Era of reforms and red moles
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.
THE LAST SUBSTANTIVE CHAPTER EFFECTIVELY CONFIRMS ASIO WAS SERIOUSLY PENETRATED BY SOVIET AGENTS
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.