MEDIA: by a retired ASIO officerNews Weekly
ABC denigrates former ASIO director-general
, November 27, 2010
When asked to comment on the recent ABC television docudrama, I, Spry: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy (broadcast on November 4, 2010), I confess to being somewhat reluctant to do so.
There were and are several reasons, not the least being that a former intelligence officer is bound by Commonwealth law which does not permit him to reveal his former service and the unwritten law of "Need to know" (NTK).
The ABC docudrama, written, directed and produced by well-known filmmaker Peter Butt, is about the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)'s second and longest-serving director-general, Colonel (later Brigadier) Sir Charles Spry.
Before I, Spry
was aired, Sydney Institute director and media commentator Gerard Henderson wrote a scathing preview of the program. He remarked: "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. ...
"Most of the views expressed on I, Spry
are critical of ASIO, and the documentary is littered with exaggerations and howlers." (Sydney Morning Herald
, November 2, 2010).
After the program was broadcast, there were numerous letters to the newspapers and various comments from actual intelligence experts, including one by an unnamed former ASIO officer, entitled "Aunty's sneering aside, ASIO effectively kept communists in check" (Letters, The Australian
, November 14, 2010).
The program itself is very much in the format of a docudrama, with all the weaknesses that implies. Its aim is not solely to inform but to entertain. It is neither exclusively documentary nor exclusively drama.
Even after watching the program several times, I still found its style rather contrived, especially in its use of the accordion, violin and Russian balalaika music to create atmosphere.
Underlying the basic tenet of the ABC docudrama is a simple fact of history: unlike America's FBI and Britain's state security service MI5, ASIO has seldom enjoyed sympathetic publicity or any degree of popularity. Without any doubt, an accurate and definitive history of this unhappy and benighted organisation has yet to be written.
ASIO was conceived shortly after the end of World War II. Popular legend, backed up by reliable facts, suggest that Labor's postwar Prime Minister Ben Chifley was pressured into forming a security service, in the face of opposition from his Cabinet colleague, the left-wing Attorney-General and Minister for External (Foreign) Affairs, Dr H.V. Evatt.
Valuable Allied secrets had been lost to the Japanese and to Australia's erstwhile wartime ally, the Soviet Union.
In short, Australia's domestic security arrangements were a shambles. Partly as a result of its colonial legacy, Australia was sometimes slow to act as an independent nation and take full responsibility for its own defence. Also, there was doubtless resistance within government circles to establishing a separate security and intelligence service. Australia's miscellany of minor agencies connected with security was no match for the highly experienced Soviet spy agency (NKVD, later KGB) and Soviet military intelligence (GRU).
This was where I had my first misgivings about the program. One has to have both an insider's grasp of intelligence matters and the ability to navigate one's way through ASIO archives. More specifically, one needs to know which volumes of files are the most significant.
Former Communist Party member Mr Mark Aarons discovered this when researching for the book he wrote on his family, many of them prominent office-bearers in the Communist Party. I was amused by his reaction to the files he had obtained under FOI and the telling photograph of him, surrounded by mountains of paper.
In mid-year, The Australian
enjoyed something of a publishing sensation, with revelations from Aaron's book, The Family File
, that two left-wing Labor Party senators, Arthur Gietzelt and Bruce Childs, had been simultaneously card-carrying communists.
Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr described this news as a "bombshell revelation" that would "recast the political history of Australia from the 1950s to the 70s".
He conceded: "First, they vindicate the decision of a large part of Catholic Australia to veto the election of federal Labor governments by voting for the breakaway Democratic Labor Party after the Labor split of 1955.
"Still something of a Labor romantic, I find it painful to squeeze this out, but it strikes me the DLP indictment of the ramshackle Labor Party led by H.V. Evatt and Arthur Calwell was mostly right." (The Australian
, July 5, 2010).
And now, hard on the heals of this "bombshell revelation", comes Peter Butt's totally inadequate treatment of an important subject in the shape of his docudrama, I, Spry
I have yet to see a book or documentary on Australia's intelligence history which gives credit where credit is due.
I recall serving with some of the original ASIO officers (sometimes known as the 49ers). Many were war heroes who had served in various branches of the armed services.
