The Australian Security Intelligence Organization: an unofficial history
By Frank Cain
Scott needs to take control to ensure ABC represents diverse views
Gerard Henderson November 02, 2010
Whether you agree with his policies or not, Mark Scott deserves the extension to his contract as the ABC managing director, which was announced last week. This is the case in spite of the fact that Scott’s decision to use taxpayers’ funds to move into areas typically the domain of the commercial media has not been a success.
ABC News24 is a disappointment and the online opinion site The Drum has contained material that even ABC management concedes should not have been published.
Then there is Scott’s view, expressed in his 2009 Bruce Allen Memorial Lecture, that the ABC should project Australian soft diplomacy to the world. At the time, Scott maintained that “the values of a nation, as expressed through its journalism, is an important facet of public diplomacy”.
The concern here is that Scott has not been able to deliver the diversity on the public broadcaster that he promised in 2006. Consequently, the ABC is unlikely to project the values of Australia any time soon.
The documentary I, Spry, which will screen on ABC1 on Thursday, demonstrates the problem. Written, directed and produced by the filmmaker Peter Butt, I, Spry is a leftist account of Sir Charles Spry (1910-94), who was director-general of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation between 1950 and 1969. Put simply, Butt does not like Spry or Western intelligence services. In his director’s statement, Butt labels Spry as alcoholic and declares that his view of the world was “out of step with an open, healthy democracy”.
Reviewing I, Spry for The Weekend Australian on Saturday, the normally astute Graeme Blundell demonstrated that he had adopted the Butt line. Blundell maintained that the film “documents the way ASIO evolved from a bumbling group of amateur spies into a subversive organisation beyond government scrutiny”.
This is complete mythology.
In the 1950s Spry and his colleagues at ASIO oversaw the defection of the Soviet embassy operatives Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia. The Petrovs were perhaps the most significant defectors from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
ASIO established that there was a Soviet spying operation in Australia led by Wally Clayton, who was a member of the Communist Party.
In the past quarter of a century, all this has been documented by the likes of Robert Manne, co-authors Des Ball and David Horner, and David McKnight. More recently, the tale has been told by Mark Aarons in his compelling book The Family File, which is essentially based on the surveillance of his communist family members, including his father Laurie and his uncle Eric, by ASIO. Aarons accepts that some Australian communists were spies for the communist dictators in Moscow and that the Communist Party of Australia received funds from Moscow.
Aarons remains a man of the left. Yet he acknowledges in The Family File that ASIO’s surveillance of his family was “basically accurate”, that “despite many stupidities, considerable crudeness and frequent lapses of professionalism, ASIO had a legitimate task”, and that “for the most part, ASIO’s work was conducted within a largely democratic framework”. Aarons also accepts that, despite its many faults, ASIO stands in contrast to intelligence services in communist countries, which “established elaborate networks to intimidate their own citizens”.
This is not the message of I, Spry. The documentary accepts that there was a Soviet spy ring in Australia in the 1950s. But it concludes that Spry used the weapons of the communists against Australian citizens. This is mere hyperbole.
ASIO made errors but it essentially protected Australia against espionage directed by the nation’s enemies. And it kept a watch on communists, who, as Eric Aarons acknowledged in his 1993 book What’s Left?, would have “executed people” if they had come to power.
Most of the views expressed on I, Spry are critical of ASIO and the documentary is littered with exaggerations and howlers, including the undocumented assertion that ASIO conducted unlawful surveillance on the Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, in 1969. The relevant ASIO file, now released, does not support this assertion.
ASIO was reformed following the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, headed by Justice Robert Hope, which reported in 1977. But despite its success in the Cold War and more recently in thwarting Islamist terrorism, ASIO was attacked and ridiculed on the ABC 1 Hungry Beast program in February in what was nothing but an immature, angry, leftist rant.
