Australia's intelligence and security, yesterday and today

The following is a lecture given by Dr David McKnight, University of Technology, Sydney, at the National Archives of Australia on 6 June 2004.

I want to begin by paying tribute today to the National Archives. It is a vital repository for the nation's memory. It allows researchers like myself to come and try to understand our history. It allows individuals who are curious about their family history to find out much more. It puts on timely exhibitions like this one.

We can be grateful that it has not been privatised, or outsourced or commercialised, like so many of our great public institutions. Let's hope that this ideological craze has passed.

My first contact with National Archives came while I was working on the Sydney Morning Herald as a journalist in the late 1980s. A few friends of mine had begun to make use of the new Archives Act to request material about some of the more secret aspects of Australia's history. And about the shadowy organisation known as ASIO, and its predecessors such as the Commonwealth Investigation Service and the Directorate of Military Intelligence.

As a journalist I thought there was a hot story in the offing and so I came down to the bleak concrete bunker in grassy paddocks out at Mitchell and began my research. I wrote two articles which picked up on some of the wacky things that went on. But in the process as a lot of others have been, I was bitten by a bug, The bug causes an illness whose main symptom is a fascination with old documents and a desire to make sense of them by writing history. In an extreme cases there is an urgent desire to nail down, once and for all, the truth of matters of controversy and in the process to harass Archives staff into providing little known and highly secret papers. One fellow historian used to refer to himself as an 'archives rat' -- gnawing away at problems by rummaging through musty old papers in darkened vaults.

As well as this, there is a rather naughty desire to read the private correspondence from the inner workings of government. To be able to open a red folder with the impressive words 'Top Secret" or even "Ultra" stamped on it. To be able to read private letters and cables to and from the Prime Minister about the affairs of state.

This is kind of the desire that fuels lots of people from historians to detectives -- and no doubt security officers.

When I first visited the National Archives I was fascinated by the unlikely kinds of people who had ASIO dossiers:

They included Professor Manning Clark; nuclear scientist Sir Marcus Oliphant ; Professor Julius Stone; the artist Lloyd Rees; the boxer Jimmy Carruthers - the Labor MP Jim Cairns, the novelist Christina Stead, and Dame Mary Gilmore (whose photo now appears on the ten dollar bill). All were regarded as communist sympathisers of one kind or another . After I while - after I had got over my indignation that a file was kept o n them -- I realised that this was perfectly true. All kinds of intellectuals, artists, politicians, and many others passed through the Left or the CPA at some stage in their lives. It is said that the biggest party in Australia is still the ex-members of the Communist Party.

I should mention at this point that I was once myself a member of the Communist Party. I had joined as a young student and had drifted out of the party at the about same time that I had begun to write my book. In fact during the period of research for the book, the CPA voluntarily dissolved itself.

The point about that is, that I had met personally met many of the top leaders whose files I was sitting down to study.

Writing and researching a book about a secret agency was a challenge. In fact it was one of the most fascinating things I've ever done. I was surprised at how much was actually on the public record -- stuff that had slipped out over the years in newspapers etc . But much more important was the ability to open a direct window into the agency through access to its own documents.

One of the highlights of my research was that I dug up plans for mass internment of communists. I had heard rumours that the Menzies government had plans to round up communists and place them in internment camps in the event of World War 3. So I requested archival documents on this and sure enough such plans did exist. They involved ASIO, military intelligence and state police raiding peoples homes simultaneously around Australia and taking them to internment camps. In the early 1950s this was a real possobilty. Partly because of this, the Communist Party developed an extensive underground organisations, with hidden printing presses, safe houses, and individuals with false identities.

As I researched I found out other unusual facts. During one court case which I fought with Archives, it was mentioned that ASIO had about 40,000 pages of transcript of telephone tapping, from the period when it was not legal. The mind boggles at what the organisation must have today,

I found out that ASIO kept a close watch on the ABC, recording some of its programs, and vetting its journalistic staff after complaints from the government about left wing ABC bias. Some things never change.

As well, I discovered that ASIO has a library of movie footage. Sounds fascinating but of course when you actually see it, it consists largely of people walking into and out of doorways -- usually attending a meeting of the central committee of the Communist Party or a CPA branch. More interesting stuff shows May Day marches and there is a training documentary which is quite a good film.

Researching archives sometimes shoots down your pet conspiracy theory -- and in fact this is one of the great benefits. But archives can also confirm conspiracy theories. In the 1960s people on the Left made the wild accusation that some on the Right -- notably BA Santamaria's Catholic forces -- were working with ASIO. Not only was this confirmed by archival documents but even more surprising was the high level of co-operation between the NSW Right in the Labor Party and several ASIO officers in the 1970s . I was sceptical about these accusations until I saw documents confirming them. A related conspiracy theory concerned ASIO and the Whitlam government. I am researching some of this at the moment. It is not true that ASIO conspired against Whitlam. The Director General Peter Barbour had a rocky but very proper relationship with PM Whitlam. What did occur was a rogue group of officers within ASIO tried to undermine both Barbour and Whitlam. But that's a story that the Archives may or may not reveal in years to come. The problem is that the best conspiracies leave no documents to be found in years to come.

