National Security

Backlogged security clearance makes Canberra a rife hub for spies: expert

May 29, 2024

Wednesday 29 May 2024
Eleanor Campbell

Federal politicians and experts have raised concerns over weak security vetting for political staffers as experts warn of an uptick in foreign espionage activity ahead of the next election.

The head of the Office of National Intelligence told a senate estimates hearing on Wednesday Australia faces a “serious and sustained threat” from foreign spies in response to claims there were 1200 Chinese operatives potentially active in the country.

Australian National University national security expert Dr William Stolz, a former national security official, said he has spoken with members of parliament who are concerned about hiring staff due to a lack of formal vetting processes.

He said Australia had a “highly constrained” backlog for security clearances, arguing a structured vetting process was needed for leaders to navigate a “harsher, more volatile” security landscape.

“Political staff are essentially hired and fired at the discretion of a member of parliament – they do have to undergo basic police checks but there’s no security clearance process,” Dr Stolz said.

“It’s highly concerning and for a country of Australia’s sophistication – and given the seriousness of MPs and senators being targeted – it’s no longer appropriate political staff are not better vetted and security cleared.”

A former spy told military leaders on Tuesday that 1200 Chinese spies were operating in Australia, 200 of whom he claimed had been sent by state-backed agencies, including the Beijing military.

A man known as ‘Eric’ told the Defending Australia Summit in Canberra that spies were actively collecting information, surveilling and harassing targets who have been critical of the Chinese Community Party.

Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson said the federal government should take the matter “even more seriously” than ever before citing China’s rising dominance over the Indo-Pacific region.

“These are very shocking revelations and even if the number is not quite as high, it is no doubt that China is the number one source of espionage and foreign interference risk in this country,” he said.

“We must be very robust in standing up for ourselves. We must provide our agencies with the resources and the powers that they need to defend our democracy because nothing less than that is at stake.”

The head of Australia’s top security agency revealed in his annual threat assessment in March that a “nest of foreign spies” were aggressively targeting Australia, divulging that a former politician had been successfully recruited by a foreign intelligence service before 2018.

ASIO chief Mike Burgess added that foreign interference was occurring at all levels of government and warned that elected officials and bureaucrats would be increasingly targeted in an increasingly hostile national security environment.

Dr Stolz said China was not the only country targeting Australia, citing Russia’s long intelligence presence in the country and other nations with a significant diaspora community including India, Iran and Turkey.

He added that foreign espionage attempts were increasing across the globe but said the threat would become particularly apparent in the lead up to Australia’s next federal election.

“The Chinese and Russian playbook in recent years has shown when there is a democratic election in a place like Australia that is when they want to ramp up efforts to disrupt and discredit our democratic processes,” he said.

“Those sorts of disruptive operations targeting MPs and political systems – the reality is agreements like AUKUS the other new partnerships with countries – means politicians will become a greater target for intelligence services.”

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