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Australian Intelligence Agency’s Threat Assessment Highlights Tradecraft Dangers, Implications for India

The recent threat assessment by the Australian intelligence agency has sounded an alarm over the increasing dangers posed by the evolving dynamics of tradecraft, highlighting concerns that resonate with India's security scenario.

By Srijan Sharma
New Update
Intelligence Agency officials

Government Cybersecurity Agency Officials Working on Computers in System Control Room | Photo courtesy: Special Arrangement

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The Threat Assessment

The Australian Intelligence Agency's threat assessment can be decoded in three dimensions. First, the agency shed light on the increasing use of cyber technology in the espionage battlefield. Second, it highlighted that subversion has crossed its boundaries and has penetrated deeply at the societal or general population level, and therefore, awareness about this threat is a must. Third, Counter Intelligence is not limited to thwarting counter-espionage attempts by your adversary but also to exposing your adversary so as to have a soft yet hard effect on the enemy. Furthermore, the report has demonstrated how a foreign intelligence agency is actively using front organisations to subvert and interfere with influential sections of the government by effectively using human and electronic intelligence. 

Interestingly, the Australians have described this pattern as "intelligence-led disruption." The report even stated, "There aren't a lot of things that terrorists and spies have in common, but sabotage is one of them," and further said, "The most immediate, low-cost, and potentially high-impact vector for sabotage is cyber." This sufficiently explains how the cyber aspect has snowballed within the rubrics of intelligence and is helping to expand the horizons of espionage tactics.

Counter Intelligence 

Counter Intelligence, in simple terms, means to safeguard one's intelligence organisations from sabotage, leaks, and attempts of any type of subversion by foreign elements. The mitigation measures that counterintelligence employs fall into two dimensions: 1) Hard Neutralisation and 2) Soft Neutralisation. The former refers to eliminating or getting the mole arrested by law enforcement agencies, like when Richard Welch, the CIA’s station chief in Greece, was assassinated after his address and other details were published in a newspaper.

The latter involves employing less severe measures by misguiding or feeding wrong or manufactured inputs to derail the plans of an adversary and further expose them. A similar operation codenamed Merlin, which the US carried out against Iran, involved the US Intelligence agency CIA subverting a mole in Iran’s nuclear program. This mole provided Iran with a flawed design for a component of a nuclear weapon to derail Iran's nuclear program and frame Iran for illegally building its nuclear program.

In today's times, the element of “exposure” is now gaining prominence in tradecraft. Agencies have become more focused on soft neutralisation. Perhaps two reasons are behind this: first, international humiliation and pressure; second, setting the stage for a grand diplomatic bargain.

Expanding Horizons of Tradecraft 

The horizon of tradecraft is expanding, and the latest Australian threat assessment reveals a hard-hitting reality. The counterintelligence mechanism has now extended beyond the four walls of an intelligence agency. According to the report, foreign intelligence agencies are now targeting influential figures of a country to subvert and extract sensitive information. 

The Australian Intelligence Agency, in its report, has specifically demonstrated the workings of this mechanism. Initially, a foreign intelligence agency, under the guise of a dubious consultancy company, will approach influential figures of a country (academics, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists) and make handsome offers to lure them. Once the concerned influential figure is inclined, the foreign intelligence agency, working as a consultancy company, will ask about professional commitments like preparing reports, risk assessments, and delivering lectures at conferences or seminars, usually organised in foreign places. Once confidence and trust are established, the consultancy company will ask for high-grade information, such as government contacts and sensitive reports, in return for handsome salary hikes or increments. This is how counterintelligence and subversion tactics are expanding their horizon by tapping not directly into an intelligence organisation or strategic setups but indirectly using the general population of a state.

Such tactics point towards the tactics of the Chinese Intelligence  Agency MSS. According to the CIA report titled "Beyond Spy vs. Spy: The Analytic Challenge of Understanding Chinese Intelligence Services," CIA analysts have argued that Chinese intelligence focuses on four major tenets of its own version of espionage:

  • 1. The Chinese Intelligence Agency focuses on ethnic Chinese as sources;

  • 2. It relies on amateur collectors rather than professional intelligence officers;

  • 3. It does not use intelligence tradecraft familiar to Western services;

  • 4. It pursues high volumes of low-grade (if not entirely unclassified) information.

The High Points 

There are three high points in this case. First, expand the scope of espionage and counter-espionage beyond just intelligence officers and establishments. Second, keep the adversary on its toes by increasing the element of exposure instead of clandestinely eliminating the threat or enemy. Third, explore the various avenues of espionage, especially in economic, societal, and political fields.

This soft departure from conventional to somewhat unconventional practices points towards three possibilities: one, an increase in the threat level, especially from the cyber world, is anticipated in the coming time. Second, an increase in espionage activities could lead to heightened diplomatic tensions and geopolitical spillovers. Third, it could put the state's national security in a more vulnerable position. Though one could argue that such unconventional practices are not new, it can be argued that these practices are gaining momentum today with the aid of advanced technologies. Therefore, this practice and the threats emanating from it have become strongly relevant in the security and strategic domain.

India’s Security Scenario: Need for a Strong Security Culture 

India’s security scenario appears to be well-aware and prepared to counter such threats. In the recent past, we have seen India taking measures to counter these threats, including banning the Popular Front of India (PFI), strengthening the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) rules, and increasing surveillance. However, these measures are limited to the government and not the people. As the security and strategic domains become more sensitive, there is a pressing need to make the civilian population aware of emerging threats. People must also practise heightened caution while dealing with technology or foreign elements. The Australian Intelligence Agency, in its report, emphasised a security culture by outlining three dimensions of security:

The first dimension is vertical—building security into the foundations of your enterprise from the ground up, not merely added on at the end like an antenna on a roof. The second dimension is horizontal—good security should reach across all elements of your organisation: people, places, technology, information. The third dimension is temporal, which stresses that ongoing education is critical. It suggests using security incidents as teachable moments, considering the appointment of security champions to mentor and coach staff, and encouraging security awareness training that moves beyond standard inductions and refreshers to more tailored continuous learning.

As India has witnessed attempts of sabotage by its own people in a few cases, the government must not ignore the need to build a security culture among the general public. It's essential to make them aware and understand what the threat looks like so they can avoid it and report it. Such practices will lower the dangers of evolving tradecraft and strengthen the overall national security setup of the country.