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Australian who worked for foreign spies was in parliament at the time, Asio boss says

<span>‘If we see indications they are active again … they will be subject to our investigation’: Asio director general Mike Burgess on former politician turned spy.</span><span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
‘If we see indications they are active again … they will be subject to our investigation’: Asio director general Mike Burgess on former politician turned spy.Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Asio boss, Mike Burgess, says an Australian who worked for foreign spies is no longer a politician and no longer a security threat “but this happened when they were a politician”.

Burgess has also stated that the unnamed former politician knew they were assisting a foreign intelligence service. “This person knew what they were doing,” he said.

Burgess has sat down for a small number of interviews in the wake of his annual threat assessment speech, when he alleged that a former Australian politician “sold out their country, party and former colleagues” after being recruited by foreign spies.

Burgess has not revealed the level of government – federal, state or local – where the former politician served. Burgess has also not disclosed the political party or the gender of the person involved amid a round of speculation about who it could be.

Related: Mike Burgess on the former Australian politician recruited by foreign spies – Australian Politics podcast

In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast – released today – Burgess confirmed that the activities of the individual were legal at the time because they predated Australia’s 2018 espionage and foreign interference laws.

Asked to outline specific activities the former politician carried out, Burgess said it was “a range of things” including “helping select people and invite people to an overseas conference”.

“And at that overseas conference, all expenses paid, including air fares, they were met by bureaucrats [but] those bureaucrats were not bureaucrats – they were members of a foreign intelligence service,” Burgess said.

“They [the spies] were there to cultivate relationships, see who had access to government information and build that rapport so they could obtain sensitive information that would not normally be available to them.”

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,” he said.

In a separate interview with SBS News, Burgess divulged that the individual had still been in politics at the time of the activities. “[They are a] former politician now – the matter is resolved – but this happened when they were a politician,” he said.

Pressed on whether this happened when they were serving in a parliament in Australia, Burgess said: “Correct.”

Some current and former MPs, including the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, and former treasurer 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 said 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 Asio did not name individuals or share operational details because the agency must “protect our people, our sources and methods”.

In his threat assessment speech last Wednesday, Burgess said that: “At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a prime minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit. Fortunately that plot did not go ahead but other schemes did.”

Related: Alex Turnbull says he may have been targeted in espionage attempt revealed by Asio

Alex Turnbull, whose father, Malcolm Turnbull, was prime minister from 2015 to 2018, told news.com.au he did not know whether he was the family member referred to by Burgess, but said his experience fits that account.

He told the outlet that he was contacted around 2017 and offered equity in a company.

“It was just so brazen,” Alex Turnbull told news.com.au. “My reaction was to express no interest and forward the details immediately to the authorities.”

Asked whether the two cases were linked, Burgess made clear that his comment about how “that plot did not go ahead” meant no approach was made to a prime minister’s family member.

“This approach did not go ahead,” Burgess said. “Mr Turnbull’s talking about an approach that actually he’s alleging happened. I think you have your answer right there.”

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Alex Turnbull.

The federal education minister, Jason Clare, backed Burgess’s judgment in not naming the former politician and said it was more important that everyone in politics was “on our guard” to the threat of foreign interference.

“This is not a game of guess who, this is about keeping the country safe – the fact that this happened in the first place is deadly serious,” Clare told Sky News on Sunday.

“The point is that there’s evidence here from the head of Asio that says another country has interfered in Australian politics, contacting a politician.”