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February 04th 2017 print

Harold Callaghan

Don’t Mention the Moles

The third volume of ASIO's official history is finely produced and has the uncanny appearance of a serious, worthwhile book. Between the covers, the text brings to mind fingernails pulled along a blackboard -- and that is one of its better qualities

The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, 1975–1989
by John Blaxland & Rhys Crawley
Allen & Unwin, 2016, 552 pages, $49.99
_________________________________________________

 

I have … had access to many files and records of ASIO, including matters of internal ASIO management and operations … I took the view that it was essential for me to make inquiries on such matters as ASIO modes of internal communications, cover stories, operating procedures file and personnel security … These are not matters to which any outsider should often or normally have access. —Justice Hope, 1974[1]

asioJohn Blaxland’s third volume of the official history of ASIO is a reviewer’s nightmare. A search for its reviews indicates that the official histories have scarcely been examined in scholarly journals or even in the maze of publications of research and study institutes. The book eludes classification. It is not a contribution to the study of governance, as it relies on entreating and pleasing its sponsors; nor is it a contribution to intelligence historiography. Volume Three cannot be reviewed by “real” historians as they do not have access to the original documents cited by Blaxland.

Does the official history meet the criteria for good writing? In intelligence, the quality, ambiguity, tone of language is vital. The tone of this text resembles fingernails pulled along a blackboard. The text demonstrates an insensitivity to language, relying on formulaic, redundant and ill formulated phrases: “to be fair” is the favoured qualifier to counter the challenge of historical judgment. Redundant phrases are unintentionally comic: the identified KGB officer, Valery Ivanov, is described as a “diplomat-cum-spy”. It is not pedantry to refer to dead language such as: “as part of the process”, “to be sure”, “international alarm bells were set off”, “there were many questions”, “in reality though”, “a close shave with disaster”, and “as it turned out”.

This is not history; it is an exercise in the mismanagement of objectives.

In the UK, the Director-General of MI5 correctly claimed that the history of MI5 was the “authorized” history and not the official history, since official histories were written for insiders.[2] The histories of MI5 and Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) are defined by the services as “authoritative”—not official. The ASIO official history is the product of Canberra “insiders”, all security vetted to the highest level, state-approved and framed in pseudo-conviviality, controlled by the managerial ethos of a committee, compulsive careerism and consensus-seeking. None of the official historians have ever engaged in ASIO operations. Their knowledge is “knowledge by documents” or “acquaintance”, rather than knowledge by experience. As John Le Carré notes: “a desk is a dangerous place to view the world from”.

Frank Knopfelmacher defined the reshaping of ASIO’s image as “operation de-odour”, a perceptions management operation to create the image of ASIO as a “clean organisation”, as Harvey Barnett described the “new ASIO”. ASIO management focused on integration into the Canberra bureaucracy, and this is celebrated by John Blaxland. He writes: “The Organization [ASIO] became a more standard arm of the Australian Public Service”.[3] The cost was the creation of a knowledge and experience gap as experienced specialist officers resigned. “Operation de-odour” created a new ASIO—a bureaucracy with public servants replacing intelligence officers, resulting in the decline of the intelligence specialist. Director-General Woodward proudly and publicly stated that ASIO staff are: “public servants and see themselves as such … ASIO is virtually a public service body”.[4]

Bureaucratisation created organisational pathologies and increased failures in counter-espionage, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism; notably the Hilton bombing in 1978 and the assassination of the Turkish diplomat Sarik Ariyak in 1982. According to informed commentators, critical counter-terrorist intelligence analysis failures persist, as in the Lindt Café siege[5] and the Numan Haider case[6]. In both cases, ASIO’s analytic failures contributed significantly to loss of life. As the Director-General, Duncan Lewis, noted in admirable understatement, “ASIO’s history has been chequered”.[7]

Blaxland’s mimetic identification with ASIO results in echoing the mantra of ASIO’s “organisational change” on the dubious assumption that “change”, or its synonym “reform”, is a core value. The reader is flooded with bewildering acronyms and details of seemingly endless reorganisation. The official history is boring. The reader is lost in a stupefying fog of organisational acronyms and manic detail concerning ASIO management’s fantasy-based cure for management failure: “reorganisation”.

No ASIO officer has even been appointed to the position of Director-General. ASIO had six Directors General in the period 1975–89, of varying quality. Blaxland predictably favours all of them. However, every Director-General insisted ASIO was not penetrated by the Soviets, exemplified by Director-General Barnett’s claim to the head of the counter-espionage section: that ASIO could not be penetrated by the KGB as the organisation was “a happy family”. As one experienced “E” staffer pointed out: “so were the mafia”.

