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Security expert warns of ‘insidious’ risk as ASIO reveals ‘unprecedented’ number of spies in Australia

The head of ASIO has revealed there are now more foreign spies in Australia than ever before and a leading security expert has warned the dangers posed by foreign interference are “insidious”.

ASIO director general Mike Burgess made the shocking revelation that the number of spies in the country “is now higher than it was at the height of the Cold War” during the Australian annual threat assessment last night.

He also revealed Islamic terrorism and right-wing terrorism “will remain at an unacceptably high level for the foreseeable future”.

Former intelligence analyst Dr David Wright-Neville agrees that the risk is not going to go away.

“As terrorist groups adapt to the counter-terrorism measures put against them they’re looking for ways to work around those, but the motive to attack is still there,” he told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell.

Dr Wright-Neville said he’s was surprised Mr Burgess did not single out Chinese spies.

“I was struck by the reluctance to name those countries that are actively engaged in espionage within Australia, and I think that was a diplomatic sensitivity,” he said.

“I think it was fairly clear who he was referring to mainly, but not exclusively, but his refusal to mention China in particular was quite striking.”

Dr Wright-Neville said foreign espionage in Australia poses a serious risk.

“The short term concern is that these activities by foreign agents can sow dissent and conflict within our community. They seek to deny people the rights to free speech and the rights to free association that we enjoy,” he said.

“In the long term, the dangers are a little more insidious. That is to try and shoehorn us away from traditional alliance partners and shoehorn us into positions supporting other countries’ behaviour in the international arena which we might not ordinarily want to support.

“They’re trying to access information about our defence systems, about other critical weaknesses.”

The security analyst said it’s likely Neil Mitchell has been blacklisted by China, too.

“They’d be monitoring what is being said, they’d be taking note about who is saying what,” he said.

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Image: Grant Faint / Getty