Operation Official History

Official History of ASIO: Vol. II: 1963–1975: The Protest Years
by John Blaxland
Allen & Unwin, 2015, 590 pages, $49.99


spyWhen a Secret Service professes a new openness, we do well to count our silver. When it appoints its own favoured writer and feeds him selected documents that would land the less favoured in gaol, we have every right to be sceptical, as the recent “official histories” of MI5 and MI6 demonstrate all too clearly.John le Carré, 2011

Le Carré’s insights apply with equal force to The Protest Years, the subtitle of the second volume of a three-volume official history of ASIO. The period covered by Volume Two starts after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and concludes with the fall of Vietnam in April 1975. These years marked the height of the Cold War, yet Blaxland seldom uses the term Cold War in a book of 200,000 words and approximately 2500 endnotes. “Cold War” receives five index entries. ASIO’s raison d’être was to guard Australia against Soviet penetration of the country’s political parties, trade unions, foreign service, and defence and intelligence agencies. Countering “protest” was not the mission. As the book is seemingly divided into two sections, Protest and Counterespionage, the title The Protest Years is, therefore, systematically misleading.

The scholarly intentions of Dr John Blaxland, principal author of the second volume—like those of his colleagues, Professor David Horner and Dr Rhys Crawley—are compromised from the beginning. They submitted to the highest level of ASIO vetting, “Top Secret” (Positive Vetted), officially and correctly described as “intrusive and time consuming”.[1] In a period of budgetary restraint, they were paid $1,757,981 (inclusive of GST) to write the official history of a secret intelligence organisation.[2]

The official historians were recruited, or in ASIO’s words “commissioned”, not by an independent panel of scholars at the Australian National University but an opaque, classified tender process. ASIO described it as an “open tender” but demanded Positive Vetting for all applicants. Was it a competitive tendering process? We do not know as the tenders were classified. Details of the “contract” between the ANU and ASIO are publicly unavailable. ASIO demanded that all individuals, “historians—even those working on the project prior to entering the contracts—had to meet Commonwealth security requirements, that is, Top Secret (PV) clearance”[3] (italics in the original).

Blaxland claims he was given “unfettered access to the files held in the ASIO archives”[4] and “unprecedented access”.[5] He writes, “Deeper conspiracies are deconstructed drawing on ASIO’s extensive archival records”.[6] However, there is no reference to ASIO archives in the index or endnotes.

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ASIO refers only to “privileged” or “high-level access” and a “clearance process”.[7] In an interview with the writer Frank Moorhouse, the then Director General of ASIO, David Irvine, advised him to “talk to David [Horner]. He has had privileged access to ASIO files, so he won’t be able to talk to you about this period until the book has been vetted by us, as it were—not for political sensitivity but for names of sources and so on”[8] (italics added).

These volumes are not the product of dispassionate and forensic inquiry, but of an unsighted contract between the keepers of the secrets and the academic narrators.[9]

Annual reports refer to the ASIO “Advisory Committee” established in 2009:

The History of ASIO Advisory Committee comprises two external representatives—Mr Geoff Gallop AC and Mr Jim Carlton AO—the Director General and a Deputy Director General. The committee meets every six months to monitor progress of the project and to ensure proper procedure, accountability and due process.[10]

What serious history is subjected to this kind of monitoring? The very phrasing would have pride of place in the BBC’s famous comedy, Yes, Minister.

ASIO cosily refers to the “Australian National University research team”, the “ASIO Project Team” and the “ANU History of ASIO team”.[11] The Protest Years was fittingly launched at ASIO Central Office and the warmth engendered by “the massive project” and its relationship with ASIO is redolent of the post-prandial smugness of a Canberra long-lunch.


Operation Official History

The official history is an ASIO operation. Like all bureaucracies, as Sir Humphrey Appleby and his confrères understood, ASIO is concerned with its status and reputation in the bureaucratic maze of Canberra. In this context, official histories are bureaucratic politics by other means.

The objective of Operation Official History is perceptions management, in search of the holy grail: legitimacy. The official history was conceived at ASIO headquarters, gestated within ASIO’s uterine offices, was delivered at the Australian National University, and blessed by the Attorney-General at ASIO Central Office. This shapes how the history is written, what it contains and, most importantly, the information it omits.

The official project, co-ordinated by David Horner, appears to have been crafted to satisfy progressive sensibilities and offers a “progressive” and indulgent interpretation of the period.