Former officers

In researching the book I also set out to track down former officers of ASIO to see if they would be interviewed, This was a fascinating exercises in detective work itself. A surprising number -- about 35 -- agreed to talk to me in some form or other. Another 40 others simply refused point blank. All those who did talk technically breached the Crimes Act and I was desperately hoping that when the book was published, there would be legal action against it. No such luck.

So I was in the position where I had personal contact with both those under surveillance, those doing the surveillance and perhaps most useful of all, the solid foudnation of ASIO documnts courtesy of National Archives.

A fascinating position for a writer to be in

The former ASIO officers who agreed to talk to me were an interesting lot. Most were from the generation known colloquially within ASIO as 'the old and bold' . They were fairly tough minded individuals who knew a lot of secrets about Western global intelligence efforts and their more modest equivalents within Australia.

As a group, they were enormously varied in their outlooks and manner; this was a surprise because when I imagined beforehand what they might be like, I tended to see them as being poured out of the one mould. As a caricature. A few were talkative, most were guarded, but with some interviews were like prising open an oyster. A small number had actually been sympathisers with the Labor Party although the erratic behaviour of Doc Evatt turned them off. Others were supporters of Menzies -- but they knew just what a difficult it can be to meet the partisan demands of political masters. There were also genuine oddballs. One former ASIO officer - who was regarded as a bit wacky by his own colleagues insisted on taking my photo before I could interview him. Apparently he believed that I might have been a Soviet sleeper agent and one of the Russian's rules was : never allow someone to take your photo., Anyway I shrugged and he clicked and we chatted but what he said was of little use.

But these characters aside, I found to my surprise that many ASIO officers were idealistic and motivated by a spirit of service to the Australia. It s just that they were anti-communist idealists -- in contrast to the left wing idealists in whose circles I moved.

My job was to get information from them and this was often frustrating. Often I found that they truly didn't have answers to some of the questions I posed. I then realised that this was a reflection of the fact that internally ASIO had barriers. The people in counter espionage did not have detailed chats over morning tea with the people from records or admin about the latest shenanigans of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov. So there were always secrets within secrets with in secrets.

Counter espionage

The original reason for ASIO's creation was as a counter espionage organisiation. This was the most legitimate of its activities, since there is no doubt that then and now other countries place intelligence officers in Canberra and Australia generally. Indeed disagreements about whether the Russians penetrated ASIO tore the organisation apart in recent times.

Counter espionage is probably least understood and analysed of ASIO's activities. I know I devoted less than I could have in my book. The Petrov Royal Commission into Espionage has been written about many times because it intruded into Australian domestic politics, so I wont go into it today. Much less known about is the cat and mouse game played between ASIO and the Russian embassy in the 1970s and 80s. A former Director General of Security Peter Barbour once took me through the daily work of ASIO counter espionage officers. It was mind numbing in its attention to detail. Each of the suspect KGB officers and their families were watched, they were tailed as they moved around Canberra, their phone calls all transcribed, the people whom they met were watched, and often approached and questioned. And all this vast raw intelligence which was produced everyday was collated and analysed -- looking for patterns or clues.

I found out titbits which help make spy writing colourful. When ASIO was tailing a KGB officer they used several cars and communicated by radio using a code. Rather than saying , 'We are following Ivan Volkov down Northbourne Ave in a northerly direction' They would say 'We are taking the package down Northbourne Ave'.

But the Russians were experts at counter-measures. It was thought that at the Embassy, they listened in to ASIO radio and to walkie talkie frequencies in an effort to work out who was being tailed where. To counter this, ASIO set up a false network of cars and walkie talkies with officers to talk on them, simulating a tailing operation. Meanwhile the real surveillance, carried out by the OBS section of ASIO, followed the KGB officers on a very different frequency or in radio silence. In this way it was hoped Russians might be lulled into a false sense of security,

The phone tapping and bugging of suspected Soviet intelligence officers was also of great interest. One former officer explained how it became clear from a bug in their home that one Russian couple were having lots of fights and their sex life was rather poor. He said this was useful because it showed that the suspect KGB man might be off his balance or preoccupied -- and this could be factored into operations.

