The New Left and the Old Moles
Chapter 19, 'Australia's Spies and Their Secrets' (David McKnight, Allen & Unwin, 1994)
On a quiet Sunday morning early in 1972 three ASIO officers stood in the nondescript office of a fly-by-night mining company, Kalamunda Mineral Reserves, above Flinders Lane in the city of Melbourne. The main sound apart from the odd distant car was the distant, insistent hymn singing of a religious sect who occupied rooms below and the occasional squawk of a walkie-talkie held by one man. From another man, hunched over a desk with a small box of tools by his side, a metallic sound rasped through the room
He was feverishly filing a blank key into shape. At one point the rasping stopped as an ASIO field officer acting as a 'cockatoo' reported over the walkie talkie that a police car was slowly cruising down the Flinders Lane. Other than this problem -- quickly solved with a quiet word from the watcher -- the operation went smoothly enough. The object of the exercise was entry to a suite of offices situated on the third floor of Goodwin Chambers at 386 Flinders Lane which were occupied by W. Alexander Boag, an accountancy practice which audited a wide spread of companies and individuals, including barrister Ted Hill, the leader of the Communist Party of Australia, (Marxist-Leninist).
Once the lock to Boag's rooms was picked, the ASIO team retired to nearby Kalmunda offices to make a key. Cracking the 'impregnable' Rivers lock which Boag used allowed ASIO officers entry for the next 18 months. The initial achievement of the men from Operations branch was to photograph Hill's tax and financial records.
Two months before the events described above, ASIO's Operations branch had registered Kalamunda as a company (with the help of a retired MI5 man in West Australia) and leased rooms in Goodwin Chambers down the hall from Boag's.
On this and many other operations ASIO had one of the finest locksmiths in Australia to help them. Apprenticed in 1933 to Chubbs, 'Leon' had learnt the arcane skills of cracking combination safes and complex locks from the company who made them. Though he joined ASIO only in 1963, 'Leon' had actually done jobs for 'the Show' in Melbourne since he was first approached for an intelligence burglary in 1951.
The Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist) was a prime target of ASIO since its formation in 1964 when Hill and other pro-China communists split from the CPA. From 1966 onwards the CPA (ML) experienced a transfusion of new blood with the rise of the student and New Left movement in Melbourne's universities. These Maoist students,who took their ideological lead from Ted Hill, were organised in the Worker-Student Alliance and had a tendency to physically confront police, university authorities and US diplomatic premises. Maoist students deeply worried ASIO.
ASIO's view of the New Left was mixed. On one level, like most of conservative, conformist Australia, it had a simple gut rejection of the cultural revolution of which it was part. Long haired, incense burning and protesting students left its older officers cold. An ASIO analysis of alienation at the time said the student New Left fell into five categories: draft (conscription) protesters; career rebels ('those rejecting money-making pursuits'); the children of 'Old Left' parents ; 'drug using beatniks and other social deviants' and Christian radicals. The younger intelligence officers were intrigued. The New Left defied all known sense and reason since they were not old style communists (initially at least) nor did their rebellion stem from hunger or unemployment. It was hard to put them in a box with a lable on it.
The cultural-political tide of non-conformism and revolt which washed over Western societies from the late 1960s worried ASIO wherever it penetrated. Before the 1966 elections the Liberal Party suffered a minor split when the anti-war Liberal Reform Group (later the Australia Party) broke away, led by transport millionaire and free thinker, Gordon Barton. ASIO noted that Liberal Reform 'not only ran candidates against government represenatives but co-operated with the pro-communist peace movement and the Anti-Vietnam war protest organisations in the campaign.' The creation of the Australia Party (ideological forerunners of the Democrats) was indeed a sign of the times. The fact ASIO saw this as relevant to security speaks volumes of its notion of national security whereby any challenge to Menzian conformism was suspect.
By the early seventies break-ins were not an unusual occurence although extreme care was taken to ensure officers were not caught in the act. -- it was after all illegal. The beauty of break-ins was that, like phone taps, it gave access to raw intelligence of the inner most activities and thoughts of the target. Often tell tale signs were left to make it look like an amateur burglary by kids. An earlier break-in carried out by Operations (D) branch occurred in January 1971 at the Clifton Hill, Melbourne, home of New Left academic Doug White, from La Trobe University. White was at that stage one of a score of campus figures demonised by ASIO and the Commonwealth Police as ringleaders of the New Left. Among his friends were key 'China-liners' such as Humphrey McQueen and student leader, Barry York. He was also one of the board members of Arena, a key New Left intellectual journal and Ted Hill had once visited his home. Through a student informer, D branch knew that White's wife was frequently ill and he was often away at weekends seeing her at a holiday home on Phillip Island. On the appointed day (chosen almost certainly through a phone tap aimed at learning his movements) a small team of cockatoos and public service burglars broke into White's home at 34, The Esplande, Clifton Hill (Vic). The most likely object of the search were to photograph files of Arena especially its mailing list. In the event, they got nothing. The Arena subscription list was held elsewhere. White arrived home on Sunday night to see his wife's photographic negatives strewn on the floor and noticed a couple of bottles of beer and some paperbacks were missing. White concluded correctly it was a security job, designed, he believed, to intimidate him. He belief was reinforced by an incident six months later. White had helped Queensland student radical get a teaching job in Victoria. One night a man knocked on the door just as White was preparing for bed, saying he was from the Motor Registry and wanting to speak to the student who, he claimed, had given White's address when he registered his car. When White told him he didn't live there, he said 'Oh, so where can I contact him?' It was tired old tactic, crude in its execution. 'It was as phoney as hell,' White recalled.
