SPY CHIEFS: Director-General of Security Mike Burgess - ASIO, Australia & America
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This is the first in a special series that will run through the month of June looking at spy chiefs - that is, the heads of professional intelligence agencies or senior arms of those agencies. This week's guest is the current Australian director general of security, Mike Burgess. Mike is the leader of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, ASIO, which is comparable to MI5 and the FBI, although there are some important differences, which we go on to discuss. ASIO is responsible for counterespionage, counterterrorism, countersabotage and foreign interference. He was formerly director general of the Australian Signals Directorate, or ASD, which is comparable to GCHQ and the NSA. This is an agency he joined in 1995 and would serve on for many years.
Andrew Hammond: Mike was in town for a meeting with his American counterparts and friends - or mates. In this episode, we discuss what it's like being director general of security for Australia, who are the main Australian intelligence agencies, how many there are and how they fit together, the United States as Australia's most important strategic alliance, the enduring value and historical uniqueness of the Five Eyes alliance, the Australian concept of mateship, his view on the "Pine Gap" TV series, as the former senior Australian at that joint intelligence facility, his love of Manchester United and how that might help us understand intelligence agencies.
Andrew Hammond: Next week's episode features the incredible journey of Ellen McCarthy, from Navy analyst to head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, one of the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies. But for now, I hope you enjoy this episode.
Andrew Hammond: Well, it's a real pleasure to speak to you. I'm really thrilled to have you on. And since I took over the podcast, I've been trying to increase our content on Australia because the Indo-Pacific is just so important. Obviously, I'm preaching to the converted here. So I wonder, just to start off, could you tell us how you got involved in the world of intelligence?
Mike Burgess: Yeah. Thank you, and thanks for having me. It's great to be here. Well, my background is electronics engineering. In fact, I'm first in my family to go to university. My mom and dad were both working class, and in fact, my dad didn't actually like the idea of any of his children going to university, which would probably be a whole new podcast in its own right. Regardless, I managed to convince my parents I could go, went to university, did my engineering degree, and I was happy as the proverbial - being the pig in the engineering pen, doing my technical thing.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Mike Burgess: It was actually radar engineering. And then one day - and to show how old I am - there was a little job advert in the newspaper. So that's when jobs were advertised in the weekly newspaper. And it was about the size of a postage stamp, and it sounded incredibly exciting from a technical point of view. Mentioned Department of Defense, but that's all it said. I rang up the job advert, excited, 'cause it sounded really geeky, and the people on the other end just answered the phone with a hello. And I'm like, OK, hello back. And they said hello back to me.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Mike Burgess: Eventually, we got there. Cut a long story short, I found a job in the Defense Signals Directorate, which is Australia's equivalent of the National Security Agency - now called the Australian Signals Directorate - and spent a long career there in signals intelligence and information security, which we now call cybersecurity. So that was my intro to the world of intelligence, and part of my background is a long-time poacher and gig gamekeeper.
Andrew Hammond: That's really fascinating. And I find your background really interesting because you're at the ASD, then you become a chief information security officer, and then you become the director general of ASIO. So there's a number of things that I want to fill out there but just so I can get a sense of time, what years were you in the ASD? What kind of time period are we talking?
Mike Burgess: Yes. In 1995 to 2013...
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Mike Burgess: ...Australian Signals Directorate or Defense Signals Directorate. Left in 2013 to go work for Telstra, one of Australia's largest telcos, as the chief information security officer. Then went and started doing my own consultancy work. I was actually, again, enjoying that. Never thought I'd come back to government service. And one day, I got approached to come back to the Australian Signals Directorate as its first director-general, as its agency status changed. And then in 2019, much to my surprise, 'cause I was really happy in that job, I was asked if I would consider being the head of ASIO, and I thought that was an offer that I couldn't refuse.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And talking about an offer you can't refuse - that sounds like, you know, in "The Godfather 3," they said, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. It sounds like they keep doing that with you. You thought you were out, and you were back. And you thought you were out, and you were back.
Mike Burgess: That's certainly happened in my experience. And also sometimes I joke - it's like, why would they make me the head of Australia's security service if I couldn't see it coming? 'Cause I certainly didn't see the ask to do the head of ASIO role. And not to share a secret, but I'm happy to share this with your listeners. I knew the ask to come back to be the first director-general of ASD was coming well before I - it was formally announced. But when I left government in 2013, I'd finished a very successful, rewarding career, and I left on a high, and I wasn't intending to come back. So who knows what's around the corner?
Andrew Hammond: Absolutely. And one thing that - when I was doing the research for this interview, quite often, the head of ASIO has been a diplomat or a soldier, but there are a couple of precedents that I found. David Irvine, he was the director-general of ASIS, and then he went to ASIO. And then further back, Harvey Barnett - he's one of the few career intelligence officers. I found that he was the director-general of ASIS, and then he also went to ASIO. So choosing a professional intelligence officer that's - it's not uncommon, but it's not common either. So I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit more about that.
Mike Burgess: You're correct in looking at ASIO's history and who's led it. I mean, its first leader was actually a judge. So we have an interesting mix of director-generals. Typically, you're right. They've come from outside the organization. Maybe in the early days, that made sense because when we were formed, there was not really an equivalent service. Over its time, I think it just reflects actually how governments like to work and who they choose to appoint. And yes, the occasional intelligence officer does come through and be director-general. As I tell my staff all the time, if you'd like to be DG - and wouldn't that be a good idea - you'd probably have to spend some time outside of the organization before a government would appoint you to lead the organization, not because you're not any good, but actually, I think it's that breadth of experience. I mean, David Irvine, who, as you might know, recently passed, sadly - an experienced diplomat who was asked to head the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and at the end of that, is asked to head ASIO. It's his breadth of experience which actually does help in roles like this.