To new recruits in the 1960s, serving alongside these officers was a privilege and it was usual to find that those who had done the most during the war said the least, even after a few drinks. Only when they trusted you would they open up and talk about the war.
However, confidentiality and NTK were so rigidly enforced that it was not unknown for officers sharing a room to put their working papers and files into a safe, even when they went to the toilet. Compartmentalisation of individual tasks was rigidly applied, especially in counter-espionage.
In the early 1960s, Director-General Colonel Charles Spry, as he was then, always addressed newly recruited officers at training courses run in-house. He told us that we were the fourth arm of defence and, in the event of an outbreak of hostilities - especially at the time of the Indonesia-Malaysia Konfrontasi
(1962-66) - we would be in uniform the next morning.
We were regularly lectured on personnel security. It is perfectly true that many officers smoked and enjoyed a drink and, inevitably with some, it led to excess. This would not be different from most similar services around the world and the police forces; it was part of the culture.
What I objected to most in the ABC program was that, despite frequent references to overseas political developments, their connection with the Australian setting was distinctly lacking. The program clearly failed to show where Australia fitted into the Western alliance and the demands made of our defence and intelligence-gathering capacity.
Professor Desmond Ball, co-author with David Horner of Breaking the Codes: Australia's KGB Network, 1944-1950
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998), appeared in the program, but was not asked about what was patently obvious: that the famous 1955 royal commission into the Petrov defection could not be briefed on America's breaking of clandestine Soviet codes (known as the Venona project).
Professor Ball is well known to be an expert in this field! It makes one wonder what else was left on the cutting-room floor.
The prolific use made of left-wing academic Dr David McKnight's "expert" opinion was positively risible. He is a former communist and editor of the CPA newspaper, Tribune
, and has spoken proudly of his past political affiliations, declaring: "I have never hidden my former membership of the Communist Party of Australia in the 1970s and 80s, nor do I regret it." (Letters, The Australian
, November 16, 2010).
I give Dr McKnight some credit for honesty in his book, Australia's Spies and Their Secrets
and Espionage and the Roots of the Cold War
(1994), but anything of value he wrote in his book certainly didn't come through in the program.
People tend to forget that in the United States, the local Communist Party was regarded by the FBI as an arm of Soviet intelligence. Most ASIO officers of my acquaintance would not go quite that far, but when matters concerning Dr Evatt's staff were "examined", Walter Seddon Clayton, who ran a high-level spy ring for the Soviets, rated little more than a cursory mention, let alone other spy rings being run concurrently by the GRU, whose man in Canberra, Viktor Zaitsev, was a previous case officer of the celebrated Soviet spy Richard Sorge.
You would not expect David McKnight to admit that ASIO's official line on Communist Party membership came about because of the party's revolutionary objectives. To say that CPA members were treated as outlaws societally was essentially correct, but it was their decision to join a revolutionary organisation.
Soviet intelligence officers were not posted to Australia for a holiday; they were here because Australia was allied to the US and UK. The heyday of communists with access to top-secret information had passed by and large because of the government's (not Spry's) directive forbidding any conjunction of communists and top-secret information.
It was essential in the light of our international obligations, and no-one wanted a re-run of the 1940s. The vetting mechanism weeded out many, but no system is perfect. At times, you had to wonder who might have slipped through the net.
I took exception to the ABC program's trashing of Director-General Spry's reputation. He had a difficult war, and after that had to construct a security service from the ground up. He was not, as claimed in the title of the program, a spy or a master spy: he was there to catch
spies and, in particular, Soviet spies.
There was almost a snide suggestion that Colonel Spry tried to seduce a suspected Soviet KGB agent Lydia Mokras, but no proof was provided.
Contrary to what was said in the program, counter-subversion was an extremely important part of the organisation's functions and it recruited high-calibre staff to do this. The government of the day directed the organisation, and to suggest that there was an inappropriate relationship between the director-general and the prime minister borders on the ridiculous. It was only following the 1983 royal commission that more formal arrangements were made for the organisation to be responsible to the Commonwealth attorney-general.
Is it too much to ask that the national broadcaster should actually present a non-partisan appraisal of ASIO from its inception until today?Author's name is withheld.