Blaxland regards the electoral failure of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the over one hundred protest groups and organisations monitored by ASIO as demonstrating “dissent and not subversion” although the  “protest years” were also marked by politically motivated violence, confrontations and violent demonstrations. “Dissent”, of which Blaxland approves, provided natural cover for subversion. However, although he is a former military intelligence officer and intelligence historian Blaxland timidly notes that terrorism and subversion are “difficult to define precisely” but as Justice Hope noted: “subversion may be difficult to define but its nonetheless very real and may be a very dangerous form of activity”[12].

The delusion of “unrestricted access”

Blaxland believes that he and the “official history team” had “unrestricted access” to ASIO files. This claim is ludicrous. No intelligence organisation in the Western world has allowed or would allow “unrestricted access” to its files, which is contrary to established principles of source protection and operational security.

Rather, he has relied on ASIO engaging in document triage and received, titrated, redacted, incomplete and fractional information. The controllers of the perception operation are the true, but unacknowledged, authors of this history. They have drawn up the contract, set the parameters, vetted the historians, censored the records, redacted the released files and reviewed the draft manuscripts.

Source validation is central to intelligence work and historical research, but the reader of the official history has no method of assessing the veracity of sources which may be true, false, contaminated, meaningless disinformation, untested, or trivial. No source evaluations are included in the endnotes.

Blaxland notes that ASIO records management had “serious deficiencies”. File documents often lacked details, including numbers, descriptions, dates and signatures, and Blaxland concedes: “ASIO’s reports … were mainly for internal consumption and they lacked consistency of format … Information was deliberately obfuscated and rendered ambiguous”. [13]

How can a historian write a “history” of a secret organisation based on such records? The official historian has written a seriously incomplete narrative and discarded the principle of researching open sources and verifying or triangulating using multiple sources. Blaxland fails to appreciate the irony involved in the attempt. As the senior ASIO officer Michael Thwaites once noted:

ASIO files are compiled as working documents and are never intended for use outside the Organisation. They require expert and critical examination. An outsider would not be in a position to make such a distinction.[14]

In 1973, Peter Barbour, then Director-General of ASIO, informed the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam of ten reasons why ASIO files constituted “a special category”[15]. Barbour was writing as an intelligence officer who understood that ASIO files are not the transparent analogues of reality that the official historian naively assumes. John le Carré developed the term “espiocrats” (espionage bureaucrats) to describe the bureaucracy dedicated to deception and administered by meetings and committees. In his novels Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Perfect Spy he provided masterly descriptions of the intelligence bureaucracy, within whose labyrinthine and compartmented files so much is encoded and obscured.

Blaxland is dealing with provincial espiocrats, but seems oblivious to their arcane practices. He is writing the official narrative to ASIO specifications as an influence operation. The concept of agents of influence may have to be revised.

Official ASIO vs. ASIO

The official historian of a secret organisation has to deal with a wicked problem: the two ASIOs. The annual report to parliament is the accepted “white”, legal face of ASIO, the bureaucracy; the official report is an ASIO artefact. ASIO’s core business is illegal or black operations, of which no records are kept for the benefit of the official historian.

In le Carré’s words, “the law is just a nice little veneer over what we really do”.[16] Following bureaucratic and legal principles would be an operational liability, and not getting caught is a maxim new recruits quickly learn. The official assurance of alleged micro-managing by oversight committees is best described as organised hypocrisy.

ASIO has access to a formal and informal web of affiliations to obtain information, from government departments and police forces, and can access confidential medical and psychiatric records and access any state or Commonwealth record in the interests of national security. ASIO can demand access to court proceedings and legal records.

But how does ASIO’s broad operational scope affect the official historian? It creates an insuperable obstacle to writing an accurate official history, including a history of the black organisation.

The intrinsic value of the Official History

Is the official history a valuable addition to the burgeoning official histories of intelligence organisations? No. The book is poorly edited and includes a woefully insufficient index of eighteen pages in a book of 495 pages. The official history is cluttered with infelicitous phrases such as, “The Cold War had gone hot during the war in Korea”, “the fact that ASIO apparently had a file”, and the tortuous definition: “a double agent was someone who had been or was being recruited by one intelligence service but was effectively under the control of another”, and  “To get a job in ASIO it was helpful if you knew someone there already”, “looking back on his experience in this period” and “while some things remain a mystery it is clear that the last few months of the Whitlam government”, and “events reached a climax with the dismissal”.

