The head of Australia’s domestic spy agency, Asio, will write to all federal politicians to warn they are “attractive targets” for foreign spies trying to steal secrets and manipulate policy-making.
In his most expansive comments to date on the targeting of Australian politicians, Mike Burgess, the director general of security, said foreign intelligence services were seeking to “deceptively cultivate politicians at all levels” of government to advance the interests of other countries.
“You’ve got foreign governments who covertly direct people to develop relationships, to try and curry favour, and one day they’ll call in that favour – and some good people may not even understand they’ve been influenced in a way that is counter to our national interests,” Burgess told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.
Burgess did not name any of the countries involved, but when asked whether the attempts to influence Australia’s politicians came predominately from one state, he replied: “No.”
Asio and the Australian federal police are currently investigating alleged attempts by a number of people to influence the New South Wales upper house Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane in order to “advance the interests and policy goals” of the Chinese government, according to documents submitted to the high court.
Moselmane says he is not a suspect and denies any wrongdoing. The investigation has added to tensions with the Chinese government, with Beijing last month accusing Australia of “barbaric and unreasonable acts” after reports Australian security officials had questioned four Chinese journalists from state media outlets and searched their property in late June.
Asio’s annual report reveals the agency has stepped up its investigations into “attempts to secretly co-opt current and future Australian politicians” over the past year. Such attempts by intelligence services were made “in all states and territories”.
Fronting a Senate estimates committee hearing, Burgess reaffirmed his previous warnings that there were more foreign spies and proxies currently operating in Australia than at the height of the cold war. The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said earlier this year that the nations included China, Iran and Russia.
Burgess said almost any sector – including the political class – was a potential target of foreign interference.
“In the coming weeks I will write to all commonwealth parliamentarians to warn they are attractive targets for those trying to steal our secrets and manipulate our decision-making,” Burgess said.
“Asio will continue to engage with the states and territories to ensure they understand the threat and what they can do about it.”
Council members were sometimes targeted because aspiring leaders “may start out in local government” and before working their way up to state and federal politics.
The independent senator Rex Patrick asked whether the cultivation efforts took the form of “wining and dining” politicians and providing them with hospitality and gifts and political donations.
Burgess said “some or all” of those tactics may be used, but it “could be simply developing a relationship with them” and “being helpful” without declaring those attempts were being done at the direction of a foreign power.
He said foreign intelligence services were adept at understanding how far they had progressed in the cultivation process.
During the appearance before the legal affairs committee, Burgess was asked what safeguards Asio had put in place to manage the reputation of his organisation against any perceived partisanship, given the sensitivity of investigations involving politicians.
Burgess said Asio met with members of parliament from time to time to have conversations about some of their associations “and just draw their attention to potential problems, so we don’t let them fall into a trap”.
“Of course, we’re not all seeing and all knowing, so sometimes we might get to a point where we come across it too late, but through the [counter-foreign interference] taskforce our actions are to try and get to it as early as possible.”
If investigations involved a politician, Asio would brief the leader of that particular party. “I don’t brief my minister [Dutton] when it relates to politicians,” Burgess said.
The Labor senator Kim Carr confronted Burgess over the presence of media during the Moselmane raids in June.
Burgess said he had referred the matter to the head of security at Asio and had assured himself “that if there was a leak, it did not come from my organisation”.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Australian federal police said it was “concerned that this matter was ventilated through the media” and its professional standards command was investigating whether anyone in the federal police was responsible.
While foreign interference investigations are usually shrouded in secrecy, some of the details are known because of a high court challenge brought by John Zhang, a part-time staffer to Moselmane. Zhang denies wrongdoing and is contesting the warrants that were used to search his property in late June.
Documents submitted in that challenge suggest authorities are investigating whether Zhang and others used “a private social media chat group and other fora” with the MP in order to “advance the interests and policy goals” of the Chinese government in Australia.
China’s foreign ministry last month hit back at the “malicious slander” that its consular officials in Australia may have been involved in infiltrating domestic politics, following reports Australian authorities may have accessed Zhang’s communications with Chinese diplomats and consular officials.
At the hearing on Tuesday, the Australian federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, underlined the complexity and sensitivity of this investigation, jointly carried out with Asio.
“[In] that particular matter, we have a high court challenge, we have parliamentary privilege, we have journalist privilege, we have consular and diplomatic privilege,” Kershaw said.
“These are going to be fought through the court systems at a level that’s unprecedented, so we have to make sure that everything is done with that view in mind.”
Burgess defended proposed changes to Asio’s powers after Guardian Australia reported on lawyers’ concerns that journalists and advocacy groups could face compulsory questioning.