December 2014 – January 2015

Arts & Letters

The watchers

By David McKnight
Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Australia Under Surveillance’ and David Horner’s ‘The Spy Catchers: The official history of ASIO, 1949–1963’

Much of Australia’s secret history lies in the archives of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). As Australia sharpens its focus on terrorism, two new books trawl through the archives to reach quite different conclusions. In Australia Under Surveillance (Vintage Australia; $32.99), Frank Moorhouse writes about the danger to civil liberties posed by the need to prevent terrorist attacks. Hanging over his contemporary polemic is the long shadow of ASIO’s operations during the Cold War, which is the subject of David Horner’s The Spy Catchers (Allen & Unwin; $59.99), commissioned by ASIO as an official history.

Moorhouse is haunted by an incident that occurred in the early 1950s. The Commonwealth Literary Fund recommended a literary grant to support a communist writer, Judah Waten. When the grant became public, the then prime minister, Robert Menzies, was stung. He scribbled an instruction on the file: “In future all names put forward should be investigated by Security. This case is scandalous and embarrassing.” So until 1973 writers were “vetted” for communist associations, and some were denied grants. Political reliability was required, not just literary talent. Moorhouse’s alarm when he discovered these files in the National Archives of Australia was compounded when he read his own ASIO file and found that he had been the subject of surveillance. His file notes that at 17 years of age he was part of the “communist-dominated” Labour Club at the University of Sydney and that he had participated in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Later, ASIO weighed all this up when he was vetted for suitability as a journalist at the ABC. Although ASIO cleared him (he was a left-wing libertarian, not a communist), Moorhouse wonders how his life might have been changed by a negative report. Today, he fears, “this mindset is alive again”, and all the old battles over civil liberties and censorship need to be fought again.

Unlike some critics of ASIO’s new anti-terror laws, Moorhouse is not silent on the danger of terrorism, and acknowledges that it is real. Individuals must be watched and investigations undertaken with realism and tough-mindedness, he says. During the Cold War, neither communism nor the movement for social liberation presented any imminent threat of violence. Today, fanatical religious-based terrorism is a genuine threat to a secular and liberal Australia.

The problem is that dealing with terrorism almost inevitably restricts liberties like freedom of expression: Moorhouse details 17 such incidents in Australia, including the extraordinary events in 2004 around the security censorship of Andrew Wilkie’s book on the Iraq War, Axis of Deceit. A team from the attorney-general’s office “cleansed” the computers of Wilkie’s publisher, Black Inc., and then those of his friends. How does a democracy ensure the safety of all citizens without doing great damage to their liberties or rights? Moorhouse refers to this dilemma as “the Dark Conundrum”. How will this be resolved? He doesn’t say exactly, but suggests that partisans of free speech may have to go to jail to defend traditional rights.

The book relates an interview with the recent head of ASIO, David Irvine, in which Moorhouse finds himself returning frequently to ASIO’s Cold War legacy because it offers examples of the organisation’s sins. This simply makes Irvine defensive, and Moorhouse says he displays a “deafness to values and arguments other than those serving the interests of ASIO – a how-dare-you attitude which is close to arrogance”. This is a familiar tune to any critic who has dealt with ASIO. It wants to be understood and recognised for its legitimate work, but continually dismisses its critics and bemoans their alleged ignorance and exaggerated fears. At the very least it needs a smarter PR effort.

Moorhouse strikes one false note, to my mind, when he tries to put the terrorist threat in proportion by quoting the Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul Sheehan, who noted in 2004 that 134,000 people had died on the roads in the previous 50 years compared to a little over 1000 Australians killed in wars and terrorist attacks over the same period. But this is a false analogy. Unlike road accidents, terrorist incidents are planned and carried out by a conscious group of killers. Their aim is political rather than criminal: to destabilise the whole society by exacerbating ethnic divisions and “exposing” the weakness of governments. A nail bomb exploded in a litter bin on the streets of Sydney or Melbourne would not only kill nearby citizens but could also smash long-term social cohesion, precipitating future Cronulla-style riots on a grand scale. Preventing both of these provides a legitimate role for ASIO, and that means some degree of surveillance.

Which brings us to The Spy Catchers by the ANU historian David Horner. Just why ASIO commissioned an “official history” of the period 1949–63 is puzzling. Presumably ASIO believed that the book would put the record straight, which suggests that the modern ASIO has a major investment in its activities during the Cold War. This is partly understandable. ASIO’s Cold War triumph was the seduction of the local Russian spies, Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, to defect in 1954. As well, it identified (and hence neutered) a range of Australians whose membership of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) led them to steal government documents that ended up in Russian hands.

While ASIO can feel vindicated by its efforts to stop Soviet espionage, its record on counter-subversion has little to recommend it. Horner argues, for example, that its surveillance of left-wing intellectuals, writers and artists was “a massive waste of time and resources”. More than this, ASIO’s broad-brush surveillance “had a corrosive effect within ASIO whose officers came to believe that leftist dissent – and the advocacy of what would become relatively mainstream views about feminism, social welfare and indigenous Australians – indicated potential disloyalty”.