Blaxland is fond of the qualifier which avoids critical judgment, as in, “to be fair”, which is a curious prescription for an historian. He also has a passion for the banal: “ASIO also identified a number of Bulgarian officials who were not what they seemed to be”. He frequently uses redundant double descriptions, such as: “as one individual”, “one of ASIO’s basic means”, “one of the challenges”, “one senior officer”, “one area that suffered malaise”, “one catalyst”, “one ASIO officer”.

Blaxland’s keen psychological insight is evident in his description that “Barbour was different from Spry”, which is not surprising as they were different people. Awkward phraseology abounds. For example, “the fact that ASIO apparently had a file”, “To get a job in ASIO it was helpful if you knew someone there already” and “looking back on his experience in this period” and “while some things remain a mystery it is clear that the last few months of the Whitlam government”, and “events reached a climax with the dismissal”.

Blaxland’s platitudinous and repetitive references to time include: “As time passed”, “In the meantime”, “At the same time”, “some time afterwards in January 1976”, and “as it turned out”. His platitudes extend to hindsight: “in hindsight it is evident that ASIO practices followed what is known as the intelligence cycle”. In hindsight? He wisely notes, “Many things seem much clearer in hindsight and this applies equally to ASIO”.

Spry –Menzies conspiracy theory

The official history provided the opportunity to discount perennial conspiracy theories. Regrettably, the canard of a conspiratorial nexus between Australia’s long-serving Prime Minister Robert Menzies and ASIO’s long-serving Director-General Charles Spy, so beloved by Labor-left academic conspiracy theorists, is given oxygen by Blaxland. In fact, ASIO had to lobby hard for meagre budget increases throughout the “protest years”, and Spry actually maintained a professional distance from Menzies.

In 1984 Spry gave a rare interview, which is not referred to by Blaxland, although, for an unspecified reason, his bibliography lists a tape of that interview. Spry pointed out that he had never accepted an invitation to dinner at the Lodge and generally “kept the relationship [with Menzies] on a professional basis”. He met the Prime Minister no more than once every six weeks at most, year after year. Other documentary evidence and post-retirement interviews with Spry confirm that his relationship with Menzies was professional and not personal. In February 1976, Spry placed the relationship in historical context. In sworn evidence to Justice Hope, Spry pointed out, “There is a theory of course that I was appointed by Menzies. I wasn’t.” Menzies pointed out to Spry that he could not appoint him and he had to appear before a Cabinet sub-committee to be appointed. Spry was in fact reluctant to leave the Army, to which he was personally committed, and regarded his appointment as Director-General of ASIO as his duty. He did not seek the appointment.[17]

Agents of influence

ASIO correctly assessed agents of influence as “extremely dangerous to the security of the country” as their activities included “decomposition”—that is, the political disarmament of the West. Blaxland provides only a one-page summary of a five-page 1970 ASIO assessment of agents of influence, decomposition and disinformation[18] but he does not identify a single agent of influence. The reader would infer that no agents of influence operated in Australia.

According to Blaxland, ASIO regarded federal Labor parliamentarians from New South Wales, Albert (“Bert”) James and Tom Uren, as only “potential unconscious informants”.[19] ASIO’s files reveal they had conscious contacts with Soviet intelligence officers. Blaxland fails to note that, despite their doctrinal differences, James and Uren had ongoing contacts with KGB officers or with KGB agents in the CPA apparatus.

The most dedicated Soviet agent of influence in parliament from 1960 to 1980 was Albert James, the MHR for Hunter. James was in regular contact with a succession of high-ranking KGB officers based at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, including Ivan Skripov, Victor Cherkashin, Ivan Stenin, Geronty Lazovik and Igor Saprykin. James was a talent spotter and access agent. His parliamentary questions were proposed by his KGB case officers. In May 1962 he asked questions in the House of Representatives which were “given the thumbs up” by Ivan Skripov, a KGB officer present in the visitors gallery. ASIO was disturbed by this blatant interference, which was also observed by the Attorney-General[20], and Skripov’s cultivation of Labor MPs in the interests of the KGB was pivotal in Skripov’s expulsion from Australia in 1963.

