Look­ing for moles

The Se­cret Cold War: The Of­fi­cial His­tory of ASIO, 1975-1989

The Monthly (Australia) - - ARTS & LETTER -

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

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