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Foreign infiltration into the Australian public service

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 11 October 2017


With Australia positioned uniquely in Asia but with its roots in the west, the government's civil service – the Australian Public Service (APS) – seems uniquely vulnerable to foreign infiltration and the government does remarkably little about it.

The public service has never been identified as threatened and lies primarily unprotected. The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country's counterspy apparatus, has spent massive time and resources on trying vainly to catch agents cultivating targets.

The APS employs more than 243,300 civil servants, with another 1.5 million in the respective state public services. Tens of thousands of outside contractors and consultants serve the government as well, representing more than 16.4 percent of all Australian jobs. Today, more than 22 percent of employees were born in another country and more than 14.5 percent of employees come from non-English speaking backgrounds, notably South Central Asia, East Asia, South-East Asia, and Eastern Europe. The services are much more reflective of Australian society today, but also much more open to potential infiltration.

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In addition, much of the work done within the APS is handled by outside contractors, such as the London based VFS Global, which through directorships is related to Booz, Allan & Hamilton, closely involved in the area of predictive intelligence for a number of foreign governments. There have been a number of cases of negligence of confidential client data, security compromise, and data leakage associated with this contractor.

Another major change to the APS is reliance upon regulation rather than legislation. This has strengthened the service, taking power away from the Parliament and Executive, as the majority of government decisions now reside within the bureaucracy. The service now plays a much more directive role today than its administrative role in the past. Consequently, if any person or organization wants information, influence decision making, or future policy, the public service is the institution to target, rather than the Parliament and Executive. In addition, the focus of espionage today appears to be more commercially orientated than politically orientated.

The APS can be infiltrated in many ways, and there is also a long history of it happening. However evidence and details of these infiltrations are difficult to pin down, let alone act upon. Accusations are at best based upon unproven suspicion and speculation. Massive resources have been allocated to protect the APS against some of the newer methods of infiltration such as cyber attacks, but little protection has been developed for some of the more traditional methods of infiltration.

According to a Victorian Government Anti-Corruption Commission Report in 2015, the target of potential infiltrators include "sensitive information or systems, decision-making processes, matrices or criteria, property or goods with a high resale value, (and) knowledge that facilitates criminal activity."Targets thus include areas and computers where information is stored, work areas, and vulnerable individuals. These individuals would include senior executives and their assistants, help desk staff, system and network administrators, employees with access to sensitive information, employees with remote access, and people who interact with employees.

Cultivating Targeted People

The APS has had a history of foreign infiltration ever since its formation, especially during the Cold War, with some infiltrations becoming public scandals. The recently released history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASDIO) has documented how deeply Canberra was penetrated by Soviet spies since the 1940s. In addition, Des Ball and David Horner in their book Breaking the Codes elaborated with details from ASIO files of a Soviet spy ring led by a KGB officer Gerontiy Pavlovich Lazovik, who recruited public servants, diplomats, MPs, and journalists to supply him information from many government departments and ministries during the 1970s. This information was sent from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra to both the Soviet KGB and GRU.

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The cultivation of David Combe, a former Australian Labour Party National Secretary by then KGB officer Valery Ivanov, led to shock and despair within the Hawke government in the 1980s, with Combe banned from any contact with government officials. More recently, in 2012 a Vietnamese security agent Luong Ngoc Anh cultivated a romantic relationship with Australian Trade Representative Elizabeth Masamune, who at the time had access to classified trade briefings. The next year, South Korean agents were caught cultivating public servants to obtain trade secrets. The Chinese too have been accused of cultivating Australian public servants through providing them with lavish holidays in China.

Australia's closest ally the United States is no stranger to the game. For many years the US Embassy in Canberra and consulates in Melbourne and Sydney cultivated potential future Australian leaders and assisted them to undertake trips to the US.

Today, public service employees are much more openly prone to persuasion, pressure, and even blackmail by existing friends, family members, and by members of their respective ethnic communities. This was reflected in the case of Yeon Kim being cultivated by Hoo-Young Park of the South Korean National Intelligence Service through regular Sunday afternoon soccer matches in Canberra. A common language, cultural background and social interaction are powerful tools in cultivation and persuasion.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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