Peter Boyle interviewed Florencia Melgar, a former SBS journalist about her research into Australia's involvement in the 1973 military coup against the progressive government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
You investigated the role of Australian secret intelligence agencies in the destabilisation of the Allende regime in Chile and it’s overthrow of the Pinochet coup [in 1973.] What led you to this investigation?
I have been investigating into human rights under the dictatorship. But some of these small stories led me to big stories and that was the case with this.
I was doing a lot of interviews with people who were torturers in jails in Uruguay during the dictatorship of Gregorio Alvarez. Because my husband is Australian, one of them said to me: “Do you know what Australia did in Chile? Did you know Australia helped Pinochet a lot?”
So, it has been in the back of my head since 2008, and when I came to choose a topic for my PhD I thought I would do some research into it.
A lot of people told me there was no evidence for it, it wasn’t real. But then I found a quote from [former Labor minister] Clyde Cameron in the public domain and I started pulling the thread and it got bigger and bigger. I got hooked by the story because it’s not just Chile, it’s also Argentina. It’s the participation of Australia’s secret service in South America.
During the period of Allende in Chile, what exactly did Australian intelligence agents do?
Well, there was a mission of the CIA and all of that is documented. It has been declassified through the national security archive. All the details of what the CIA did — helping the strikes, giving at least $10 million in the period before Allende,
The CIA were restricted because Allende knew who they were, so they couldn’t move. So the US had to ask one of their friends, it could have been the Canadians, or the British.
Australia was chosen because they were their allies.
So they played a critical role?
They were commanding the operation and reporting directly to the CIA.
So they were basically working for the CIA?
Yes, from the Australian embassy. They were posing as diplomats.
Was this known to Australian governments at the time?
Yes. The one who made the decision was the foreign minister William McMahon, who then became prime minister. The operation started in 1972.
Gough Whitlam was the following prime minister and there are so many stories about how Whitlam was a leader on this. The fact is, Whitlam didn’t want the agents to be in Chile and he ordered them to be taken out but his orders were not followed.
So the way he tells the story in his memoirs was that there were no [Australian] secret agents left in Chile by mid-September 1973. He said the mission finished in June, 1973 and that’s what he wanted it to be, but they were still there.
So there was a lot of coverup taking place and I understand one of the agencies involved was ASIS. This is an agency whose existence was completely secret.
Yes. It was created in 1952 and remained secret until 1972, so it operated for 20 years as a secret agency. Even parliament didn’t know about it.
Was it the Whitlam government who introduced the royal commission into security agencies?
Yes, it was Whitlam who asked Justice Robert Hope to do it. According to Brian Toohey who wrote a book called Oyster, they said there isn’t much in the Hope Commission. Hope didn’t want to look too deeply into it, he could have done it but he didn’t.
When you look at the report, the chapter on Chile is [crossed out] in black. Hope didn’t do a thorough investigation.
Do you believe there have been ongoing attempts by Australian security agencies to keep this story under wraps or limit the information that is coming out?
A journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald was assigned to cover the story and to find out who these agents were. In those times, it was not illegal, as it is now, to name intelligence agents present or former.
He couldn’t do it because there was a call from ASIS to the SMH to say this is not in the national interest and the SMH decided to stop doing the research. They had the names already.
I have the names but it is illegal to name them unless the director general of ASIS, in this case Nick Warner, allows it. So I made a formal request to publish the names, hoping that even if they said no they would give me some information because I’m not obsessed with putting their names in the public domain. What I want to know is the historical truth after 40 years — why are the files hidden? The normal timeframe of 25 years has already expired.
They sent me a letter saying I couldn’t use their names but in that letter ASIS said that I couldn’t release my report at all, at the risk of seven years' jail and no bail.
I went to SBS lawyers and they said: “This is a tricky one because most of what you’ve done is against what they are saying you can do.”
It’s illegal not just to release their names but also anything that can reveal their identity. You cannot talk about the details of the operation or anything that can lead to the details of the operation. What I agreed to with the lawyers was that I would rephrase the report, so the report released on SBS was checked by lawyers.
What kind of response have you received from this report from members of the Chilean community in Australia, many of whom fled Chile because of the terrors of the Pinochet regime?
All of them were really sad. Many of them wanted an explanation; some of them wanted an apology from the Australian government. But all of them wanted to know why, and to find out how it happened. They felt like they deserved more information.
Some of them didn’t understand, because they are good-hearted people who are sometimes not aware of how evil the system is. The intelligence system flies above the political system and it doesn’t matter who is in government.
They couldn’t understand that the same government who gave them protection was also helping Pinochet. That happens all the time.
Do you think the Chileans who fled the Pinochet regime were also spied upon by Australian agencies, while they were here?
In 1974, there were many protests and demonstrations. One in particular in Melbourne was recorded by ASIO, I could get the footage from the national archive. I got permission from ASIO to release it.
Do you know of any Chileans who suffered consequences as a result of reports on their activities in Australia?
The question is, what did ASIO do with that footage? You can make assumptions that it was sent Chile, why would they take this footage? We don’t know because it is secret and there is no accountability.
Do you feel this story is still unfinished and do you intend to look deeper into it in the future?
I hope that I can convince the two agents who worked in Chile to tell me what happened. The freedom of information laws here are very limited. All the six intelligence agencies are exempted from those laws, so the timeframe of 25 years to know the history of a country — it doesn’t apply to intelligence. So basically all foreign policy of Australia [remains secret].
When can we know? In 25 years? 40, 50, never? I need to go on doing this research because I think it’s just the beginning of it and I’m also going to rely on Chile’s documents because I think there’s a lot there.