February 2016

Arts & Letters

Spies like Oz

By David McKnight

ASIO surveillance photograph of the 1968 May Day March in Wollongong. © National Archives of Australia

John Blaxland’s ‘The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963–1975’

Following David Horner’s The Spy Catchers, John Blaxland’s The Protest Years (Allen & Unwin; $49.99) is the second volume of The Official History of ASIO. This instalment sheds light on the organisation’s reaction to the radicalisation and protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Australia was undergoing broad social change during this period, and ASIO was alarmed. The central issues were the war in Vietnam and the Menzies government’s 1964 decision to conscript 20-year-olds to fight it. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), ASIO’s traditional target, was opposed to both. This meant that ASIO saw nearly all anti-war dissent through the distorting lens of its obsessive anti-communism.

Yet much of the politics of this period, often led by students, had little to do with Marx-inspired subversion. Indeed, the activism – also around racism, indigenous issues, feminism and colonialism – was imbued with political and cultural libertarianism, and its proponents were sceptical of the Old Left. ASIO’s failure to recognise this would cost it dearly.

While ASIO must take responsibility for its own operations, its critics sometimes forget that the organisation’s decisions were also driven by relentless pressure from Liberal governments eager to stoke exaggerated fears of communism and violent protest. In 1965, on the request of the Liberal attorney-general, ASIO director-general Sir Charles Spry suggested that laws on sedition and treachery be used to counter the early protests. Teach-ins and debates on Vietnam were monitored and the speakers checked against ASIO records. In 1969, ASIO developed the bizarrely named Operation Whip, which attempted to identify protesters and make minute-by-minute reports on nationwide demonstrations. Many in ASIO thought the police were better placed to deal with such protests. Operation Whip ultimately became a monster, consuming vast resources and achieving little.

The arrival of the Whitlam government in 1972 meant great changes were in store for ASIO. Perhaps the most revealing parts of Blaxland’s book concern the government’s relationship with the United States, which was more than usually dominated by security and intelligence issues mediated partly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and partly by President Nixon’s White House advisers. In their eyes, Labor came to office with a great deal of leftist baggage. Several prominent members of government were suspected of past or present CPA membership. When Jim Cairns became deputy prime minister in 1974, for instance, a US embassy official told ASIO chief Peter Barbour that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was alarmed and wanted to know if Cairns could be trusted with US secrets. While The Protest Years offers no new material on whether the CIA was connected to the dismissal of Whitlam, it contains a tantalising suggestion that the British Security Service (MI5) was tracking the unorthodox loans that London-based Pakistani deal-maker Tirath Khemlani was arranging on behalf of the Labor government. The Liberal Opposition and the media received plenty of leaked information about these loans, which helped to create an atmosphere of continuous scandal in the last ten months of Whitlam’s government. It has always seemed to me that CIA intervention was much more likely to have occurred in the provision of such leaks than in directly influencing the governor-general’s 1975 decision to sack Whitlam.

Quite apart from all this, Whitlam’s decisions about ASIO operations were radical for the time. He told Barbour, for example, that he would “not require ASIO to be too concerned with communist activity in trade unions”. Along with his minister for labour, Clyde Cameron, Whitlam argued that the trade-union movement itself could handle whatever problems were raised by communist activity. Moreover, the government slashed the number of active ASIO telephone taps from 19 to seven. Labor believed that ASIO was politically biased and, in particular, had ignored the threat of terrorist activities from Australian-based Croatian nationalists and instead harassed left-wing Yugoslavs. This belief led to Attorney-General Lionel Murphy ordering raids in 1973 on both the ASIO headquarters, which was in Melbourne at the time, and its office in Canberra. While Blaxland does not record it in The Protest Years, one regional ASIO office barricaded itself when the news broke. Murphy’s raids proved disastrous for the new government. The brotherhood of global spy agencies closed ranks. Senior CIA official James Jesus Angleton was apoplectic, describing Whitlam and Murphy as “cowboys” and threatening to cut off all contacts with ASIO. (Prior to the raid Angleton had described Labor as the organisation’s “new socialist masters”.) The US National Security Agency (responsible for signals intelligence) withheld 3000 pages of material from Australia in this period, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation also restricted exchanges. Canadian intelligence also demanded (and obtained) the return of sensitive documents and the destruction of associated correspondence. Even state police special branches withdrew co-operation for a period.

While he reveals many ASIO weaknesses, Blaxland paints in muted colours when depicting ASIO’s extensive co-operative relations with a spectrum of right-wing organisations. He deals with its connections to the RSL in a paragraph, and does not mention its close links with several leaders of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom (publishers of Quadrant magazine). Also omitted is ASIO’s link to the right-wing Australian Labor Party machine in New South Wales, supplying it with information to defeat the party’s Left. A related area that Blaxland does examine in detail is ASIO’s Special Projects Branch. While the organisation refused to respond to questions from the news media, it undertook many covert operations to seed them with information that could not be attributed, so that the press could “report more effectively upon the changed climate of dissent and demonstration”, according to one ASIO document. Such “spoiling operations” weren’t the actions of a rogue security agency loose from the control of its ministerial chief. Rather the opposite. Dozens of background papers exposing alleged communist influence were circulated to political figures, newspaper editors and the business elite. ASIO spent vast amounts of time and money during these protest years trying to hold back the tide, again to little avail.

Throughout this period ASIO’s counter-espionage operations continued without pause. One of the more fascinating objects of curiosity was KGB officer Ivan Stenin, the press attaché at the Soviet embassy. He is portrayed in Blaxland’s book as a drunk who loved prostitutes, a seeming occupational hazard of such work in real life as well as in fiction. Stenin had a number of significant contacts in Canberra, including Labor’s Senator John Wheeldon, who ASIO suspected was a secret member of the CPA as well as a “collaborator with the Russian Intelligence Service”. (Years later Wheeldon moved right and worked as chief editorial writer on Murdoch’s Australian.) In 1970, alarm bells rang when Stenin became friends with Lionel Murphy’s secretary. As with so many potential scares, all of this consumed vast ASIO resources, but nothing of security interest came of the two-year relationship.

Much of the surveillance of genuine Soviet intelligence officers had a Dad’s Army quality to it. When Stenin drove to Sydney, ASIO was in hot pursuit. As one ASIO officer recalled, “The trouble was we had been using the same light-blue Ford Falcon for two years. So every time Stenin came along Parramatta Road he would just turn around, take a picture and wave at us. We thought, Oh we’re blown.” While Soviet intelligence officers were obviously more adept at counter-surveillance tactics, such incidents also gave rise to fears that a Soviet “mole” had penetrated ASIO – a subject that will be explored in the third and final book of the series.

In his 1852 essay ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, Karl Marx wrote that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. For this reason, one cannot help feeling sorry for the current crop of ASIO officers. There is little in the history of their agency that offers an inspiring or reliable guide when dealing with the extraordinarily difficult task of identifying and preventing terrorism. Fighting political protest is not good preparation for fighting actual armed fanatics.

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

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