A new investigation has shed light on Australia’s role in the overthrow of Chilean leftist president Salvador Allende and exposed the continued veil of secrecy surrounding the precise activities of Australian intelligence agents, 40 years on.
Allende was elected president in 1970, but was deposed on September 11, 1973 by a US-backed military coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power. Pinochet remained in power for 17 years, presiding over a regime of terror that left thousands dead or disappeared.
Sustained campaigning by human rights activists, and the declassification of more than 20,000 secret US government documents, have verified what many already knew: the US government played a central role in the destabilisation and overthrow of the Allende government.
Read More: Liberal MP in hot water over pro-Pinochet comment
The presence of Australian intelligence agents at the time has been acknowledged, but little is known about their activities.
For many Chileans in Australia, an SBS Radio special feature on Australia’s role in “The Other 9/11” carried out by investigative journalist Florencia Melgar has come as a shock.
Melgar interviewed a number of Chileans living in Australia to gauge their response. She told Green Left Weekly: “Even though this information was made public many years ago, no one in the Chilean community knew.”
This has led some to question how the same country that granted them asylum could have also contributed to the rise to power of a dictatorship from which they were fleeing.
“Many want an explanation from the government. They want to know what happened, why it happened, how it happened.”
Others, she said, believe the government must apologise.
In helping to correct some historical mistakes and confusions, Melgar said her report “makes clear that there were two operations in Chile: one by ASIS and one by ASIO.”
ASIO, or the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, focuses on domestic security issues. ASIS, or the Australian Security Intelligence Service, is involved in spying overseas and counter-intelligence activities.
Melgar said ASIO agents operated from inside the Australian embassy in Chile, and were present after the coup.
“This is known and accepted as part of what they do, to know the background of people who come to Australia, for security reasons,” she said.
However, what is less clear is the role of two ASIS agents.
Melgar said this was partly due to the fact that even ASIS’s existence, first established in 1952, was kept secret for 20 years, even to members of parliament.
However, it is acknowledged that then prime minister William MacMahon, in response to a request for help from the CIA, authorised the dispatch of two ASIS agents to Chile in 1971.
In February 1973, recently elected PM Gough Whitlam was made aware of ASIS’s presence in Chile by then-director of ASIS, Bill Robertson. Whitlam claimed he immediately ordered an end to the mission, but Robertson disputes the story, saying that Whitlam was initially hesitant to close down the operation due to concern over how the White House would react.
On May 1 that year, an order was finally sent to Santiago ordering the agents to return home. However, the last agent did not leave the country until October, one month after the coup.
As to what the ASIS agents did in Chile, Whitlam told parliament: “Australian intelligence personnel were working as proxies of the CIA in destabilising the government of Chile.”
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in his biography of Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to the US president at the time: “In response to a formal request from the [CIA], two operatives from [ASIS] were stationed in Chile; the Australians were told that outsiders were needed because of the government’s close surveillance. By 1972, the Australians had agreed to monitor and control three agents on behalf of the CIA and to relay their information to Washington.”
This was in a context where as early as 1970, the CIA’s deputy director of plans had written in a secret memo: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup … It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the [US government] and American hand be well hidden.”
Declassified documents have clearly revealed the hand of the US in a 1970 failed military coup that hoped to halt Allende’s election, and in subsequent destabilisation activity such as funnelling millions of dollars toward rightist elements to encourage violent street protests and economic sabotage.
However, no such documents have been released in Australia. In fact, there has been a concerted campaign to silence the issue.
Melgar said that while an initial article probing Australia’s role in the coup was published by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1974, ASIS told the paper to halt the investigation, saying it was against the national interest. Melgar interviewed Hamish Macdonald, the journalist responsible for the story, who said the newspaper told him to drop the story.
Melgar says the secrecy of Australian intelligence services surpasses that of the CIA. She said she been able to obtain information from the CIA “both in terms of declassifying documents and in going public with information that is already out in the public arena.”
While researching her report, Melgar received a letter from ASIS stating that at no time could she make public any names or details of agents involved or even claim to know the identity of those involved. If she did, she risked prosecution and seven years’ jail.
Under Australian law, it is illegal to publish the names of intelligence agents, even after they have died.
It is hard to imagine how releasing information on Australia’s role in a coup that occurred four decades ago could continue to be against the “national interest.”
Yet, as Melgar said: “Forty years later, we still don’t know the truth, and as it stands we never will.”
[The report and other information can be found here.]