Blaxland has failed to research James. In 1977, the ASIO Director-General, Justice Edward Woodward, noted that James’s files should be maintained because “intercept reports between 1962 and 1976 indicate regular and personal contacts between James and Soviet officials”.[21]

Tom Uren was deputy leader of the Labor Party from 1975 to 1977 and later served as a minister in the Hawke government. Blaxland asks, “Why … was ASIO producing reports on Australians citizens such as Uren?”[22] There were, fortunately, very few Australians with a security history like Uren’s. Blaxland fails to mention Woodward’s August 1977 instruction: “There is sufficient material of current security interest to warrant retention of [Uren’s] file.”[23] Uren had close contacts with Russian intelligence officers, including high-ranking KGB officer Gennady Nayanov. In 1962, he asked questions in the House of Representatives inspired by Ivan Skripov.

Blaxland’s discussion of Arthur Gietzelt AO (member of the ALP’s national executive from 1971 to 1987[24] and minister in the Hawke government) reads like a lawyer’s brief. He has ignored reports that Gietzelt used five aliases as a CPA member and claims that ASIO reports do not “provide categorical proof that Arthur Gietzelt was a member of the Communist Party of Australia”. [25]

However, he quotes an ASIO file record of CPA vice-president Laurie Aarons’s “revealing description of Gietzelt as the CPA’s official parliamentary co-ordinator in Canberra”.[26] Laurie Aarons was effectively Gietzelt’s case officer and paymaster and ASIO recorded their clandestine meetings. In March 1973, ASIO reported Aarons describing Gietzelt as saying, “He’s on our side completely.”[27] An ASIO report quoted Aarons as threatening Gietzelt: “I put you there and I can remove you.”[28] Further research would have noted Woodward’s direction in August 1977, to maintain the Gietzelt file “as it contained items of national security interest”.[29]

ASIO assessed senior Labor politician Dr Jim Cairns as a Soviet agent of influence, though Blaxland quotes a former ASIO officer who claimed, “We didn’t bug or surveil Cairns.”[30] ASIO did monitor Cairns. On September 10, 1970, ASIO conducted an audio and photographic surveillance operation of Cairns attending a clandestine meeting with CPA leaders Taft and Carmichael in Melbourne. ASIO monitored his contacts with leading CPA members and KGB officers and reportedly placed listening devices inside his home in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, which were hurriedly extracted on the eve of the 1972 election.

Blaxland describes Cairns’s “communist sympathies and the U.S.’s adverse reaction to his appointment as deputy prime minister on June 10, 1974”.[31] Blaxland fails to refer to the international, indeed global, context of the US government’s concern, namely that the Pine Gap installation was to be renegotiated in December 1975 and the Nurrungar installation in 1978.

Whitlam later claimed that he informed US Ambassador Green that if Cairns wished to be briefed, he was entitled to be, but he “guessed” that Cairns would be happier not to be briefed. He promised Green that he would be “promptly” informed if Cairns requested a briefing.

Blaxland quotes only the first paragraph of a memorandum by ASIO Director-General Peter Barbour in which Barbour reports to senior Australian, not American officials’, attempts to allays US concerns,[32] that Cairns’s access would be irrelevant as his duties would not involve accessing sensitive information. Blaxland curiously omits the second paragraph:

Sir John Bunting mentioned to me on 21 June 1974 that the Prime Minister has expressed the view that if Dr Cairns sought indoctrination into the various restricted categories of intelligence material it would of course be granted. [emphasis added]

Determinedly “apolitical”, Blaxland, fails to acknowledge Whitlam’s political and deceptive skills.

March 1973: Lionel Murphy’s raid on ASIO

Blaxland’s account of Labor Attorney-General Lionel Murphy’s unprecedented raid on ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters in March 1973 is incomplete and inaccurate. He curiously places raid in inverted commas when he uses the term in two chapter headings and four references. He prefers to call it Murphy’s “visit” to ASIO headquarters, which was the anodyne expression used by Whitlam and Murphy. Yet, the word raid features in the book’s index, while visit does not. A traumatic event for ASIO staff is downplayed.

Moreover, Blaxland fails to mention the sloppy and arbitrary nature of the raid. Many of the participants had enjoyed a long lunch the previous day. The semi-literate telex that ordered the sealing and masking of containers in headquarters was written by a Commonwealth police officer from Murphy’s Canberra home, after returning from a buck’s party[33]—an example of an “alcoholic interpretation” of Australian history.

Blaxland strangely omits reference to Murphy and Whitlam’s lies that Director-General Barbour had not complained about the raid[34] and does not address the political dimensions of the raid, which exhibited the hostility between Whitlam and Murphy. Whitlam was not told of the raid by Murphy but by his Cabinet Secretary at 10.15 a.m. on the day.

