Kangaroo Punches Bear: Australia Takes Down a Russian Spy-Hive
This week’s big counterintelligence news comes from Down Under, where counterspies broke up a significant Russian espionage operation
For the public, one of the frustrating aspects of counterintelligence is that they are allowed to see so little of it in action. Intelligence officials share snippets of information about breaking up foreign spy rings – an arrest here, a diplomatic expulsion there – but the information is incomplete and often out of date. It can take years, even decades, for the real counterespionage story to emerge.
In the early years of the Cold War, Americans were bombarded by rhetoric from incautious politicians about Communist spy networks operating all over the United States. That was true, but almost all the details offered by cynical pols were wrong, while the public had no idea that, in fact, U.S. counterintelligence had dismantled all major Soviet espionage rings operating in North America by the early 1950s. That victory came thanks to a highly classified NSA program called VENONA, which the public wouldn’t hear about for almost half a century, after the Cold War ended.
It's therefore refreshing when Western spy bosses lift the curtain a smidge and let the public get some idea of how the SpyWar is going. That’s what Mike Burgess did this week, with his speech on the annual threat assessment of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, which Burgess has headed since 2019. ASIO is Canberra’s domestic intelligence service, responsible for combating espionage, terrorism, subversion, and foreign interference. A career spook, Burgess joined the Australian Signals Directorate, which is Australia’s NSA, in 1995 then rose up the ranks, eventually becoming ASD director in 2017. Two years later, Burgess was appointed ASIO director-general.
Public speeches by intelligence bosses tend to be bland and understated affairs, but Burgess’ Tuesday speech was anything but that. He dropped many quotable lines while speaking frankly to the public, in plain language (“My boy, being a top spook is not compatible with being a media tart.”), about the daunting task confronting ASIO in 2023: