Readers of this magazine may be aware that for the better part of a decade I have campaigned for release of the Cook Report into the public domain. The very existence of that report, written in 1993-94 for the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, was long secret; its findings even more so. It is now accepted that the report was written and that its central finding was that ASIO was deeply penetrated during the Cold War, not by one Soviet mole but by a clutch of them—four or five. Those moles were pensioned off, not prosecuted. The official history of ASIO tiptoed around the whole business on specious grounds. The Cook Report remains shrouded in secrecy and attempts by 60 Minutes to get it declassified were blocked.
This report appears in the May edition of Quadrant.
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In October last year, I met with the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, and put to him the suggestion that, in the light of the acute concern by the Coalition government about Chinese (and Russian) infiltration and influence operations in Australia right now, the Cook Report should finally be declassified. The right kind of release, with his imprimatur, I argued, would educate the public about how hostile intelligence services have, in the past, penetrated ASIO itself, compromising our country’s entire effort to maintain the security of its institutions and alliance communications. This would provide a strong support for present efforts to check hostile foreign penetration and influence operations.
He listened with apparent interest and then requested that I draft a formal memorandum for his attention setting out the grounds for release of the Cook Report. On October 25 I sent such a memorandum, with a covering letter. The memorandum read as follows:
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A: The Proposal
# All materials pertaining to Australia that were within the collection of notes brought West to MI6 in 1992 by the KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin should be published in Australia with the official support of the Attorney-General.
# The publication should be accompanied by an essay about the significance of these materials and why they have been withheld from publication since 1992.
# A central feature of this essay should be a clear and authoritative account of:
1 The actions of the Keating government in 1993, when it became acquainted with the documents in question;
2 The nature and work of Operation Liver;
3 The commissioning of Michael Cook to assess the matter;
4 Cook’s key findings as recorded in his report to Prime Minister Keating.
Should it be deemed expedient on legal grounds that the names of Soviet moles identified by Liver/Cook be withheld, the essay should refer to the moles and suspects by alphabetical letters and explain why names are being withheld.
There might usefully, also, be a Preface by you, as the Attorney-General, setting out the reasons for releasing these materials in the present climate and observing that the problem of foreign interference and influence operations, in the words of the current Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, has now reached “unprecedented levels”.
B: The Case for Doing This
ASIO’s raison d’être: ASIO was founded in the late 1940s expressly because it had been discovered, through the Venona program, that there was at least one Soviet spy ring operating in Australia, including Soviet moles inside the Department of External Affairs and within the office of the Minister for External Affairs (then H.V. Evatt). Its raison d’être was to pre-empt such a state of affairs ever occurring again. Not only did it fail in that mission, but it was itself deeply penetrated by multiple moles throughout and right up to the conclusion of the Cold War. This is a national scandal for which there has never been any kind of open or satisfactory accounting.
Gaping hole in the official history of ASIO: The official history of ASIO, the final volume of which was published in 2016, failed to address this matter in any but the flimsiest and most circumspect manner. However, both the official historian John Blaxland and the former Director-General of ASIO, David Irvine, have publicly admitted that there were multiple penetrations, that the names of at least “a handful” of moles are known and that the damage done by them was “devastating”. It is surely high time that the tax-paying and politically or strategically serious citizenry of this country know the truth of the matter.
The unprecedented challenge we face: This is all the more so because problems of foreign subversion and espionage by no means ended with the Cold War, but are known now to be actually more serious than they were at any point during the Cold War. Given this current context, it would seem to be disadvantageous to the country that almost everyone remains ignorant of what occurred during the Cold War, with the implications that that has for what could be and, in certain respects, clearly is happening right now. There is, I submit, a need for the public and the full spectrum of the intelligence and military establishment to be brought to understand what occurred and the damage it did, in order that the gravity of such matters be grounded not in abstract theory but in historical and documented reality.
1965. Specious grounds for burying the matter: ASIO has to date been able to deflect calls for the matter to be put on the public record, but it should not be permitted to protect its unmerited reputation at the expense of the national interest. This preciousness in the intelligence world has strong parallels with the treatment of Blunt and Philby in England. There was, for many years, a disinclination among his old colleagues at MI6 to believe that Philby had been a KGB mole and, when it became perfectly plain that he had been, there was a distinct disinclination to prosecute or imprison him. Were the matter in hand less serious than it is, one would be tempted to liken ASIO’s behaviour, also, to the hilarious episode of Yes, Prime Minister called “One of Us” (1986), which was transparently inspired by the case of Roger Hollis, Director-General of MI5 between 1956 and 1965, and a refusal within the British establishment to grapple seriously with allegations that he had been a GRU mole throughout his career—from 1938 to 1965.
1966. Timeliness of acting now: The only way for this matter to be put to rest responsibly and, in present and emerging circumstances, usefully would be for an authoritative account of it, sanctioned by you as Attorney-General, to be entered into the public record and directed pointedly at those who are currently engaged in the service of foreign powers or who insist that there is no appreciable danger of anyone doing that to the national detriment. The time to do this is now, while the foreign influence legislation is fresh and before the next federal election, which may sweep an ALP government to power that will be averse to grappling with this matter and would in all probability be discouraged by senior Labor figures, starting with Paul Keating, from doing what I propose. This is a task that only you, a lawyer, a political cleanskin of impeccable standing and Attorney-General in a Coalition government can now undertake. I beg you to do so.