The key to the New Left was the student movement and as the dimensions of challenge to social norms became clearer, ASIO recruited students as agents. One recruit in the late 60s was a young engineering student at Monash University, Peter Higgins. Higgins, a naive and conservative Catholic student who was unhappy with the turmoil at Monash. One of his initial tasks was to see if he could find sources of income of the Labor Club and whether any funding came from China or Russia. Needless to say nothing was found. His bread and butter consisted of passing on uni leaflets and political gossip and identifying students by name who attended anti-war demonstrations which ASIO photgraphed. When asked to find out information on the sexual activity of particular students he refused. 'It was obvious that it had nothing to do with their political activities and was only going to be used as blackmail.' Higgins decided to become politically active himself, a stance discouraged by his ASIO case officer. He joined the Engineering Socialists, a Maoist group, and realised that a couple of members of the 20 person group were mixed up with Bob Santamaria's National Civic Council. 'I reported that but the ASIO contact refused to record their names. I had a go at him and said 'You are only picking on the Left'. He said they actually worked very closely with the NCC and they would never report on each other.' Eventually Higgins' politics evolved further leftwards and after seeing police violence at a 1971 demonstration against the touring South African football team, he went public with his story in the student newspaper Lot's Wife.
ANOTHER BIZARRE piece of political busybodying by ASIO involved their surveillance of rebellious high school students. In December 1968 ASIO's Special Projects section produced a background paper on 'The Significance of Militant Developments among Secondary School Students'. In July 1969 it circulated 'Programme for Revolution in High Schools' and an updated version in April 1970.
Extraordinarily close parallels appear between this latter paper and a small pamphlet School Power published over the name of Peter Coleman, the then Liberal Member for Fuller. The pamphlet, subtitled Is your child being manipulated by Political Operators? was sold widely through newsagents. The ASIO paper states that a Sydney organisation called High School Students Against the War in Vietnam (HSSAWV).
'publishes a journal 'Student Underground' and a newsletter which have been distributed in up to 100 schools. In October 1968 it ran a weekend camp near the Jenolan Caves to discuss communism and guerrilla warfare tactics. It claimed to have a mailing list of about 500 students in 1968.'
The group also published underground sheets for various schools including:
Yellow Submarine Fort Street Girls' High School
The SparkCremorne GirlsHigh School
BleahCastle Hill High School
Super RatCaringbah High School
Out of Apathy Cheltenham and Strathfield Girls High Schools
The Sydney Line Sydney GirlsHigh School
Coleman's pamphlet stated that HSSAWV 'claimed in the early months to havea mailing list of 500 student subscribers, to be distributing 'Student Underground' in 100 high schools, and it had effective control of a number of separate high school papers such as:' [the same list followed with Fort Street Girls shown as producing 'Yellow Subterranean'.] It then added: 'In October 1968 it also ran a weekend camp near Jenolan Caves to discuss guerrilla warfare tactics.'
The ASIO paper had this to say about the high school student revolt in Brisbane:
c) Subsequently, a body entitled Students in Dissent (S.I.D.) was set up to organise student protest against the education system. This body had a High School Action Committee which organised demonstrations and produced literature for distribution among students. Both bodies co-operated with SDA and FOCO, and received support from radical university groups and academics, communists, and the Young Socialist League (Y.S.L.). The SID currently appers to be inactive.
d) Another radical body Students for Revolutionary Action (S.R.A.) was set up in February 1969 using the address of SDA, the YSL and FOCO. It has distributed a pamphlet urging students to seize weapons used by school cadets units. It produced a newsheet entitled 'Spark'. It also appears to be currently inactive.
On page 11 of Coleman's School Power, the following appeared:
Next, Students in Dissent (S.I.D.) was set up. It had a high school Action Committee which produced literature such as 'The Black Dwarf at Inala High School and organised demonstrations among high school students, especially over the suspension of Miss Margeret Bailey, a prefect at Inala HighSchool, who was suspended for refusing to accept the Principal's orders. It was supported by the Communist Party's Young Socialist League. A third body was set up in February 1969, Students for Revolutionary Action (S.R.A.) which had the same address as the Young Socialist League, Foco and the S.D.A. It distributed one pamphlet to schools urging students to seize the Cadet Corps' weapons. It also produced the paper 'Spark'.....
