Australia’s domestic spy agency has warned the scale and threat of foreign espionage is now greater than it was during the Cold War.
Deputy director-general Peter Vickery warned ASIO had evidence of Australians consciously facilitating foreign intelligence services.
“They use their nationality and employment to gain access to privileged information,” Mr Vickery said.
His warnings come as media companies, lawyers, churches, charities and humanitarian groups raise concerns about perceived overreach and unintended consequences.
These groups have argued the laws are too broad and would see their legitimate work criminalised.
The Government has dismissed some of these concerns already, stressing intelligence and law-enforcement agencies need more legal powers.
Mr Vickery said the threats were unprecedented and harder to detect.
“During the Cold War our adversaries were readily identifiable; it was the Eastern Bloc, the Russians and the East Germans for example,” he said.
In the current climate, we are facing a raft of different countries that are seeking to conduct espionage and foreign interference.
“It is a lot more blurred in a sense, there are more state actors out there than there were during that time.
“While that was obviously a very busy time in that period of history, our assessment is that it is not on the scale on which we are experiencing today.”
Mr Vickery said there was a false conception foreign espionage was no longer common.
“We have an example of where a person cultivated and recruited an Australian official,” he said.
“We know that some of our foreign intelligence adversaries not only recruit Australian officials in a public service sense, but they also seek to recruit and cultivate public officials — in other words, politicians.”
Government dismisses media company concerns
Attorney-General Christian Porter said media companies were making sensationalist claims about the proposed laws.
More than a dozen companies – including the ABC, Fairfax and News Corp – told the Government they could not support the bill unless exemptions were made for journalists.
They said journalists could be prosecuted merely for receiving classified information, rather than distributing it.
Mr Porter said there were protections to ensure that did not happen.
“I think that’s sensationalist and I don’t think it’s accurate,” Mr Porter said.
Australian bishops were also worried the laws could force Catholics to register as agents of the Vatican.
The Attorney-General Department’s assistant secretary, Anna Harmer, said the intention of the law had been misunderstood and could be clarified.
“Perhaps there might be a question about whether the drafting of the religious exemption could be considered to have a look at some of the issues that have been raised in submissions,” she said.
Labor likely to seek changes to legislation
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus signalled Labor would demand significant changes to the legislation, which had not yet been debated in Parliament.
“We are not yet convinced and the concerns expressed yesterday show the Government hasn’t properly achieved the intention these bills need.” Mr Dreyfus said.
“We need to have a serious look.”
But the head of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said he was not convinced there needed to more safeguards for journalists, charities and religious groups.
“At the end of the day, the legislation is seeking to protect Australia and its interests and I think if you’re seeking to build Australia and not undermine it as an Australian citizen then you shouldn’t be concerned,” he told the ABC.