July 1st 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY 'Safe Schools' and every school's duty of care

CANBERRA OBSERVED Catholic education: not gone but Gonski'd

EDITORIAL Oh dear, Prime Minister, Brexit is harder now

ELECTRICITY Blueprint author did not ask about the weather

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Call for referendum after Taiwan court backs same-sex marriage

EUTHANASIA Death-dealing bills break out like hydras' heads

GENDER POLITICS New breed of young women takes on the United Nations

CULTURE AND HISTORY The past is a foreign country

LITERATURE The Road to Wigan Pier and the roads beyond

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY The 'Brisbane line' and other scandals

MUSIC Carla Bley: sophisticated lady

CINEMA Churchill: The regrets of a Lear

BOOK REVIEW Charting 15 years of changing emphases


GENDER POLITICS The Pied Pipers of gender dysphoria

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Charting 15 years of changing emphases

News Weekly, July 1, 2017

THE SECRET COLD WAR: The Official History of ASIO, 1975–1989

by John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley

Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Hardcover: 522 pages
Price: AUD$49.99

Reviewed by Chris Rule


This is the third volume of the official history of ASIO and covers the period from 1975 till the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The authors detail a period of great change. These changes are wrought by the two royal commissions conducted by Justice Hope, 1974–77 (see book review in October 22, 2016, edition of News Weekly) and 1983–85; legislative change; changing demographics, that is, increasing ethnic diversity; political and social change; and technological change.

Of all the changes, those introduced by the two Hope royal commissions probably had the greatest effect on ASIO, although it could be argued that it was the government of the day that established the royal commissions that had the greatest effect.

In the first royal commission, Justice Hope concluded that “ASIO had been ineffective, that its resources had been directed too much to counter-subversion at the expense of counter-intelligence and counterespionage, and that ASIO could not be certain of the degree and nature of success of any extant attack on Australia by hostile intelligence services”. Justice Hope attributed this to morale, organisational and management issues and also to personnel policies and practices.

As a result of the royal commission, legislative changes introduced that were to affect ASIO were the ASIO Act 1979, the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979, and the Freedom of Information Act 1982. Another change of a governmental nature was the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Cabinet. Also a Parliamentary Joint Committee to monitor the Intelligence collection agencies, including ASIO, was established.

The purpose of these changes was to improve ASIO’s effectiveness, to make it more accountable, and to ensure that the balance between individual rights and national security would be respected.

The second Hope royal commission was established to review the progress made in implementing recommendations of the previous royal commission. In the course of this royal commission, the actions of the Hawke government and ASIO in relation to the Combe-Ivanov affair, were also examined.

Although Justice Hope found the actions of both were justified, the public focus on ASIO caused great harm to the organisation. The commission also recommended the establishment of an Inspectorate General of Intelligence and Security; and that the ASIO Act be amended to further enhance the accountability of ASIO.

In general the royal commissioner found that ASIO’s performance had improved greatly and that it continued to make progress in implementing the recommendations of the 1970s royal commission.

Relocation to Canberra

Another change of note was the move of head office from Melbourne to Canberra, in 1986, the effect of which was to integrate it more fully into government structures, bringing it closer to customers and making it more accountable.

A negative was that it lost many experienced staff, which would have affected its performance at least in the short to mid-term. The authors, while acknowledging the negative impact, saw this as providing a “unique opportunity for deep organisational renewal and the creation of a new culture and ethos”.

Technological changes, particularly the increasing use of computers, meant that ASIO had to formulate policies and procedures to control access and respond to leaks, thus generating procedural and organisational changes.

Changing demographics (that is, increasing ethnic diversity), along with political and social change impacted ASIO’s priorities. In the mid-1970s counterespionage activities against foreign intelligence services, particularly those of the Soviet Union/bloc were still the organisation’s top priority. The activities of Chinese and Vietnamese intelligence services also came to the fore.

Subversion was also still a concern, though as the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) continued to fragment and decline in influence, the threat of subversion declined and terrorism/politically motivated violence replaced it as a higher priority.

