Intelligence agencies are making a major “structured” effort to mine Australian business leaders for information amid a growing gap between security agencies and the corporate world.The simmering debate over Chinese influence in Australia and the government’s tougher line on Beijing has left the government and business wildly at odds over the state of the bilateral relationship.
Office of National Assessments deputy director-general Damien White said the meetings allowed intelligence operatives to explain their “perspective” to business after reports ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Frances Adamson were briefing China-exposed businesses on foreign interference.
Australia’s spy chief Nick Warner, who leads the newly established Office of National Intelligence, had been reaching out to business and organising sit-downs with CEOs and business groups, Mr White said.
“(The) new director-general has been a keen advocate of establishing contacts and regular catch-ups with senior executives in business and other sectors,” he told the Australian Security Summit in Canberra yesterday.
“Sometimes it’s been here in Canberra because lots of senior people pass through … but other times we’ve gone out to Sydney and Melbourne and even further to catch up with these people.”
There was “a concerted effort … to give more structure and breadth” to the agencies’ contact with industry.
“External engagement especially with the business community is becoming a bigger part of my job,” Mr White said.
He said agents were now using their engagement with business to test whether their intelligence was correct and business had access to people they were unable to speak to.
“Some of the senior contacts that we have built up have been useful in linking us to working-level contacts where we can have more in-depth discussions on topics of interest; part of this is we’re aiming to become more targeted with our external engagement,” he said.
“We’ve been experimenting with ways of tapping outside expertise when we are grappling with particular questions.
“While we can’t talk at the most highly classified levels with outsiders, we have been finding ways of testing our views and judgments on issues and it shows that less classified or even unclassified discussions can yield an important amount of contestation of your ideas,” he said.
Mr White also said the agencies had been improving their briefings to government and were providing Malcolm Turnbull and other “senior customers” with a daily intelligence paper that appears to be the Australian version of the US president’s “Daily Brief” or “Daily Bulletin”.
He said the ONA was also beginning to write briefs about new topics as a result of the increased co-operation with the Australian Federal Police, the Criminal Intelligence Commission and AUSTRAC under the new intelligence bureaucratic structure.
The ONA has traditionally focused on monitoring political developments in the region and in countries where Australia sends troops, as well as global institutions, terrorism and cyber crime.