Blaxland’s predictably benign view was not shared by many ASIO staff. He never interviews those who experienced destabilisation of the organisation every time a newly appointed Director-General instituted management “reforms”. ASIO recruits agents, not “change agents”. The nadir of the new ASIO was illustrated by the then Director-General David Sadlier donning a Groucho Marx disguise during a parliamentary committee hearing on August 26, 1993, amidst cascading humour. A reporter commented: “ASIO just wants to be loved”.[8]

Blaxland effusively praises the Labor Attorney-General Lionel Bowen. In 1984, Bowen rejected a proposed “non-political” expulsion of a GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) Science and Technology officer who exported to the USSR and Eastern Europe against Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) rules. Bowen threw the papers across the desk to Barnett and said, “So what?” He decreed Australian law was not broken and left for the races.

A.K. Wrigley reportedly incurred the wrath of many staff who criticised “Pol Pot” management style with little regard for the vicissitudes of staff involved in the transfer of ASIO headquarters from Melbourne to Canberra. Justice Woodward was respected for ensuring more staff and resources but he had little appreciation of the Soviet intelligence attack or operational work. Mobile surveillance of Soviets was cut back and officers were forbidden from entering the National Press Club, Parliament and the Australian National University. In 1980, an ASIO report noted, “both KGB and GRU officers are frequent visitors to the ANU. However, it has not been able to ascertain the specific purpose of these visits”.[9] Discussions with the “Judge” as he insisted on being addressed, were conducted as if in a court room and proposals were submitted and approved on legal criteria.[10]

The late Don Marshall (ASIO’s former head of counter-espionage) claimed he “believed in ASIO but not its management”. Blaxland is incapable of grasping that ASIO staff and agents endured very poor management and poor leadership for decades. The Hope Report asked: “Is it too much to expect ASIO to operate as a professional intelligence organisation?”

In the new ASIO, the meeting became a management ritual, exemplified by the key officer of “E” (Counter-Espionage) Section, a compulsive, complacent bureaucrat who savoured protracted meetings. His personal symbol was a clipboard. At a critical juncture of the Combe–Ivanov case he had to be ordered from a recurring meeting to talk with Prime Minister Hawke.

In 1983, Director-General Harvey Barnett sought a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss David Combe, the former ALP National Secretary turned consultant, and his contact with an identified KGB officer, Valery Ivanov. Barnett assessed that Combe was under Ivanov’s tutelage, and was becoming clandestine. Barnett wanted Ivanov expelled.

Barnett was advised by the Deputy Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet that he “should wait until after the economic summit”. Barnett passively demurred, as he explained to the Royal Commission: “When you are a bureaucrat, you do not march in to a Prime Minister, you do it through the proper channels.” In his report, Justice Hope pointed out that it would be proper to have consulted with the Attorney-General, Gareth Evans: “the potential damage to national security for this delay was serious”.

But Blaxland claims: “it is a mystery that Barnett did not consult with the Attorney-General”. It is not a mystery. If Blaxland had read Barnett’s memoir, he would have solved the “mystery”. According to his memoir, Barnett was “building bridges” with Attorney-General Evans. He did not trust Evans.

Blaxland’s book will baffle the general reader and will be deplored by past ASIO staff as a chronicle of wasted time. The readership will be restricted to intelligence officers, which is unfortunate for ASIO. The official history damages ASIO’s reputation and will be categorised and studied by intelligence organisations as a “lessons learned” manual.

The book is also a threat to historical debate and discussion and creates a new category of Australian historians: the vetted and non-vetted. The vetted historians could not participate in an academic discussion or conference on espionage in Australian history as they would be in the company of non-vetted historians, who did not have the advantage of access to over 6000 classified files. The official historians could even inadvertently disclose highly classified information in media appearances, and public or even academic settings—a comic scenario.

The fantasy of unrestricted access

Blaxland has pioneered a new form of anti-history, in which documents and sources cannot be evaluated. History is no longer an argument. The official historians have been contracted by the state as part of a perceptions strategy under the Faustian fantasy of “unfettered access” to ASIO files. The most sinister implication is that official history is approved by the state.

Most historians would not have Top Secret Positive Vetted (TS PV) clearances; such clearances are required to be sponsored by a government agency. Nor would or should they submit to TS PV vetting. Would Professor Geoffrey Blainey submit to TS PV vetting? After the official history, historians who seek access to ASIO documents will require vetting by the state.