Andrew Hammond: 'Cause it's a more strategic role, and you have to have a broader picture.
Mike Burgess: Yeah, I guess - that's correct. And in my case, I guess, maybe I'm the odd pick because I'm not the typical person you would have expected to be asked to be director-general of security. I think most people were surprised. In fact, I know most people I knew were just - they didn't pick this one. As always happens, there's lots of people generating lists, speculating who might be appointed. I know I wasn't probably on anyone lists other than the minister and the prime minister.
Andrew Hammond: Those are the most important - last two (laughter).
Mike Burgess: That's the secret.
Andrew Hammond: And just briefly, I want to set our stall out. And for our listeners that aren't familiar with the Australian intelligence landscape, I want to get a sense of who ASIO is, where they fit within the Australian intelligence landscape and then some of the challenges and things that you're involved with as director-general. But before we go out there, just very briefly, did you get any ribbing from your old ASD colleagues for becoming the head of ASIO?
Mike Burgess: Apart from what are you doing - I could say some more colorful language there, but I won't - no, they understood. I think some of them might have been happy. Some of them might have been disappointed. But in the end, all of them would understand the importance of the work of all the agencies in Australia's national intelligence community. So in that regard, everyone would be understanding.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. OK. So let's set our stall out so that listeners can get a good sense of ASIO and where it fits within Australia and the region and the globe, really. So just tell us a little bit more about your organization, ASIO. So we have a lot of listeners in Australia - also have a lot of listeners in the United States and the U.K., and they'll be thinking, so is that like the FBI or MI5? So help us understand the role that the security service in Australia plays, and what are the best organizations to compare it to?
Mike Burgess: Yeah, absolutely. So ASIO is Australian Security Intelligence Service - equivalent of MI5, part of FBI. And to explain that difference, as a security service, we're not law enforcement, unlike the FBI that has broader functions, including primary law enforcement, but also the work that we do in countering espionage. To have a way of describing what a security service is in comparison to law enforcement, we don't start a probable cause to investigate something. So we're not law enforcement. We don't charge people. We don't take people to court. We look at identifying threats to security. And those threats are defined in the ASIO Act, covering espionage, foreign interference, sabotage, attacks on Australia's defense system, integrity of Australia's border, anything that's promoting communal violence or politically motivated violence. That last two things are terrorist-related. And as a security intelligence service, we have a whole range of capabilities and powers that are allowed to investigate threats to security. And we can work up to the point of satisfying ourself there isn't a threat to security, unlike law enforcement that needs probable cause to move forward. So we come at it from the other way. But when we find or identify a threat, we assess that threat. And through the actions of ourself or our partners in law enforcement or elsewhere, we're able to help deal with that threat to Australia.
Andrew Hammond: Help us understand ASIO and how that fits within the Australian intelligence landscape. So in the states, we have the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. There are 17 other intelligence agencies that come underneath that umbrella. So I don't expect...
Mike Burgess: That's easy.
Andrew Hammond: ...You to list everyone, but tell us a little bit more about ASD, ASIS, ASIO.
Mike Burgess: Sure, so easy. So there are 10 members of the Australian National Intelligence Community. So it's similar, very similar to the United States. We have the Office of National Intelligence. That organization and the director-general for national intelligence has two primary roles. There's the intelligence assessment piece, so the lead assessment agency for intelligence matters and advice to the prime minister and his or her government of the day. At the same time, they have a coordinating role for the community. And what that's really about, to make sure all 10 members of the national intelligence community - whilst they have specific, defined functions under law and they're empowered to do their jobs - as a broader community, we work well together to generate greater effect for the benefit of our country, so 10 agencies - ONI and its coordinating role, lead assessments role. We also have the Defense Intelligence Organization that does assessments for the military, the Australian Defense Force. You have the Australian Signals Directorate, which is signals intelligence, cyber security and computer network attack. So it's part of the defense portfolio - Australian Secret Intelligence Service, foreign covert intelligence collection with a disruption mandate to boot, Australian Security Intelligence Organization, ASIO, domestic security service. But actually when I say domestic, we follow the threats against Australia across the globe, like the FBI in that regard or - so you can see how it's same - similar, different scale, 10 agencies. It's a very effective community.
Andrew Hammond: Some of the ones that are better known, like ASD, ASIO and ASIS, how do you coordinate with them? Is there, like, a weekly lunch or meeting or is this all done at the next level up with the Australian equivalent of the ODNI - or how do yous (ph) all coordinate and make sure everyone's singing from the same hymn sheet?
Mike Burgess: So in Australia, we have the National Security Committee of Cabinet. So we'll start at the top - that's the prime minister's meeting that looks at all matters of national security. They're our office - director-general of national intelligence, so the head of ONI. The head of ASIS and the head of ASIO are members - full members of that committee in advisory role. The ministers, of course, are decision-makers. Below that meeting is the Secretaries Committee of National Security - so again, has the three of us, plus the director-general of ASD and secretaries of prime minister and cabinet, finance, DFAT, defense, Treasury, where we look at issues for advice to government on matters of national security. In terms of the community itself, we have the heads of intelligence agencies meeting that meets every six weeks or so. So that's the regular group where the community gets together and talks about capability and some mission intelligence priority matters. And actually an informal gathering that we have is director-general of national intelligence, director-general of ASIS, ASIO, and ASD. The four of us get together in what we call the small group. It's an informal gathering. The reason why we meet is not because the other members of the community aren't important. It's just the center of focus on foreign intelligence collection and foreign threats to our country. Actually, that's the right grouping where we talk about more pressing operational matters and outcomes that our government are looking for.
