Remembering November 11, 1975: Pine Gap, the CIA and the coup to remove Whitlam

Gough Whitlam.
Gough Whitlam. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

Labor leader Gough Whitlam rode to power in 1972 on a wave of widespread progressive sentiment and mass protests. His election ushered in a new political era in Australia, particularly in terms of foreign policy.

As prime minister, Whitlam ended colonial servility, abolished royal patronage, officially recognised the People’s Republic of China and promoted international peace. He was a maverick social democrat who believed a foreign power should not be allowed to dictate Australia’s economic and foreign policies. 

One of his first acts as PM was to abolish conscription and withdraw Australia’s remaining troops in Vietnam. Whitlam ministers went as far as to condemn the United States bombing of North Vietnam as “corrupt and barbaric”.

Frank Snepp, a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer based in Saigon at the time, later explained to investigative journalist John Pilger that, due to such actions, the US believed “the Australians might as well be regarded as North Vietnam collaborators”.

Pine Gap

Vietnam was not the only point of contention between the US and Australia. 

As PM, Whitlam demanded to know if and why the CIA had a spy base at the “Joint Defence Space Research Facility” in Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory.

On paper, Pine Gap was meant to be a collaboration between the Australian Department of Defence and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In Nugan Hand: A tale of drugs, dirty money, the CIA and the ousting of the Whitlam government, activist and former state Labor parliamentarian Joan Coxsedge wrote that Whitlam was considering the idea of not renewing the US-Australia agreement on Pine Gap.

Coxsedge said: “The Pine Gap Treaty signed on December 9, 1966, stated that after an initial nine years, either party could terminate the agreement on one year’s notice, which would determine the fate of the CIA’s most valuable overseas base. 

“It was widely believed that Whitlam would have renewed the lease but that may not be the case. 

“In response to a series of questions on foreign policy from the Socialist Party of Australia, first published in The Socialist on October 22, 1975, Whitlam gave a detailed reply. 

“He included a quote from Hansard given on April 3, 1974: ‘The Australian government takes the attitude that there should not be foreign military bases, stations, installations in Australia. 

‘We honour agreements covering existing stations. We do not favour the extension or prolongation of any of those existing ones’.” 

Minutes of a meeting in the US embassy - later leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden - indicate that, in response to comments on Pine Gap, the US ambassador warned Whitlam: “Try and screw us or bounce us and Pine Gap will become a matter of contention”.

Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who helped set up Pine Gap, told Pilger: “The threat to close Pine gap caused apoplexy in the White House … and a kind of Chilean coup was set in motion”.

Coxsedge continued: “On December 9, Whitlam would have been empowered to act but he didn’t get the chance. Parliament returned on November 11 [1975] when Whitlam was sacked by Governor-General John Kerr using archaic constitutional powers.” 

CIA subversion

Tensions not only ran high between the Whitlam government and the CIA, but also with Australia’s intelligence agencies.

When Whitlam learned that Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) personnel were working as proxies of the CIA in Chile to help destabilise the socialist government of Salvador Allende, he demanded they be recalled home. At least some of the spies ignored the order.

Whitlam later instructed ASIO to terminate all communications with the CIA. Again, his order was ignored by then ASIO chief Peter Barbour.

Matters came to a head in 1975 when Whitlam dismissed the heads of ASIO and Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the latter because of his involvement in secretly assisting CIA operations in East Timor during Indonesia’s 1975 invasion. 

In November of that year, the Australian Financial Review reported former CIA officer Richard Stallings had been channelling funds to National Party leader Doug Anthony. 

The accusation was not new. 

In his 1974 book Looking at the Liberals, journalist Ray Aitchison said the CIA offered the Liberal and National parties unlimited funding to help them defeat Labor in the 1974 elections, a claim later confirmed by Marchetti and The Sun, the now defunct afternoon companion to the Sydney Morning Herald.

When Whitlam publicly attacked Stallings and insisted on a list of CIA operatives in Australia, as well as an investigation into activities in Pine Gap, alarm bells sounded at CIA headquarters.

The same was true inside Australia’s military and intelligence sector. 

On November 6, 1975, the head of the defence department reportedly met with Governor General John Kerr, and declared the situation to be “the greatest risk to the nation’s security there has ever been”. 

Another senior defence official met with Kerr two days later and briefed him about CIA allegations that Whitlam was jeopardising the security of US bases in Australia. That same day, the CIA informed the ASIO station chief in Washington that all intelligence links with Australia would be cut off unless a satisfactory explanation was given regarding Whitlam’s behaviour. 

None of this became public until the AFR broke the story two years’ later. 

‘Our’ man in Canberra

It was no coincidence that anti-Whitlam forces reached out to Kerr. 

The CIA often referred to Kerr as “our man”, according to former Pine Gap decoder Christopher Boyce, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1982.. Boyce was put on trial in the US for espionage after revealing the extent of CIA infiltration into Australia’s trade union movement and political class. 

During the 1950s, Kerr was a member, and later executive member, of the Association for Cultural Freedom, an organisation with direct links to the CIA-established anti-Communist front group, Congress for Cultural Freedom. 

In The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money, and the CIA, writer for the Wall Street Journal Jonathan Kwitny said the CIA not only funded the Association for Cultural Freedom but paid for Kerr’s travel and helped build his prestige.

Kerr also regularly wrote articles such as “The struggle against communism in the Trade Unions ”in the organisation’s publication, Quadrant

Kerr went on to establish the Law Association for Asia and the Western Pacific in 1966,  that operated as a prominent CIA propaganda front in Asia, according to Marchetti and John Marks in The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence

Whitlam’s sacking

When Whitlam was re-elected in 1974, the White House sent Marshall Green to Canberra as its ambassador. Known as the “coupmaster”, Green had played a central role in the 1965 coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia. 

According to Pilger, in an October 2014 article in The Guardian, Whitlam was shown a top-secret message on November 10, 1975, that had been sent from ASIO’s office in Washington and was sourced to CIA’s East Asia division head Theodore Shackley (who had helped run the coup against Allende).

Pilger writes: “Shackley’s message … said that the prime minister of Australia was a security risk in his own country. 

“The day before, Kerr had visited the headquarters of the Defence Signals Directorate, Australia’s [National Security Agency], where he was briefed on the ‘security crisis’.

“On 11 November – the day Whitlam was to inform parliament about the secret CIA presence in Australia – he was summoned by Kerr. 

“Invoking archaic vice-regal ‘reserve powers’, Kerr sacked the democratically elected prime minister. 

“The ‘Whitlam problem’ was solved, and Australian politics never recovered, nor the nation its true independence.”

There seems little doubt the US was involved in the sacking of the Whitlam government.

[Bevan Ramsden is a long-time peace activist who was involved in the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. He is a national coordinating committee member of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.]

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