State vetting of historians was established in the Soviet Union and the East European regimes, and ASIO’s official historians have linked history to state approval; an unhealthy development for Australia. The first history of ASIO, Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets, was not approved by ASIO, and the author, David McKnight, a former editor of the Communist Party newspaper Tribune, was placed under surveillance. McKnight’s study shows some insight into ASIO and, compared to the official history, his tone is vivid and lively. McKnight’s history paints pictures of ASIO officers. Blaxland’s history is history without humans.

Contracted authors cannot be genuine historians. The conflation of “official” and “truth” leads to the category error of conflating “official” with “true”. Official histories may be true, as Professor Horner claims, but there is no way of checking and evaluating the primary sources. The official historians rely on trust. They claim that they should be trusted. They have been vetted by ASIO, but should a sponsor’s trust be the basis of historical inquiry? This may be appropriate in an intelligence context, but inappropriate, indeed unethical, in historical research.

Volume Three of the official history perpetuates the legend of “unrestricted access” to ASIO documents, but former agents, consultants, contacts and case officers and ethicists will be extremely alarmed at such a claim. A key question of public and private interest is: How many personal files of Australian citizens and ASIO staff, contacts, agents, did the official historian read? ASIO’s fiduciary obligations to protect sources and agents was stressed by Justice Hope in the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security Report. He wrote: “apart from agents, any person who supplies information to ASIO in confidence is likely to be embarrassed and it is important that ASIO protects not only agents but all other confidential sources”.[11]

Curiously, Blaxland has failed to acknowledge the assessments of ASIO by his contiguous colleagues, Professor Desmond Ball and Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb. They were not interviewed. But each could have offered original insights into ASIO.

Professor Dibb led a double life from 1965 to 1984 as an ASIO agent reporting on Soviet officials at the Canberra Residency. In October 1984, ASIO investigated Dibb in relation to his contacts with identified KGB/GRU officers and delayed his clearance. Dibb reportedly resented the investigation into his bona fides: “It shows a disappointing lack of confidence … I feel I have been badly let down by ASIO because they promised they would protect my career. ASIO lost me in that wilderness of mirrors.”

In 2004, Dibb claimed that the CIA station chief had been sent to Canberra to investigate KGB penetration of ASIO and expressed concern that the ASIO covert operations against the Soviet embassy were so unsuccessful that it was possible operational communications had been compromised and the ASIO staff “were not up to scratch”[12].

Dibb claimed the CIA’s assessment was correct and cites Don Marshall as stating “every time they mounted a major operation against the Soviet embassy, it failed or fizzled out”[13]. But Blaxland fails to engage in historical research. If he had, he might have established that the dominant figure in the period was the KGB resident counter-intelligence specialist Lazovik.

Gerontiy Pavlovich Lazovik

The official history’s hazy account of Gerontiy Pavlovich Lazovik, the KGB resident (1974 to 1977) and First Secretary (press and information) and confirmed KR counter-intelligence officer, is a paradigm case of an incomplete narrative in which trivial truth replaces truth.

Blaxland ignores or is unware that in 1973 the then ASIO Director-General Peter Barbour was concerned that Lazovik had targeted and had recruited a senior member of Gough Whitlam’s staff. The personal file of this individual is available from the National Archives. ASIO observed clandestine meetings between Lazovik and the senior staffer in December 1973 and an ASIO memo noted that the “current situation is that a member of the Prime Minister’s staff is in contact with an identified KGB officer”.

Whitlam, however, brusquely dismissed ASIO’s warning of his staffer’s relationship with Lazovik and did not “regard the contact as giving any cause for concern”[14]. He rejected the Director-General’s case for expelling Lazovik, thereby extending Lazovik’s operational life by four years. Curiously, Blaxland claims it was ASIO who extended Lazovik’s operational life.[15]

A liaison intelligence service informed ASIO that on his return to Moscow, Lazovik received a medal for services to the KGB as he was responsible for recruiting the ASIO mole in the late 1970s who provided the KGB with ASIO US and UK classified information for over fifteen years. There is no evidence that any of this came from his contact with the Whitlam staff member, or that the latter’s contact with Lazovik was anything other than social or professionally appropriate. According to Oleg Kalugin, the former head of KGB KR counter-intelligence: “the Chief of Station [Lazovik] was not afraid [of walk ins and volunteers] and so he was decorated and promoted”.[16]

The mole was a “mail in”, or in KGB terms, a “volunteer”, who was placed in a strategic position, namely the notoriously porous ASIO Headquarters Liaison Group in Canberra. He knew the Russian embassy post office box in Canberra was not checked and he assured the embassy: “don’t worry, no problem, your letters are not opened”.[17] He later proposed that the KGB set up dead drops around the country. Kalugin claims:

He had good access, everything about Australia, the United States, agents planted in the embassy, surveillance squads, I mean everything. There might have been more than one person behind him because of the wide range of his access to classified information. We were aware of practically all steps taken or planned by ASIO against Soviet targets in Australia.[18]

Blaxland claims that in July 1977, Lazovik’s last month in Australia, ASIO admitted that “it has never been possible to detect Lazovik actually meeting an agent”.[19] Blaxland must have misread or misinterpreted this “failure”. This assessment is contradicted by ASIO’s meticulous recording of Lazovik’s clandestine meetings with Wilton John (“Bill”) Brown, a lifelong Soviet agent who worked under KGB discipline for over two decades. Brown was the husband of women’s activist and fellow Communist Party member, Freda Brown, and father of Lee Rhiannon, the current Greens Senator for New South Wales. Bill Brown was appointed as Moscow’s Australian correspondent by two KGB officers, Nikolai Yakolovich Tarakanov and Ivan Sergeyvich Stenin.[20]

ASIO skilfully conducted photographic surveillance, including the use of a suitcase, and twenty-eight operational photographs reveal Lazovik’s clandestine meetings with Brown in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney on July 10 and 13, 1972, in Rushcutters Bay Park in Sydney on October 5, 1972, in Sydney on June 18, 1974, and in Kings Cross on December 17, 1974.[21] All meetings were conspiratorial and Lazovik and Brown used tradecraft to avoid surveillance. More disturbing is that Lazovik and his contacts with Brown were frequently “lost to surveillance” and both were recorded as unconcerned with ASIO surveillance.[22] Blaxland does not refer to these meetings even though they are held by the National Archives.

Blaxland refers to the “destruction” of the nineteen volumes on Lazovik held by the ACT regional office in 1980 without a reason being recorded. He writes: “while not conclusive, this in itself, was possible indication of unauthorized and untoward action by somebody”.[23] Somebody?

Blaxland implies that ASIO has not identified the source of this destruction and has not followed the most important trait of an historian—curiosity. As an “official historian”, he is forbidden the freedom of genuine historical inquiry.

The Moles

ASIO was established in 1949 by the Chifley Labor government to counter Soviet espionage but was insecure from the time of its establishment. In 1976, in secret and private hearings, Director-General Spry informed the Hope Royal Commission that he inherited contaminated staff: “One of my big problems was when I got there there were about [130 to 156] staff and quite frankly with few exceptions I wouldn’t have picked any of them.”[24] In 1964 the Skripov case collapsed after a planned rendezvous with a Russian illegal failed, raising further questions. In 1974 ASIO counter-intelligence and counter-espionage establishment and surveillance in the ACT was described by the Hope Royal Commission and the ACT Regional Director as a “shambles”. [25] Molly Sasson joined the Canberra office of ASIO in 1969 as a counter-espionage analyst. She:

found important information, as it was received, seemingly tossed straight into a drawer—and insecure … ASIO was a surveillance and counter-surveillance nightmare … Operations failed, one after another, after another. It got to the point where it could not just be incompetence or bad luck. There had to be something more.[26]

Blaxland carefully avoids any reference to Soviet espionage at ANU, which could be the subject of a full study. He cites the Mitrokhin archives but avoids assessing their significance. For example, the Mitrokhin archives identified John Lawrence Scott Girling (1926–2015), a former member of the Department of International Relations at the ANU, as a Soviet agent. Blaxland does not discuss Girling. Perhaps he does not want to embarrass his own university.

Girling was born in England, educated at Oxford and recruited into the Foreign Office. He became critical of Western and particularly of US policies. He studied Russian, German, French and Thai. He married a French-Russian artist in 1953. In Thailand, he published under the pseudonym “D. Insor” (literal translation, “Pencil”). He taught at the ANU school of International Relations from 1966 to 1991. In 1979 he applied to join the Office of National Assessments and his vetting papers were sent to ASIO. His application was unresolved.