Andrew Hammond: I find all of those organizational dynamics and the processes and structures and relationships really, really fascinating, and they're often overlooked as being part of the thing that makes the whole operation function, right?
Mike Burgess: Yeah, that's true. I mean, it's absolutely critical, and sometimes it can be dismissed as something that's just bureaucratic. I think the other important thing to know is that despite that architecture, which is actually important - and I think that's the point you're making. That really is important in the way the community operates and the way we and the broader policy community give advice to the government of day that you're serving on matters of national security. The other important point is, underneath all of that, we have the agencies. And those agencies - all of them, including mine - are full of bright, clever, curious people who come to work every day to make a difference on their part of national security, and security intelligence in my case. And actually that's what makes it work. The architecture helps, of course, but actually it's the raw capability that sits in the community through our people that really does make it all matter. And what - and importantly, the what we do and why it matters, it's successful because of our people.
Andrew Hammond: And one of the other things that I was wondering as well was - help us understand ASIO and the Australian intelligence community in terms of its broader relationships, so whether that be in the region or whether that be the Five Eyes community or some of the other major partnerships that you have in order to do your - not just your personal job but to fulfill the mission that you were just speaking of.
Mike Burgess: Yeah. Well, a key part of our work domestically in the community and domestically in our country internationally is partnerships. And a very critical part of that is our international partnerships, as we've just been talking about, the partnerships in the community that delivers results for the country. Our respective relationships with other countries and their services are critically important. To give you some context there, so ASIO, as an organization, operates out of 12 countries. We have relationships with some 360 security services and foreign intelligence services across 131 countries. All of those are critically important. Not all of those are the same, though, as you can imagine, that as the broad church of the planet Earth and what that means, they're not all equal. But they're critically important, having those relationships at a time of need and getting access to information that can help protect your own country.
Mike Burgess: And if you have information that can help protect another country from a terrorist threat, of course, you're going to share that. Down in that subset, of course, let's start talking about Five Eyes. That's one of those foundational partnerships in our relationships that's unique. It's unique because it's grown out of many years of history since the Second World War, in fact, was born through the Second World War. It's an interesting phenomenon because, actually, it started its life as a signals intelligence relationship. It gets used as a label more broadly these days. No comments in any of that. But at its core, it's an intelligence relationship that really has made a difference to each of those five nations' respective national security and security. It's critically important, and we do trust each other, and we share our most intimate secrets with each other.
Mike Burgess: Broader than that, though, we have other relationships in the foreign space which are equally important and maybe, tactically, in a moment, far more important than the underlying Five Eyes, as much as the Five Eyes will always be a thing. Sometimes you hear commentators or even countries say, I'd like to be a member of the Five Eyes. Whenever I get asked that question or it's suggested to me that that's the case, my response is always, actually, you can't. The Five Eyes is a thing. It's grown out of history. You're kind of looking at it the wrong way, of all due respect. If you pursue your own national interest and your national interest and my national interest overlap, we can be the closest of friends and generate great outcomes from our countries. And that's the key. It's the key to your earlier questions around the importance of relationships. Productive working relationships and partnerships with foreign countries and foreign services really do matter. And when they're applied to your national interest and when you get an overlap with their national interest, they're a thing of beauty and strength and critically important to the work we do.
Andrew Hammond: And I wondered if you could just - coming on the back of talking about Five Eyes, can you just tell us a little bit more about this current trip to Washington? So I know that here at the spy museum, you're having an event. So just tell us about this trip and about the Australian-American relationship.
Mike Burgess: Well, our relationship with the United States is fundamentally important to us. It's our most important strategic relationship. And, you know, to show you the strength of the Five Eyes, I can say that and not offend any of the other four countries or three countries that you might think would be offended 'cause we all understand where we sit in our strategic circumstance which one is more important. It's important for reasons which are important to our country. And I know our other friends in the Five Eyes understand that. So the United States is a critical partner to us.
Mike Burgess: Being here is part of a regular engagement we have with our partners. They visit us; we visit them. COVID has interrupted that, but technology has allowed us to stay connected in secure means, where we can talk with each other. But there's nothing like that personal interaction. So when I'm here, I'm meeting with my counterparts, not just in my direct lane but, more broadly, from a community point of view. And all of them are critically important to ASIO's success and all that Australia's having to deal with. The function we're hosting is simply a way of getting our friends together to say thank you. We have a number of staff here in the Washington - in the United States, in fact. It's their opportunity to thank the people that they work with in part of that partnership. So it's just a key example of even though you can have the best relationships in the world, you shouldn't take them for granted. And whilst our staff in respective countries - the United States and Australia - work on some horrific, terrible things that are incredibly important, you've also got to take the time to just sit down with a mate, have a beer and say thank you because that's critically important, as well.
Andrew Hammond: And that's one thing that I wanted to ask about, as well. I think it's a really interesting concept of mateship, and I know that within the Australian context, this has a particular meaning. So can you - just for our listeners, just help them understand what mateship is?