Much of the impulse for ASIO’s early work came from Menzies’ attempt to outlaw the CPA in 1950–51. This was rejected, first by the High Court and then, to everyone’s surprise, in a national referendum. Confronted with this, Menzies and ASIO decided to outlaw the CPA by other means. This meant constructing a large apparatus within ASIO to determine the identity of all members of the CPA and their supporters. If the anticipated World War Three broke out, many were scheduled for internment camps. To achieve this aim required a series of covert operations. These included a plan to insert an agent in every local branch of the CPA (Operation Sparrow), the bugging of CPA offices (Operation Cockatoo), illegal entry to offices (Operation Blackbird), and the identification of undercover CPA members in the ALP (Operation Gosling). Clearly, ASIO has an ornithological faction. Other avian operations include Operation Cockerell (to entrap a Russian spy) and Operation Pigeon (to confront an Australian communist who worked with the KGB).

Whatever its intentions, ASIO became a politically partisan organisation very early on. From 1950, the virulently anti-communist MP Billy Wentworth pestered ASIO for information on communists and trade unions. Over 20 years ASIO sometimes stalled him but at other times gave him information “for blatantly political and private purposes”, says Horner. Similarly, a Liberal grandee, Richard Casey, introduced the Catholic activist BA Santamaria to the ASIO chief Charles Spry, and ASIO received useful information from Santamaria’s shadowy anti-communist organisation, the Movement. ASIO also dealt covertly with the Returned and Services League: the RSL had expelled ex-army communists from its ranks and kept blacklists of red members, which ASIO obtained.

Horner’s book tells us more about ASIO’s attack operations than we knew. In particular, it describes the first “spoiling operations”, which were designed to expose and disrupt communist influence. ASIO leaked security information to editors and journalists, initially on Frank Packer’s Bulletin and later to the Fairfax and the Melbourne Herald newspapers as well as to television. At another point, ASIO recruited sympathisers to write letters to newspapers, attacking the CPA and supporting ASIO. It set up a bogus “rank and file committee of the CPA” that sent letters to CPA members urging a revolt against the party leadership. All of this was an “extravagant interpretation” of ASIO’s role, says Horner.

Spoiling operations also had a vicious edge. Because surveillance put CPA leaders in a goldfish bowl, ASIO was aware of their sexual infidelities and similar matters. This knowledge was then used to expose the individuals concerned and thereby “disrupt” the CPA, all of which was regarded as a legitimate tactic. Horner does not cover this development, presumably because it occurred in the period covered by the next volume of ASIO’s official history (1963–75, to be released next year).

The Spy Catchers reveals important new details of the degree of mutual paranoia of Spry, Menzies and the Labor leader HV “Doc” Evatt, and how it poisoned Labor’s relations with ASIO for 20 years. (This would culminate in the 1973 raid on ASIO by Gough Whitlam’s new attorney-general, Lionel Murphy.) The tortuous tale began with documents brought by Vladimir Petrov when he defected. These show that members of Evatt’s staff were unwittingly entangled in the fringes of espionage activities. Evatt’s press secretary had written a potted description of 45 journalists in the press gallery, describing their politics and their drinking and sexual habits. This document (named Document H at the Royal Commission on Espionage set up after the Petrov defection) was intended to help the Russians understand the Australian media. In fact, it was probably used to talent-spot potential agents. Two other members of Evatt’s staff were named as sources for the CPA journalist Rupert Lockwood. On top of that, ASIO’s own research had established that a typist in Evatt’s office had passed on confidential documents to the CPA. When some of this emerged at the Royal Commission on Espionage (regarded as a political stunt by Evatt, somewhat like Tony Abbott’s recent inquiry into Labor’s roof-insulation scheme), it transformed Evatt’s natural suspicion into something much worse.

After the royal commission, ASIO continued to tap the phone of Evatt’s personal secretary, Alan Dalziel, whom ASIO suspected of collaborating with Russian intelligence. Apart from allowing ASIO to plug into conversations at the level of the Labor leadership, this meant ASIO discovered that Evatt was dabbling with a group of ex-ASIO dissidents and critics. Spry reported this to Menzies, and both men feared that if Evatt won the 1958 election he would sack Spry and appoint a new head of ASIO. Incredibly, two days before the election, Menzies ordered that copies of the “Petrov papers” be sent to Britain’s MI5 and MI6. Another copy went to American intelligence. Referring to the connections of Evatt’s staff, Spry told a meeting of overseas spy agencies that “this penetration of the alternative government of the land presents implications of subversive potential more dangerous than espionage”. In effect, Spry was saying, Labor under Evatt was a security risk. Given that ASIO’s job was to protect Australia from security risks, this suggested that ASIO might have a duty to oppose Labor. ASIO never mounted operations against Labor as such, but its broad-brush operations against all kinds of political causes did much to constrain progressive and Labor politics until 1972. Shining a light on all of this is a valuable thing.

David McKnight

David McKnight is an associate professor at the University of New South Wales. He wrote the first detailed account of ASIO and the cold war, Australia’s Spies and their Secrets, and recently co-authored Big Coal: Australia’s dirtiest habit

ASIO headquarters in Canberra. © Katherine Griffiths / Fairfax Syndication
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