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10 Feb, 2022 11:04

Wealthy ‘puppeteer’ behind ‘foreign interference start-up’, security service says

The individual sought to influence the upcoming Australian election on behalf of another country, the ASIO claims
Wealthy ‘puppeteer’ behind ‘foreign interference start-up’, security service says

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) discovered and disrupted a foreign interference plot ahead of the upcoming general election, expected later this year, the agency’s director general, Mike Burgess, revealed in his annual threat assessment report published on Wednesday.

The plot was centered around an unnamed “wealthy individual” nicknamed ‘the puppeteer’ by the ASIO, who has “roots in Australia” but also has “direct and deep connections” to an unnamed foreign power and its intelligence services. “Although it’s important to remember that while the puppeteer pulled the strings, the foreign government called the shots,” Burgess said.

The ‘puppeteer’ hired another person identified only as an ‘employee’ to secretly seek out and support candidates in the upcoming election, who were either willing to advance the interests of the foreign power or were “assessed as vulnerable to inducements and cultivation.” The ‘employee’ used existing relationships with politicians, officials, and journalists in Australia to choose potential targets without revealing his true goals.

The plotters planned to advance the candidates through generous financial support facilitated through the puppeteer’s offshore bank account, capable of providing “hundreds of thousands of dollars for operating expenses.” The money was expected to be spent on political consultants, advertising agencies, and PR specialists to aid the candidates’ campaigns.

“The aim was not just to get the candidates into positions of power, but also to generate a sense of appreciation, obligation and indebtedness that could subsequently be exploited,” Burgess said, adding that it was “like a foreign interference start-up.”

Successful candidates were then expected to hire other political staffers recommended by the ‘employee’, who would also be agents or proxies of the foreign power. These staffers would, in turn, continue to influence political decision makers and identify other politicians and officials that could be recruited for the cause. Down the line, the elected officials were likely expected to share sensitive political information with the foreign power’s agents or to vote in a particular way on “contentious” issues.

According to ASIO, none of the candidates were aware they were being manipulated. Under the puppeteer’s scheme, they should remain unaware of the developments and share the information without knowing that it would be sent to the foreign power.

The ASIO did not reveal exact details about the identities of the plotters, nor did it name the foreign power behind the plot or a particular jurisdiction that it sought to influence. Still, Burgess said that his agency already provided people with “a level of detail that we would normally not reveal in public.”

“The first and most effective defense against all forms of foreign interference is awareness,” the ASIO head said, adding that his agency wanted to show the public what foreign interference is and what it is not.

“Foreign interference in our political system is far removed from lobbying, diplomacy or other open and transparent attempts to influence decision-making,” Burgess said, adding that the latest case is similar to others uncovered at a later stage. “These cases are much more serious,” he added.

Australia is set to hold a general election later in 2022. Election day is expected to fall on a Saturday, no later than the end of May, but the exact date has not been announced yet. The decision is up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The voters will elect a new House of Representatives and half of the Senate this year, either at the same time or in two separate elections.