Mike Burgess: Yeah, it's a - thank you for the question, one I wasn't expecting. It's a - well, it's a - it's not just an Australian thing; it's the way we describe it as Australians that actually matters. That human connection is not an Australian thing, but in our context, that's just called mateship. It's one of those Australian slang sayings. When you say, g'day, mate, that's just - you're saying hello to a friend or a complete stranger on the street. But at its core, mateship is just simply that bond between people. And in this case, with the U.S. and other nations, that bond that we can have when we're dealing with very serious issues because it really comes out of pressing times when mateship is really tested. As you're going through difficult times, you can truly know who your mates are, and it's just how you work well together. So it's as simple as that. I'm probably the wrong person to ask.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Mike Burgess: Being an engineer, I'd have a very clinical, Spock-like explanation of what it is. But it really is just human connection between people, either of the same country and other countries, which are sharing similar problems and values and addressing them in an open, honest way.
Andrew Hammond: The former Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, who's from my hometown, he always said that a friend is someone that's running in the door when everyone else was running out.
Mike Burgess: Oh, well, you're talking to a Manchester United fan...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, OK (laughter).
Mike Burgess: ...So I can relate to the great words of that great person.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) So just to pivot back to your specific geographic setting - so just take us back to that area of the world and to the partnerships that you have there. So we cover - obviously, because of our listenership and where we're based, we cover a lot of United States, but help us understand some of your other partners that we don't speak about as often, whether that be the BIN or other intelligence agencies or other countries in the region to help you do your job.
Mike Burgess: Yeah, absolutely. So no doubt, in geography, in terms of where we sit and the security threats we face as a country, I can start using terrorism or countering terrorism as a context of where our good friends and close partners in Indonesia, for example - it's a country that's unfortunately had, in its history, some - many terrorist events, which are horrific and obviously impacted international community, including the loss of many Australians. The Indonesians today manage counterterrorism really well, not because of - we've helped them or told them what to do. They're on the case. They handle it really well. But like us, they recognize the power of partnership. So in that regards, we're very close friends, and we do help each other on countering the threat and with work with other nations in the region on similar issues.
Mike Burgess: And more broadly, as we're stepping into a world where terrorism is still an issue for us, and at the same time in Australia, we've now assessed that espionage and foreign interference supplants terrorism as our nation's principal security concern, and that's not to take away from the threat of terrorism, our relationships and partnerships with countries in the region are all stepping into - we're sharing notes with mates on how you can identify and deal with acts of foreign interference, where people are intimidating your diaspora community or interfering in your political system. And that's just another great example of when you're talking about the problems and sharing them with others who might face similar problems, you can actually help each other because there's nothing like sitting down and talking to a colleague or a mate about a problem. Shared experience actually helps solving the problem in a shared way.
Andrew Hammond: Just on something that you mentioned there, part of the research for the interview, I came - you know, I was reading some of the annual reports by yourself and by your agency. And just to pick up on that, so one of the things that I found quite interesting was based on current trends, we anticipate the foreign interference on intelligence for supplant terrorism as the primary security concerns for Australia in the next five years. So tell us a little bit more about that shift. And I know that you do make a point to say, OK, it's not a complete pivot and now we forget about terrorism. Terrorism's still a thing. It's still important. We're still working on that. But help us understand that shift to foreign interference and espionage.
Mike Burgess: Yeah, well, there's - I guess there's two things at play there. In terms of the way terrorism threat is evolving, and it is a - it's not a set and forget thing, or it's not a constant thing; it does evolve. And the way that we, Australia, and our partners in the region and globally have managed that risk or threat, we're managing that well, but terrorism is a threat to life and therefore it'll always be a priority for us. So we've got a good handle on that. Not to say it's going away because it's not. We still have a terrorism threat level probable in Australia, which means there are individuals with a capable intent to kill Australians. We have to continue to watch that with our law enforcement partners. That's critically important.
Mike Burgess: But at the same time, if you look at the changing geopolitical circumstance and the drivers in our security environment, espionage and foreign interference has now supplanted terrorism as Australia's principal security concern. So we are pivoting effort and resource because simply, we're driven to go where the threat is and where we find it, and that's caused the pivot. Of course, threat to life will continue to be a priority for us. Other agencies in the community may pivot more to countering espionage and foreign interference or the getting more intelligence more broadly on geopolitical tensions and what the intentions of other adversaries - if I can call them that - may have. And that's where you'll see that natural pivot; at the same time, not losing from the lessons of the past and not just moving over and forgetting about terrorism because we certainly can't. I think the balance is right at the moment. We are under challenge resource-wise but, actually, that's where we use our clever minds and our prioritization approach to manage those risks effectively. And I'm confident we've pivoted in the right direction. I'm confident we have a handle on terrorism.
Mike Burgess: It's also important to make, though, that as Australia's security service, we're not all-seeing and all-knowing, and we're not the guarantee for security of a country. Now, that might sound a little bit negative, but ultimately, security is a shared responsibility. We don't, my staff don't, I don't want to live in a society where you look at your security services, the all-seeing, all-knowing thing that can identify, stop terrorists, catch spies. Because if you had an all-thing or all-seeing and all-knowing security intelligence service, you're probably living in a society you don't actually want to live in. Yes, my organization has intrusive powers. All of those are authorized appropriately, including by the attorney general, and everything we do is overseen by an inspector general of intelligence security with the standing powers of a royal commission, which means they can compel us to give access to anything. They have free access to everything, and they hold us to account. Our government hold us to account, our Parliament holds us to account and independently, the inspector general holds us to account. So we've - managing this well, but it's an interesting dynamic. Security environment is complex, challenging and changing, and it's at a height of activity that is concerning. My agency's budget is the biggest it's ever been. We've got new investment in the capabilities that my people need to do their jobs better, and that's critically important, too.