If Scott believes that the role of the ABC is to accurately portray Australia to the world, he will need to exert editorial control to ensure that the public broadcaster at least portrays a diversity of views. The presentations of ASIO’s past on I, Spry – and contemporary ASIO on Hungry Beast – are nothing but misleading travesties.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute
November 5, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
The assertion that Petrov “was the most important Soviet defector in the Cold War” is too ridiculous.
Here are some gems: the show says that in the late 1960s ASIO accepted the advice of Anatoli Golystin.
Anatoli Golitsyn had by the late 1960s been denounced by the CIA as a phoney defector and Soviet agent of disinformation.
One can only wonder what our Great and Powerful Friends at Langley thought about Spry having a chinwag with Golitsyn!
November 5, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink
One of the juicier tidbits brought by Golitsyn from Moscow Centre was that Harold Wilson, (yes, that pipe-smoking teddy bear who was PM of GB) was a Soviet mole.
This is manna from heaven for an old Tory like Spry who believed that Labor Parties were a plot to steal the crested family silverware.
On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher did give Golitsyn an honorary knighthood in the 1980s.
Birds of a feather flocking together?
Whatever, while ASIO was bent on making life miserable for a bunch of lefties, the KGB was running rings around western intelligence. Every country needs a good counter-espionage service. We got ASIO instead.
November 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
Golytsin’s wickedly clever comment about Harold Wilson, being a soviet spy,was so widely believed by some Tories…that we know from several sources that some High Tories actually thought that they might need to plot a coup to remove the Labor Government in the UK.
This was actually talked about openly in the confines of a select London Club,and in the hearing of Lord Mountbatten,the Uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh…and said to be no friend of the Tories.
Hearing these remarks he rose and left the table,saying”You are talking treason here !”: one assumes that he then alerted the Queen…a stickler for constitutional actions !
November 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
That’s interesting deblonay.
Do you happen to have citations for those Tory reactions?
David Irving (no relation)
November 5, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
Katz, like you, I always thought the Petrov Affair was a beat-up to facilitate menzies’ re-election (at least, I assume that’s what you think – I hope I’m not verballing you). I’m not quite old enough to remember the details, as I was only about 3 or 4 when it happened.
I found this enlightening.
Sir Henry Casingbroke
November 5, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
Gerry thought the program “leftist” because it revealed that ASIO was penetrated by the KGB, thus failing to live up to its raison d’etre as a counter-espionage outfit. Truth hurts, doesn’t it, Gezza? (Funny he never mentioned THAT bit in his review, eh?)
The program also suggested that Spry, realising that trying to clean out the mole or moles out of ASIO was too hard for him, a limited “man of action” who was played off a break by the Russkies, so as a failure even in his own eyes, got on the piss in despair and frustration and instead concentrated on keeping tabs on basketweavers and the home-made sandal brigade who went to ban the bomb marches.
wilful, I’ve been saying this for years (what you said).
So, why does the Herald still pay for this load of worthless garbage, week after week? Maybe after Miranda went they needed a Liberal Party clown to amuse children at parties? Maybe they get it free? Maybe Gerry pays them? It’s time to pink-slip him.
November 5, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
Slightly verballed, DINR.
Wally Clayton [KLOD] was a genuine Soviet agent.
Certainly Menzies was not above maximising his chances of political success.
Evatt was his own worst enemy in this affair. Menzies did nothing to prevent him from destroying himself.
Hendo proclaims Petrov to be the most important defector of the Cold War. The precise contents of the documents passed by Evatt’s staffers to the Soviets were never revealed. Windeyer J of the RCE summarised the most troublesome one as “a farrago of facts, falsities and filth”. The world was allowed to suspect the worst. This was the work of the Royal Commission, not ASIO.
So, absent any proof of substantive matters, Hendo’s claims about the importance of Petrov’s defection cannot be about the world of intelligence. Perhaps Hendo also agrees that the importance of the Petrov defection was its career-prolonging effects on PM Menzies.
