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Spies targeting journalists, intelligence chief warns

Giving journalists greater carve-outs in secrecy laws regarding the disclosure of secret information could threaten national security, the spy chief warns.


Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses for a portrait ahead of his annual threat assessment speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra. Image AAP

Australia's intelligence agency is warning against watering down secrecy laws when it comes to journalists, arguing they are targets for foreign spies, which creates a potential threat to national security.

 

The disclosure of classified and top secret information and intelligence threatened Australia's economy and security, and posed a threat to life, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess said.


The national security legislation watchdog is reviewing the effectiveness of secrecy laws and how proportionate they are.


A lack of transparency eroded trust in government and had an unreasonable impact on a free press, Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Jake Blight said.


While he respected the need for transparency, oversight and a free press, this had to be balanced with protecting ASIO sources and the methods used to collect sensitive information, Mr Burgess said. 


"Once national security classified information is removed from a protected environment it becomes vulnerable to exploitation by a hostile foreign entity," he told a public hearing on Monday.


Spies often used proxies and agents to hide their connection to a foreign intelligence service, he said.


Even if a piece of information doesn't look like it would be harmful at face value, "when it's put together with other pieces of information that foreign intelligence is good at collecting, it can be extremely damaging", Mr Burgess said.


This included threats to ASIO's capability, sources and methods "which will actually make it hard for my agency to do its job", he said.


While the organisation didn't investigate journalists for their journalism, Mr Burgess warned of any special treatment as they were a target for foreign intelligence. 


"Foreign intelligence services use journalists for cover and tradecraft, as in pretend to be a journalist, to do their job," he said.


"I'm not saying that we are. But if we do, we're investigating them for potential threats to security - anything that changes that equation would be problematic from my point of view."


Mr Blight is investigating offences covering the disclosure of information that are due to lapse in 2024.


There have been proposals for a broader offence to replace the sunsetting ones.


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