The outgoing director of Australia’s domestic spy agency says he’s unsure if the country has the necessary mindset to neutralise the tools of modern political warfare, such as disinformation and subversion.
Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell said in June that state “grey zone operations” that subvert international norms but fall short of prompting military retaliation were increasingly prevalent.
These actions, such as cyber warfare and propaganda campaigns, were conducted by states with fewer legal constraints, General Campbell said, such as those with totalitarian or authoritarian political systems.
Liberal democracies often struggled to deter such warfare, he said.
ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis on Sept. 4 agreed with General Campbell’s assessment, saying Australian intelligence was awake to such grey zone operations but lacked the tools to halt their effectiveness.
He said the dividing line between war and peace was fuzzier than ever.
“Are we awake to it, yes. Whether we’ve got the tools and necessary mindset, I’m less sure—this is an emerging issue,” Lewis told a Lowy Institute event.
“You’re able to operate in a grey zone now because you can, because technology will allow that to happen.
“States have many more levers to pull upon each other than in the past.”
Lewis put this increased interference capacity down to globalisation, rapid global communications, and state interdependence.
He also labelled foreign interference and espionage “by far and away” the most serious, and potentially existential, contemporary threat to Australia, saying their current scale and scope were unprecedented.
“A place like Australia, terrorism is not an existential threat to the state—it is a terrible risk our populations run and it’s a very serious matter,” Lewis said.
“The counter-espionage and foreign interference issue, however, is something which is ultimately an existential threat to Australia, or can be an existential threat—it has the capacity to do that.”
He added that there were three “threat vectors” that dominate the organisation’s work—foreign interference and espionage, terrorism and cybersecurity.
But it was the former that concerned him most, notwithstanding the 2018 passage of laws aimed at preventing foreign influence on Australian politicians, media, ethnic groups, and civil society organisations.
Lewis’s organisation was trying to find the “sweet spot” between passivity and overreaction and also avoid the vilification of minorities, such as Muslim Australians or Chinese-Australians.
He said he had previously spoken to politicians about tempering their rhetoric on minority groups to preserve community relationships.