Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, says countries are trying to access classified information about the nation’s global alliances and military, economic and energy systems.
“Espionage, interference, sabotage and malicious insider activities can inflict catastrophic harm on our country’s interests,” Lewis told a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday night.
“It undermines potentially our sovereignty, our security and our prosperity.”
Lewis said foreign actors were attempting to covertly influence and shape the views of the Australian public, its media and officials in the Australian government, as well as members of diaspora communities.
Senators were told these efforts could have an immediate impact, but in some cases the harm may not materialise for decades.
“This is not a theoretical proposition,” Lewis said.
“The reality is that acts of espionage and foreign interference are occurring against Australian interests, both in Australia and overseas.”
Lewis urged senators to pass the Turnbull government’s proposed foreign interference laws, saying the “grim reality” was there were more foreign intelligence officers now than during the Cold War.
Asked about the potential fallout from Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie’s decision to accuse a political donor of involvement in a bribery scandal, Lewis said it would not damage international intelligence partnerships.
Hastie used parliamentary privilege on Tuesday night to announce that a man known as “CC-3” in FBI documents was political donor Dr Chau Chak Wing.
“The same man who co-conspired to bribe the United Nations General Assembly president John Ashe, the same man with extensive contacts in the Chinese Communist Party,” Hastie said on Tuesday night.
Hastie, a former special forces soldier who heads up the parliament’s powerful intelligence committee, had confirmed the matter during a briefing with US officials.
Lewis said Hastie had a discussion with a junior officer in the lead-up to his speech.
“There was no approach to ASIO formally to provide clearance for what was said,” he told the estimates hearing.
Asked about the implications of Hastie’s decision on Australia’s relationship with intelligence allies, Lewis replied: “None.”
Lewis said an hour and a half before the speech he had heard rumblings of Hastie’s intentions.
He immediately tasked ASIO’s Washington office to find out the facts of what Hastie had been briefed on in the US.
Chau has donated more than $4 million to both major political parties as well as $45 million to Australian universities.
Chau’s lawyer Mark O’Brien said in a statement on Wednesday his client was disappointed parliamentary privilege was used to “repeat old claims” just weeks before a defamation hearing.
“Our client has not been charged with any offence, which makes Mr Hastie’s attack all the more extraordinary,” the statement said.
He said his client was confident of being vindicated at the court hearing.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Lewis have discussed the matter.
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