ASIO staff correctly referred to Murphy’s surprise morning “visit” as a raid, because the building was in lock-down, and the staff huddled in the auditorium. Commonwealth police were stationed throughout the building and staff were forbidden free movement from 8.30 to 11.30 a.m. by approximately thirty Commonwealth police. Female staff fainted, and were forbidden visits to toilets. Even the Director-General was prohibited from moving papers on his desk, a number of which were confiscated. Containers and safes were tied with masking tape, ironically supplied by ASIO.

Blaxland’s bland account fails to analyse Murphy’s motive for instigating the raid. Many published accounts, none cited by Blaxland, confirm that Murphy wanted to access his personal file.

Harvey Barnett, ASIO Director-General from 1981 to 1985, refers to Murphy’s midnight “visitation” to ASIO’s Canberra regional office, followed by his dramatic raid on the organisation’s national headquarters in Melbourne, noting ironically: “Also he [Murphy] had a minor subsidiary interest—to enquire if ASIO had a file in his name.”[35] During the midnight visit to the Canberra office, Murphy threatened those present, including the Regional Director, who assured him he was not listed on the index, but Murphy “closely examined every slip under the name Murphy”, saying, “God help you if my name is there”, and “Woe betide you if I am in your records”. [36]

Blaxland notes that Murphy, his adviser and secretary “all looked though the personal index to see if their names were recorded”[37], but he does not ask why. Blaxland also fails to note Murphy’s ban on telephone interception of the Soviet Embassy in 1973-74 under the pretext of observing the Vienna Convention. The lack of intercept coverage created an even more benign operational environment for KGB and GRU operations.

Mysterious defence official meets Russian intelligence officer

Although the official history is over 900 pages long, there are many incomplete narratives and an intriguing example is Blaxland’s discussion of the 1974-75 Operation Combat (although he does not refer to the code name), an ASIO operation targeted at Vladimir Fedorovich Dobrogorsky, the Canberra chief of station (or Rezident) for the Soviet Union’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU and a determined and competent agent runner.

Blaxland did not consult the twenty-one files on Dobrogorsky held at the National Archives or additional volumes held by ASIO including a summary of 1975 file which describes him as “a clever agent runner who did a lot of counter surveillance everywhere” who was observed in Canberra at Russell Park Hill and Anzac Park West “where it appeared he was monitoring something from his car”. ASIO prepared a forty-three-page brief arguing for his expulsion but he abruptly departed from Australia in “odd circumstances”.

In December 1974, Dobrogorsky attracted the attention of ASIO’s surveillance team by his “highly suspicious” behaviour in driving regularly to Haig Park in the Canberra suburb of Braddon. The surveillance team observed a solitary man in Haig Park, who appeared to be agitated and who, spotting the ASIO surveillance vehicle, “suddenly took fright and ran away”. As the GRU was concerned with military matters, ASIO undertook additional surveillance to identify the man and discovered he was a high-ranking official with “very high security clearances from Defence Headquarters at Russell Hill”. ASIO accordingly advised the official’s superiors. Blaxland coyly fails to discuss the Defence Department’s reaction to ASIO’s disclosure. He writes: “ASIO’s suspicions increased when it later found that the officer had travelled overseas to a communist country. But, with little further to go on, ASIO was reluctant to ruin a man’s career on the basis of only tenuous evidence.” Blaxland passively accepts a first order case management failure but with the assurance of his favoured ASIO interview source, he turns case management failure into successful perception management.

The sudden unexplained departure of Dobrogorsky from Australia in January 1975, mentioned by Blaxland “in odd circumstances”, may have been precipitated by a mole in ASIO and hastened his departure before he could be formally expelled from Australia. Blaxland’s tantalisingly incomplete narrative only intensifies the reader’s curiosity.

The Rationalisation of counter-intelligence failure

Blaxland proffers the hoary platitude “lack of resources and staff”[38] to justify the unrelieved failure of ASIO and counter-intelligence during the “Protest Years”. In the highly classified assessment of ASIOs counter-intelligence failure, Justice Hope notes acidly: “lack of funds has often been used as an alibi for agencies who have not done the job expected of them … My examination of the records shows that ASIO never asked for them”[39].

In the 1960s the KGB had shown interest in an ASIO agent penetrating the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) but “leads failed to result in solid results”.[40] In 1966 a long-term surveillance operation against the Soviet Embassy ended with “little results”.[41] Surveillance targets failed to attend planned meetings. Many opportunities were literally lost in translation.