The ASIO document contained seven diagrams for the seven capital cities showing how radical university students, high school students and the communist and trotskyist movements were interconnected. Virtually identical diagrams were part of School Power. Many more instances of similarities become apparent when comparing them.
Coleman's pamphlet is a diatribe against the burgeoning opposition to authoritarianism, to RSL-style patriotism, the prefect system, school uniforms and religion. Many aparents welcomedsigns of independence of spirit in the young, said Coleman. But, he solemnly intoned, 'If it were a genuine movement of independent and critical minds in the schools it would be welcome. It is in fact the product of soemthing new, anti-educational and reactionary. It is the first attempt in Australia to turn schools away from education and convert them into political centres. It is a political operation, a deliberate and conscientious attack on the integrity of schools...It is organised not by educationists but by a variety of sometimes competing revolutionary parties. It is still in its early stages and it is not too late to take appropriate counter measures.'
'Operations' and 'counter measures' -- this also was the language of ASIO.
THE SIXTIES also saw a growing challenge to the racism of Old Australia with the Left, progressive christians and aborgines themselves to the forefront of the struggle. The participation of the CPA and its reporting of struggles in the Tribune and Guardian newspapers drew ASIO's attention. In 1966 the modern land rights movement was born through the strike by Aboriginal pastoral workers at Wave Hill station in central Australia. This became 'a focal point for CPA propaganda,' according to ASIO. 'Strenuous efforts were made by the party to gain trade union support for the strikers,' it added. The CPA also opposed the government program of assimilation and its support for the retention of the Lake Tyers (Vic) area as an Aboriginal reserve was seen as part of CPA strategy which, as early as 1965, supported land rights. CPA support for an amendment to the Constitution providing for Commonwealth control of Aborognal affairs was also singled out, along with statements supporting Commonwealth laws which would temporarily discriminate in favour of Aborigines. Ultimately in 1967 the Constitution was amended. The CPA of course was utterly cold blooded about all of this, according to ASIO. 'The Aboriginal problem was seen by the party to be merely one element in its new political programme for a 'coalition of the Left' based on a loose programme for social change, and the encouragement of a 'new radicalism' in the community at large, designed to create a new social order in which the Party would control political power.' Another ASIO analysis was a touch more apocalyptic. 'It can be see nthereforethat the develoopment by the CPA of a militant Australian Aboriginal 'nationalism' would enable the CPA to draw the aborigines into the Soviet government's international anti-colonial and anti-imperialism cmapaigns ..... the CPA is prepared to [do this] becsause it is working to use the aborigines and their problems in every way in its own local united front cmapaign for 'peoples' power' and communism in Australia. And to do this it works ... to penetrate, use and ultimately transform into CPA front organisations those existing organisations concerned with the true welfare of the Australian aboriginal people.'
THE QUALITY of analysis of the New Left and the youth revolt varied from crude alarmism to a something a little more sophisticated.
Shining through the analyses is a complete failure to understand that the roots of the youth revolt. One lengthy analysis of populism quotes Dr Bruno Bettlheim to the effect that 'Viet Nam and the Bomb serve youth as a screen for what really ails them' which is their feeling that 'youth has no future' because modern technology has made them obsolete -- that they have become socially irrelevant and, as persons, insignificant'. Paraphrasing, the ASIO analyst concluded, 'Since America's technology is the most advanced, it is America, Americans, their way of life and their government's policies whcih become the main target.' Thus was youthful political opposition to Vietnam 'psychologised' away. Another lengthy paper titled 'Alienation in the socio-political sphere' (1970) analysed Marx's youthful writings on alienation and those of a raft of right wing American and British sociologists. On this basis it promoted another apolitical interpretation of the meaning of student protest against the war in Vietnam, thus:
The state of passive alienation by itself generates frustration, discontent, apathy and indifference -- states of mind which may or may not lead or be lead to active alienation which seeks an outlet via hostile action... such hostile action must be pursued by a group of individuals...... their activitites are best described as being those of a 'mass movement' [emphasis in original]
It was but a short step to conclude that 'alienated' opponent of the war or conscription were simply frustrated malcontents with a psychological problem. Given that ASIO held that the status quo was unquestionably the best of all worlds, the description of opponents as essentially irrational or psychologically disturbed inexorably followed . ASIO's analysts also committed two cardinal mistakes. For instance, they described the communists' role in the late 1960s, as promoting 'the so-called 'new left' ...which is encouraged to build itself onto an 'anti-establishment public' and to operate in the community as an 'extra-parliamentary opposition' -- both under the aegis of the CPA and its programme for a 'Coalition of the Left' in Australia. Such phrases as 'anti-establishment public', the 'coalition of the left', the 'extra-parliamentary opposition' were all drawn from the language of radicals themselves. Nor was this an accident. ASIO's analysts mistakes were first, to accept at face value some of the wilder fantasies of the Left as expressed by the Left itself ; and second, to look overseas models for guidance -- the US andFrance, especially. (The Left duplicated precisely these problems in its analyses at times!). For ASIO such mistakes left it to advise the government that Australia was headed down the road for urban guerrilla warfare, or to use ASIO's phrase, 'internal war'.
Another ASIO paper, Peaceful Co-existence and the role of the 'New Left' traced the rise of the New Left back to machinations of the Soviet Communist Party under Leonid Brezhnev. ASIO dated the New Left's origins from the 1956 exposure of Stalin by Krushchev and the Soviet-China split of 1962-63. This was a period which saw the Soviet Union adopt 'peaceful co-existence' as the basis for its dealings with the West. The top priority of this policy was to avoid nuclear war with the West at all costs. But partly under pressure from the Chinese who argued that the Russian communists were betraying the anti-imperialist struggle, the Soviets were always careful to continue their verbal support for socialism in Western countries. Seizing on this revolutionary rhetoric and pointing to actual Soviet support for Vietnam, ASIO's analysts warned of dire consequences. They knew that in the May-June 1968 revolt in France the French Communist Party acted ultimately against the student revolt. Their fear was that the new international trotskyist and anarchist groups would successfully capture the student and intellectual component of the New Left. This in turn would force the pro-Moscow parties to compete for the allegiance of the student movement and other components of the New Left. On top of this the New Left was even more radical than the Old. 'The aim of the new left is not a 'coup d'etat which is all that the orthodox communist parties are currently aiming at, but a complete change in the entire structure of society. To do this they plan to apply the theory and tactics of guerrilla warfare ...' Using these tactics the New Left is 'to be used to focus the activities of growing mass movements of protest, dissent and criticism..... Guided by the communist parties, the logical outcome of this ... can lead to large scale civil disobedience and violence.....this process could easily result in civil and guerrilla warfare which, by disrupting the whole fabric of authority and of social stability, would prepare the way for a revolutionary seizure of power.' Once again, because it accepted at face value the rhetoric and romantic dreams of its target group and because of its own fertile imagination, ASIO cried wolf, long and loud.
A slightly more sophisticated ASIO analysis recognised that the Australian New Left was a mixed phenomenon. Consensus in Australia and the Aims of the Left argued that on the one hand it was different from the classic communist parties which were authoritarian and conservative. On the other it was linked to them by common opposition to the Vietnam war and notions of egalitarianism, communalism etc. The New Left lacked a firm and coherent ideology and instead wanted to develop of counter culture. It went on: 'All rigid ideology, including scientific socialism as promoted by the CPA is rejected, and replaced by types of ethical and voluntaristic socialism reflecting populist, syndicalist and anarchist ideas of mutual aid, communalism, humanism, the personal will and direct action.'
Under the influence of the new ideas of the 1960s the CPA itself was changing and ASIO recognised it was reaching out to the New Left. For a start 'the CPA was prepared to reject the official Soviet interpretation of basic Marxist-Leninist ideology, which meant a recognition of the possibility of creating a new consensus in Australian the basis of anon-Soviet type of Marxist interpretation and definition of core values...' The vehicle for this dangerous linkage between the Old and New Left, ASIO recognised, was the CPA's notion of a 'Coalition of the Left' (an implicit rejection of the elitist notion of a vanguard party). At that time the CPA was breaking with the classic insurrectionist approach to revolution and the idea that narrowly defined working class interests were the only significant ones. Consensus in Australia stated: 'The CPA recognises that 'great social transformations are only possible through action taken by the majority when people passionately feel the need for it' and considers that the 'development of modern Australian society, the war in Vietnam and other international problems are throwing up issues affecting all social classes and strata.' The CPA concluded that 'the conditions are developing to make fundamental social change a real possibility.' On its own criteria and with the knowledge that it had broken with the Soviet Union and was exploring a quite different approach to social change ASIO should have disengaged from spying on the CPA. This finally happened in the mid 1980s and then only after internal ructions.
One major fear expressed in Consensus in Australia was that the revitalisation of the extra-parliamentary Left would affect the Labor Party, causing its left wing to grow stronger and take revolutionary politics into the mainstream. In all of this Dr Jim Cairns was a pivotal figure. 'The most recent and significant of these New Left groupings is the Socialist Left of the ALP,' it said, after quoting CPA leader John Sendy who said that during the 1950s and 1960s 'hundreds of ex-communists found their way into the ALP'. Interviews with Cairns and Socialist Left leader Bill Hartley in the CPA's Australian Left Review in May 1971 were particularly alarming. Both discussed the prospects for socialism in Australia and agreed that a revolution of sorts was necessary. 'Both Cairns and Hartley emphasise the importance of gaining control of the State, and criticise radicals .... for thinking that it can be destroyed by direct action. They are advised that it is a 'base of power' to be won.'