Andrew Hammond: Help us understand that pivot a little bit more, as well, just institutionally and organizationally because ASIO, MI5, the FBI during the Cold War, for much of their histories, they were focused on espionage, counterintelligence and so forth. And then the war on terror came along, and that became the primary focus. And there was a generation of officers that that's all that they knew, and that was the fight. And the former generation thought, sure, this is important, but why are we not focusing on what we've always focused on? So is there a sense now amongst some either formers or people that are currently - we can speak at the most - more general level but is there a sense now that - of - at last, you know, now we're back to focusing on what we - obviously, again, just to belabor the point, terrorism is important - the loss of lives of your citizens is a primary responsibility. But is there a sense now that we're back to doing what we - our main focus for being, this is what we're here for?
Mike Burgess: Yeah, absolutely. It's a characterization of, we're back to the future. We started out - ASIO started out as a counterespionage service. We were formed 73 years ago because prior to that, the United States and United Kingdom governments came to Australia and said, you've got a problem with Soviet spies, you've been penetrated. Within a year, our government created ASIO. Yes, absolutely. That's our heritage. Yes, the way you characterize our evolution through countering espionage, the Cold War and what came after that through counterterrorism - that's our history. I think it demonstrates as a security service that we are driven by the threats and the most pressing threats that our country faces, and we evolve and adapt and change to meet those threats.
Mike Burgess: So, yes, some people could say, well, we should have never given up this business. But who could really say that? My staff certainly don't because they know how important countering terrorism was, and they know how important and how damaging it can be if spies are left unchecked or foreign interference is left unchallenged. We're just evolving with the threats, and that's the important thing to know about Australia's security service. We respond to the threats our country faces, and our effort goes accordingly to where the threat is. And that's why we've seen that change in assessment that espionage for foreign interference is the principal security concern. That's why we've seen a change in emphasis and a shift in resources applied to the problem - because it's directed by the threat that we discover, and it's proportionate to the threats we face.
Andrew Hammond: So let's discuss some of the threats that are there now. So, again, in the research for this interview, targeted relationships of current or former politicians or people with security clearance, targeting diaspora communities and potentially blackmailing them or threatening them to get them to play ball and sabotage of critical infrastructure networks, cyberattacks and so forth - so help us just walk through some of them just to give us a more colored picture of the types of things that your organization is involved in.
Mike Burgess: Yeah, certainly. So it's - it brings color, the way you described that, to what espionage, foreign interference is. So let me do that by giving you one example. So - which covers both espionage and foreign interference. So ASIO uncovered a nest of spies. Now, that's colorful language designed for effect - happy to talk about why we talk about things that way. But it's intended to educate security is a shared responsibility. But in this case, we had a number of undeclared intelligence officers, spies, operating in our country. They were engaged in both acts of espionage and foreign interference.
Mike Burgess: Espionage is the second oldest profession on the planet - stealing secrets, getting access to sensitive government information. And they were trying it all. They were looking for security protocols at an international airport. They were looking to get access by recruiting a person inside a police department to get access on citizens in the diaspora community. So that's where espionage is enabling foreign interference. They were trying to - and had, in fact - recruited a person with a defense security clearance. Why? 'Cause they were after defense technology, in particular naval shipbuilding technology. All very topical - most of that's espionage.
Mike Burgess: The interference bit is that information they were seeking from the police databases on top of their actions to monitor and understand what members of the diaspora community were doing that they considered counter to their national interests was interfering in our society - so espionage and foreign interference in one nest of spies. We identified that. We identified it because actually, we had someone who saw something that was strange and reported something that allowed us to pull on a thread that allowed my clever people to work through the whole thing and figure it out. We then dealt with it by asking that foreign service to remove those people from our country. We did it quietly and calmly - no fuss. Threat was identified. Threat was removed.
Mike Burgess: And an example of what espionage is and part of what foreign interference is interference in diaspora communities 'cause having a foreign country monitor, intimidate and harass members of the diaspora community is not acceptable in our country. The other example of foreign interference is interference in our political system or at attempts interfering in our political system. That's of grave concern. That's a very real threat.
Mike Burgess: What does that look like? In one case, I've also spoken publicly about the puppeteer and the puppet. So this is an individual that is an Australian citizen living overseas that had employed someone in Australia, another Australian citizen, and was bankrolling them to identify and support candidates to run in an election. Now, you say, what's wrong with that? The thing that's wrong with that is actually, they didn't want to tell the candidates who was supporting them and who was bankrolling them and why that was the case. And in our country, under our law, that potentially falls into acts of foreign interference because it's covert, clandestine or deceptive. And it's certainly not in our national interest. We identified that threat. We took action. We've removed that threat.
Mike Burgess: In that case, it's also, every time I talk about this, important to call out those candidates that were receiving that support. They were innocent. It's an example of how nefarious and bad political interference can be when it's done covertly because good people who are doing the right thing, wanting to make a difference and run for Parliament, are getting supported by people who are not being honest and open with them. That's terribly corrosive. If left unchecked, it's terribly damaging because - so let's look forward to what would happen if we hadn't identified that? And how can I - and why can I say that? Because we have come across cases of foreign interference when it's too late and individuals have crossed that line, and that is really damaging. And in our country, that again gets dealt with by my agency and the Australian Federal Police under the new laws that were passed in 2018.