In 1984 he had the professional confidence to publish a timely article at the height of the Combe–Ivanov affair entitled: “Agents of Influence”, a topic on which he was uniquely qualified to write. He was mystified by and keen to dispel the reality of the concept of “agents of influence”, which was “mysterious as its origins … and a hybrid expression”.[27]

Girling was interviewed by ASIO about his Soviet contacts, which included frequent social contact with Lazovik and the GRU’s Rezident (Military) Station Chief Alfred Mikhailovich Petropavlovsky. Although Lazovik was a guest at the Girling coastal home, Girling modestly assured ASIO he was a “mere academic”,[28] but he was one of the most prolific Soviet agents of influence in the 1970s and 1980s. An alternative ASIO assessment warned that ASIO should not complacently assess Girling “as a scholar and a gentleman. He is either a willing or unwilling agent of disinformation.” [29]

The Cook Report and Operation Liver

The official historians continue to assert their false claim that they are “independents”. Horner writes, “ASIO said that the authors would need to work at their offices … They’d pull the records off the shelves and you’d have to sit there in secret and do the research. I told them that wasn’t on and it was non-negotiable.”[30] He writes further: “I won’t be told what I can or can’t look at. And they’ve agreed to it[31] … What I will write will be true. It may not be the full truth because there may be some things I can’t write … I may have a fight or two with them … but I don’t think it will come to that.”[32]

But it did come to that: ASIO refused to provide the official historians with access to the most controversial document in Australian Intelligence—the Cook Report into the penetration of ASIO, which identifies Soviet moles in the organisation. Without access to the Cook Report and relevant papers, the official history is Hamlet without the ghost. The historians claim that the Cook Report was written in the 1990s and therefore is excluded from their time frame. This is a disingenuous claim, as the official history covered the precise period the Cook Report covered.

ASIO had no choice—it had to respond, as Justice Hope had expressed his clear concern with Soviet penetration of ASIO in highly classified sections of his report in 1974. The media pressure was intensified by leaks from ASIO and was increasing in tempo. Former employees anonymously expressed their concerns in the media. Molly Sasson published her memoir More Cloak than Dagger in 2015,[33] and gave numerous interviews and identified her suspects, which predictably Blaxland dismisses, since he is reliant on ASIO sanitised documents.[34]

In November 1992, the AFP began surveillance of George Sadil, a Canberra-based translator of surveillance tapes of KGB Russian targets in the collections division of the ACT office, and installed listening devices in his home and office. The translator was videotaped in his office over a period of eighteen days. The tapes recorded him in his office, taking classified documents from his desk and office cabinet and, although he had two jackets in the office, he placed the documents in the inner pocket of a specially tailored suit jacket.

KGB officer Vyacheslav Vladimirovich Tatarinov had visited Sadil at his home on May 28, 1994, and the visit prompted the Liver team to raid Sadil’s residence in June. The AFP-ASIO team searched his residence and found sensitive classified ASIO documents in a section of the car boot, the lounge room floor and hallway. The investigators were trying to establish an operational relationship between the translator and Russian trade officer Tatarinov, a validated Russian intelligence officer who was a primary ASIO target.

In the periods 1981 to 1985 and 1989 to 1993, the translator engaged in thirty-one reports on Tatarinov for his first posting in Australia and fifty-four in the second. He did not meet his positive obligation to report his contacts with Tatarinov. Whether it was operational or social and religiously-inspired contact with the KGB officer, as the translator insisted, remains ominously unclear.

The translator agreed he had taken the documents home and claimed, with some merit: “yes, yes, yes, but everyone does it”. He claimed he needed to study the reorganisation of ASIO and its future plans, although the possession of a 1973 ASIO staff telephone directory was never explained.[35] But, as the translator declared at the conclusion of his case, ASIO was a joke. “We all know the organisation is a joke, not just internationally, but domestically.”[36] The only “joke” was ASIO’s handling of the failed court case against him.

According to a former ASIO counter-espionage analyst, Blaxland’s favoured source became part of the translator’s defence team and provided the translator with a “plausible, friendly, and vigorous defence”.[37] Blaxland accepts the ASIO respondents’ narratives without examining the sources’ bona fides. Certainly, the Sadil case was complicated by the inclusion of the former senior ASIO officer, who acted against ASIO in defence of a suspected Soviet agent.

A former ASIO counter-espionage analyst notes:

during the Combe–Ivanov Royal Commission, Blaxland’s favoured source openly conversed with David Combe’s legal team and had revealed the name of the … counter-espionage specialist from ASIO headquarters who was present to explain details to the Commission.[38]

Until 1992, ASIO staff were not aware that the organisation had been penetrated. This was a failure of successive Directors-General and parochial senior management—not the failure of ASIO staff. This assessment was accepted at the highest level of the Labor Government and resulted in “Operation Liver”, an extended AFP counter-intelligence inquiry into ASIO which covered the entire history of ASIO and involved the ATO, Austrac, three seconded ASIO officers, DSD, and many government organisations. Operation Liver conducted the highest number of interviews ever conducted in an inquiry, the highest number of telephone interceptions, and three to five surveillance teams. It was the most extensive inquiry in Australian intelligence history.

