Australia warns of foreign surveillance operations, names Iran

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil says the intelligence agency shut down an Iranian operation targeting a dual citizen.

Outside view of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation
Outside view of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation headquarters in Canberra, Australia [File: Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE]

Foreign governments responsible for surveillance and interference operations in Australia will be named and shamed publicly, the country’s home affairs minister has said, revealing that Australia’s security agency recently disrupted an operation by Iran.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said on Tuesday that foreign governments found to be behind operations focused on politicians, academics and community leaders in Australia will be called out in public as such intimidation “operates in the shadows, and our best defence is to bring it into the light”.

“We don’t just need to disrupt these operations, but deter future ones by imposing costs on their sponsor through outing them, where possible,” O’Neil told the Australian National University’s National Security College in a speech.

“It is perfectly legal for anyone in Australia to criticise a foreign regime, as tens of thousands of people across the country have been doing in response to events in Iran,” she said.

“What we absolutely will not tolerate, under any circumstances, are attempts by foreign regimes to disrupt peaceful protests, encourage violence or suppress views,” she said, adding that foreign interference was a threat to Australia’s democracy.

“If you engage in activities like this, you will be discovered,” O’Neil wrote in a later tweet.

O’Neil also revealed that the domestic intelligence agency Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) late last year shut down a surveillance operation by the Iranian government against a dual citizen connected to protests in Australia over the death in Iranian custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Amini died in September after she was detained by Iran’s morality police for violating the country’s strict Islamic dress code for women.

Months of protests – domestic and international – have followed Amini’s death.

Without providing details, O’Neil said Iran had carried out “extensive research” on an Australia-based individual “and their family” who were involved in organising protests in Australia.

“I’m pleased to say our agencies were on to it like a shot,” she said.

“We’re not going to stand back and have Australians or indeed visitors to our country, watched and tracked by foreign governments on our soil.”

Iran’s embassy in Australia had yet to respond to the allegations, AFP news agency reported.

When foreign interference laws were introduced to Australia’s Parliament in 2018, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull cited allegations of Chinese government interference in Australian politics and universities, sparking an angry response from Beijing.

O’Neil did not refer to China in her speech, and Australia and China have recently sought to repair diplomatic ties with Beijing starting to ease trade blocks on Australian coal and agricultural products.

Also on Tuesday, Australian officials said dozens of Chinese-made security cameras would be ripped out of politicians’ offices, days after the country’s defence and foreign ministers announced that the cameras would be removed from their departments due to security concerns.

At least 913 Chinese-made security cameras have been installed across more than 250 Australian government buildings, including the Department of Defence’s facilities, according to figures released last week.

Officials from the Department of Finance confirmed a further 65 closed-circuit television systems had been installed within offices used by Australian politicians, and they would now be removed.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies