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the Asia the chief said his intelligence agency was ‘not here to be politicized’, vowing to defend its independence after details of a leaked alleged plot of foreign interference.

mike burgess confirmed he had no concerns about Labor candidates in the upcoming federal election, and people should ‘certainly not’ assume an Asio employee was responsible when news reports attributed information to ‘security sources’ “.

“I take our reputation very seriously. Asio is not here to be politicized. It shouldn’t be,” Burgess said during a Senate estimates hearing Monday night.

Without criticizing anyone by name, Burgess said he “recognizes that there may be people who choose to abuse [information] – civil servants or parliamentarians or ministers” and “it is up to them to answer in the event of abuse, and not to myself”.

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Asio’s chef, Mike Burgess. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

He said he was able to “have very solid conversations with all elements of the political class” and with officials “to make it very clear what I think is appropriate and inappropriate”.

“I can assure you that I will continue to do so when things like this happen,” Burgess said.

The frank intervention of the head of Asio comes a few days after the Minister of Defence, Pierre Dutonstepped up the government’s political attack on Labor by claiming that the Chinese government had chosen the leader of the opposition, Anthony Albanian“as their candidate”.

Dutton later claimed he based Thursday’s inflammatory allegation — ruled inadmissible Monday by the President — on “open sources and other intelligence.”

Asked about this comment, Burgess said he would avoid getting into the political fray, but added:

I can’t speak for the minister as to what he had in mind and the process he went through when he said that…I would say that’s a question you should be asking the minister, not me.

On Friday, the Nine newspapers reported that “multiple security sources” said a Chinese intelligence service was behind a recently interrupted foreign interference plot that had “attempted to fund [New South Wales] Labor candidates in the next federal election.

That report prompted Albanese to tell reporters on Friday that Asio’s chief briefed him regularly and had “never raised any concerns about any of my candidates.”

Burgess confirmed that Albanese gave “an accurate account of the conversation I had with him last week when he asked me this question”.

Burgess told the Senate committee that when he delivered his annual threat assessment speech last Wednesday, he “deliberately chose not to identify the election, jurisdiction, party, targeted individuals or country attempting to interfere”.

This, the d’Asio chief said, was because attempts at foreign interference were “not confined to one side of politics” and were seen “at all levels of government, in all states and territories”.

Burgess said it was unfortunate that “media speculation about who was involved” had “missed a key point”.

“We stopped the plan before it was executed and the targets didn’t know they were in fact targets,” he said.

He said he chose to use the case study – without disclosing identities – “to raise awareness, particularly because we have a federal election coming up and it’s important that we all understand what it’s like foreign policy interference”.

Burgess said Asio existed “to serve our national interest, not sectoral interests, partisan interests or personal interests.” By law, he said, Asio must not “give favor to one element of society or another or to one party or another.”

“So we’re not doing that, but I can see how some people would be concerned about this media speculation,” he said.

During an exchange with the leader of the Labor Party Kristina KeneallyBurgess said he would not say anything that could confirm or deny details of the foiled interference plot – meaning many of his comments were general in nature.

But Burgess said it would be “completely inappropriate” if classified information was “released publicly without the proper process”. He said ministers and their staff with access to classified information were “subject to the same laws of the land as I do”.

He said:

When the Asio product is distributed, people have the appropriate level of clearance, and the report itself has the appropriate caveats that state very clearly how this information should be treated and what should not, in fact, according to this very definition, occur with it, such as public disclosure.

Where it’s misused is a problem – but I can assure you that where it’s misused, if it was hypothetically misused, I would consider whether I needed to investigate.

On Thursday, Dutton told parliament that the Chinese Communist Party had “made a decision on who they were going to support in the next federal election… and they chose this guy [Albanese] as their candidate.

When challenged, Dutton insisted he was reflecting “on what has been publicly reported and commented on by the managing director of Asio”.

The speaker, Andre Wallaceruled on Monday that Dutton’s “innuendo” against Albanese was out of order and “would ask that such comments not be repeated”, but failed to force the minister to step aside.

On Monday, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrisoncontinued to accuse Labor of advocating ‘appeasement’ – even as the opposition gave broad bipartisan support to the government on key trouble spots in the relationship with China.

Burgess has previously implored politicians not to bring Asio into the political debate, as he revealed in an interview with Guardian Australia last year.

“I have general conversations with politicians about for example…” don’t make Asio a political thing, we have a job to do, my organization is apolitical [and] we are here to serve the country [so] don’t bring us in there,” he said in March 2021.

In February 2019, then at the head of Asio, Duncan Lewisissued an extraordinary rebuke for the leaking of department advice on the Medical Evacuation Bill to the Australian newspaper and the misrepresentation of Asio’s advice.

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