The problem with the ALP Socialist Left was that it wanted to change the way the Australian parliamentary system worked. According to Consensus. the recognised function of parliament 'is the adjustment of conflicts between sectional interests, while that of Australian governments is to act as administrators rather than legislators, to administer existing laws within the framework of 'settled policies' about which there is public consensus and upon which there is political commitment. However, the 'socialist left' like other radical and revolutionary bodies... clearly wishes to change these functions on the basis of opposition to the established parliamentary party system; of action by a revolutionary party to gain control of the State and Parliament and to change 'the course of community, social and government action' .'
Jim Cairns, it concluded, had 'an uneasy foothold' in both the New and Old Left camps whose programmes could 'lead in practice to adventurism, opportunism or anarchism.' His call for participatory democracy, for 'a high level of democracy in each and every social unit' in Australian society and for extra-parliamentary ALP action 'could lead via civil, industrial and political anarchism to the growth of elitism in every sphere, to the manipulation of the people by demagogues, to the fascist cult of the personality, to the worship of force and to the destruction of the democratic parliamentary system.' Considering the trajectory of the Whitlam government and of Cairns' role within it, ASIO could not have been more wrong.
As we have seen ASIO's war on subversion led ultimately to watch the ALP and hunt out dangerous subversives within it. It was not as if ASIO set out to undermine and attack the ALP as such (as we shall see it had very good relations with the NSW right wing ). The problem arises when an organisation has a brief to fight 'subversion', that is, wrong thinking. Ideas and thinking are slippery things and spread into all corners of society. Once certain ideas are tagged as 'communist' or 'subversive' an internal security agency will inevitably find linkages between the full time subversives, the merely occasionally radical and the mainstream members of parties like the Labor Party. If ALP groups or individuals habitually take part in organisations along with 'infected' individuals with wrong thinking,. then inevitably all in these 'front' organisations will be considered infected. Before long the security agency is deeply involved in mainstream party politics, a long day's journey from its original targets and its supposed non partisan approach.
Before leaving the war on subversion in the late sixties, it is worth examining one more aspect. The period saw an upsurge in trade union militancy as well as intellectual revolt. According to current left wing conspiracy theory and mythology, ASIO worked hand in glove with the bosses. In fact this 'conspracy theory' was absolutely accurate.
'Blacklisting' is a nasty word and no ASIO officer interviewed for this book ever admitted to conniving with employers to get rid of workers with 'undesirable' political views. However one ASIO officer described his dealing with BHP at one of Australia's major industrial cities in the following terms. 'All [management's] doors were open to you .... the day to day stuff was at middle management level but it was sanctioned at higher levels.'. Such contact with BHP saved 'an awful lot of time and effort'. Indeed it was symbiosis. The BHP industrial officer would tell the ASIO field officer of comrade X's daytime leadership of the shop committee while the ASIO man filled in comrade X's after hours activity in the local metalworkers' union and peace movement. '[BHP] saw it as a common interest, after all what we were doing was assisting stability in the community at large,' said an officer who maintained such contact for several years in Newcastle.
ASIO's surveillance of the union field was based on its 'legitimate' interest in the CPA. This meant that all CPA tactics and strategy were carefully studied all the better to oppose it. But because CPA trade unions members and leaders were intimately involved in the wider industrial movement, this meant that ASIO had to keep in contact and understand the whole of the Australian trade union movement. The activity of the CPA in each union was not hermetically sealed and around the dwindling number of CPA militants was a periphery of non party militant workers who respected their leadership. As well, the CPA had to deal with Labor Left figures which sometimes resulted in power sharing arrangements in major unions. Shifting alliances with the unions also saw the CPA deal with centre and even rightwing factions of the union movement. Thus when ASIO mounted operations to spy on individuals whether they were steelworkers or union bureaucrats they were interfering directly in an aspect of political life which in principle they and their minister disavowed.
Abhorrence of intelligence activity in unions was widespread in the labour movement with the exception of the NSW Right and the National Civic Council both of whom co-operated closely with ASIO. When the Labor government was elected in 1972 one of Lionel Murphy's many crimes was to order ASIO to freeze its B1 sections dealing with unions, a situation not changed until 1976 after the Fraser government was elected.
COUNTER ESPIONAGE work against the Russians continued unabated while the Counter Subversion branch watched the student revolt and the anti-war movement in the 1960s. The expulsion of Ivan Skripov in 1963 had cooled Australian-Soviet relations but unlike the Petrov spy scandal the Soviets did not break off diplomatic relations. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s ASIO played a cat and mouse game with KGB officers stationed at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, attached to visiting delegations, or to cultural groups like the Moscow Circus. The Soviet Embassy was regarded as having primarily an intelligence rather than diplomatic purpose on Australian soil and ASIO estimated that half to two thirds of its personell were agents or officers of the KGB. Of particular interest, largely because of their need to mix with locals and travel as part of their job, were trade and commercial counsellors and correspondents for Pravda and the Tass newsagency.