Andrew Hammond: Can we speak a bit more about details, the nest of spies? Can you tell us what that was? And, obviously, I don't expect you to share anything that's not in the public domain. But tell us a little bit more about that case, if you can.
Mike Burgess: Well, there's not much more to tell you other than they were - I won't tell you the numbers of them, but nest is a word is - means there was definitely more than one undeclared intelligence officer. So that's where a foreign intelligence service has placed people into Australia and they're pretending to be something they're not. And they're going about their acts of espionage and foreign interference and they're not - they hadn't told us about it. Obviously, if a country wants to know what's going on, they can ask us. We might not always give them what they want because they have different views and values as us, but in this case, they were doing things which was counter to our interests and against our law, and we dealt with it.
Mike Burgess: What I can say is, just to give you - your listeners a bit of color, I never mention countries. Why don't I do that? Well, I could if I would, and if the circumstances were right, I would. But I don't think I need to because in Australia, we see more than one country conduct espionage and foreign interference against us. Sometimes the media just like to go one in particular. The nest of spies, what I can say is, it was not China. Now, I know if I didn't say that at the time I first announced the nest of spies, our great friends in Australian media would have gone straight to it must have been China. There's no basis for that. And actually the point I'm trying to make is there's more than one country engaged of acts of espionage and foreign interference in Australia. The reason why I share those examples is to educate people because security's a shared responsibility.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, I'm just thinking about one headline that I came across recently from Reuters - "Australia Thwarts Chinese Plot to Fund Electoral Candidates." That's from two months ago. So if you just put in foreign spies and China in Google and click the news link, you'll get a whole host of stories along these lines. But your point is that it's more than just China.
Mike Burgess: It's more than China. There's more than one country that's conducting espionage and foreign interference in our country.
Andrew Hammond: And one of the things that I find quite interesting about your role - and because you were at ASD and now you're at ASIO, and you have a strategic picture because of the various relationships that you have and the various committees and so forth that you're involved in, help us understand how you triage resources, people, all those sorts of things. And I'm thinking about ASIO in particular. And correct me if I'm wrong, but if I'm thinking - obviously, if you try to defend everything, you defend nothing. You have to make some decisions about where you're going to focus. But for an organization like ASIS, it's much more - it would seem to be, anyway, a much more diffuse, a much more global picture because threats can come everywhere. There's Australian diplomats in most countries around the world and so forth. Whereas with ASIO, you're - there's probably more of a concentration of threats coming from particular sources or - I don't want to be flippant, but a small country in West Africa might not be one of the major things that you worry about when you wake up in the morning, for example. So just help us understand the - from the ASIO's point of view, the incoming threats and information and how you triage your resources and how that would be different from, say, what ASIS does or what ASD does.
Mike Burgess: Sure. So I think the best way to start at that point and - so you're absolutely right to characterize the nature of the problem because there's two things that help us out here. Firstly, as a national intelligence community through the Office of National Intelligence, we put to government and government directs us on what our intelligence priority should be. So what does the government of the day want from its community in terms of intelligence needs, which is more than just intelligence that feeds an understanding of security threats because they might have other information needs. So the national intelligence, or the intelligence priorities, are provided through the National Security Committee of Cabinet. That guides ASIS, ASD. It guides ASIO. But the other thing that guides ASIO is actually - our remit is around security, and security is defined, as I said before, in terms of espionage, foreign interference, sabotage, attacks on defense systems, border integrity and countering terrorism. That drives us to where we need to focus our efforts.
Mike Burgess: Then what drives us further is the intelligence and information that we acquire or get given that allows us to make informed judgments that says, that one is worthy of looking more at. Actually, this one, we won't at this stage and we know why we won't, and we think about that and make those informed decisions. But in the end, you're right, it's a decision where you are making priority calls. And for us, that's critically important because sometimes you decide to investigate something further and it requires more resources, which means other things which may be worthy don't - we have a rigorous prioritization framework where we capture all those decisions and we understand the risks we're taking as an organization. Again, we're not all-seeing, all-knowing and whilst our budget's the biggest it's ever been, we are limited in resources and we do make those hard decisions, but I'm confident we make them in informed way. And I, as the director-general, understand the risks we're taking when we're choosing not to look at something. And final thing is, that's not just - that's not my brilliance. That's not the current management team's brilliance. This is 73 years of well-honed practice in actually how you make tough decisions that serves your country well. And that's one of the things I was impressed with when I came into the organization - of actually the rigor that goes behind the tough decisions my people make every day.
Andrew Hammond: Just while - you know, while we've got you here on the show, the amount of people that - and you're very humble. It's not just about you. It's about the people that you work for and those 73 years of institutional history and knowledge that come along before you come on the scene. But the amount of people that become a director-general of an intelligence agency is infinitesimally small in the grand scheme of things. For example, just of the people that join the intelligence community, very few get to that level.
Andrew Hammond: So I just wanted to take advantage of having you here just to give our listeners a better understanding of your specific role now. So is it mainly executing government policy? Or is it providing strategic vision? Or is it making operational judgment calls or all of the above? And I know that you have deputies, and we had one on not long ago, David Fricker, and he spoke about his role as one of the deputies. So just help us understand that kind of - when you come along to this role, how do you see what you're doing? What is it you're trying to do, or what are - how do you conceptualize your job as a director-general?
