The mythology of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the Cold War era includes the assertion that members could “smell out” agents from the security forces. In fact, the party was riddled with successful ASIO plants.
In 1950, ASIO was employing 30 people just to look after the agents. That year it inserted 10 agents (in addition to those already inside the party). In 1951, new agents inserted were 27; in 1952, 43; and in 1954, 52.[i]
That’s 132 new agents, milling around in a political party with only about 5,000 members. Little wonder that, by 1951, ASIO was reading insider accounts of five out of the six state party conferences.[ii] ASIO’s released files even note that a lover of Ironworkers’ Union boss Ernie Thornton had gold fillings in her teeth. When the party’s political committee scolded Miners’ Federation President Idris Williams for excessive drinking, ASIO heard about it straight away.
One agent appeared to be on the CPA’s central committee. He reported on one of its meetings on October 16, 1953, even though, as a (failed) security measure, the party had called that meeting at such short notice that other members only just discovered it was on. [iii]
At executive meetings of the Socialist Workers League (SWL), there would sometimes be two ASIO agents unwittingly represented, filing reports about each other. There was definitely overkill. By the 1960s, the Bendigo branch of the CPA still had its ASIO plant Phil Geri, even though the branch’s total membership was three (or four, depending on how you count Geri).[iv]
For Part I of Spy vs Spy, click here
ASIO’s snoopy coups were often ingenious — and illegal. In 1972, for example, ASIO specialists created a duplicate key to the Melbourne offices of an innocent accounting firm, W. Alexander Boag, in Goodwin Chambers, Flinders Lane. ASIO was then able to enter secretly at will for the next 18 months to photograph the tax and financial records of Boag client Ted Hill, head of the pro-Chinese CPA (Marxist-Leninist). To aid the exercise, ASIO had set up an office on the same floor for a front-company, Kalamunda Mineral Reserves.[v]
It is “very likely” that leading Melbourne communist and president of the Australia-Soviet House, John Rodgers, was an ASIO worker. [vi] The party’s own plant in ASIO, Duncan Clarke, was reporting on Rodgers, under the impression that ASIO viewed Rodgers as a person of interest.[vii]
Bernie Taft, long-time Victorian state executive member of the party, claimed he could detect agents because of their faked emotions and ignorance about party mechanisms. He cites in particular a party member who wanted to become the office cleaner. Taft claimed that such people were easy to spot.[viii]
Yeah right! This ASIO agent, “Bosch”, was Czech immigrant Max Wechsler, an Houdini of anti-communist espionage. He came (in); he saw; he reported. Indeed he furnished ASIO with 702 reports within two years, 1973-75, meeting his handlers initially thrice-weekly and then every weekday. He passed through Communist and Troskyist security barriers as if they didn’t exist.
The Wechsler ASIO details became public after ASIO in 2006 released 10 normally redacted files to Professor Phillip Deery at Victoria University, much to Deery’s surprise. Wechsler, a fitter, told our immigration officers in Vienna that he had been a resister to the Soviet invasion in 1968. ASIO liked the cut of his jib and he migrated in 1969.
In 1971 he was hospitalized in Queensland for six weeks with anxiety and neuroses. His wife, a nurse, was convicted in Brisbane in 1972 on 13 forgery and theft charges as a result of her infatuation with slow horses. ASIO was unaware of those matters when Max applied for a spy-ship in Melbourne in November, 1972. Peter Barbour, ASIO’s then director-general, still viewed Wechsler as a dubious and implausible candidate, and was eventually proved right.
On February 21, 1973, during a single day, Wechsler, then 23, applied to join the CPA and Taft enthusiastically signed him on. Wechsler had hardly arrived inside the Victorian CPA before he was answering the phone on behalf of party president John Sendy. [ix] He also acquired the part-time office-cleaning job, contrary to Taft’s memoirs.
His progress in the party, and then in Trot groups, was so rapid that his ASIO pay within two years shot from $10 a month (plus expenses) to $90. He was living better than he should as the party’s cleaner on $18 a week, and ASIO told him to stop taking taxis, for example. He was also instructed, being “impoverished”, to badger the party for a pay rise.
He successfully conned ASIO into lending him $300 in June, 1973, to buy a motorbike “to improve his agent role”, but he sold the bike for $200 in a fit of desperation over his wife’s losses at the local TAB.[x]
At one point the ASIO Assistant Director-General noted: “This file is becoming cluttered up with the financial dealings with [Wechsler]. I thought that when the last request was made, this would be the end.” Wechsler’s handlers, however, were sympathetic. For example, they “strongly” recommended an expense claim by the “extremely hard working” Wechsler, and noted that “Agents in other States who are [Socialist Workers’ League] members receive far in excess of what this agent receives”.[xi]
Wechsler’s mystique included amazing ability to sell the party newspaper Tribune, despite its mind-numbing party jargon. As the party newsletter put it: ‘A new member, Max, a migrant to this country, has energetically taken up selling on the city streets and at public meetings. In about six weeks he has sold some 260 papers. How about more comrades joining the sales drive?’[xii]
My suspicion is that he was actually dumping the newspapers and getting reimbursed by ASIO for the cover price. But top official Bernie Taft saw with his own eyes Wechsler selling 15 Tribunes in 90 minutes, which Taft surmised was “something of a record”. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Le Carre, but could other ASIO operatives have been mustered to pose as Clarke’s newspaper customers? Did ASIO have the resources for such a sophisticated operation? Was it coincidence that, when Wechsler later infiltrated the Trotsky-minded Socialist Workers’ League(SWL) and Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA), he also won cred there for his ability to sell (or dump) Direct Action?[xiii]
Taft gave Wechsler (whose name translates as ‘Changer’) two Russian cameras for an extra role as party photographer. ASIO then had to rush Wechsler through a photographer’s course, incidentally enabling Wechsler to take high-class portraits for ASIO’s rogues’ gallery of the CPA.[xiv] ASIO files record that Taft and Victorian President John Sendy “value his work" and "seem to trust him without question”. Taft was “pushing Agent as fast as he can into the industrial side of the C.P. A.”
