Michael Pascoe: Forget the single ex-pollie, foreign influence is rife in Canberra

ASIO boss Mike Burgess (left) turned heads with an eye-catching speech this week.

ASIO boss Mike Burgess (left) turned heads with an eye-catching speech this week. Photo: TND/AAP

A friend suggests ASIO needs to read more John le Carré and watch less American TV. Chief spook Mike Burgess sounds too much like Napoleon Solo – or maybe Maxwell Smart – rather than George Smiley.

To a rapt Canberra audience on Wednesday night, Burgess announced ASIO wanted the “A-team” team to know its cover was blown.

Ah yes, the 1980s NBC series. Mr T, your cover is blown, along with Robert Vaughan – the former U.N.C.L.E. agent recast as General Stockwell.

“The team is aggressive and experienced, its tradecraft is good – but not good enough,” intoned Mr Burgess. Take that, George Peppard.

“I want the A-team and its masters to understand if they target Australia, ASIO will target them; we will make their jobs as difficult, costly and painful as possible.”

Yes, Qantas can be inveigled to downgrade A-team members to economy class right at the back next to the toilets. Very painful.

Shades of Tony Abbott threatening to shirt-front Putin. The espionage world trembled.

‘Real-time disruption’

Burgess said he decided to reveal the A-team’s existence as part of “a real-world, real-time disruption” operation, leaving us to wonder about all the unreal-world, fantasy-time disruptions he gets up to.

With tension building, Burgess announced ASIO confronted Mr T
directly last year when the A-team’s leader thought he was grooming a potential Australian asset online.

“Little did he know he was actually speaking with an ASIO officer – the spy was being spied on, the player was being played,” Burgess said.

Oh, the intrigue. Who could ever concoct such a cunning plan?

“You can imagine his horror when my officer revealed himself and declared, ‘We know who you are. We know what you are doing. Stop it or there will be further consequences’.”

Horror, the sheer horror of discovering you’re chatting with ASIO. And the “consequences”… I shudder to think.

No doubt hoping the show will be renewed for another season with a bigger production budget, Burgess warned: “Australians need to know that the threat is real. The threat is now. And the threat is deeper and broader than you might think.”

His speech was lapped up by the usual credulous suspects – while Australian journalists being courted by some foreign entities is a problem, being captured by the local/American security industry is the job – but its desired impact of impressing how important and wonderful ASIO might be was lost in the ensuing brouhaha about who an allegedly recruited former Australian politician might be.

Instead of leaving the audience in awe, Burgess has been covered in demands to name and shame the alleged Quisling.

George Smiley would never have made such a blunder.

Just behind the guess-the-pollie game should be questions about how serious the real, now, deeper and broader threat is when the real, now, deep and broad security laws at ASIO’s disposal since 2018 have only resulted in a single charge.

Scant evidence

For all the talk, for all the suggestions of wide-spread interference and seduction (what, no mention of honey traps?), there’s barely a scalp to show for it.

Which suggests that rather than imminent espion-Armageddon, it’s actually business as usual – everyone spying on everyone, friend and foe alike, as they do. Spies gotta spy.

The most remarkable thing about the supposedly “aggressive and experienced” A-team with its good tradecraft is that for at least six years, it hasn’t managed to achieve anything illegal when Australia has security laws that can almost make sneezing illegal.

Even an agent of foreign influence inquiring about whacking someone – nada.

There was a “hive” of Russian spies disrupted and deported, but that was in the previous year’s annual report.

But I was personally shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn from Burgess the A-team used not only false names, but anglicised ones when approaching targets.

“Some of the names they adopt include Sophy, Amy, Ben and Eric, but the team can and does use others,” Burgess said.

No, I’m not making this up. Our top spy really said the names Sophy, Amy, Ben and Eric were brazenly used by people whose names weren’t really Sophy, Amy, Ben and Eric.

Spies spy

And, yes, there was the admission that “friendly” nations spy on us, too. As stated, spies spy.

Anyone want to bug a cabinet meeting of one of the world’s poorest nations for the benefit of a private company? That’s what Australia is happy to do.

(I use the present tense because the relevant government ministers at the time defend the action and those responsible have never been held to account, so it must be accepted standard practice.)

And there is the little matter of foreign influence actually being rife in Canberra, of numerous former politicians enjoying lucrative relations with foreign entities.

Crikey’s Bernard Kean was a rare voice this week pointing out the obvious about foreign influence while most media were caught up following the Burgess red herring, or former pollie.

Kean was careful to state while listing various pollies who had enjoyed close relations with foreign bodies that none of them had done anything inappropriate or illegal or fitted the MO Burgess was outlining.

If you want insights into factional dynamics in any political party, there is an industry of consultants who will sell them to you.

We can also thank WikiLeaks for disclosing that Dr Steven Kennedy, the then economic advisor to Prime Minister Rudd, was apparently briefing the Americans on ructions between the government and Reserve Bank during the GFC.

Kennedy is now Treasury Secretary, sits on the RBA board and will play a key role in selecting members of the new RBA monetary policy board – if it happens.

And then there’s Israel’s influence over MPs on both sides, influence matched only by the United States.

The travails of one former pollie sometime before 2018 seem small beer.

George Smiley would not have bothered to mention it.

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