AUSTRALIA'S COLD WAR: Australia's Kim Philby? The case of Dr John Burton

April 30th 2011

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AUSTRALIA'S COLD WAR: Australia's Kim Philby? The case of Dr John Burton

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Australia's Kim Philby? The case of Dr John Burton

by Angus Chapple

News Weekly, April 30, 2011

Angus Chapple, a former intelligence analyst with many years’ experience in counter-intelligence, examines the mysterious career of Labor leader Dr H.V. Evatt’s foreign affairs adviser, the late Dr John Wear Burton (1915-2010).

In February 1947, the Australian Labor Government’s Minister for External Affairs, Dr H.V. Evatt, appointed Dr John Wear Burton, Jnr, then 32 years old, as Secretary of the Department of External Affairs. Burton shared Evatt’s hostility to intelligence organisations, especially those dedicated to countering Soviet espionage.

In 1934, when aged 19, Burton had visited the Soviet Union in a “personal capacity”, and again in Aug-
ust 1939. Was Burton recruited in the Soviet Union during these visits?

Burton never provided a coherent or convincing explanation of his visits to the USSR. His high official status and relationship with Evatt precluded his being interviewed or interrogated, to the chagrin of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)’s B2 (counter-espionage) section.

However, ASIO’s assessment of Burton’s clandestine activities led to its undertaking telephone intercepts and prolonged surveillance, which confirmed its assessment that he was under the control of a foreign intelligence service.

Burton was a highly confident, gifted, subtle and conspiratorial adversary who was fully aware of the legal standards necessary to establish proof of his treasonable activities. To Burton the best cover was natural cover, as he felt protected by Evatt and by his own high status as head of the Department of External Affairs.

Burton’s family network

Burton’s wife’s sister, Pamela Howard Beasley (née Nixon), was assessed by ASIO as a communist sympathiser, and her husband Harold John (Jack) Beasley, was a Communist Party functionary. 

As Secretary of the Department of External Affairs (March 1947 – December 1949) and Evatt adviser, Burton also believed that “the spread of Communism in China, Korea and throughout other Asian areas must be regarded as inevitable”.

Burton, exploiting his official position as departmental head, acted as a Soviet agent of influence.

Burton’s voluminous and highly detailed PFs (i.e., ASIO personal files) are available for public inspection. They reveal that the most damaging subversion of Australia’s national security interests was the tightly-knit network of Soviet agents and communists who operated in the Department of External Affairs during his time as Secretary.

Burton was a personal friend of Soviet agent James Frederick (“Jim”) Hill (Soviet codename Khill/ Tourist) and was a defender of another Soviet agent, Dr Ian George Milner (Bur/ Dvorak), the so-called Rhodes Scholar spy.

Jim Hill was an undercover member of the Communist Party (of which his older brother Edward Fowler “Ted” Hill was Victorian state secretary). He worked closely alongside Milner, Burton and Ric Throssell, and Burton became Hill’s chief mentor.

Hill and Milner regularly supplied confidential material to Walter Seddon Clayton (codename Klod), the Soviet spymaster who ran the External Affairs network.

In the late 1940s, Jim Hill briefed Soviet officials (i.e., intelligence officers) in accordance with Burton’s and Evatt’s policy of “open diplomacy”. This policy provided the Soviets with opportunities to fulfil their intelligence-collection requirements and meet their Australian agents under natural cover.

At least three of Evatt’s personal staff were ordered by Evatt and Burton to “share” classified information with the Soviets in order to increase “international understanding”.

On March 22, 1955, Evatt’s long-serving personal secretary (and Soviet agent) Allan Dalziel (codename Denis), in an affidavit written for the Petrov Royal Commission, declared: “I knew a number of Russian officials from the time of their first coming to Australia in 1942 until 1949, and briefly, one of them, in 1950.

“With full knowledge and approval of my Departmental superiors and members of the Ministry … I met a number of Russian officials including Mikheev, Soldatov, Vlasov and Nosov”.

Since his first contact with Mikheev, in 1942, he “would welcome and place at their disposal my own services as well as that of the office staff and such facilities that may be required”.

John Burton, in his testimony to the royal commission, claimed he had instructed the counsellor at the Soviet Embassy to visit his office “once a week so that I could tell him what our policy was and the policy of some other countries”.

Burton added that it was the duty of Jim Hill — identified by Venona and ASIO as a Soviet agent, and Burton’s close personal friend — and other officers in External Affairs “to give certain information to overseas representatives”, including the Soviets — that is, to Russian intelligence officers who operated from the Canberra Rezidency.

British Labour leaders suspect Burton

From the start of the Cold War, Evatt and Burton were hostile to the emerging American-led Western alliance aimed at countering the growing Soviet expansionary threat.

On January 14, 1948, British Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, proposed a Western defence system (the future NATO) to counter this threat. Burton drafted Australia’s refusal to Attlee, to which Attlee replied: “This would be repeating the mistake of appeasement.”

