Spies, myths and history

August 10, 1994

By David McKnight

My recent book Australia's Spies and Their Secrets was written to bring to light some of the hidden history of Australia and the role of the Australian Security intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

I believe it does that. It is the first book to explain in detail the plans for internment of left-wingers by the government, ASIO and military intelligence. It outlines the elaborate system of "security clearances" for would-be public servants and citizens; it describes for the first time ASIO's system of agents, phone taps, bugs "exposure operations" and "spoiling operations". It reveals ASIO's secret links with the right-wing of the NSW Labor Party and the National Civic Council. It exposes the confrontation between ASIO and the Whitlam government in which senior officers investigated their own minister — Lionel Murphy — suspecting he was linked with the KGB.

Much of this, of course, was suspected long before but Australia's Spies and Their Secrets did not repeat generalised accusations or fears. It did not rehash conspiracy theories. It actually gives chapter and verse of these things, using archival files and interviews with former officers. In the process it also discards some left-wing myths.

Contrary to the impression given by Joan Coxsedge's bad-tempered and sneering article, it was a difficult book to write. It involved taking ASIO to court to force it to change its censorship policies on the release of its files (the policy has now been liberalised) and it involved tracking down over 100 former officers, of whom 35 agreed to speak to me — most with great reluctance.

Coxsedge says that I accept "the old discredited furphy that ASIO was established because of a security leak". This is a reference to British and American beliefs in 1945-46 that someone in Australia was leaking top-secret defence and foreign affairs documents to the Russians. I began my research on this allegation with the same scepticism which Coxsedge shows. However unlike her, the conclusions I arrived at were based on the balance of evidence not political prejudice. Her stance seems to be that of the old, journalistic cliche: never let the facts spoil a good story.

The Soviet Union excelled in at least one area: its intelligence service. In the 1930s and 1940s it recruited extremely valuable spies from the ranks of the British left, of whom Philby, Burgess and Maclean are the best known. It was able to defeat Nazi Germany thanks in part to its effective espionage using left-wing Germans in the Nazi war machine. All this is historic fact. But it seems it is quite impossible for Coxsedge to think that the Russian intelligence service would have tried to recruit left-wing Australians in the same period. I believe it tried and almost certainly succeeded. If this is being disloyal to the left, so be it, but I think it is intellectual honesty.

As for "refloating Petrov mythology", this is extraordinary. The book reveals for the first time that Menzies was well aware from a very early stage of a possible defection by Petrov which would benefit him politically. Menzies' denials of this to parliament and in his memoirs are shown to be false. This was a key accusation by Dr Evatt.

But I do not continue Evatt's foolish belief that ASIO or Petrov forged documents at the Royal Commission on espionage because I know this is wrong thanks to the testimony of a key left-wing figure who was involved. Nor do I accept the silly and rather desperate suggestion that Petrov was a "Soviet plant" — a suggestion made without the slightest shred of evidence (and when everything points elsewhere).

I am accused of dealing with the post-1960s situation in "superficial and highly inaccurate way". What the book does is to quote from a series of ASIO position papers on the anti-war movement, the student revolt, the Aboriginal land rights movement and many more. They make fascinating reading and show clearly how the Liberal government used them as did journalists (who are named) who worked on the Age, Sydney Morning Herald and in TV.

The chapter on journalists and the press barons shows how ASIO's Special Projects Branch helped fashion public opinion through covert means. The book also reveals ASIO's hitherto secret role in planning counter-subversion in South East Asia — which soon led to the bloody horror of Vietnam.

It's true that I did not look in detail at state police Special Branches nor did I chase the evidence for CIA involvement in the Kerr coup. Instead I outlined some material and referred readers to Brian Toohey and Marian Wilkinson's analysis. I was unaware that I was thereby committing a cardinal sin. Frankly, by that time I simply wanted to finish writing the book which spans 30 years of secret history.

Other Coxsedge accusations are baseless. I "play down" Croatian terrorism — by devoting two chapters to it. I depended on "ASIO's version of events as transmitted by his ASIO collaborators" — yet I had to take ASIO to court to get access to many documents. Those retired spooks who did speak guardedly to me would be horrified to be accused of being my "collaborators". A number gave me one interview and then got cold feet. So much for collaboration.

Coxsedge simply cannot believe that ASIO watches the Nazi-right these days. This doesn't "fit" with her prejudice. Yet it was ASIO evidence in court a few years ago which jailed a Sydney neo-Nazi when he shot one of his colleagues at National Action headquarters. This evidence was the tip of a significant program of ASIO surveillance on the racist right. This program is now one of the key ways it seeks to justify its continued existence in the post-Cold War world.

There is much in Joan Coxsedge's attack which reveals why the left as a whole manages to alienate potential supporters: strident attacks on people; unbalanced, cliched criticism; disregard for facts which do not "fit" an ideological prejudice; attribution of false motives; utter disregard of the need for evidence, and the substitution of overblown assertion.

As for my "many and serious omissions", I suggest Joan Coxsedge write her own book. Essentially she accuses me of not writing the book she would have written with all her pre-occupations and suspicions. I happily plead guilty.

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