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I added a five-page account of the work I had done since 2010 and how, little by little, my careful claims had been vindicated. I appended several published papers on the subject, including my review of the official history of ASIO and its lamentable treatment of the matter. The Attorney-General’s response arrived in my mail box on my return, in mid-February, from a month abroad. Dated February 15, it was characterised as a “final response”. I take that to mean that the matter is closed as far as the Attorney-General is concerned.
His letter reads as follows:
Dear Mr [sic] Monk,
Thank you for your letter of 25 October 2018 proposing the release of records regarding the Soviet penetration of ASIO, the findings of the Cook Report and Operation Liver, so that you might prepare an official account of Soviet Cold War espionage in Australia.
Access to historical Commonwealth records is governed by the Archives Act 1983 (the Archives Act). Under the Archives Act, you have a right of access to Commonwealth records that are in the open access period unless they are exempt records as defined by section 33 of the Act. Currently, records created up to and including 1997 are in the open access period. The Archives Act defines exempt records to include information whose disclosure would damage Australia’s security, defence and international relations.
You can apply for access to any Commonwealth record that is within the open access period by contacting the Reference Service at the National Archives of Australia (the National Archives) through their website www.naa.gov.au.
Alternatively, you could apply for these records under the Special Access provisions of the Archives Act. The Special Access provisions allow certain categories of individuals to seek access to Commonwealth records that are not publicly available. Researchers preparing major works of national significance for publication are one of the categories of individuals eligible to apply for special access.
In making a decision on a Special Access application, an agency will consider a range of matters including the applicant’s intention to publish; the qualifications of the applicant, including previous publications; the benefits and costs to the Commonwealth of granting special access; and any sensitivity related to the records involved. Where Special Access is granted to classified records the requisite security clearances are required as you identify in your memorandum. However, please note that due to the sensitivity of the records you are requesting, Special Access may not be granted. Where Special Access is denied, there is no right of appeal.
The National Archives can assist in preparing your application for Special Access by helping you to identify the records you wish to access. You will find more information about Special Access, including the Application for Special Access to Commonwealth Records form, on the National Archives website. If you would like to discuss making an application for Special Access, please contact Anne McLean, Director Reference Services at the National Archives on (02) 6212 3951 or at [email protected]
While I appreciate that your proposal to develop an official account would require considerable effort, I am unable to offer any remuneration or assistance at this time.
I wish you well with your research,
The Hon. Christian Porter MP
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How very helpful of the Attorney-General to point out what any serious researcher in such matters knows full well and what 60 Minutes found, when they applied, under my guidance, for Special Access, in 2015. How very charming of him to wish me well with what he styles my research. How wholly evasive of him, on the other hand, to fail entirely to address the substance of my memorandum as regards the case for him to act in securing the release of these documents in the public interest.
He will, I trust, be gratified to know that since he has now played Pilate and washed his hands of the matter, I shall simply walk away and allow this crucifixion of the public interest to proceed. I neither can nor will do any more. When I first wrote on this subject, in 2010-11, the silence in response, as several well-informed people remarked to me at the time, was deafening. There appears to be an entrenched, bipartisan opinion in Canberra that the matter remain muted in this manner. Quite why that is so, no one cares publicly to explain. But I shall not make it a matter of private obsession. I’ve done what I could. I had hoped that Christian Porter, while he was still in the august office of Attorney-General, might finally see fit to put his weight behind an effort to bring the matter out into the open. Instead, he rather oddly wishes me well in my efforts to do so.
The basic truth has been established, but continues to be deflected. The traitors, if they are still alive, appear to live in comfortable retirement. The message could not be more bell-like in its clarity: in China they execute those charged with treason; here we quietly pension them off. I would be the last to suggest that we should emulate the Chinese Communist Party and shoot people when they are found to have operated for a foreign government—as it did with some thirty of its own nationals just a few years ago, when they were found to have been working as informants for the CIA. But I would have thought that there were many just and appropriate ways to deal with those who worked inside our government as agents of the KGB other than to simply put them out to pasture with their names and records protected. The precedent that sets for those who may well be doing so now on China’s behalf (or Russia’s or Iran’s) is, I’d have thought, one of the things that would cause an Attorney-General to lose sleep at night. Apparently not this Attorney-General.
Well, I have many more satisfying and creative projects to pursue than playing almost a lone hand in seeking to put things to rights in this regard. I shall, therefore, bow out at this juncture; to the relief, perhaps, of all those mandarins of discretion who believe that such things are best consigned to the Special Access files of the National Archives and such Special Access best denied without right of appeal. I feel rather like singing a song as I walk away, to the tune of the Adelaide Crows club song, beginning with the words:
Well done, Christian Por-or-ter
You’re a mandarin, through and through
I’m resigning as I ough-ough-ter
And it’s all because of you …
Dr Paul Monk is the former head of the China Desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the author of ten books, of which the most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (Echo Books, 2018).