On May 3, 1948, Burton advised Evatt that the Attlee proposal was contrary to the UN charter and would be interpreted by Moscow as “another move to encircle Russia”. On May 14, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin (a central figure between the wars in Britain’s trade union movement), judged Burton to be a “fellow traveller”.

Burton defends a Soviet spy

In April 1948, Burton defended the Soviet agent, the New Zealand-born External Affairs officer and academic, Dr Ian Milner, after Venona intercepts identified Milner as having passed “top secret” British post-war strategic planning papers to the Soviet KGB in Canberra.

On April 7, 1948, Australia’s Defence Secretary, Sir Frederick Shedden, wrote a top secret/ personal letter to Burton.

He informed Burton that the Director-General of Britain’s state security service (MI5) had recently visited Australia, at the direction of British Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, to inform Australian PM Chifley that a copy of the top secret British documents had been obtained from an agent in Australia and “had come into the possession of the USSR”.

Burton, however, defended Milner, claiming that departmental officers who knew Milner well “all maintain that there is no reason to believe the papers held by him would not be in safe-custody”.

He asked that no report should contain any suggestion “that Mr Milner was an officer to whom secret information could not safely be entrusted” and further that any report should contain a “firm assurance regarding the safe custody of any secret information forwarded to the Department”.

In a similar manner, Kim Philby, a high-ranking British intelligence officer who worked as a spy for the Soviet Union, debunked revelations from Soviet military intelligence (GRU) defector Igor Gouzenko in Canada.

On November 11, 1954, the regional director of ASIO in Canberra examined a top secret file memo, prepared by the assistant secretary (administration) of the Department of External Affairs, and informed ASIO headquarters:

“A cursory examination of the file discloses that it would appear that Dr John Wear Burton, as secretary of the department at that time, made little or no effort to have an investigation effected and that the memoranda and minutes virtually aimed only at protecting Milner’s ability to safeguard the information under reference.”

In June and July 1948, as a result of Australian security breaches, the United States and Britain placed an embargo on Australia which was thereupon given “a security grading equivalent to that of India and Pakistan, if not of the Soviet Union”. This led Australia’s Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley to establish the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 1949 as Cold War tensions increased.

Burton aims to neutralise Australian counter-espionage

Dr Burton shared Evatt’s hostility to intelligence organisations, especially those dedicated to countering Soviet espionage. Why?

Evatt and Burton’s hostility to ASIO was based on fear — fear of exposure of the motives for their pro-Soviet conduct and policies, their contempt for security procedures, and their contacts with identified Soviet agents within their own departments.

The Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (1974-77) disclosed: “Evatt was extremely obstructive during the … discussions relating to the establishment of ASIO, and that real progress was made when Evatt was out of the country.”

In 1948, Burton — or his Soviet contacts — devised a plan purporting to demonstrate to Prime Minister Chif-ley that Australia did not need an intelligence service. Burton arranged for Australian security coverage of the November-December 1948 meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), held at the Lapstone Hotel in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

Burton defended “the Lapstone experiment” in a top-secret report in which he argued that Australia did not need a national intelligence organisation with power to intercept telephones and mail, as Australia’s foreign affairs policies and defence interests were “in many ways incompatible with the policies and interests of other Western countries and, in particular, the United Kingdom”. Consequently, Australia’s security interests could be served by a group of a mere two or three officers and support staff, who would not be expected to undertake surveillance or security field work.

During the conference, the Soviets appeared to refrain from engaging in espionage — as Burton had fortuitously predicted — mainly because they did not need to. They had been fully briefed by their agents inside Evatt’s personal office.

Evatt staffer and Communist Party member Frances Bernie (née Scott), codenamed Sestra (who had been appointed to Evatt’s staff by Allan Dalziel, codename Denis), had already supplied Walter Clayton (Klod), her Soviet case-officer, with classified information from 1944-46 with “lots of work on Lapstone”.

As Desmond Ball and David Horner note in their 1998 book Breaking the Codes: “Some of the material, such as the copies of encrypted cables from Canberra to Sydney, would have been of inestimable value.” Bernie provided the encrypted cables and documentation, which enabled the Soviets to take counter-measures, with Burton’s assistance.

According to the Hope Royal Commission, in US Administration circles “distrust of Burton (and of Evatt) was total, and not to be allayed by the mere establishment of a new security organisation”.

The full extent of Burton’s contacts and the mystery of his visits to the USSR remain to be more fully researched. In his role as Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, he played a remarkably similar role to that of the British traitor Philby.

According to ASIO officers who closely studied the case, Dr John Wear Burton, Jnr, was a Soviet agent whose professional life was dedicated to promoting — and also concealing — his own and others’ role in Soviet intelligence interests and operations against Australia.

Burton was for many years under the control of a foreign intelligence service.

The informed consensus was that he was most likely recruited in the USSR, and had the distinction of working for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU), which meant that he would have been briefed and debriefed abroad.

Highly valued GRU strategic agents, such as Burton, are rarely if ever exposed.

Most disturbingly, the full extent of his treasonable activities may never be made public.

Angus Chapple is a former intelligence analyst with many years’ experience in counter-intelligence.

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