In the 1970s two promising agent cases against the KGB were “dropped” and “yet again an apparently promising lead had failed to turn into a concrete case”—whatever a “concrete case” means.[42] By the end of the 1970s, no illegal agent had been detected, no network had been unravelled and there were no Soviet defectors.[43]

Blaxland notes: “With few resources available, ASIO never gained a detailed understanding of Hungarian clandestine agencies.”[44] ASIO’s failure to mount a successful operation against the Polish intelligence service “illustrated the frustrations encountered in getting close to but not being able to complete the counter-espionage circle”[45]—although what Blaxland means by “espionage circle” is unclear. Chinese intelligence service operations in Australia were simply ignored because, Blaxland, writes: “ASIO was not resourced to provide a sustained effort in the Chinese field.”[46]

Blaxland refers to a number of high-level KGB officers assigned to the Canberra Rezidency, but fails to provide an adequate account of the significance of their activities. He notes that Ivan Stenin and Vladimir Alexandrovich Alekseev “absorbed a large amount of ASIO’s resources”[47] but fails to refer to ASIO files, from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which reveal that Alekseev was “running two Australian politicians as agents”, “using tradecraft of a fairly high order”.[48]

Similarly, he briefly refers twice to one of the KGB’s most brilliant counter-intelligence officers, Victor Cherkashin, who recruited an unidentified agent in Australia.[49] Blaxland doesn’t refer to this fact. He writes: “Cherkashin would later gain notoriety for claiming to be the handler of the infamous American spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.”[50] Only “claiming to be”?

Blaxland puzzlingly fails to note the significance of Gerontiy Pavlovich Lazovik, described by ASIO as an “urbane agent runner” who, according to an overseas agency, was awarded a medal for “allegedly recruiting a top agent in ASIO, Defence or the Department of Foreign Affairs”.[51]

According to Blaxland, ASIO’s operations on Ivan Stenin revealed the KGB’s tradecraft superiority and a “gnawing indicator of a mole giving ASIO’s game away”. However, this critical point is undeveloped. In an immortal phrase Blaxland writes, “with significant staff shortages … ASIO could not watch everyone[52] (emphasis added).

Blaxland’s discussion of KGB success in recruiting Australian agents is grossly inadequate. For example, he describes Australia’s most committed Soviet agent, Bill Brown, as an “author”. His true name was not Bill, but Wilton John Brown, and his “books” were published by Soviet and communist-sponsored publishers. Brown was a dedicated Moscow-trained KGB agent who worked under discipline, and a 1985 ASIO assessment noted: “he is often summoned to the Soviet consulate or Embassy for consultation of matters to them … Even the Soviet Trade Centre has constant contact with him.”[53] In 1968 Brown contrived with two KGB officers to be appointed as Novosti correspondent, as he had financial problems.[54] Blaxland has failed to examine the forty-nine volumes in the National Archives which meticulously track Brown’s espionage activities over five decades.

Blaxland never refers to the “lines”, or duties, of KGB officers and therefore cannot assess the espionage threat. Australia was a high-priority target and was unique in the Western world in that the three KGB Rezidents after Ivan Skripov (who was expelled from Australia in 1963) were Line KR (counter-intelligence) officers, indicating the KGB’s ongoing objective of penetrating ASIO and the Defence Department.

Blaxland does not refer to two warnings Peter Barbour, the Director-General of ASIO, gave Whitlam. Barbour told Whitlam of the KGB’s documented success in penetrating Whitlam’s personal staff, which involved identified KGB officer Gerontiy Lazovik, and of the operational interest in the policies and personalities of the Labor government pursued by Vladimir Yevgeniyevich Tulayev.[55] Fear of controversy haunts the official history.

ASIO penetration: The elephant in the room

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the debriefing of Soviet defectors and material from the Mitrokhin Archive and information compiled by the CIA and UK services forced ASIO management to finally address the threat defined in the ASIO Priorities Paper: penetration by a hostile intelligence service. But the task of investigating penetrations was not entrusted solely to ASIO after an internal investigation, with the colourful title “Jabaroo”, was rejected by government ministers and officials as inadequate. Australia was in danger of losing the trust of overseas governments and services.

On October 7, 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating tasked senior diplomat Michael Cook to conduct an extended inquiry into Soviet penetration of ASIO which was officially announced as concluded on December 9, 1994.[56] The code name was Operation Liver and was reported to have found a counter-intelligence nightmare.[57] Abolition of ASIO was seriously considered for the fifth time since its establishment in 1949. Subsequent governments have refused even to acknowledge the inquiry. The then Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch, feared irretrievable damage to national and international security interests and Operation Liver was terminated, much to the chagrin of the investigating team.

