Era of re­forms and red moles

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Ed­wards,

n 2008 the head of the Aus­tralian Se­cu­rity In­tel­li­gence Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Paul O’Sul­li­van, de­cided to ini­ti­ate an of­fi­cial history of Aus­tralia’s prin­ci­pal counter-es­pi­onage and counter-ter­ror­ism or­gan­i­sa­tion. If O’Sul­li­van aimed to in­crease pub­lic con­fi­dence in ASIO and to ed­u­cate a new gen­er­a­tion of its staff in the trou­bled history of their agency, his bold step must be con­sid­ered more suc­cess­ful than many of ASIO’s op­er­a­tions in its first 40 years.

The Se­cret Cold War is the third and fi­nal vol­ume of this of­fi­cial history. Like its pre­de­ces­sors, it tells us a great deal we did not pre­vi­ously know about ASIO’s suc­cesses and fail­ures, but it is cer­tainly not the last word. The book ends by rais­ing, but not fully an­swer­ing, some im­por­tant and trou­bling ques­tions.

Au­thors John Blax­land and Rhys Craw­ley present ASIO’s story from the dis­missal of the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment in 1975 to the fall of the Ber­lin Wall in 1989.

In this pe­riod ASIO grad­u­ally moved away from its pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Aus­tralia’s com­mu­nists, recog­nis­ing — very be­lat­edly, as the au­thors make clear — that the frag­men­ta­tion of the com­mu­nist move­ment into small war­ring fac­tions meant they posed no threat to Aus­tralian so­ci­ety. The fo­cus of the or­gan­i­sa­tion shifted from sub­ver­sion, which was more ac­cu­rately de­fined as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence, to­wards es­pi­onage and ter­ror­ism.

For ASIO this was a pe­riod of in­tense scru­tiny and rad­i­cal change. Three suc­ces­sive prime min­is­ters — Gough Whit­lam, Mal­colm Fraser and Bob Hawke — com­mis­sioned the same man, judge Robert Hope of the NSW Supreme Court, to con­duct two royal com­mis­sions and a ju­di­cial in­quiry.

All three in­ves­ti­ga­tions were di­rected at all the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, not just ASIO. They led to pro­found re­forms in the struc­ture, leg­is­la­tion, op­er­a­tions and cul­ture of the en­tire in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. But most Aus­tralians, then and now, as­sumed they were es­sen­tially about ASIO, which had gained many en­e­mies not only among its in­tended tar­gets, spies and ter­ror­ists but also on the po­lit­i­cal Left and in some parts of the pub­lic ser­vice.

ASIO’s rep­u­ta­tion led to ru­mours that it was im­pli­cated in the Syd­ney Hil­ton Ho­tel bomb­ing in 1978. Blax­land and Craw­ley clear it of this al­le­ga­tion while ad­mit­ting that the ter­ror­ist ac­tion amounted to an in­tel­li­gence fail­ure on ASIO’s part. They nei­ther re­ject nor fully en­dorse the the­ory put for­ward in Rachel Lan­ders’s re­cent book, Who Bombed the Hil­ton?

The im­pres­sion that the Hope in­quiries were fo­cused en­tirely on ASIO was re­in­forced by the Combe-Ivanov af­fair, the only part of the in­quiries con­ducted in the court­room style that is fa­mil­iar from other re­cent royal com­mis­sions.

In 1983 the newly elected Hawke gov­ern­ment ex­pelled a Soviet diplo­mat, Valery Ivanov, who had been iden­ti­fied by ASIO as KGB. The gov­ern­ment also black­listed a lob­by­ist and for­mer ALP sec­re­tary, David Combe, who was ap­par­ently be­ing cul­ti­vated by Ivanov.

Hawke’s han­dling of the episode re­vealed much about his pri­or­i­ties in both do­mes­tic and for­eign re­la­tions, to the dis­may of many on the Left, and Combe’s pop­u­lar­ity in La­bor and me­dia cir­cles en­sured the episode cre­ated con­tro­ver­sial head­lines for months.

A theme of this book is that the far-reach­ing re­forms of the 1970s and 80s, in­tro­duced by the Fraser and Hawke gov­ern­ments fol­low­ing the Hope in­quiries, laid the ba­sis for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that would en­joy bi­par­ti­san sup­port and sub­stan­tial pub­lic con­fi­dence. The claim is fair but the rad­i­cal changes re­quired by the three Hope in­quiries, in­clud­ing ASIO’s move from Mel­bourne to Can­berra, im­posed great strains on man­age­ment and cre­ated di­vi­sive ten­sions in the staff.

Blax­land and Craw­ley tell much of the ASIO story by as­sess­ing the role of suc­ces­sive di­rec­tors-gen­eral. They give high praise to Ed­ward Wood­ward, the judge who was given the task of in­tro­duc­ing many of the re­forms af­ter the tur­bu­lence of the Whit­lam pe­riod. Wood­ward man­aged to in­tro­duce new ideas, new struc­tures and new peo­ple into an agency in great need of all three, while keep­ing a lid on the re­ac­tions of the old guard. Wood­ward de­serves the au­thors’ com­men­da­tion, al­though some would ques­tion whether it was ap­pro­pri­ate to ap­point a judge to run an in­tel­li­gence agency.