Just while we are on the topic of sex, a British MI5 officer here on secondment in the 1970s suggested that ASIO stage another kind of operation. This involved a deliberate car crash in which the local person was an attractive woman whose car the Russian would hit. The idea was to create an accidental contact which was personal. The women in question would mention casually to the Russian that she worked in Foreign Affairs. And they would wait if he took the bait -- the longest of long shots would be that the Russian could be seduced and turned. But it was a chance worth taking.

On another occasion, a Russian intelligence officer here developed cancer and it was thought he might be cultivated, perhaps with a promise to help his family in some way, after he had died, but this plan came to nothing because his illness progressed so rapidly.


There is an old saying in journalism, "never let the facts spoil a good story'.

As I researched I found the facts were getting in the way of the story --or rather in the way of my own preconceived prejudices. The central problem concerned allegations of Russian espionage in the early period of the Cold War. I had begun the book thinking that the allegation that local Australian communists had helped the Russian espionage effort was, to put it bluntly, a lot of cock and bull, designed to fuel Menzies' anti-communist political crusade. The more documents I read and the more people I spoke to, the more I realised that a small secret group of members of the CPA had indeed helped the Russians, up to the point of taking documents from Foreign Affairs where they worked, and passing them on. And in fact these actions , which occurred in many Western countries, helped precipitate the deep suspicions of the Cold War.

So when I came to complete the book I tried to put down the truth as I saw it, not as my own prejudices would have it. I hope I had developed a somewhat more mature and less judgemental attitude. I also realised that some of the claims and fears about ASIO were wild exaggerations and often deliberately misleading. One famous one concerned the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in 1978 --- "ASIO bombed the Hilton" --- was the slogan spray painted on many Sydney walls. When you have a feel for the organisation, you realise what utter nonsense this claim is.

I say this as a preliminary to making a few remarks about the current situation in which ASIO is scarcely absent from the front pages of our daily newspapers.

The 'war on terror'

Many people regard the current 'war on terror' as a virtual re-run of the Cold war.

Let me list some of the characteristics of the war on terror which seem to support this:

We have a global conflict in which a dangerous enemy has internal allies within Australia. Allies whom it is feared could do great damage to Australia.

We have the strengthening of the intrusive powers of ASIO. We have certain organisations banned.

We have raids on homes by ASIO and AFP and similar operations

We have the conflict being framed in a language of national security, and in a language of fear.

All of this has been denounced and has been compared to McCarthyism.

But the comparison, I believe, is superficial and often wrong in my view. In the Cold war, I believe the Left in Australia were scarcely a threat.

The Cold War Left, in its various incarnations, was a broadly progressive force, often fighting for goals which were later accepted by the society broadly. It's true that the Communist Party was lead by very determined, hard headed and occasionally fanatical people but it was largely an open and public body. It had roots among the labour movement and in the community. Its actions were peaceful, not violent. Most of its actions took the shape of a militant political agitation aimed at improving life for ordinary people and for minorities. There was never any actual danger that the Left's revolutionary ideas would ever be realised. No socialist revolution could occur, nor did occur in advanced capitalism. Espousal of revolutionary ideas may have excited panic from conservatives and anti communists but this was as much a fantasy as the radical Left's fantasy of revolution.

But whether you agree with how I have just characterised the Left or not, there is no comparison with the current situation.

The global sub-faction of Islamic fundamentalism which has decide to turn to terrorism is not an open political movement, nor is it progressive in any way, nor does it have a mass base in the community not even in the Moslem community.

It is a genuine threat to security and it is a legitimate target for ASIO . That means from time to time, that people will be watched closely and even that homes will be raided. How could anyone think otherwise after an event like Bali?

The war on terror is first of all, an intelligence war and second, in the longer term - an ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, especially the youth of the Muslim world. (It is because of the latter reason that I think the war in Iraq is so foolish) To meet the first challenge Australia needs a strong, competent, dedicated and sophisticated security agency such as ASIO.

I have been dealing with ASIO and Archives for 14 years now. I have a reasonably good grasp of its history and I can make an educated guess at the kind of organisation it is today. My conclusion is that it has been transformed in the last 10 -15 years -- and I am not alone in this conclusion. It has a far more open attitude to the release of its own arhcives. It is a professional, not a political organisation today. It has internal procedures to ensure that it does not exceed its powers and there are several outside bodies to which it can be called to account. It activities are very different from how most people imagine it, and it is unlike the body which performed during the period of the Cold War. Having said that, it is not perfect, and we must continue to safeguard our liberties carefully.

I say this as someone who has lodged various complaints about access to documents, who has taken Archives and ASIO to legal tribunals, and who has complained to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security and has generally made a nuisance of myself over the years.

But this is part of the rich political and intellectual life which is possible in a democracy. And the defence of democratic society against terrorist attack is a important thing.

The Archives is richer for the clashes that we have had over the years about the release of documents and both ASIO and myself are more mature about it.

I hope everyone enjoys the exhibition.