Mike Burgess: Yeah, certainly. So there's two ways - or two things I can say there. There is no normal day director-general, if you imagine you have control of your day. I'm driven by where the threat takes us, what my government needs of me and what my organization needs from me. Self-evident, but it's the way it works. The other way I look at it, though, in terms of - our purpose is very clear. Ultimately, we're here to identify threats to security, to protect Australia and Australians and threats to their security and, through our ability to identify those threats, understand, assess them and, through our actions and the actions of our partners, have them dealt with. That's ultimately our role. I help with that, but I don't get involved in the day-to-day decisions. But I am the director-general, so I do direct on some things, and that's simply about someone - who I am as a person in terms of a very outcomes-driven person given the threats we face. Whilst ASIO, when I joined, was already a high-performing organization, the scale and pace and breadth of the threats we are facing required it more - more active action not just by ASIO but also our partners.
Mike Burgess: As the chief executive officer, I'm the accountable officer for ASIO. I'll take the first and last bullet for my people. My priority is our mission and our people. We don't do our mission without our people, their safety, their wellbeing, making sure they have the right capability to do their jobs. I also think in terms of intelligence, effect and outcome, the health of my capability, my people, their practices, their tradecraft and the technology they use. And finally, given the extent and nature of the threats we face as a country, my agency's ability to influence and impact the security environment by impacting and influencing the individuals who have responsibility for security - because security is a shared responsibility - ASIO is not the agency responsible for Australia's security, but we have a role to play in helping others do better so they understand the threats. They can assure themselves they're being managed effectively. And through that, our country is in a better, safer position.
Andrew Hammond: Just a few - indulge me for a second. So just to go back to Manchester United and Alex Ferguson - and obviously they haven't done particularly well since he left, but, you know - and I'm simplifying a little bit - but the goal of Manchester United is to score goals, win games and win trophies, so that seems self-evident. And then as the manager, you're responsible to the shareholders, to the board, all that kind of thing. You're also responsible to the fans. You're responsible for trying to give them what they're looking for. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that how that should be done in terms of the formation, the players, the types of training and the types of leadership they're given is not self-evident because a number of people have came along after them, obviously - Moyes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - and it's not just as simple as keeping the board happy, the fans happy, scoring goals, winning games and winning trophies because how that all gets executed is something that's a bit more of an art. It's not, like, a self-evident thing. So I don't know if that makes sense, but if you can just help us understand that - and through that analogy, help us understand your role as the manager or the Alex Ferguson...
Mike Burgess: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...Of ASIO.
Mike Burgess: I reckon you're on - I mean, it's uncomfortable hearing about Manchester United's...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Sorry.
Mike Burgess: ...Recent performance. But no, I think you've obviously got a book in you in that sense because I think that's a good description of the complexity of leadership. There's no doubt as ASIO's chief executive, I'd cast the tallest, darkest shadow if I was bad. So my actions, what I say and what I do really do matter because you do set the tone. At the same time, it's not just you - and that's not me shirking my responsibilities - it's the world around you and the condition and health of your people because they have a responsibility, but you have the biggest responsibility because you're the chief executive officer. So I care incredibly, and I tell my workforce all the time, my priorities are the mission and my people. And that's my job. My job is to make sure we're doing our mission, and we have the right people at the right health of our capability. Our people practice in technology, and we're delivering the effect and outcome.
Mike Burgess: And that's what you focus on. Part of that is your role in the leadership team. But I also tell my people - it's not just the director general and everyone else. I have a leadership team. In fact, the whole organization - their actions and behaviors really do matter because we are one organization, and we do a more effective work when we work better together. So, yes, like every standard organization, we focus on the leadership of the leadership team and the leadership characteristics and behaviors in every individual. We focus on knowing why we exist, what our purpose is. Our purpose is incredibly important, but it also is actually our ability to do what we do. We do it proportionate and lawfully, and everything we do in the compliance with the law is critically important.
Mike Burgess: I set that tone from the top not because I have concerns about my organization. But it's important that a leader continues to say that's important because if I just started to show no interest in that, even good people might lose interest in that not because they're bad but because they might just draw them somewhere else. So, yes, leadership's very important. And it's more art than science, which is really hard for an engineer to admit.
Andrew Hammond: And I guess - just to finish up on this point, I guess I'm just trying to get a sense of what your vision was for, say, the football team, Manchester United. Like, what was your vision? You come along. You come to an institution, and you think to yourself, OK, there's lots that's great here. But here's where I think we need to go to meet these evolving challenges. Here's where our training personnel, the types of demographics we're drawing from. Like, what was it like when you came, and where did you want it to go afterwards other than fulfilling the mission and meeting the needs of your workforce?
Mike Burgess: Thank you. That's a good question. If this was a video podcast and you were in my office right now, I could show you the classified phone has a Post-It note on it that's been there since Day 1, and it says, my five years. Now, that sounds very indulgent, but it's just my reminder of my responsibility during my term as director of general security. So, of course, like any chief executive but where I sit, I obviously want to leave ASIO in a better place than I found it.
Mike Burgess: But at the same time, as I'm doing that - that's my intention, at least - our security environment is complex, challenging and changing. And the threats we're facing are broader than perhaps we ever have faced in our lifetime. And then I come back to, so what do I want from our organization? And what I want to be part of is actually making sure we have the right laws and the right capability through my people, their practices and the technology we use to deliver mission, effect and outcome and have the influence and impact that we need to ensure ASIO - Australia, Australians, Australia's safe and Australia's people are protected from threats to security. That's how I look at it.
Andrew Hammond: And you mentioned the reports that you implemented. And correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that under your directorship, you also set up a Twitter account and an Instagram account. Is that correct?
Mike Burgess: That's correct.
Andrew Hammond: Can you tell us about that decision? Was that something that was run by you, or was that your decision? Or why did ASIO do this?