Operation Liver was the most brilliant and extensive investigation in Australian intelligence history and involved intelligence and government organisations, including DSD. It included extensive intercepts, monitoring of communications, and official interviews, and in some cases interrogations were necessary. In a clandestine operation involving a suspected mole, a covert team with the assistance of a dutiful ASIO officer placed listening devices in the corridors of ASIO’s central office in Canberra and, reportedly, the Office of the Director-General. The co-ordinated project was an intelligence triumph—it had to be—as it investigated nearly three decades of ASIO’s operational failure against the Russian intelligence services and, most significantly, penetration of ASIO.

The veteran political columnist Laurie Oakes accurately reported that the Keating government “provided a secret briefing to the Coalition leadership … and the possible consequences for intelligence-sharing—and it was agreed the whole thing should be dealt with as silently as possible”.[58]

In November 2014, an ASIO official claimed that the process of archival release ensured that “the release of the Cook Inquiry could be expected in 2018”. However by December 2014, ASIO reversed its decision as it was concerned at the national security implications (“embarrassment”) of the release of the Cook Report.[59]

The ANU official history team were reportedly extremely vexed[60]. But Operation Liver has been reported, in impressive detail, in open-source media, first and most impressively in the Canberra Times from 1993 and 1994, News Weekly, two ABC programs, and the Australian. Information has seemingly been provided to the media by disaffected serving and former ASIO officers who resented the “boarding out” of suspect officers. Some bitter counter-espionage staff refer to “thirty years of their life wasted” and suspect that traitors have been quietly paid off with generous entitlements.

The titrated official disclosure to the media has intensified media speculation and frustration. However, the hundred-year embargo should deter the most intrepid researcher. Operation Liver has not been referred to by the official historian, although he has publicly claimed that the forthcoming Volume Three of the official history will deal with the issue of “penetrations”. But will it or can it be dealt with truthfully?

Intelligence, in its many definitions and dimensions, is concerned with collecting, assessing and disseminating the truth. Commitment to truth is central to the ethics of intelligence and scholarship. In 1975, senior CIA officer Michael Mulroney testified that “intelligence is such a dishonest business that only honest people can be in it”.[61]

Emeritus Professor Desmond Ball, an intelligence polymath and the doyen of Australian and international intelligence scholarship, has posited his career on an uncompromising commitment to truth: “I believe academics have a duty to tell the absolute truth, no matter how unpalatable”.[62] In this context, the official history is neither palatable, official nor history. It is an operation—Operation Official History.

[1] Preparation of History of ASIO (1949-1978) Manuscript/Tendering Authority Australian Security Intelligence Organisation SIO 091/08 Request for Tender 28 May 2008, Director –General’s Speech to the Release of Records of the Hope Royal Commission 27 May 2008. p.1

[2] Senator Scott Ludlum “Cost of book on ASIOs History” Question asked 19 October 2009 and reply received 9 December 2009.

[3] ASIO document 091/08: “Request for Tender”, May 28, 2008. Director –Generals Speech for the Release of the Records of the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and security, 27 May 2008.

[4] John Blaxland, The Official History of ASIO, Vol. II: 1963–1975: The Protest Years (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015), p. xii.

[5] ASIO opens vault on “Protest Years” Independent News for The Australian Public Service 20 October 2015.

[6] Blaxland op cit p. 8 J Blaxland “ASIO history looks at Australia through the eyes of the Spy Agency” The Age 17 October 2015

[7] “The Australian National University (ANU) has been commissioned to write an unclassified Official History of ASIO”, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Canberra: Australian Government)ASIO Annual report 2008-2009 P 53

[8] F. Moorhouse Australia under Surveillance Vintage Books Sydney, 2014 p. 162

[9]David Horner, the lead historian of the project claims he insisted that the official history would be written at ANU as “we did not want to become part of ASIO” but the official history project raises important questions relating to physical security of highly classified ASIO documents. Where were the copies of ASIO documents read by the official historians, stored? Professor Horner claims he insisted to ASIO that he wanted the files to be held at ANU. But the photocopied extracts of ASIO documents, some of which were copied onto a laptop , would have required special secure facilities with controlled access at the Strategic Studies Centre.

[10] Successive ASIO Reports 2009-2014 ASIO Report to Parliament: 2013-2014 (Canberra: Australian Government, 2014) p 68.

