Calls for Australian spy chief to name ex-politician who 'sold out'

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CANBERRA (Reuters) -Australia’s spy chief faced calls on Thursday to name the former politician he said had “sold out” to a foreign intelligence service as a former prime minister's son said he had been targeted by a group with links to a state parliamentarian.

Director-general of security for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, said in an annual speech on Wednesday evening his agency had confronted a spy ring from a country he did not name which had recruited an unnamed former politician several years ago.Burgess said the former politician had "sold out" their country and at one point suggested a plot to introduce a family member of the prime minister into the spies' orbit, although the plan did not go ahead.

Following the revelations, Alex Turnbull, son of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, said on Thursday in an interview with News.com.au that he had been approached about an infrastructure project by a group of suspected Chinese agents while his father was in office around 2017.

The group had links to a former New South Wales state Labor party parliamentarian, he said, without naming the individual.

In his speech, Burgess said the person had not been charged by police because they were no longer active.

"This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime," he said.

Current and former members of the opposition party on Thursday pushed the government to release the former politician's name to avoid insinuations against those who had done nothing wrong.

Former Liberal party politician Joe Hockey, who also served as Australia’s ambassador to the United States, wrote on social media that ASIO should name the politician.

“Mr Burgess, having gone this far, must name that person rather than potentially smear everyone who has served their country,” Hockey wrote on X.

Opposition party leader Peter Dutton said on radio station 2GB the if Burgess did not identify the person "then there is a cloud hanging over everybody else.”

Defence Minister Richard Marles said he was not aware of the details of the case, but told reporters in Canberra he respected ASIO’s decision to keep the name confidential.

“What's important here to understand is, firstly, that there is a threat of foreign espionage in this country, that those of us who are involved in public administration, including politicians, obviously, need to be completely vigilant about that,” he added.

Australia introduced foreign interference laws under the Liberal government in 2018. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who introduced the laws, later said the "key purpose" of the measures was to expose China's activities.

A Chinese-Australian businessman was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail on Thursday for attempts to win favour with a minister in the first sentenced handed down under the laws, according to state broadcaster ABC.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lewis Jackson; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)