Asio chief says intelligence is ‘not here to be politicised’ after Dutton accuses Labor

The Asio chief has told the Senate that his intelligence agency is “not here to be politicised”, vowing to defend its independence after the leak of details of an alleged foreign interference plot.

Mike Burgess confirmed he held no concerns about any Labor candidates at the next federal election, and people should “definitely not” assume an Asio employee was responsible when news reports attributed information to “security sources”.

“I take our reputation very seriously. Asio is not here to be politicised. It should not be,” Burgess told a Senate estimates hearing on Monday night.

Without criticising anyone by name, Burgess said he did “recognise that there may be people who choose to misuse [information] – officials or members of parliament or ministers”, and “any misuse is a matter for them to answer to, not myself”.

He said he was able to “have very robust conversations with all elements of the political class” and with officials “to make it very clear what I think is appropriate and inappropriate”.

“I can assure you I will continue to do that when things like this happen,” Burgess said.

The Asio chief’s forthright intervention comes days after Dutton ramped up the government’s political attack on Labor in parliament by claiming the Chinese government had picked Albanese “as their candidate”.

Dutton later claimed he based Thursday’s inflammatory allegation – ruled by the Speaker on Monday to be out of order – on “open source and other intelligence”.

When asked about this comment, Burgess said he would avoid entering the political fray, but added: “I can’t speak for the minister what was in his mind and what processes he went through when saying that … I’d suggest that’s a question you should ask the minister not me.”

Burgess told the Senate committee that when he delivered his annual threat assessment speech last Wednesday, he “deliberately chose not to identify the election, jurisdiction, party, the individuals that were targets, or the country attempting to conduct the interference”.

That, the Asio chief said, was because attempts at foreign interference were “not confined to one side of politics” and were being seen “at all levels of government, in all states and territories”.

Labor senator Kimberley Kitching asked whether Burgess would name the person involved in an alleged foreign interference plot.

Burgess last week said Asio had foiled the alleged plot, which involved the “puppeteer” searching for “candidates likely to run in the election who either supported the interests of the foreign government or who were assessed as vulnerable to inducements and cultivation”. He added that the potential targets were not aware of the plan.

Burgess has refused to share further details on which country the alleged operation was linked to, or which election it targeted.

Kitching – under the protection of parliamentary privilege – named Chinese-Australian property developer Chau Chak Wing, who has previously been a major donor to both major parties.

“I am reliably informed that the puppeteer mentioned in your case study in your annual threat assessment speech given last week is Chau Chak Wing,” she said.

“I believe it to be Chau Chak Wing. Are you able to confirm that it is Chau Chak Wing?”

Burgess refused to give further information, criticising Kitching for the question.

“As I said before, I will not comment on speculation of who is or isn’t targets, and it’s unfair you ask me that question in public,” he said.

Burgess told the Senate it was unfortunate that previous “media speculation about who was involved” had “missed a key point”.

“We stopped the plan before it was executed and the targets were not aware they were in fact targets,” he said.

He said he had chosen to use the case study – without disclosing identities – “to raise awareness, in particular because we have a federal election approaching and it’s important that we all understand what political foreign interference looks like”.

Burgess said Asio existed “to serve our national interest, not sectional interests or partisan interests or personal interests”. By law, he said, Asio must not “lend favour to one element of society or another or one party or another”.

“So, we do not do that, but I can see how some people would be concerned by that media speculation,” he said.

During an exchange with the senior Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally, Burgess said he did not want to say anything that might confirm or deny the particulars of the foiled interference plot – meaning a lot of his comments were general in nature.

But Burgess said it would be “totally inappropriate” if classified information was “released publicly without the appropriate process”. He said ministers and their staff with access to classified information were “subject to the same laws of the land that I am”.

“When Asio product is distributed, people have the appropriate level of clearance and the reporting itself has the appropriate caveats that make it very clear how that information should be handled and what shouldn’t, in fact, by that very definition, happen with it, such as public disclosure,” Burgess said.

“Where it is misused, that’s a problem – but I can assure you where it is misused, if it was hypothetically misused, I would look at whether I needed to do an investigation.”

On Thursday Dutton told parliament the Chinese Communist party had “made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next federal election … and they have picked this bloke [Albanese] as their candidate”.

When challenged, Dutton insisted he was reflecting “on what has been publicly reported and commented on by the director general of Asio”.

The Speaker, Andrew Wallace, ruled on Monday that Dutton’s “insinuation” against Albanese had been out of order and “would ask that such comments not be repeated”, but stopped short of forcing the minister to withdraw.

On Monday the prime minister, Scott Morrison, continued to accuse the Labor party of standing for “appeasement” – even though the opposition has given broad bipartisan support to the government on the key flashpoints in the relationship with China.

Burgess has previously implored politicians not to bring Asio into political debate, as he disclosed in an interview with Guardian Australia last year.

“I have general conversations with politicians about, for example … ‘don’t make Asio the political thing, we’ve got a job to do, my organisation is apolitical [and] we’re here to serve the country [so] don’t bring us into it’,” he said last March.

In February 2019, the then-head of Asio, Duncan Lewis, issued an extraordinary rebuke for the leak of departmental advice on the medevac bill to the Australian newspaper and misrepresentation of the advice as from Asio.