Australia's spy chief reveals election interference plot

The scheme may have seen allies placed into the offices of successful candidates. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's intelligence chief has spoken for the first time of a recently foiled foreign interference plot, sounding a warning ahead of the country's upcoming elections.

Mr Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (Asio), said the case involved a wealthy individual with "deep connections to a foreign government".

"I'll call this person 'the puppeteer'," he said during an annual threat assessment speech.

The director-general described the scheme as "like a foreign interference start-up" in which the puppeteer funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to an employee, who set about trying to influence an election.

Mr Burgess did not specify which election was targeted.

The employee identified and targeted promising political candidates, who knew nothing of the scheme.

"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," Mr Burgess said.

The scheme may have seen allies placed into the offices of successful candidates, who could have both influenced the politician and filtered sensitive information back to the foreign government, if Asio had not foiled the plot.

"This year - a federal election year - we need to be particularly on guard against foreign political interference," Mr Burgess said.

He also raised concerns about the growing threat of right-wing extremism in Australia, particularly among minors.

He said minors represented 15 per cent of Asio's new counter-terrorism investigations last year, up from 2 per cent to 3 per cent previously.

"As a nation, we need to reflect on why some teenagers are hanging Nazi flags and portraits of the Christchurch killer on their bedroom walls, and why others are sharing beheading videos," he said.

Mr Burgess also noted that the agency was tracking foreign spies trying to make connections via dating apps, including Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.

"My message for any potential victims on these sites is a familiar one - if it seems too good to be true, it probably is," he said.

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