More re­mark­able is the treat­ment of Har­vey Bar­nett, who was brought in from Aus­tralia’s over­seas es­pi­onage body, the Aus­tralian Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, to be­come Wood­ward’s deputy and then suc­ces­sor. Blax­land and Craw­ley sharply crit­i­cise Bar­nett for his han­dling of what should have been a tri­umph, the ex­pul­sion of Ivanov. Why, they ask, did Bar­nett go di­rectly to Hawke rather than ASIO’s min­is­ter, at­tor­ney-gen­eral Gareth Evans, to break the news about Ivanov and Combe? Why was Bar­nett in­ad­e­quately pre­pared for crit­i­cal meet­ings with Hawke and other min­is­ters? Why did he al­low in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about Combe to be pre­sented to se­nior min­is­ters on such a sen­si­tive mat­ter?

The book presents Bar­nett as de­cent and cul­tured but not well-equipped to lead the na­tion’s do­mes­tic se­cu­rity ser­vice. Af­ter read­ing The Se­cret Cold War, it is easy to un­der­stand why, af­ter Bar­nett’s de­par­ture, suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have ap­pointed out­siders to lead ASIO, usu­ally se­nior pub­lic ser­vants with for­mi­da­ble ex­pe­ri­ence at se­nior lev­els of De­fence, For­eign Af­fairs and min­is­te­rial of­fices.

When this book was pub­lished last month, much me­dia com­men­tary was fo­cused on the last sub­stan­tive chap­ter. Clearly worded with great care and some de­lib­er­ate ob­scu­rity, this chap­ter ef­fec­tively con­firms the long­stand­ing sus­pi­cion that in the 70s and 80s ASIO was se­ri­ously pen­e­trated by Soviet agents. It was no co­in­ci­dence that while ASIO could claim some suc­cess in other counter-es­pi­onage and counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, those di­rected against Soviet spies re­peat­edly failed.

The au­thors pro­vide no names or other de­tails. One pointer to the rea­sons for this can be de­duced from the case of a Rus­sian in­ter­preter who was charged with es­pi­onage of­fences but con­victed only of re­mov­ing clas­si­fied doc­u­ments from the ASIO of­fice. It is one thing to es­tab­lish an em­ployee has acted sus­pi­ciously or im­prop­erly; it is quite an­other to prove be­yond rea­son­able doubt in an open court they are guilty of es­pi­onage or of en­sur­ing the fail­ure of a counter-es­pi­onage op­er­a­tion.

The last pages of this chap­ter add noth­ing to what has been of­fi­cially stated about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­ducted by Michael Cook at the di­rec­tion of the Keat­ing gov­ern­ment in 1994. Blax­land and Craw­ley note, with­out ex­plic­itly en­dors­ing, re­ports by Cameron Stewart and Paul Monk in this news­pa­per, that there were at least four Soviet moles within ASIO in the lat­ter years of the Cold War who were al­lowed to re­tire on full pen­sions.

Blax­land and Craw­ley also hint broadly that KGB of­fi­cer Valery Ivanov with wife Vera and daugh­ter Irena in April 1983; for­mer ALP sec­re­tary David Combe, be­low ‘‘there could have been other moles within ASIO’’. After­wards ASIO’s in­ter­nal man­age­ment sys­tems were greatly im­proved, they as­sure us, but many a horse had bolted be­fore those sta­ble doors were closed. This chap­ter ends with two open ques­tions: ‘‘ How ex­ten­sive was the be­trayal and how ex­ten­sive was the dam­age?’’

If this chap­ter re­pays care­ful read­ing be­tween the lines, so does the pref­ace by David Horner, the leader of this project and author of the award-win­ning first vol­ume, The Spy Catch­ers. As Horner em­pha­sises, the ASIO of­fi­cial history is com­pa­ra­ble to the Aus­tralian of­fi­cial war his­to­ries, where in­de­pen­dent his­to­ri­ans are granted full ac­cess to gov­ern­ment records and al­lowed to pub­lish their own judg­ments with­out po­lit­i­cal or of­fi­cial cen­sor­ship. (Both Horner and this re­viewer have been in this priv­i­leged po­si­tion.)

Horner’s pref­ace in­di­cates that up­hold­ing those prin­ci­ples was no easy mat­ter. He states that not all ASIO of­fi­cers agreed that he and his col­leagues should have ac­cess to cer­tain files, and that in­ter­ven­tion by the di­rec­tor-gen­eral was nec­es­sary to en­sure that they did. (Whether that was the present head, Dun­can Lewis, or his pre­de­ces­sor, David Irvine, is not spec­i­fied, but Horner praises both for their sup­port.)

In this field, as in the of­fi­cial war history for which he was re­spon­si­ble, Horner has vig­or­ously de­fended the pre­rog­a­tives of the of­fi­cial his­to­rian. The pref­ace sets out the only bases on which ma­te­rial could be re­moved from the pub­lished history, and the valu­able role of an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee, which in­cluded a for­mer La­bor premier, Ge­off Gal­lop, and a for­mer Fraser gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, Jim Carl­ton.

This is ground that Horner cov­ered in the pref­ace to The Spy Catch­ers. The fact that he has cho­sen to go over it again in the fi­nal vol­ume in­di­cates that ASIO of­fi­cers en­gaged in what Blax­land has pub­licly called ‘‘argy-bargy’’ in de­cid­ing how much to dis­close.

What­ever lies be­hind the pub­lished word, the or­gan­i­sa­tion and the au­thors de­serve to be com­mended for go­ing as far as they felt able to re­veal the inside story of an agency with a trou­bled and of­ten con­tro­ver­sial history.


of­fi­cial his­to­rian of Aus­tralia’s in­volve­ment in South­east Asian con­flicts from 1948 to 1975 and author most re­cently of Aus­tralia and the Viet­nam War, is writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of judge RM Hope.

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