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Foreign infiltration into the Australian public service

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 11 October 2017


Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese defense attaché who defected to Australia in 2005, has warned that China has in excess of 1200 spies scattered through both the community and government departments, indicating that foreign infiltration into the APS is now in epidemic proportions.

Embedded Agents

We can only speculate about embedded agents within the APS, as none have ever been captured during their careers. Consequently, it may take years before documents, reports, and books put any light onto potential contemporary agents within the service.

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Australian National University Professor Des Ball in preparing his book Breaking the Codes came across sources of information that ASIO would not have had at the time. Ball asserts that then secretary of the Department of External Affairs during the 1940s, John Burton was probably a Soviet intelligence agent, who had up to a dozen agents working with him in the department.

The exposure of agents within the Australian Public Service is extremely difficult and most often requires historians to uncover other sources of information and match them with what information was available at the time before speculations can be made. So it will not be until midway through this current century before historians are able to cast educated suspicions upon the service today. As a pointer, it was only last year that ASIO actually admitted that the organization was infiltrated by foreign spies in the 1970s and 1980s.

Consultants and Contractors

The consultant and contracting out of government work in Australia has been growing at almost 4 percent annually with A$687 million paid out to consultants in 2015. Consultants and contractors are being used for temporary work, exhibitions, event management, policy development work, data management and computer programming, etc. This doesn't include the costs of contractors for security, cleaning, and rubbish removal etc. In addition there are consultants who specialize in lobbying the Australian and state governments, many of them ex-ministers, or ex-public servants.

Many consultants and contractors have access to at least sensitive and private information, if not some classified information, without necessarily undergoing any security screening. Through the Australian Immigration contractor VFS, confidential information found its way into the public domain. Consequently, information that consultants and contractors handle can inadvertently be put into the public domain, or at worst be compromised through a conflict of interest and passed on to foreign parties.

Unfortunately there is very little transparency in the work that consultants undertake for the government. Many are ex-ministers or public service employees, who in need of revenue may also work with foreign organizations, thus creating potential conflicts of interest. For example, former Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb, an economic consultant, immediately upon leaving government took a 'well paid' consultancy job with a Chinese company aligned to the Communist Party of China that operates the Port of Darwin.

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Consultants are not subject any code of conduct, unlike ministers and public servants. Many contracts are given out to ex-employees without any public tendering process, or through a pseudo-process where any terms of reference only suit the person a ministry has in mind. The process of hiring outside consultants has been so sensitive that Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has refused to reveal where the federal government has spent funds, although according to Daily Telegraph reports, most of the recipients are former politicians and public servants.

Cyber Espionage

Cyber operations have become the fifth dimension of warfare. Cyber attacks can destroy systems, bring down public infrastructure and be used to collect information from remote systems. Government data networks are under constant daily attacks. It is very difficult to prove, but large volumes of data are being siphoned out of government data systems and processed in some manner in China. According to Four Corners, the Ministries of Defence, Prime Minister, and Foreign Affairs have all been hacked, and information such as emails are continuously collected. In addition the Bureau of Metrology was recently attacked and Austrade is infiltrated. According to Four Corners, even the blueprints to ASIO's new headquarters in Canberra have been stolen, preventing the organization moving in on building completion, as the inside had to be completely redesigned.

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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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