The head of Australia’s foreign intelligence service has used a rare public address to suggest that an increasing number of disillusioned Chinese officials are willing to cooperate with the agency.
Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) director-general Paul Symon addressed a range of topics related to Australia’s foreign intelligence operations, including the recent Solomon Islands-China security pact and the need to recruit new spies “with more vigor and urgency” than ever before.
Speaking at a Sydney event hosted by the Lowy Institute to mark ASIS’ 70th anniversary, he said the audience, which included high ranking members of Australia’s intelligence community and top diplomats, would have to “occasionally read between the lines.”
However, he was fairly upfront in some of his comments on China, saying there were “more and more signs of officials [and] individuals interested in a relationship” due to their concerns about “an enforced monoculture.”
Symon said that his organization needs to “remain low-profile but ... not have no profile” as it seeks to adapt to the modern intelligence gathering environment.
“The world is experiencing more than just a realignment in power. The global rules-based order is being manipulated and subverted. The future will likely be less advantageous to Australia than that we once knew,” Symon said.
Emerging technologies are posing “a near-existential” risk to the work of services such as ASIS, with Australia’s covert activities becoming “increasingly discoverable,” he said.
“As we move forward, ASIS will need more officers with more diverse skills and backgrounds supported by more integrated capabilities. We are going to need to recruit and work with even more vigor and urgency than at any other point in our 70-year history,” Symon said.
“At the same time as our operating environment has become more competitive and volatile, it has also become increasingly difficult to conduct human intelligence work,” he said.
Symon said that while human intelligence “remains a core component of statecraft, it must adapt to meet the extraordinary challenges arising from the interaction of a complex strategic environment, intensified counter-intelligence efforts, and emergent and emerging technologies.”
“For a service like my own, there is a near-existential dimension to technology risk. The analogue systems and processes which spies of the past took for granted have been relegated to history, and we now live in a fundamentally digital era where our covert activities are increasingly discoverable,” he said. “In this technological sandbox, authoritarian regimes are having a heyday.”
Symon also said that ASIS “inserted” a “small team” of officers into Afghanistan as the Taliban seized power last year, including officers in the “chaos” of crowds seeking to leave the country at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, as they facilitated evacuations.
Symon also seemed to suggest that Chinese officials and residents are increasingly looking to provide ASIS with intelligence.
In a conversation with Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove, Symon was asked how ASIS gains human intelligence without coercion, and said that more “officials, individuals unhappy with the trajectory of closed societies are willing to speak up, are willing to take risks.”
Symon compared China with India where he said that “the diversity in the color of ancient culture ... and the extent to which that diversity is so rich and so alive.”
“Yet in China, we have an ancient culture, but there’s an enforced monoculture that’s being enforced. We don’t yet know exactly how that will play out, but what we’re seeing is more and more signs of officials [and] individuals interested in a relationship,” he said.
“That’s not coercion, that is very real concern about their culture, the lack of diversity in their culture and the direction that they’re heading in,” Symon said.
Asked how ASIS factors ethical and legal questions into its operations, Symon said that for officers who decide to opt out of an operation because they are uncomfortable about a task or have concerns with its legality, he has given them an undertaking that it would not be detrimental to their career.
“It doesn’t happen in great numbers, it happens occasionally,” Symon said, adding that these officers sometimes then speak with an ethics counselor and opt back in to an operation.
Symon was also asked about the security pact signed between China and the Solomon Islands.
He had traveled to Honiara for urgent talks with Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare before the deal was signed.
Speaking about the state of democracies in general, Symon said: “what I do see, not so much in Australia, but I see in our region, the extent to which the democratic systems in our region can be manipulated.”
“Political leaders can be subverted, can be directed and controlled, can take advantage of largesse that has been showered upon them,” he said. “Our job really is to help the government know and understand exactly what is going on and as people are commenting, denying, responding to activities of, I won’t say coercion, but manipulation.”
“It’s important that we reveal for our government that they know and understand exactly what is happening in that area,” Symon said.
Symon also pointed to Australia sending troops and federal police to Honiara at the request of the government as it faced unrest in November last year.
“For me, the approach that we took in that very rapid period of time, typified the way that we look to support the Solomon Islands and it’s not what I see other countries in the way other countries are considering the type of support they wish to give the Solomon Islands,” he said. “For me, that’s what good looks like.”
Symon said the intelligence community had been “very seized” by the security pact with China, and that ASIS would continue gathering and sharing intelligence relevant to the Solomon Islands.
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