Asio cleared of unlawfully luring Daniel Duggan back to Australia, agency chief Mike Burgess says

The spy agency Asio says it has been cleared by the intelligence watchdog of allegations of impropriety raised by the Australian citizen Daniel Duggan as he fights extradition to the US.

Duggan, a former US marines pilot accused of training Chinese pilots to land fighter jets on aircraft carriers, had complained to the inspector general of intelligence and security (IGIS) about Asio’s role in securing his return to Australia from China.

His legal team had raised concerns an “unlawful lure” – in the form of an Asio clearance for an Australian aviation security identification card – may have been used to entice Duggan back to Australia where he could be arrested on behalf of the US and extradited.

The Asio chief, Mike Burgess, revealed the outcome of the months-long IGIS inquiry in an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast released on Sunday, while insisting “we support this oversight”.

In the wide-ranging interview in the wake of his annual threat assessment speech, Burgess also offered to relinquish one of Asio’s powers to question children and he revealed how foreign spies were hiring private investigators to monitor dissidents in Australia.

Duggan’s complaint to the IGIS about Asio was just one element of his ongoing legal battle against extradition to the US.

“People do have a legal right to make complaints to the inspector general about what they think we’ve done,” Burgess said.

“Mr Duggan – and I won’t go into his case – has made allegations to the inspector general about my organisation. The inspector general conducted his own inquiry [with] full access to everything we did. He found all the allegations against us were unfounded.”

Duggan, 55, a naturalised Australian, was arrested in October 2022 at the request of the US government, which is seeking his extradition on charges of arms trafficking and money laundering, arising from his alleged training of Chinese fighter pilots more than a decade ago.

Daniel Duggan, accused of illegally training Chinese aviators, is fighting extradition from Australia to the US. Photograph: AP

Duggan’s legal team has maintained the US extradition request is politically motivated, catalysed by the US’s deepening geopolitical contest with China, and the outcome of his legal challenge against the extradition has yet to be determined.

The independent IGIS was approached for comment on Friday, although its practice is not to comment on the outcome of complaints.

Burgess said the IGIS was “paramount as one of our oversight mechanisms with standing powers of a royal commission” and had “full access to everything Asio does”.

“There is nothing I, or any of my officers, can or would withhold from the inspector general.”

Offer to repeal one of its powers

Critics have said that in the two decades since the 11 September 2001 attacks and the Bali bombings in 2002, Australia’s terrorism laws have continually ratcheted up.

But Burgess said contrary to the claim that “we collect more and more powers”, Asio was now offering to relinquish one of its powers regarding the questioning of children.

Asio can seek a warrant from the attorney general to compulsorily question people aged from 14 to 17 if they are likely to engage in terrorism, but this power has never been used.

“We asked for an extension of those powers last time the review was done because the threat environment in my mind justified that ask; parliament agreed,” Burgess said.

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“Now we’re saying we’ve seen a recession in the number of minors [coming to the attention of authorities].”

Burgess said radicalisation of children was “still an issue” but Asio had concluded “that’s not the point you want to deal with the problem and therefore we do not need the compulsory questioning power of a minor”.

The ‘person knows who it is’

Burgess’s speech last Wednesday sparked a round of intrigue and speculation after he alleged that an unnamed former Australian politician “sold out their country, party and former colleagues” after being recruited by foreign spies.

Some current and former MPs, including Peter Dutton and Joe Hockey, called for the individual to be named or at least for further details to be disclosed to avoid sullying the reputation of others.

Burgess told Guardian Australia his main aim was to raise awareness “so politicians and budding politicians know what this threat looks like, so they can be resistive to and report any inappropriate approaches”.

He said he would not name the former politician because Asio must “protect our people, our sources and methods”.

Burgess said the activities of the former politician were legal at the time because they pre-dated the 2018 espionage and foreign interference laws.

Asked whether Asio had confronted the former politician directly, Burgess said he would not divulge operational details except to say “this person knows who it is” and “the harm has been dealt with”.

“If we see indications they are active again, engaging with foreign intelligence services, they will be subject to our investigation.”

Burgess also said some foreign spies used “cover stories” to hire private investigators to gather information about dissidents in Australia.

“The private investigators may well be fooled by that, not because they’re silly, because good intelligence services know how to build a good cover story. And they’ll collect that information. What they don’t know is what happens next.”

The Guardian

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