The primary task of ASIO's B2 (later E) branch was to identify the most senior KGB officer, the 'Resident,' from the run of the mill consular, trade and diplomatic officials. All such officials had to notify the External Affairs Department of their names, backgrounds and intentions. The Department then dutifully passed the details to ASIO who forwarded them to MI5 and the CIA who provided a 'form guide' for the official and an assessment of whether they were spies. In this fashion Scripov was successfully identified, targetted and exposed as an intelligence officer.
One of the main targets in the post-Scripov era were Ivan Stennen, a second secretary of the Soviet Embassy who arrived in Canberra in late 1965 and another second secretary, I ? Volkov who arrived just before him. ASIO soon satisfied itself that CIA and MI5 suggestions that they were intelligence officers were true and that in fact Stennen was the KGB Resident. This identification led to placing Stennen and Volkov under total surveillance every time they moved out of the Russian Embassy in Kingston. It was well known for years that ASIO had a static observation post above a funeral parlour opposite the main gate of the Soviet Embassy. What is less known is that the post was tiny part of the Operations Base Establishment (OBE), a surveillance unit, whose job it was to provide the masses of raw material to the analysts in B2 Branch. Its members had the frustrating task of following and watching men like Stennen and Volkov for the evidence of espionage. It could be two second 'brush contact' with an ostensibly unrelated person on a street. Or it might be that the Soviet target while on a drive to Sydney stopped and to urinate in the bushes and appeared picked up something next to roadside post and slip it into his pocket. 'You would keep a card index of every place a KGB guy would go to and stop at, said one B2 officer. 'So you could work out that he went this place once a month -- that's his meeting place. Why does he go there? What's he do when he goes there? He sits in his car. Who else is in the car? Who else is in the area? Does he have an aerial in the car. Over and over and over.'
'There were plenty of examples of [Soviet officials] shaking surveillance off. Or possible brush contact. The standard operating procedure is: take the contact, drop the target. And you take the contact home and it turns out to be some innocuous little nerd. Is he a sleeper, an agent master? Or what is he? Or is he just someone who bumped into the Soviet in a shop?! It would just go on and on and on. No stone was left unturned. Even a contact with a schoolchild, would be followed up.'
The OBE units operated entirely separately from the rest of ASIO regional offices in order to defeat any counter-surveillance operations by the Soviets. While on operations all radio communications between OBE cars and watchers (who were wired up) were conducted in a jargon which, if overheard by Soviet scanners, would sound no different from a small delivery firm. Targets would be 'picked up' and 'taken down Northbourne Avenue' and then 'dropped off'. The level of paranoia about counter-surveillance was high. One watcher recalled: 'Our attack fellows suspected that [the Soviets would be scanning radio channels from inside the embassy and so we took evasive action. We would swap from one channel to another or we would hire 20 vehicles and have transceivers in the boot and used them in a network 2kms away rather than having a base radio. As well we would set up false radio signals emanating from cars close to embassy to confuse and distract them.'
A more sophisticated kind of operation, straight out of spy thrillers, was 'drag a woman across the path' of a KGB man. In the case of Ivan Stennen, whom ASIO judged to have a particular susceptibility to women, this was attempted several times. 'At one stage we convinced a woman from whom he hired cars to go along with him to dinners and dances. We used to pay for her hair dos and frocks for the occasion. We told her it was up to her just how far she went with him. But [eventually] she told us [she found] his bald head was a real turn off.' Another counter espionage officer from the sixties recalled a more elaborate operation in 1967 when a very attractive woman ASIO agent agreed to try and get to know Stennen personally. The operation took several months to run from the time it was conceived. The Canberra regional director arranged through a contact for a large social function to be held at a private home. Top public servants and a smattering of Liberal ministers made it an attractive proposition for Stennen who was also invited. Tension was high when the big night came. The agent was introduced to Stennen and 'all going well ... but then two senior members of the Australian parliament took over and they kept Stennen in the background while they spent all their time with this rather attractive girl.' The whole delicate operation, which included getting Stennen into bed with the woman, failed on this account.
Another Soviet target in the sixties was [ title????} [first name] Dobrogorski. He had the puzzling habit of regularly driving up the steep gravel road from Canberra to the top of Black Mountain. On arrival he would sit in his car for an hour and then return to the Embassy The OBE unit and Canberra never found out why. Various theories were put forward. That the Russians would tune into the OBE radio and listen to the jargon and description as they tracked Dobrogorski up to Black Mountain, thus preparing themselves to take counter-surveillance measures on a real operation. Other theories included that he was broadcasting radio signals or that he drove up the mountain road because a signal, perhaps a chalkmark, Le Carre style, had been left on a road sign or similar.
