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Australia Promises More Money for Overwhelmed Spy Agency

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton addresses media at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, Oct. 17, 2019.

A government minister Thursday promised an unprecedented funding increase for Australia’s main spy agency, which is struggling to meet demands posed by the nation’s new foreign interference laws, espionage and terrorism.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton promises more money and staff a day after the Australian Security intelligence Organization, better known as ASIO, revealed in an annual report an “increasing gap between demand for our counter-espionage and foreign interference advice and our ability to furnish this assistance.”

“It’s getting unprecedented funding and we’ll continue to support,” Dutton told reporters.

“We have more demands on our intelligence services and law enforcement agencies than ever before,” he added.

Covert foreign interference

Australia last year outlawed covert foreign interference in world-first legislation that has angered China, its biggest export market.

Since December, individuals and businesses that are attempting to influence the government and Australian politics on behalf of a foreign government have had to register, a requirement meant to add transparency for the public and government decision-makers.

The public register is a response to a government-commissioned classified report that found the Chinese Communist Party for a decade had tried to influence Australian policy, compromise political parties and gain access to all levels of government.

There have been no public reports of anyone being charged with breaching the legislation by attempting to covertly influence government.

Dutton said whether individuals were charged was a matter for police.

Demand for expertise rises

The ASIO report said the passage of new laws on foreign interference espionage affected the threats.

Some foreign spy agencies had reassessed the risks of conducting clandestine intelligence operations in Australia, the report said.

“However, we anticipate the most capable foreign intelligence services will adapt their behavior over time to circumvent the new legislation,” the report said.

The elevated threat of espionage and foreign interference, combined with greater awareness of the threat among Australians, had increased demand for ASIO’s help and was “stretching current resources,” the report said.

“We will necessarily prioritize our finite resources — across our counter-terrorism, counter-espionage and foreign interference, border integrity and protective security advice programs — toward addressing activities of the greatest potential harm to Australians and Australian interests,” the report said.

Opposition spokeswoman on the Home Affairs Department portfolio Kristina Keneally said the government should be alarmed by ASIO’s resourcing concerns.

“It’s an incredibly important agency in our national security framework and for them to be reporting in this time when the challenges they face are quite complex, that they are stretched for resources, well that’s an alarm bell,” she said.