ASIO’s Chinaphobic Threat Assessment Ignores the Risk Posed by US Warmongers

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ASIO director general Mike Burgess reminded the nation during his 28 February annual threat assessment that despite a nation having gone rogue, breaking all norms of war and undermining the international justice system for five months now, the local focus should be on the A Team.

The A Team, according to the nation’s top domestic spy, is a group of foreign intelligence agents trawling online for local professionals “with access to privileged information” and using “false, anglicised” personas to approach them and offer big money for reports containing the details.

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

The annual threat warning was also significant as it marked the nation’s chief spying agency’s 75th anniversary. And in order to highlight ASIO’s significance he told a series of “stories” that left the public inquiring as to which foreign nation operates the A Team, amongst other questions raised.

But as once PM Paul Keating explained on Tuesday, Burgess’ briefing was designed to steer national attention back to the “China threat” and the US buildup to war on Beijing, which was also clarified, he advised, by the focus of foreign minister Penny Wong’s speech at the current ASEAN summit.

“Flushing under beds, sniffing out the reds”

During his address, Burgess went on to explain that ASIO had “decided to confront the A Team and then speak about it publicly as part of a real-world, real-time disruption”, which was what he was carrying out at that moment.

“We want the A Team to know its cover is blown,” said the chief spy, adding that if the leader of A Team did not then go to “his spymasters” and report on the confrontation occurring, then they’d have to explain why they didn’t do so and how ASIO has come to know so much about them.

The A Team has been paying thousands for reports on “Australian trade, politics, economics, foreign policy, defence and security”, Burgess said, and he wants them to know that “if they target Australia, ASIO will target them. We will make their jobs as difficult, costly and painful as possible”.

However, the listlessness that Burgess left the nation with was soon quelled when the Herald revealed that China’s leading spy agency was behind the A Team on Sunday.

Indeed, after Burgess didn’t reveal the foreign country to the nation on Wednesday, he went and told the masthead four days later.

Keating, who, as we all know, has done the rounds of the Canberra bubble, explained this was part of the government “kabuki show”, whereby “Burgess drops the claim, then out of nowhere, the Herald… miraculously appear to solve” it, and “the villain, as it turns out, is China after all”.

“The anti-China Australian strategic policy establishment was feeling some slippage in its mindless pro-American stance and decided some new China rattling was overdue,” the ex-Labor leader underscored.

“From a coup in Asia, US air force major”

Meanwhile, Wong presented the keynote speech at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2024 in Melbourne on Monday, and she dropped it upon her Southeast Asian counterparts that while the region is looking prosperous, the threat of a conflict, like Gaza or Ukraine, would “be devastating”.

The foreign minister implied that China’s island building and militarisation in the South China Sea, as well as its manoeuvring in the Tawain Strait amount to “destabilising, provocative and coercive actions, including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air and militarisation of disputed features”.

Wong cited “the United States and China” as the source of tensions in the region, as she cast a dark shadow over the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions, whilst dutifully acting the part of the US deputy sheriff in the Indo Pacific.

In the opinion of the former PM, Burgess had “conjured” the China threat to prep the public mind, prior to Wong’s rattling of “the China can”, and he suggested that key public service figures, like Burgess, are likely to keep the Albanese government on a path to war against the East Asian giant.

And the elder statesperson also pointed to the comments of regional figure Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim, who told the Herald on Tuesday, that his nation is not interested in partaking in Wong’s cry for all Southeast Asian nations to rally around this country and its advisor Uncle Sam.

“Don’t speak treason, they’re tapping the lines”

“We know that foreign intelligence services are targeting Australia’s military capabilities with an insatiable appetite to steal a wide range of advanced technology,” said Burgess, continuing his A Team anecdote. And he added that the agents have been attempting to get hold of AUKUS secrets.

But the Burgess-Wong show seen through the lens of Keating’s explanation does trigger past occasions, along the path of war with China, that involved senior government officials. Indeed, the last time saw the Morrison-Dutton tag team propagating online attack stories to trigger China panic.

In 2020, then PM Scott Morrison warned that political and private-sector entities had been the subject of a “sophisticated state-based cyber-actor” and while the culprit remained unnamed, the public speculated as to whether it was China, Russia or North Korea: the only nations to fit the bill.

The “scare” resulted in enhancing AFP powers and increasing officer numbers, and by the following March, then defence minister Peter Dutton warned that the nation was involved in “grey zone” online warfare with China, and it was clear then that the “state-based actor” was Beijing.

“Your life’s in a databank in ASIO”

The Australian headline, ASIO chief Mike Burgess warns: Islamic terror our top threat, printed on the day that the director general delivered his threat assessment conveyed a different message to his overall speech: one that works well in terms of the other scare campaign that it’s running at present.

“Sunni violent extremism poses the greatest religiously motivated violent extremist threat in Australia,” said Burgess, late in his speech, which, while making the point, wasn’t the main premise, and like other recent assessments, he also raised far-right ideologically-motivated “lone actors”.

Raising Sunni Islam as a prominent threat hints at the Gaza catastrophe and the Murdoch “rising antisemitism” scare campaign, which is leading to kneejerk criminal law enactment in response, despite the rising antisemitic threat being propagated as a means to suppress criticism of Israel.

So, on one hand, we have Wong and Burgess turning the nation toward the ongoing campaign towards war with China, whilst the national masthead, The Australian, is busy ensuring that the voices from the massive opposition to Israel’s genocidal military operation in Gaza are silenced.

Yet, the genocide case handed to a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Monday, which charges Albanese, Wong and other key federal politicians with being an accessory to genocide, suggests that the government attempt to silence the Free Palestine movement has fallen flat.

Subheading quotes from the 1984 Redgum song ASIO

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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