealand, contributed to the NSA’s global interception and collection of internet and telephone communications, which involves systems like XKeyscore. The base is used by US and Australian spies to monitor civilian communications, including telephone calls, emails and internet traffic, in Australia and around the world.

Pine Gap is just one of a growing number of US military and spy bases here in Australia, including the longstanding North West Cape base in Western Australia.

One genuine issue raised by ASIO is the increased surveillance and attacks by foreign governments on political dissidents who now live in Australia. These actions should definitely be called out and exposed.

However, the security forces are very selective when it comes to highlighting foreign interference in Australian politics. They single out China, Iran and so on. They very much shut up about actions by so-called friendly powers such as India, which has been targeting Sikh activists abroad. They cooperate closely with the activities of the Israeli state, despite the fact that its spy agency Mossad notoriously manufactured counterfeit Australian passports for its agents’ use.

But the thing that really highlights the hypocrisy of Australian media and politicians’ morally righteous claims about the dirty deeds of foreign powers is the Australian state’s own long history of spying and covert operations both abroad and against its own citizens.

One of the most notorious cases was the bugging of the offices of East Timor’s government by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)—Australia’s overseas spy outfit—in the lead-up to negotiations about the rights to fossil fuel resources in the Timor Sea worth an estimated $71 billion. This helped ensure Australian officials were well placed to do over the poverty-stricken Timorese.

Then, to compound this typical Australian act of bastardry, the heroic whistleblowers who exposed the ASIS scheme—a conscience-stricken senior intelligence officer and his lawyer Bernard Collaery—were subjected to years of persecution.

Australian spying operations are, however, much more extensive and longstanding than simply the Timorese case. Since at least the 1980s— as part of an operation codenamed “Reprieve”—Australian embassies in Port Moresby, Jakarta and Bangkok, among others, have used highly sophisticated electronic intercept equipment to monitor all telecommunications.

When it comes to operating nefarious international spy networks, Australia can match it with the best.

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