Along with continuing concerns about Croatian extremism, concerns arose about Armenians, Libyans, Sikhs, Syrians and Vietnamese; Palestinian organisations such as Al-Fatah and the PLO; Hindu organisation Ananda Marga; and the Japanese Red Army. Growing concerns about terrorism were instrumental in bringing about greater cooperation with other federal government agencies and state police forces.

In the penultimate chapter, the authors deal with the issue of “Looking for Moles”. Concern about moles in the highest levels of the Australian government was the reason for the establishment of ASIO.

There were concerns that ASIO may have been penetrated before 1975, but this could not be confirmed. In his first royal commission, Justice Hope said that there were indicators of possible penetration of the organisation that should be investigated. He was also concerned about “the lax approach to counter intelligence and inadequate counterespionage”.

The authors note that although several leads were followed and considerable effort expended trying to determine if there had been penetration, it could never be confirmed. Other factors were always seen as being sufficient explanation for operational failure – poor planning, bad tradecraft and resource limitations.

The authors even say that ASIO suspected that the Soviet Union was intercepting its high-level communications and that this could be the reason for the failure of operations. According to the authors, accepting this as a reason for operational failure was “less sinister and therefore less uncomfortable” than accepting “that a mole or moles inside ASIO was revealing secrets to the Soviet Union”.

The authors – and by implication ASIO – fail to appreciate that if the Soviet Union was reading ASIO’s classified and encrypted traffic that this could be an indicator of penetration of the organisation.

After a series of internal investigations had gone nowhere, the organisation finally called in the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to investigate. As a result of the AFP operation – known as Operation Liver – George Sadil, a Russian translator, was charged on suspicion of espionage. In the end he was found guilty of removing classified material from ASIO premises without authorisation.

After Operation Liver, based on further overseas leads, the Keating government commissioned Michael Cook to investigate the possible penetration of ASIO. The findings of the Cook Report are not known as they have never been released to the public.

The authors have been very circumspect in this chapter. While acknowledging that ASIO had been penetrated and, elsewhere, claiming to know how many moles there were and who they were, the best they can do is acknowledge that there could have been more than one mole. For further reading about this, I recommend the articles by Harry Callaghan and Paul Monk, who discuss this issue in the January-February 2017 and May 2017 editions of Quadrant respectively.


As discussed in my review of Volumes I and II, there was controversy over the claim that ASIO had given the official historians full access to ASIO’s files. The claim of full access appears to be negated by the fact that the Cook Report is not referenced in this volume’s bibliography or footnotes. The same goes for Operation Liver.

Moreover, if the authors can proclaim to the media that they knew numbers of moles and their identities, why are they so circumspect in the book?

When referring to the appointment of Harvey Barnett as ASIO director general in 1981, why not tell us which “very small intelligence organisation” he previously worked for? It is in the public domain.

They mention that, by 1982, less than half of ASIO’s expenditure was incurred collecting, processing and reporting intelligence. Nowhere do they discuss whether this is a good thing. This is surprising given that one of the themes that dominate all three volumes is the issue of scarce resources to conduct operations.

The authors also say about KGB agent Gerontiy Lazovik, who was stationed at the Soviet Embassy, Canberra, from 1971 to 1977, that ASIO admitted in his last month in Australia that he was never detected meeting an agent.

Harold Callaghan, in the Quadrant article mentioned above,says that this is incorrect as ASIO “meticulously” recorded Lazovik’s clandestine meetings with Wilton Brown, a member of the CPA and a Soviet agent. Details of such meetings can be found in the National Archives, according to Callaghan.

The caption of the last photo – preceding page 259 – which is related to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, has Ronald Reagan as President of the United States instead of George H.W. Bush.

Finally, as with Volumes I and II, I recommend this volume because the material is interesting and it helps the general public to get an understanding of ASIO, if only an authorised one. (There is much controversy about the whole concept of an “official history”.) I acknowledge, however, that it covers a specialised field that would be of most interest to those with an interest in intelligence, including foreign intelligence services.

Nonetheless, the issue of the presence of a mole or moles in ASIO would be of general interest to those who lived through the Cold War and who were brought up on John Le Carre novels.

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