Dobrogorski, like Stennen and every other suspected KGB officer, was placed in an ASIO 'goldfish bowl' with every waking movement studied. Nothing was to trivial or intimate to be passed over. For example, it was discovered after ASIO's technical section had placed a bug in Dobrogorski's Canberra home, that the passion in his marriage was spent. An ASIO officer recalled that one night after quick sex, his wife complained ' you never say you love me any more'. Dobrogorski muttered, rolled over and went to sleep. The officer commented: 'You'd pick up those sorts of things over listening devices. The telephone intercepts made you realise that these people are human, and you started to get more inclined to see them in a human way. When you picked them up talking about their kids, you'd listen that, because that might be a weakness, something you could exploit. If [a KGB officer] had a sick child, then he may be emotionally off balance and more susceptible to an approach, from a female for instance, with a shoulder to cry on.' (An even less savoury approach concerned a Soviet diplomat who was diagnosed in the 1970s as suffering from bowel cancer. Counter espionage officers discussed approaching him cold with a bribe of some sort but the disease progressed rapidly he died six months after diagnosis.)
While most attention focussed on diplomats another string to the counter espionage bow was the search for Soviet 'illegals' who would be inserted in Australia. 'Illegals' (so called to distinguish them from the spies posing as accredited diplomats) are the classic spies of intelligence folklore. Once inside a country with a cover story and papers their movements are undetectable, unlike those of diplomats. Apart from the time when an illegal slipped through ASIO fingers during the Skripov affair, there was no hard evidence of such spies in Australia, though almost certainly some existed at various times. The one case which looked promising was similar to the thesis of Le Carre's Smiley's People. It concerned a White Russian family in Australia which tried to sponsor a son from the USSR . On investigation, ASIO concluded that the sponsorship could be an attempt to land an 'illegal' in Australia. The long lost 'son' would probably be a KGB agent masquerading -- including to the family -- as the genuine article. The investigation of the Russian family became very complex. At a certain point the B2 branch decided that the KGB had given up on the sponsorship but were pursuing it in order to divert the attention of ASIO whom they knew by now were interested. At one point a member of the Russian family complained to a Minister anbout ASIO 'harrassment' over the sponsorship. In the end ASIO's suspicions came to nothing. 'There was smoke but no fire,' commented one retired officer.
ASIO managed very few operations involving 'double agents' in which an ASIO agent was 'recruited' by a Soviet intelligence worker. Only one seemed to get anywhere. It concerned an Australian who formed an association with a suspected Soviet intelligence officer in the mid-late 1960s. The officer arranged for the man to meet some Soviet 'friends' in Mexico, on a trip which he had already planned around 1968. While in Mexico he was given elementary training which included the use of a particularly ingenious type of dead letter boxes. After a briefing in a park he picked up the DLB -- which consisted of a piece of plasticine coloured and shaped to look like a dog turd and dropped near a nominated tree. After contact in Mexico he was told that when he returned to Canberra he would be met at a certain place on a certain day, and that if that didn't occur then three days later at the same time and spot. If that failed too a further rendezvous was nominated. At all three the man was left twiddling his thumbs and was never again picked up by Soviet intelligence.
Such failed operations were one cause of a highly secret fear that gripped the upper echelons of ASIO in the mid-sixties. The fear was a spin off from the ultra-paranoia that gripped US and British intelligence from the time of the escape of Kim Philby in January 1963. Philby had been one of the USSR's most successful spies in the West since 1937, ending his career holding senior positions in MI6. The Philby revelation caused a chain reaction in British and US intelligence. In MI5 Peter Spycatcher Wright became involved in a series of investigations into the possibility of Soviet penetration. Wright believe that his boss, Sir Roger Hollis was almost certainly a Soviet agent, a shakily based view which he propounded in his book Spycatcher. In the CIA the head of counter intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, fell under the spell of one Soviet defector, Anatoli Golitsy. Based on Golitsyn's expertise, Angleton thereafter rejected many other genuine defectors as false, as outlined in Tom Mangold's excellent biography of Angleton Cold Warrior. A year after final proof of Philby's espionage came the revelation via the FBI that the Surveyor of the Queens Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt, had been a Soviet spy. The year 1964 also saw other Soviet spies from the 1930s generation, John Cairncross and Leo Long, exposed. It was a catastropic time for British Intelligence.
The work of Wright and the paranoia of Angleton fed each other at may levels, including at the first CAZAB counter intelligence conference held in Australia in 1967. One of the reasons for CAZAB -- a conference of the Canadian, British US, Australian and New Zealand counter espionage groups -- was a joint effort to root out moles from Western intelligence. Recalled Peter Barbour: 'When an op failed you always thought about this [penetration] And, while this was going on, we heard about moles in other, bigger organisations and we asked ourselves, 'what's so special about us?'
