Foreign interference unprecedented: ASIO

Former ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis. Source: AAP

ASIO chief Duncan Lewis warns foreign actors are attempting to influence and shape the views of Australians.

The country's top intelligence chief has warned there are more foreign spies operating in Australia with the ability to inflict "catastrophic harm" than during the Cold War.

Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, has painted a bleak picture of foreign interference against Australia occurring on an "unprecedented scale".

Mr Lewis has warned countries are trying to access classified information about the nation's global alliances and military, economic and energy systems.

"Espionage, interference, sabotage and malicious insider activities can inflict catastrophic harm on our country's interests," Mr Lewis told a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday night.

"It undermines potentially our sovereignty, our security and our prosperity."

Mr Lewis said foreign actors were attempting to covertly influence and shape the views of the Australian public, its media and officials in the Australian government, as well as members of diaspora communities.

Senators were told these efforts could have an immediate impact, but in some cases the harm may not materialise for decades.

"This is not a theoretical proposition," Mr Lewis said.

"The reality is that acts of espionage and foreign interference are occurring against Australian interests, both in Australia and overseas."

Mr Lewis urged senators to pass the Turnbull government's proposed foreign interference laws, saying the "grim reality" was there were more foreign intelligence officers now than during the Cold War.

"While we should always treat the lessons of history carefully, I note that Cold War foes were relatively unambiguous, they had clear nation state objectives, underpinned by strong ambitions, but they did at the time have more limited technology than is available today," Mr Lewis said.

"And in contrast today the contemporary international security environment is far more integrated, it's fluid, it's complex, there is a wider range of foreign powers independently jostling for advantage with many aggressively pursuing espionage and foreign interference activities to advance their cause."

Asked about the potential fallout from a Liberal backbencher's decision to accuse a political donor of involvement in a bribery scandal, Mr Lewis said it would not damage international intelligence partnerships.

Source AAP

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