Foreign spies and gangsters: why Australia needs a national security strategy

In June, the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group—comprising the heads of national police for Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the UK and the US—revealed that foreign governments were infiltrating organised crime groups to launder money and sell drugs in Australia.

The announcement came exactly one year after the Australian Federal Police, working in conjunction with the FBI, New Zealand Police and Europol, announced the culmination of Trojan Shield, a massive investigation using a compromised messaging app known as AN0M. The decrypted messages harvested from AN0M showed a complex web of criminal offending that included unnamed foreign nationals and government officials.

Yet Australia’s extensive array of foreign interference and espionage laws—which were bolstered in June 2018 against the backdrop of national elections—appear relatively powerless to confront cooperation between overseas governments and organised crime figures.

While the national security risks from foreign spies and agents are easy to see, it can be more difficult to make the connection between organised crime and national security. Law enforcement seems, up until the success of Trojan Shield, to have largely sought to apply traditional policing methods to thwart illicit drug suppliers and money launderers. Many of these methods—search warrants, criminal informers, surveillance—haven’t changed for decades.

But the voices of those calling out the dangers to Australia’s national security posed by organised crime have been getting louder over the past several years. In 2015, ASPI highlighted a lack of consistency across law enforcement’s efforts to disrupt organised crime rather than simply prosecute key figures. In 2017, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission observed a spike in organised crime syndicates’ involvement in visa and migration fraud, undermining Australia’s strong border-protection policies. And just last year, the National Security College at the Australian National University described organised crime as ‘a national security threat more urgent and severe than terrorism’.

Generally, the parliament’s response to threats to Australia’s national interests has been to pass new laws or increase penalties. Since 2001, Australia has enacted more than 80 pieces of legislation designed to strengthen its national security framework. These laws have given our intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to hack into computers, decrypt messages, covertly search properties and seize assets suspected of being the proceeds of crime. At the same time, national security offences have been broadened so much that they can risk the valuable work being undertaken by university researchers and journalists.

But the results don’t seem to be matching the effort put into the legislative framework. The foreign interference laws that were passed so speedily in 2018 didn’t result in a single prosecution until November 2020, and only a handful of cases have been conducted since. Though public reporting is notoriously patchy in revealing all instances of criminal prosecutions as they head through the court system, and foreign interference investigations are time and resource intensive, it seems unlikely that further laws will deter foreign adversaries’ engagement with organised crime.

Indeed, Australian law already criminalises this type of behaviour. A person who helps or assists in committing any offence can be charged just like the person who goes through with it. So, agents acting on behalf of foreign governments can be prosecuted just as easily as other criminals under Australia’s existing legislation.

Obviously, no government should ignore the dangers that organised criminals and agents of foreign governments pose to our nation’s interests—whether economic, social, political or cultural. But perhaps the time has come for a different approach by Australia’s lawmakers.

Rather than more laws (which don’t seem to be working), what’s needed is clearer and more comprehensive integration and fusion of the capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. They need to be better able to share information and expertise, collaborate on cases and achieve the same levels of disruption for organised crime as they do for foreign agents in Australia. Most importantly, they need to coordinate in a way that enhances—not undermines—the rule of law in Australia and ensures that any evidence used in criminal cases is gathered lawfully.

Perhaps the time as come to revive the concept of a national security strategy. In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched a national security statement, promising to update it every year as the strategic environment of Australia changed. But that didn’t happen. Then the Julia Gillard’s government in 2013 attempted to introduce a national security strategy, titled ‘Strong and secure’. That document never reached the parliament.

Of all the Five Eyes nations, Australia is the only one without a publicly articulated national security strategy. Such a strategy should define what our national interests are and what threats we consider to be the greatest dangers to those interests. It should also outline how—albeit at a high level—our national security agencies, police and even military forces intend to respond to each of those threats.

The development of a national security strategy should also be a chance for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to check in with the broader public about the needs of Australians for a safe and secure country. In drafting its 2008 strategy, the government sought the views of the public in shaping what was (and what was not) in the UK’s national interests.

Three years ago, counterterrorism researchers Nicola McGarrity and Jessie Blackbourn wrote that the most important thing Australia had learned since 9/11 was that ‘we must think creatively about how to combat the threat of terrorism’. Right now, Australia could be making the same mistakes about organised crime. Hopefully, the new government will have the foresight to take action now and avoid repeating history.