[11] ASIO Annual Report to Parliament 2011-12. p. 78

[12] NAA 5908 Royal Commission into Intelligence and Security Fourth Report P 48 par 54 p 34.

[13] Ibid 21.

[14] Michael Thwaites to ASIO Director-General: “Disclosure of ASIO information to ministers”. “Visits by Attorney-General to ASIO Offices at Canberra and Melbourne on 16 and 22 March 1973”. National Archive of Australia (NAA)

[16] M. J. Aroofoff “The Spy Novels of John Le Carre” N.Y 1999 p. 262.

[17] Private hearings (secret hearings of non-official evidence) – Transcript of hearing at Sydney on 27 February 1976 – Evidence by Sir Charles Spry Page 20 of 33

[18]       Blaxland, op. cit., p. 209.

[19]       Blaxland, op. cit., p. 100.

[20] A 6119 Albert William James

[21] A 6119 Albert William James f 58

[22] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 90.

[23] Justice Edward Woodward, “Records review: Thomas Uren”, ASIO document U/3/28, February 14, 1977.

[24] Blaxland op cit p 62

[25] ibid p, 62.

[26] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 62.

[27] L Aarons. A 6119 Vol 76 folio 95.

[28] A6119 BROWN Freda Yetta (aka Lewis) Volume 15 p. 92

[29] Arthur Thomas Gietzelt A 6119 G 45/10 Volume 2 F 74.

[30]       Blaxland, op. cit., p. 99.

[31]        Blaxland, op. cit., pp. 99, 437-438.

[32]       Blaxland, op. cit., p. 438.

[33]       Blaxland, op. cit., p. 332.

[34]        Visit by the Attorney General to ASIO offices at Canberra on 16 and 22March 1973.

[35]       Barnett, op. cit., p. 201.

[36]  Visit by Attorney-General to ASIO offices at Canberra and Melbourne on March 1973 F 165

[37]       Blaxland, op. cit., p. 331.

  44 Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security Supplement to Fourth Report Copy No,2 Pages 1-34 at P 33 Blaxland does not understand that Counter intelligence and counter espionage are intertwined operations.


[40] Blaxland op cit p. 206

[41] Blaxland op cit., p242

[42] Blaxland op cit p 224

[43] Blaxland op cit p240

[44] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 235.

[45] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 234.

[46] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 237.

[47] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 218.

[48] Philip Dorling, “KGB “recruited” two politicians as agents”, Sydney Morning Herald, October 14, 2013.

[49] Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer, Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

[50] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 211.

[51] Philip Dorling, “KGB “recruited” two politicians as agents”, op. cit.

[52] Blaxland, op. cit., p. 219.

[53] RHIANNON, Lee (aka BROWN, Lee aka GORMAN, Lee) Volume 7 p. 50

[54] Confidential ASIO Assessment Dated 29August 1985

[55] Barbour Note for Record Discussion between the Director-General in Canberra on 19 Dec 1972.

[56] Prime Minister the Hon Paul Keating MP Conclusion of the Security Inquiry 108/ 94 Canberra 8 December 1994.

[57]60-61 Information provided by a former senior Defence official and senior member of The Liver Team, (deceased) Research indicates that Information regarded Operation Liver has been provided to the media and The Canberra Times in particular since 1994 and can most likely be sourced to disaffected serving and former ASIO sources who resented the officially planned resignation and “boarding out of loyal and suspect officers. The number is controversial but ranges from four to ten.


62           Laurie Oakes, “KGB cover-up spooks security alliance”, The Bulletin, June 15, 1999, p. 58.

[59] C. Stewart “ASIO is worried historians will shed too much light on dark Soviet past” The Australian, 27 December 2014

[60]  C. Stewart “KGB Had Spies Inside the Security Services from 1970s to 1980s” The Australian, 8 November 2014.

[61] Michael Mulroney. Testimony, September 11 1975, cited in Loch.K. Johnson(ed.) Strategic Intelligence, Vol 3: Covert Action: Behind the Veils of Foreign Policy (Westport, Connecticut; Praeger Security International, 2007), P 225: Appendix F: note 46. cited in Loch.K. Johnson(ed) Strategic Intelligence Vol3. Westport Connecticut: Praeger Security International (2007). p 225.

[62]       Desmond Ball, “Turning a blind eye to espionage”, The Australian, May 28, 2011.
URL: www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/turning-a-blind-eye-to-espionage/story-e6frgd0x-1226063991348

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