October 22nd 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Bill Shorten imposes his political will on the nation

UKRAINE Russia responsible for MH17 crash: investigation

EDITORIAL Learning the lessons of SA power meltdown

THE ECONOMY Warnings call for new economic policies

CULTURE WARS Shame, pride and the AFL's arrogant posturing

OBITUARY Shimon Peres: last of Israel's elder statesmen

REGIONAL AFFAIRS Shifts in Australia-Indonesia relations

EUTHANASIA Paul Kelly makes the case against euthanasia

MANUFACTURING Australia's once and future car industry

MUSIC The dolorous tale of the disappearing tail

CINEMA In praise of professionalism: Sully

BOOK REVIEWS ASIO in the spotlight: official history vols I & II


Books promotion page

in the spotlight: official history vols I & II

News Weekly, October 22, 2016

The Official History of ASIO, 1949–1963

by David Horner

Allen & Unwin, Sydney
ISBN: 9781743319666
Hardback: 736 pages
Price: AUD$59.99

Paperback is available for AUD$40.00








The Official History of ASIO, 1963–1975

by John Blaxland

Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Hardcover: 592 pages
ISBN: 9781925266931
Price: AUD$49.99


Reviewed by Chris Rule


The official history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is a three-volume set commissioned by ASIO. This review covers the first two volumes.

These histories have their issues – the quality of the writing differs from volume to volume. Volume I is of a higher quality of writing and is much easier to read. According to Peter Edwards in his review of volume II, published in the January 16-17, 2016, edition of The Weekend Australian, Blaxland (Volume II) is not quite as accurate on political detail as Horner.

Gerard Henderson, writing on the Sydney Institute website in February 2016, says of Blaxland’s book that it contains a number of serious errors. Both volumes have editing issues; several times incorrect dates or time periods appear.

There is also controversy as to how this can be called an official history if ASIO will not, as Gerard Henderson says, validate the information. Harold Callaghan, in his critique published in the April 2016 edition of Quadrant, states that the official history team’s belief that they had “unrestricted access” to the agency’s files is “ludicrous”, as “no intelligence organisation in the Western world has allowed or would allow ‘unrestricted access’ to its files, which is contrary to established principles of source protection and security”.

As a former intelligence (not at ASIO) officer of 33 years’ experience, I agree. Nonetheless, the two volumes cover interesting history and are well worth reading.

Volume I tells of the establishment of ASIO. ASIO was established by the Chifley government in March 1949 because of British and American concerns about the security of the intelligence information that they made available to Australia.

They had become aware of problems in Australia through the “Venona decrypts”. “Venona” was the code name assigned to intercepted signals traffic being passed between KGB headquarters and its resident officers in Soviet embassies worldwide. Decrypts of this traffic revealed the existence of people in the West, including Australians, who were spying for the Soviet Union. This information came from signals intelligence, a source that the West was very concerned to protect.

In a press release of August 13, 1949, Ben Chifley spelled out ASIO’s charter. It was to defend “the Commonwealth from dangers arising from espionage and sabotage or from actions which may be subversive of the security of the Commonwealth”.

The most important task of the organisation at its establishment was to solve what Horner refers to as “the case”: that is, to find the Australians who were spying for the Soviet Union.

Some of the momentous events of ASIO’s first 14 years were the defection of the Petrovs and the subsequent Royal Commission on Espionage which the Menzies government established; and the Skripov affair, in which Soviet Embassy official Ivan Skripov was expelled from Australia as a result of his espionage activities.

ASIO’s counter-espionage activities went hand in hand with its counter-subversion activities. These were aimed at the Soviet Embassy and its supporters in Australia, particularly in the Australian Communist Party.

Some of the issues that Horner raises in relation to these first 14 years include the lack of a clearly defined role. Even the ASIO Act of 1956 didn’t remove all the grey areas. Also, ASIO was perceived to be too close to the government of the day, particularly by the Labor opposition, some of whose members were close to the Communist Party.

Another concern to ASIO was the possible establishment of an espionage network in Australia during the period that the Soviet Embassy was closed after the defection of the Petrovs until its re-opening in June 1959; none was found.

Volume II deals with the dissent of the Vietnam War years and with the threat of extreme right-wing, particularly Croatian, terrorist activities in Australia. Croatian terrorism was a major concern for the Whitlam government and became a bone of contention with ASIO. Peter Barbour took over from Charles Spry as director-general not long before Labor came to power.