But while the hunt for the 'ring of five' and the 'Cambridge traitors' was high drama, mole hunting in Australia was low farce. This fear of an ASIO mole and the internal investigation which arose from it is one of the Organization's best kept secrets.
The first many officers came to hear about it was in the form of rumours that Spry, in his cups, would mention the names of a number of middle ranking ASIO officers who had been recruited from Britain in the early years of the Organisation. Nothing which they did had aroused suspicions. It was just that in each case there were a number of 'indicators' that might point to mole beneath a well manicured exterior. One of the officers suspected was Ernest V Wiggins, a former military intelligence officer assigned by Spry in 1949 to lay the foundations of Australia's security screening of migrants from Europe. By the mid sixties 'Wiggie' had risen to Regional Director, South Australia, but after coming under suspicion he was transferred to head West Australia, a Siberian posting designed presumably to keep him out of the mainstream of ASIO activity. Reportedly, one reason suspicion attached to him was the fact that he had been a British intelligence officer in Germany immediately after the war where all kinds of double and triple agent games were played.
The other suspected mole was John Cecil Elliott, a linguist who rose to head B1 and C branches at different times in his career. Elliott's problem was two fold. First he was an aloof eccentric, a'Walter Mitty type' as one officer described him. ASIO officers would recount rumours which were invested with great mystery. He often declined to drink with his fellow officers and gave every impression of being a teetotaller. Yet he was said to have been seen at an out of the way bar one night holding a glass of hard liquor, 'almost as if he was waiting for someone'. His other problem was that his identity was difficult to check. Elliott was born in Oslo, Norway, rather than the UK or Australia. He had lived in there until he was two and then his family moved to Denmark until 1937 before moving to England. These fact cast a pall. An uncheckable and unverifiable birth, went the logic, meant that the man claiming to be John Elliott could have been anybody, including a Soviet mole.
In fact the suspicions against Wiggins and Elliott came to nothing and were utterly false. No evidence was ever gathered which pointed to their guilt. In any case Elliott continued to be promoted in the early 1970s. That they came under suspicion at all says more about the atmosphere of ASIO and the frustration at a series of failed operations against Soviet intelligence.
The final counter-espionage effort which we shall examine also came to nothing. When diplomatic relations re-opened with the USSR after the six year Petrov break, Soviet ships began to visit Australia. For much of the 1960s whaling fleets and oceanographic vessels were the main visitors. In November-December 1969 the Australian air force tracked a Soviet submarine and two other ships up the Queensland coast amid national publicity. The ships were accused of carrying with signals interception equipment and of 'listening in' to the US intelligence base at Pine Gap. A year of so later Australia experienced the first of a series of scares that would continue until the 1980s when Soviet ships began to sail in growing numbers in the Indian Ocean. ASIO had always had an interest in the visit of Soviet ships to Australia. Apart from anything else there was a regular trickle of quiet defections from sailors and engineers who were debriefed for their scanty knowledge and then allowed to resettled.
In the early 1970s when Russian cruise ships began to undertake commercial tourism in the Pacific an ambitious counter espionage officer pushed to upgrade the Organisation's attention to the ships. There were a number of espionage possibilities which the cruise ships raised. A colleague recalled: 'The cruise ships caused us on the KGB desk a lot of concern because ... they were ideal place for compromising someone [by photographing illicit sexual activities]. More importantly, it was a perfect meeting place for a long term debriefing of an existing informant.... The [Soviet] case officer could be part of the crews. It made us shudder. 'We had people on the ships from time to time. You didn't who the operators were,. You didn't know who the KGB people were. ... Another thing that used to worry us was [an agent] meeting a Soviet submarine at sea. The person on the cruise ship would go out the Sydney Heads, the agent'd go over the side onto a Soviet submarine and then go in the sub to somewhere else for the duration of the cruise and then go back on the ship just outside the heads at night. [Agents] could go off, be specially trained; illegals could be brought onto the ships, people being substituted. Your mind ... could just run rampant with it -- and it did -- but what the hell could we do about it?'
For a time at least ASIO did something about it. Passenger lists were checked looking for public servants who worked in sensitive departments and could be targets for compromise. Crew lists were also checked and at times run past MI5 and CIA to see if any known KGB agents were on board. The thesis put forward by the young ambitious officer that the KGB would use the cruise ships appealed to the older generation of ASIO chiefs. But there was a catch. 'The only problem was that there were so many bloody cruises that you have just described an unsolvable problem.' To deal with the 'problem' the counter espionage E branch began to demand an ever-increasing mass of resources from the Organisation. Fairly soon the other branch heads within ASIO began to complain and to attack the thesis that the cruise ships constituted a major security risk. Detailed ASIO surveillance on cruise ships never proceeded.