Mike Burgess: I guess it's something I brought to ASIO but not just me. I also have some very good staff that I might have brought to ASIO, plus tapping into the staff we have there. That's just a reality of the modern world. We engage with social media because it's part of the tool that you use to push the brand for recruitment purposes. It's an effective means of backing in. It's also an effective means of communicating.
Mike Burgess: Recognize some elements of social media not good, so you don't engage in all elements. It's easy to fall down a rabbit hole of comment and critique. But if you're an agency that's holding yourself to account and actually being more transparent, you've actually got to be known. People can't apply for jobs they don't know about if they don't know the agency exists. And actually, as you step forward out of the shadows to explain who you are, what you do and why it matters, you have to engage through the medium by which your citizens engage. And social media, fortunately or unfortunately, is one of those channels that we must be in. Is it the silver bullet? No. Does it have perils? Yes. But we'll do it respectfully and do it for a purpose. And it has actually helped us.
Andrew Hammond: And just a couple of final questions to bring that interview to a close. I could easily chat to you for another hour. But one of the things that I found in your bio, which is quite interesting, was you were the deputy chief of facility at the joint defense facility Pine Gap. So I wondered if you could tell our listeners a little bit more about Pine Gap because I find that particularly fascinating. And maybe you can also tell the people that do know about it if you've seen the TV series and what you thought of it.
Mike Burgess: So I was. It is correct. I was the deputy chief of facility at Pine Gap. That means I was the senior Australian there. So that's a joint facility with the United States that operates in Australia just outside of Alice Springs. It has a long, proud history, but not much is said about it. In fact, there's lots said about it, but most of it is just speculation from the outside - nothing wrong with that. Most of that is wrong. It does important, critical work that actually makes a significant difference to both the United States and Australia and our allies. It was an absolute privilege to work there. It's an organization half American, half Australian, brilliant people who do brilliant work. That's all I can really say about it publicly. Yes, I did try and watch the "Pine Gap" series, but maybe the rule there is you shouldn't watch it if you've worked there because it lost me in the first 10 seconds.
Andrew Hammond: OK. And that is signals intelligence Pine Gap, right?
Mike Burgess: Correct.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. And just, like, another thing that I like to try to do on "SpyCast" is humanize the people that appear on the show. So just give us an idea of - so you're the chief Australian at Pine Gap. So, like, the person who is the chief American there, like, when you come to Washington after around this region, do you catch up with them? Do you leverage the relationships that you made at Pine Gap? Or will some of them know that you're in town and maybe try to swing past or - help us understand that kind of networking that you've done at Pine Gap and how it could play out in terms of your visit to Washington this time around.
Mike Burgess: Yeah. There's - it's broader than that - right? - because I was at Pine Gap for two years. So, yes, there were relationships that developed. Have I seen people from that community since? Yes. Do I catch up with them? Yes, occasionally. Even - I can remember it was about five years or so after I'd left, I was in town for business at a restaurant in Virginia, and I ran into the chief of facility who happened to - he was also in town because he was posted elsewhere in the world and was back for business. So it's just one of those things. But the key point there is these relationships, the work that we do does actually result in very close friendships over the years, and that's a positive benefit. And not to be surprised - it comes out of when you work closely with colleagues even across international boundaries.
Andrew Hammond: And final question. Do you have any takeaway message for our listeners, whether those be just people that love a good spy story, whether that be people from the American IC, Australians who are listening, people from ASIO who are listening? Address anyone or all of those different communities. Yeah, any takeaways?
Mike Burgess: Yeah, absolutely. And I love an opportunity like that, so thank you for the question. So the key takeaway for anyone listening to this podcast is intelligence does matter. Now, in Western liberal democracies or more broadly, we can have conversations about that, and there are people who clearly probably don't like what we do. But I can assure your listeners that the work we do, the work that our community in Australia does and the U.S. intelligence community really does matter to your nation's national security - critically important. So couple of elements there. If you're thinking about a career, this is a career that really does matter. So any Australians listening to this that want to join my organization, please apply or sign up and express an interest because we really are interested in clever, curious people who truly want to make a difference. That's a model of success.
Mike Burgess: Another example, though, and to congratulate our colleagues here in the United States intelligence community and the United States government, I think you can see today in the Ukraine example - Ukraine and Russia - intelligence really does matter. I think that's been a bit of a masterclass for others, ourselves included, watching how the United States government has actually assisted in that conflict to help protect the Ukrainian people. It's a masterclass in how intelligence does matter and can be used with great effect.
Andrew Hammond: And for the people that aren't up to speed on that, could you just briefly tell us how intelligence has been used in that conflict to masterful effect?
Mike Burgess: Oh, I think you can see it by the callout prior to the invasion that it was coming. And I'd say its government were very clear on that. And the things United States government have actually made public during this conflict - a clear indication that it's backed by - they're well-informed. And how are they well-informed? You have many ways of doing that, but I can assure you it's obvious that intelligence is central to that information that helps United States government do what it's done.
Andrew Hammond: So we're talking about anticipating what's going to happen. We're talking about briefing the Ukrainians on false-flag operations...
Mike Burgess: It's...
Andrew Hammond: ...Making information public and so forth? Just shaping the information battlespace but also providing intelligence to the Ukraine?
Mike Burgess: If you're informed, you're forearmed and able to do when that affects your adversary in ways that you want them to be affected. So it's just the information advantage.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thank you very much for your time.
Mike Burgess: Thank you. It's a great pleasure.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.