When Labor came to power in 1972, Lionel Murphy, as attorney-general, became responsible for ASIO. The tension during this period was palpable, and was made worse by the infamous raid – led by Murphy – on ASIO headquarters in Melbourne in March 1973.

According to Blaxland, Barbour and his staff saw Murphy’s action as a vote of no confidence in them by the government. This “stunned” ASIO and the wider public service. There were also international implications, with “all Western security and intelligence organisations bewildered” by the action. This caused concern particularly in the United States – in the Nixon-Ford administrations and in the CIA.

Blaxland also deals with what, if any, part ASIO played in the dismissal of the Whitlam government. He concludes that there is only limited information available in ASIO’s files; and that ASIO was only a conduit for U.S. intelligence agencies’ concerns about the Whitlam government.

Both Horner and Blaxland detail the protective security aspects of ASIO’s work. This included vetting of refugees, immigrants, and public servants requiring access to classified information, to determine whether they were a security risk.

ASIO also conducted liaison with Israel and South-East Asian countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Malaya, later Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The organisation also got involved in South Vietnam at the behest of Colonel Ted Serong, who asked it to send an officer to study counter-insurgency methods. It also helped establish a security intelligence organisation in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

Both authors detail sources and methods. They include some very interesting information in both these areas, particularly about telephone intercepts and technical operations (that is, using concealed microphones to gather information). They also refer to the hard work of ASIO agents, discussing some of the operations in which they were involved, particularly in infiltrating the Communist Party and monitoring the movements of Soviet Embassy staff.

As well, they draw attention to some of the organisational issues facing ASIO, particularly in relation to conditions of service and bringing it into the Commonwealth Public Service.

Blaxland discusses the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, which Gough Whitlam established. Leaks from ASIO and the attendant publicity were the justification for the royal commission into ASIO and the other intelligence services; the Royal Commissioner was Justice Robert Hope.

The royal commission also inquired into ASIO’s purpose and function (what intelligence should be gathered); “arrangements for coordination, evaluation and distribution of intelligence”; the relationship between ASIO and “state and federal law-enforcement agencies”; the degree of secrecy necessary; and the security of the material.

Both authors deal with the issue of the tension between civil liberties and national security. Because of government concerns in this area, Justice Hope was directed to “make recommendations on procedures to be introduced to permit review of administrative decisions affecting citizens, migrants and visitors, made on the basis of information provided by ASIO”.

As mentioned above, Chifley outlined ASIO’s charter in August 1949. Given the historical circumstances, ASIO’s main targets were the Soviet Embassy and the Australian Communist Party. Both Horner and Blaxland were of the opinion that, as time went on, the organisation did not respond to changing circumstances and it continued to increase its effort against the Communist Party even as the party’s capacity to undertake subversion was declining. Horner writes: “It was the advocacy of violent action that would label the CPA subversive.”

Yet actions don’t have to be violent to be subversive. As Clara Geoghegan writes in her review of Greg Sheridan’s book, When We Were Young and Foolish, in The Catholic Weekly of June 12, 2016, Marxists/Communists manipulate issues such as abortion and homosexuality to undermine the foundations of our society. Blaxland, nonetheless, acknowledges that several “socialist splinter groups” continued to talk in terms of violently overthrowing our system of government.

As for Horner’s view that ASIO did not seem to acknowledge that there were people who joined the Communist Party and front organisations for “good and honourable reasons”, we know that Lenin called such people “useful idiots”. The point, once again, is that these people, knowingly or otherwise, were being manipulated.

According to Paul Monk in an article in The Australian on March 9, 2016, one issue on which the official histories are largely silent is that of the possible penetration of ASIO by a Soviet mole or moles. Blaxland does make some mention of it. He says that as late as 1984, Charles Spry did not believe that ASIO had been penetrated. This was based on an address that a Russian defector, Anatoli Golitsyn, made in 1967 in Australia to a group of intelligence officers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, and the U.S. In that address he indicated that other Western intelligence agencies had been penetrated, but he didn’t mention that ASIO had. Blaxland concluded that ASIO was unable to confirm Soviet penetration in the period 1963–75.

According to Cameron Stewart in the May 23, 2016, edition of The Australian, the final volume of the official history, whose author is Blaxland and which is due out in November this year, deals with the issue of Soviet penetration.

Despite their failings, these two volumes are interesting, informative and worth reading. They vividly bring to life some of the personalities and the political and social history of the time. I look forward to reading the third volume.

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