Blaxland is seemingly unaware that Operation Liver had its origins in DSD liaison with GCHQ in England, Mitrokhin archival material and fractional defector information. None of the information originated from ASIO. Despite extensive work by a dedicated few, ASIO had never identified a KGB/GRU penetration in ASIO.

Blaxland cursorily examines Liver’s precursor, “Operation Jabaroo”, from open-source information and not from his unrestricted access to ASIO sources. The ASIO internal inquiry written by the Director-General and his deputy was rightly rejected by the head of the Attorney-General’s Department and the Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch. The problem of penetration of ASIO clearly required more attention than addressing the perils of open office planning and poor communications recommended in Jabaroo.

Prime Minister Keating was seriously contemplating abolishing ASIO. The broadened Operation Liver was conducted for nine months from the National Projects Office, steadily building its matrices of espionage through movement and network analysis.

The Operation Liver team are unsung heroes. Professional discipline and security were maintained and exceptional skill was demonstrated in integrating and securing the research of many government organisations. Based in the ONA-ASIO building, the National Projects Office launched many technical achievements and a former DFAT-ONA officer, seconded to the Liver team, recalled: “They did in nine months what ASIO should have done over the preceding thirty years. But it will all be officially denied.”

The Liver team honeycombed the corridors, washrooms, water coolers and hallways of ASIO Central Office with micro cameras and listening devices and extended their scope to the offices of the Director-General and Deputy Director. The brilliant technical operations against the Russian embassy identified the codename of the ASIO mole.

To ASIO senior management’s fury, the team conducted “blind-sided” interrogations (not interviews) simultaneously and without warning, to break down collusion. A former head of ASIO’s “E” section refused interrogation until threatened with jail and used the time-favoured claim of insufficient resources. A key suspect demanded that a senior ASIO officer be present during an intensive interrogation.

There are indications that the mole may have been handled by an illegal support network but ASIO had never identified an illegal network. Nevertheless, the team focused on suspects at the most senior ADG/DDG level. Alan Rose, the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, noted the penetrations involved: “effectively senior and responsible levels, with a position who had the capacity to remove documents and material out of internal systems … people who were clearly able to influence the direction of the organisation’s activities”. The mole, and perhaps his accomplices, influenced the policy and direction of ASIO, and could travel freely and was not subject to budgetary restraint.[39]

Because ASIO denied access to the Cook Report, Blaxland had to rely on a four-page summary of open-source reporting in newspapers; a combination of unsourced fantasy and varying reliability of anonymous sources with systematically misleading expressions such as “we are informed” or “we understand that”. Blaxland claims that he and the official historians pressured ASIO to accept their findings on penetration and accepted ASIO restrictions due to “legal reasons”, but as David McKnight in his review of the official history notes, if “legal difficulties mean defamation then presumably one or more of the Soviet moles are still alive enjoying their retirement”.[40] ASIO agreed to a single “penetration”, despite clear evidence of multiple penetrations.

In 2000, Desmond Ball claimed government inaction was intended to avoid the embarrassment of penetration and the government should have prosecuted or publicly named KGB agents found to have been working in Australian officialdom: “ASIO has only ever attempted one prosecution … even in cases where they have had relatively incontrovertible evidence they haven’t even attempted a prosecution”.[41]

At the book launch at ASIO central office in Canberra, Blaxland described the penetration of ASIO as “a demoralising story. This is a story of failure; this is a story of people spending their life’s work and seeing it go to sand.” [42]

Blaxland publicly claims to have read all of the papers relating to KGB penetration and knows the names of the KGB agents in ASIO, yet many ASIO staff cannot access the classified material relating to the Cook Report and related papers. Interviewed by Andrew Bolt, he was asked if he had identified the traitors, and replied, “Yes, in fact I’ve read all the reports that named specific individuals … I have not actually divulged in the book … it’s really quite shocking … it was hard to quantify the devastation”. He also pointed out that he signed a (non-existent) “Official Secrets Act”. He refused to identify any moles in the official history and used his redaction technique, described as “pixilation”, to avoid publishing “details”, that is, the truth. He accepted ASIO’s argument that identifying the traitors would harm ongoing operations. Resorting to his favoured maxim—“to be fair”—his defence of ASIO was that assessing and investigating the penetrations “was a complicated story and difficult to unravel”. [43] It’s called research.

Blaxland revealed more information on multiple penetrations during promotional interviews than he does in the official history. In an interview with the ABC, Blaxland claimed there was a “handful” of moles and “a very clear number”.[44] He claims to know the precise identities and number of moles.[45]

Why did ASIO deny the official historian access to the Cook Report? Blaxland was denied access because ASIO correctly assessed it would damage ASIO’s national and international status; a sound judgment in a damage-control operation.

