Australia: Former politician became foreign agent, nation’s spy boss says

Australia: Former politician became foreign agent, nation’s spy boss says

SYDNEY : A former Australian politician “sold out” the country to a foreign spy network, the nation’s intelligence chief has alleged in a speech.

Outlining the activities of the group dubbed the “A-Team”, Mike Burgess claimed the MP had offered it access to the then-prime minister’s family.

He did not name the person or the country they worked with but said the plot had unfolded “several years ago”.

The claim has rocked Canberra, with some calling for the MP to be unmasked.

While delivering his annual threat assessment in the capital on Wednesday, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (Asio) chief said the now disbanded A-Team was an “aggressive and experienced” foreign intelligence network which had identified Australia as a “priority target”.

“The spies pose as consultants, head-hunters, local government officials, academics and think tank researchers, claiming to be from fictional companies,” he said.

They targeted an array of people – students, academics, politicians, businesspeople, law enforcement, public servants – offering to pay thousands of dollars for reports on topics including trade, politics, foreign policy, and defence, Mr Burgess said. Information on the Aukus defence pact – which Australia signed with the UK and US – was of particular interest, he added.

But the former Australian politician was the most notable individual the foreign ring had “successfully cultivated and recruited”, he claimed, while offering no specific details on the years they were active.

“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.”

Alex Turnbull – the son of Malcolm Turnbull, who was in power between 2015 and 2018 – on Thursday told news.com.au he had once fielded a “brazen” approach by suspected Chinese agents and could be the family member Mr Burgess was referring to.

Mr Burgess said the former politician in question is no longer working with the group, adding that Australian intelligence officials had disbanded its operations and helped “unaware” participants extract themselves.

“Several individuals should be grateful the espionage and foreign interference laws are not retrospective,” Mr Burgess said, referring to tougher laws which passed the country’s parliament in 2018.

His agency confronted the A-team directly late last year, and has now decided to blow their cover to warn Australians.

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

Mr Burgess has recently spoken of the danger posed to Australia by Chinese espionage, and last year he revealed his agency had broken up a “hive” of spies, which local media later identified as being Russian operatives.

Former treasurer and ex-ambassador to the US Joe Hockey was among those calling for the MP to be identified, on the basis that not doing so would “besmirch” all politicians.

“The former politician is a traitor… somehow they’re allowed to walk off into the sunset without having their name or reputation revealed, and that is absurd,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Key government ministers have also expressed dismay over the allegations but backed Mr Burgess’ decision not to identify the individual.

“He wouldn’t have done it this way if he didn’t think it was necessary to do it this way,” Treasurer Jim Chalmers said.