Head of spy agency implies that Australia is collaborating with disillusioned Chinese officials.
Due to China's "imposed monoculture," (ASIS) Australian Secret Intelligence Service chairman claims there are "more indicators of officials and individuals interested in a relationship."
In a rare public speech, the chief of Australia's Foreign Intelligence Service suggested that more and more disillusioned Chinese officials are eager to assist with the organisation.
The recent security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands and the requirement to find new spies "with greater vigour and urgency" than ever before were among the subjects covered by the director general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Paul Symon.
He said the audience, which included senior members of Australia's intelligence community, the head of the UK's MI6 foreign intelligence service, Richard Moore, and top diplomats, would occasionally have to "read between the lines" at the Sydney event held by the Lowy Institute to commemorate ASIS's 70th anniversary.
For his organisation to adapt to the current context of information collection, Symon stated it needed to "stay low profile but... not have no profile."
More than merely power imbalances are taking place around the planet. There is manipulation and subversion of the global order based on rules. Australia's prospects are probably not as favourable as they once were.
He claimed that because Australia's clandestine activities are becoming "increasingly discoverable," developing technologies are posing "a near existential" risk to the operations of organisations like ASIS.
As we advance, ASIS will require more officers with a wider range of backgrounds and talents, backed by more cohesive capabilities. More than at any previous time in our 70-year existence, we'll need to hire new employees quickly and with vigour.
"It has gotten increasingly challenging to undertake human intelligence work at the same time which our operational environment has become more competitive and chaotic," he said.
In certain cities, police "could just be the person next to you on the train," according to Symon, adding that they "may be one of your family members, one of your neighbours, your classmates or former co-workers.
Right now, I'm certain that someplace... ASIS police can be found operating in bustling cafes, off-limits locations, or on unfamiliar streets.
Human intelligence "remains a vital component of statecraft," according to Symon, but it must change to face the unprecedented challenges brought on by the interaction of a complex strategic environment, increased counterintelligence measures, and with new evolving technologies.
"Technology risk has a close to existential dimension for a service like mine. We now live in a fundamentally digital era where our clandestine activities are increasingly discoverable, replacing the analogy methods and processes that spies in the past took for granted. Authoritarian governments are "in vogue" with this technological sandbox."
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As the Taliban took over last year, Symon also disclosed that ASIS "inserted" a "small team" of officers into Afghanistan, including officers among the "chaos" of masses trying to flee the country at Kabul's International Airport, as they aided in evacuations.
Chinese leaders are open to dialogue.
Symon also seemed to imply that Chinese authorities and citizens are increasingly trying to give ASIS information.
Symon was questioned about how ASIS develops human intelligence without using force by Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute. Symon responded that more "officials, individuals dissatisfied with the trajectory of closed societies are willing to speak up and are willing to take risks."
"The variation in the colour of old culture...and the level to which that diversity is so rich and so vibrant," Symon stated in comparison of China and India.
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And yet, even though China has a long history, a monoculture is being imposed. The specifics of how that will transpire are still unknown. The indicators of officials and people interested in a connection, however, are growing.
Symon was questioned on how ASIS considers moral and legal issues when conducting its business, and along with Fullilove brought up the East Timor spying scandal.
Symon did not specifically address East Timor, which happened before he was director general, and he did say officers were given the assurance of opting out of an operation if they had felt uncomfortable with a duty or had doubts about its legality to not harm their careers.
It "doesn't happen very often, but it does happen periodically," Symon said, adding that these officers occasionally talk with an ethical counsellor and decide to re-join an operation.
Islands of Solomon
The security agreement that China and the Solomon Islands was linked, was another question that Symon was asked.
Before the agreement was signed, Symon had flown to Honiara for urgent negotiations with the prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare.
Symon remarked, "What I do see, not so much in Australia, but I see in our region, the level to which the democratic processes in our region can be manipulated," when discussing the state of democracies generally.
Political leaders can be manipulated, directed, and controlled, and they can profit from the generosity bestowed upon them. The government needs our assistance in understanding exactly
what is happening when people make comments, reject what is happening, and react to manipulation—I won't say coercion—activities.
We must demonstrate to our government that we are aware of all the details of what is occurring there, Symon stated.
Symon also cited Australia's deployment of Federal Police and military to Honiara at the government's request in response to disturbances in November 2021.
He stated, "For me, the strategy we adopted in that brief period of time characterised the way we looked to support the Solomon Islands. It's not what I see other countries looking to provide the Solomon Islands with," That is what goodness looks like to me.
The security agreement with China, according to Symon, had the intelligence community "quite seized," and ASIS would keep acquiring and exchanging information pertinent to the Solomon Islands.