Not surprisingly, the final paragraph of the official history is a question: “How extensive was the betrayal and how extensive was the damage?” A curious but fitting question for an official history, but a clear admission of failure. How many histories conclude with a question mark?

Referring to the historical controversy over the floating of the dollar, John Stone commented: “Does any of this matter? It does … On the most general level, it matters and because in the writing of history, truth matters.” [46] In history—not “official history”. The official history is ASIO’s most significant intelligence failure; an information- and damage-control strategy which will de-authorise ASIO.

The book is finely produced and has the uncanny appearance of a history book; it is beautifully bound, as is the author.

Harold Callaghan is a former security consultant. He reviewed Volume II of the ASIO history in the April 2016 issue. Footnoted versions of both articles appear at Quadrant Online.



[1] NAA: 8908, 4A RCIIS re [ ASIO] Volume 1] p 100-114

[2] Foreword by the Director General of the Security Service, Johnathan Evans Christopher Andrew The Defence of the Realm The authorized history of Mi5. London 2009

[3] J. Blaxland, “The secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO 1975-1989, p8

[4] A.E. Woodward, Transcript National Press Club address. 8September 1981

[5] Damaged Goods as Weapons Making Sense of the Lindt Café Siege, The Monthly, 22 December 2014

[6] Numan Haider inquest reveals Policing Oversights. “Inquest into the shooting of radicalised teenager reveals ASIO phone taps not shared with police”, The Saturday Paper, 19 March 2016

[7] Spymaster bringing ASIO in from the cold UNSW Newsroom 28 September 2105

[8] ASIO comes ‘out of the closet’” The Canberra Times, 27 August 1993

[9] J. S. Girling. NAA. A 6119 

[10] C. Ward ‘A view from the Director-Generals Desk National Observer. Summer 2006, p26

[11] RCIIS Supplement to Fourth Report Top Secret Limited Access. Report p100

[12] Trust and Betrayal Transcript, p3

[13] CIA sent agent to probe KGB The Australian 23 May 2016

[14] File NAA. A 6119 series

[15] Blaxland op.cit. p417

[16] ABC Four Corners, Trust and Betrayal, 2 November 2004

[17] Interview with Oleg Kalugin Former head KGB First Chief Directorate (counter intelligence) Trust and Betrayal ABC Four Corners 2 November 2004. Transcript, p2

[18] Interview with Oleg Kalugin, former Head KGB First Directorate Counter intelligence

[19] John Blaxland, The Secret Cold War, Volume Three, Official History of ASIO, pp 412-413

[20] A6119 Wilton John Brown vol.40, p107

[21] A6119 Wilton John Brown, Volume 3, 1971-1979

[22] Wilton John Brown NAA “photos” volume A 6119 23 197101972

[23] John Blaxland, The Secret Cold War Volume Three the Official History of ASIO, p411

[24] Private Hearings (secret hearings of non-official evidence) Transcript 27 February 1976. Evidence by Sir Charles Spry 232

[25] Extracts from ASIO files inspected by the RCIIS: A/8/attachment 9

[26] “A red in the ranks of ASIO” The Australian 18 August 2015

[27] John Girling “Agents of influence” Australian outlook Vol 38, Is, 2, 1984, p111

[28] Obituaries: Sydney Morning Herald 2 December 2015.NAA A 6119 John Lawrence Scott Girling v 1 1971-1982 Volume 2 1984-85 A 9626 1974-1974

[29] NAA, A6119 John Lawrence Scott Girling Volume 2, 1984–1985

[30] NAA, 8908, 4A RCIIS Fourth Report [Re ASIO] Volume 1, Copy No 25 p22

[31] Spies Like Us the Sun Herald 17 January 2010

[32] Spies like us The Sun Herald 17 January 2010

[33] Molly Sasson, More Cloak than Dagger: One Woman’s Career in Secret Intelligence, Connor Court, 2015

[34]Reds in the Ranks in ASIO” The Australian 18 August 2015; Molly Sasson “More Cloaks than Dagger” Conner Court Publishing August 2015

[35] Trust and Betrayal. ABC Four Corners, 2 November 2004

[36] The Canberra Times 22 December 1994

[37] Secret Intelligence News Weekly 17 May 2004

[38] ibid. 7 May 2005

[39] Former Head of Attorney Generals Department, Alan Rose, PM ABC Transcript 1 November 2004, p2

[40] David Mc Knight’ “Looking for moles” Review of the Official History: 1975-1989.The Monthly December 2017

[41] KGB spy still at large after infiltrating ASIO “Australian Financial Review. 29 June 2000

[42] Soviet Spy infiltrated ASio, Book reveals. Herald Sun 26 October 2016

[43] The Andrew Bolt Report 26 October 2016

[44] ABC News Breakfast, 28 October 2016

[45] ABC AM, 26 October 2016

[46] The Courier Mail 1 January 2012

Comments [1]

  1. Haven’t read it. The review is pretty damning, and as I haven’t read the subject, I can’t say whether the reviewer’s assessment is fair or not.