Spry loved watching Evatt being destroyed by Menzies and then finishing himself off. But there is no evidence that Spry did more than his duty in the events of the Petrov Affair.
November 5, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
Sir Hank’s point about Spry being in denial about the extent of Soviet penetration of Western intelligence agencies is correct.
It is impossible for Hendo both to acknowledge these facts and to continue to laud the role of ASIO in the giant struggle against godless Communism.
After some initial successes (enabled by the undivulgable Venona material) from the late 1950s until the late 1970s ASIO subsided into a buffoonish right wing hit squad, performing exactly the function that the Soviets would have wanted it to play — as a recruiting sergeant for the Left.
As the Butt doco astutely noted, as the Communist movement in Australia dwindled during the 1960s, ASIO broadened its definition of “communist”.
Two reasons can be given for this:
1. The need for an enemy to justify the existence of ASIO.
2. A complete misunderstanding of the nature of the Australian New Left, whose hopes and ideals were antithetical to doctrinaire communism.
Sir Henry Casingbroke
November 5, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink
Sasha Uzunov has some interesting things to say about the 1973 Murphy-led raid on ASIO on the pretext that ASIO was protecting Croatian terrorists in Australia. Uzunov suggests the Croatian terrorists were led by Yugoslav intelligence operatives acting as agents provocateur and those old Commie Yugoslav security chaps back in Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia etc. plus archives in those countries would be a useful starting point for an enterprising investigative journalist looking into ASIO and the Croatian terrorism debacle in Australia. Perhaps George Negus ought to go himself. He’d have a head start, too, as he was Murphy’s press sec at the time.
November 6, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink
Sir Hank’s Uzanov link certainly puts the event surrounding Murphy’s ASIO raid in a different light from the usually-told story.
That story concerns the allegation that ASIO turned a blind eye to Croat terrorism on the basis that it was right-wing terrorism. Certainly, Yugoslav government assets were attacked in the early 1970s and the finger of accusation was pointed at the Ustasha.
However, as Uzanov tells it, at least some of these attacks were provoked by the UDBa (Yugoslav intelligence). Citing work by Chris Masters, Uzanov argues that not only were alleged Croat terrorists framed by the UDBa but also that various Australian counterintelligence agencies, including ASIO, knew of the activities of UDBa and turned a blind eye to them.
These alleged provocations occurred after the resignation of Charles Spry. But as Uzanov concludes, putting these events into historical context:
It is both tragic and comical but ASIO has a poor record in catching the bad guys. The 1970s infiltration of Australia by then Yugoslav communist spies is a classic case.
Certainly, the Butt doco does establish the “tragic and comical” background to this incapability in the 1960s.
However, the Butt doco can be criticised for accepting as valid evidence the allegations of Anatoli Golitsyn regarding moles in ASIO.
The circumstances of Golitsyn’s visit to Australia are bizarre. He was brought here by the legendary James Jesus Angleton, who at the time was fighting a ferocious turf war within the CIA generated by the stoush over whether Golitsyn or Yuri Nosenko was the more dependable Soviet defector. The body count arising from this stoush was enormous. It essentially destroyed the Soviet Division of the CIA. Moreover, when Angleton was eventually removed from his post as Head of Counterintelligence, many of his records were destroyed and the counterintelligence function of the CIA was greatly degraded.
Clearly, Angleton was hawking Golitsyn around Western intelligence organisations in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to boost Golitsyn’s credentials over Nosenko’s. Spry and ASIO got swept up in the backwash of that internecine CIA civil war. It is fascinating how far Angleton was willing to go to achieve victory over his CIA enemies. And it is alarming that Spry, according to his Hope Commission testimony, was prepared to believe Golitsyn’s pitch.
By themselves, therefore, Golitsyn’s allegations aren’t good evidence of Soviet penetration. However, Masters’ work, as contextualised by Uzanov, does tend to support allegations of ASIO incompetence, or worse.