Looking for moles
The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, 1975-1989
Ionce asked a former ASIO officer to describe what it was like trying to expose KGB agents who operated under diplomatic cover. He recalled that in Canberra in the early 1970s one suspect diplomat would occasionally drive to the top of Black Mountain and sit and wait in his car. “Was he trying to draw us out? Or divert us, while his associate did something else? Or because it was a good place to send radio transmissions? Or was there a signal in chalk marked somewhere on the road to the top?” The ASIO officer never found out. He and other ASIO officers spent tens of thousands of hours trying to catch out such KGB operatives.
Apart from observing them on the tops of mountains, ASIO tapped their phones, watched them at diplomatic cocktail parties and tracked them discreetly through Canberra’s shopping centres. Every movement and every person to whom they talked was painstakingly recorded in labyrinthine files. Analysts then studied them, looking for patterns and connections. Yet countless attempts to identify and expose such Soviet spies ended in failure. The reason for this has now been revealed in the final volume of the history of ASIO, The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, 1975– 1989 (Allen & Unwin; $49.99), by John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley. It confirms that in the final years of the Cold War the greatest threat to Australia’s security did not come from disloyal subversives or naive local fans of the Soviet Union or Red China. It came from betrayal within ASIO itself. For many decades, suspicion that several ASIO employees had been recruited for Soviet intelligence ran like a corrosive trickle through the intelligence community. Now it is official.
What is also damning is that ASIO received several tipoffs that it had been infiltrated but was unable to capitalise on them. In 1980, ASIO was told that a KGB officer based in Canberra in the 1970s, Gerontiy Lazovik, had been awarded a medal for an intelligence recruitment he had made while stationed in Australia. ASIO had studied Lazovik closely as he travelled around Canberra, mixing with public servants, diplomats, MPs and journalists, yet was unable to identify anything untoward. Worse, when the agency later returned to investigate its own surveillance of Lazovik it found that 19 volumes recording his movements had been destroyed in February 1980 without a reason being stated. This too was investigated but led nowhere.
The most remarkable thing about this final volume of ASIO history is that it deals with these issues at all. In a recent interview, co-author John Blaxland admitted that “we had a real argy-bargy over what we could and could not say”. The head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, backed the authors’ insistence that the chapter ‘Looking for Moles: Counterintelligence and the Penetration of ASIO’ be included against unnamed others who wanted the chapter dropped or emasculated, presumably because embarrassing events occurred during their own careers. As it turned out, the chapter contains tantalising glimpses rather than a full-blooded account, which Blaxland attributed partly to legal difficulties. If “legal difficulties” mean defamation then presumably one or more of the Soviet moles are still alive and enjoying their retirement.
Of the ASIO chiefs the one who comes out worst in The Secret Cold War is Tudor Harvey Barnett (1981–85), who presided over the Combe–Ivanov Affair that rocked the Hawke government in its first weeks in 1983. Shortly before Labor’s election, ASIO was bugging the Canberra home of a Soviet diplomat, Valery Ivanov. To its surprise it found Ivanov, believed to be a KGB officer, was cultivating David Combe, a former national secretary of the Labor Party who had many influential friends in the new government. Barnett imagined that Combe was about to be recruited by Ivanov and took the matter to the Hawke government. While Ivanov was legitimately declared persona non grata and expelled from Australia, it was an unwitting David Combe who suffered most. Spooked by ASIO’s revelations, Hawke banned Combe from contact with the new government, thus destroying his livelihood as a lobbyist. Into the bargain his name was smeared when it all went public.
From that point onwards the episode became a series of embarrassments for ASIO. Barnett was ill-prepared for a crucial briefing of ministers. Another time he failed to offer the government different options in normal public service fashion. Barnett, explain the authors, “had extensive intelligence