    I do think, however, that some of the reviewer’s conclusions – based on his own interpretations of events, rather than the material – are unsupported. I also infer that the reviewer is writing from a position of bias against the author.

    In the UK, the Director-General of MI5 correctly claimed that the history of MI5 was the “authorized” history and not the official history, since official histories were written for insiders.[2]The histories of MI5 and Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) are defined by the services as “authoritative”—not official. The ASIO official history is the product of Canberra “insiders”, all security vetted to the highest level, state-approved and framed in pseudo-conviviality, controlled by the managerial ethos of a committee, compulsive careerism and consensus-seeking.

    This passage suggests to me bias. Certainly there is a distinction between ‘official’ and ‘authorised’; but in this context the meaning seems to me to be the same, and I have no doubt that the producers of the MI5 history were similarly insiders, security vetted, state-approved, etc. The reviewer revisits this theme later – he seems to have a real issue with “authorised” historians, and neither any consideration of how the world has changed in the past some decades nor any particular regard for the need for lasting secrecy in intelligence work.

    Not having personal experience of ASIO, I also can’t speak to the bureaucratisation of the organisation or effects thereof. But claims like “Bureaucratisation created organisational pathologies and increased failures in counter-espionage, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism; notably the Hilton bombing in 1978 and the assassination of the Turkish diplomat Sarik Ariyak in 1982.” are presented without evidence. As usual when critiquing intelligence agencies, anything less than 100% success is failure – and there is no real world gold standard for comparison.

    Also, while I do not doubt that “According to informed commentators, critical counter-terrorist intelligence analysis failures persist..,” analysis is never perfect. Never. One does the best one can with the available info and in the circumstances, and one is honest about failures and mistakes – at least with bosses and colleagues. When bad things happen, people will always ask “How did — let this happen?” as though they were all-seeing parental figures. In a hostile world, there will always be failures. Always. The ones leading to public deaths are only the most visible.

    The reviewer’s thesis might be fair overall; I can’t say. I have my own bias in favour of our intelligence agencies, and my critique is slanted by being able to pick holes in the reviewer’s words but not having read the review subject.

    As the Director-General, Duncan Lewis, noted in admirable understatement, “ASIO’s history has been chequered”.[7] But which intelligence agency – which government agency – has not had a chequered history?

    Another indicator of bias: ‘the organisation was “a happy family”. As one experienced “E” staffer pointed out: “so were the mafia”. ‘ There’s no clear indicator of what this is intended to mean, so the reader is left with the suggestion that the organisation is sinister, criminal, or perhaps an organisation impossible to escape and/or speak out about. The latter is of course true to some extent: that’s part of the nature of that organisation and highly classified work in general.

    I find the reviewer inconsistent in that he claims “The ASIO official history is the product of Canberra “insiders”, all security vetted to the highest level, state-approved and framed in pseudo-conviviality, controlled by the managerial ethos of a committee, compulsive careerism and consensus-seeking,” but also “The official history damages ASIO’s reputation.” It seems to me that this is either a committee-consensus-vetted whitewash, or it’s damaging to ASIO’s reputation, but not both.

    The reviewer notes that “State vetting of historians was established in the Soviet Union and the East European regimes, ” as though this was an argument, but seems positively approving of an author associated with a communist group (McKnight) preparing a history of ASIO, and notes that McKnight was placed under surveillance, as though ASIO should not have even bothered. While the reviewer seems utterly unconcerned by the idea of unvetted external historians examining internal intelligence documents, he seems alarmed by the possibility that a vetted historian might have seen personal files. The distinction between seeing and publishing, and the point of vetting, seems to have eluded the reviewer.

    The author goes on to speak about specific operational matters, regarding which I have no knowledge. His claims of omissions, or what might be deliberate misrepresentations, sound pretty damning – but it appears to me that in some cases the reviewer claims the author is critical of ASIO in unjustified ways. I don’t know why an official history would do that, unless it was approved or edited at some level inconsistently or perhaps by more than one person.

    I will say that if half the reviewer’s criticism is true, then the volume must have been a waste of a great deal of effort and is a waste of time to read.