Wechsler’s reports, according to Deery, ranged from briefings on AMWU faction meetings, the protest movement against US bases (especially the Omega station in Gippsland) and a planned demonstration against the Signals Intelligence Unit at Albert Park barracks, local travel arrangements of an Italian communist, Guiliano Pajetta, reports on the CPA State Committee Conference, the particulars of donors to the CPA’s ‘fighting fund’ and subscribers to Australian Left Review, “the identities of all secretaries of CPA branches in the metropolitan area, a list of financial members of the Victorian Branch of the CPA and much of its financial and banking arrangements, details of the electoral campaign of a CPA candidate, George Zangalis, and additional profiles of Party leaders.”
Wechsler’s rise was so meteoric that ASIO began to worry that he might be a “push-in” to ASIO, i.e. a double agent. The Victorian ASIO office demurred: he was "a likeable little fellow who is proud of his Australian citizenship and simply wishes to assist the A.S.I.O.” He moved into the Socialist Workers League in late 1973, and became a full-time activist, a State executive committee member and even its Minutes Secretary, a handy job.
In mid 1974, he helped arrange a demo against the visiting Shah of Iran. He persuaded the other members of the organizing committee in the Trades Hall to concentrate the demo at a spot which happened to be the best focus point for hidden ASIO photographers in a building overlooking City Square. He also furnished keys to the Adelaide offices of the Trots, enabling ASIO to do “black bag” break-ins. (Editor’s note: The Shah’s 1974 tour of Australia was covered in Iran, where the footage below went to air. Look closely and, to the right of Melbourne’s Town Hall at the clip’s 3:00 mark, you can just catch a glimpse of what appear to be the protesters Wechsler positioned for ASIO’s convenience.)
The Trots had rented and renovated premises in Peel Street, North Melbourne. Wechsler tipped off the real estate agent about the movement’s nature and the agent cancelled the lease.[xv] Wechsler identified influential SWL members inside the Labor Party, which then proscribed the AWL and expelled its members.
Despite ASIO’s solicitude, the Wechsler story ended in tears. On February 16, 1975, Wechsler went to journalist Chris Forsyth of the Sunday Observer to sell his story for $2,000, and a few days later gave his resignation to his ASIO minders in their official rented room at the Southern Cross Hotel. Wechsler’s gripe was that the Whitlam government wasn’t responsive enough to his reports.
When Forsyth’s story ran in the Observer, the embarrassment of ASIO was matched only by the embarrassment of the CPA. The Whitlam government and the CPA both lied that Wechsler had not been their paid employee and each denied that they had given Wechsler the slightest credibility. Now that Wechsler was unfrocked, both government and CPA echoed the succinct and independent judgment of the Brunswick CIB that Wechsler was “a nut”.
Wechsler, meanwhile, had unwisely been parked by the Observer in the Wrest Point hotel and casino, where he attracted attention for his lavish spending and gambling. Even journo Forsyth got his private parts caught in the Wechsler wringer. Someone successfully sued the Observer for libel and as proprietor Max Newton was bankrupt and overseas, Forsyth was eventually ordered personally to pay the $15,000 damages.
Wechsler ended up in Bangkok as a drug spy for Commonwealth police, where his successes included fingering Ananda Marga activists. In 2002 he made local news there as victim of a robbery of his 4m baht in cash and three Rolexes. The cash at least was recovered.
The last reference I can find to Wechsler is in January 2010, where he pops up as a freelance journalist for The Bangkok Post, with a piece involving an interview with an Iranian intelligence defector forecasting the early downfall of President Ahmadinejad. At that time Wechsler would have been 59.[xvi]
The Trots in Melbourne made the best of a bad job and claimed that because of good party discipline, Wechsler had been unable to influence policy. Wechsler, despite his sterling service to ASIO, never got an OAM for it.
Tony Thomas was a member of the CPA from age 18 to 21, and became a leading pamphlet letter-boxer around Willagee, Fremantle. He left the party as part of a futile plan to improve his low success rate with women.
[i] Cain, F., Terrorism & Intelligence in Australia. Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne 2008. p105
[ii] ibid, p105
[iii] Deery, Philip, Communist, Security and the Cold War. http://www.api-network.com/main/pdf/scholars/jas55_deery.pdf
[iv] Deery, P., ASIO and the Communist Party
[v] McKnight, D., The New Left and the Old Moles. http://beyondrightandleft.com.au/archives/2006/07/the_new_left_an.html
[vi] Deery, P. Communism, Security and the Cold War. http://tinyurl.com/8gyqfnc
[vii] Taft, B., Crossing the Party Line, Scribe, Newham, 1994. P140
[viii] ibid. P139
[ix] Op cit, Deery, iv.
[xiii] Deery, P., A Double Agent Down Under
[xiv] Deery, op cit iv