Spies conducted a secret war around the ANU campus and the suburbs of Canberra, according to an insider’s account of Australia’s security agency ASIO. Ross Peake reports.

The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, 1975-1989, the third volume of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s history, shows the organisation was infiltrated by Soviet moles during the tumultuous later years of the Cold War, undermining many of the agency’s operations. 

Professor John Blaxland from the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, who co-authored the book with Dr Rhys Crawley, says it reveals KGB officers were able to recruit and run agents in Australia for many years. 

While the book covers ASIO’s history between 1975 and 1989, firm evidence of Soviet infiltration did not emerge until the early 1990s, making the final chapter ‘tricky’ to write. 

“It’s only afterwards, casting back, that [infiltration] was apparent and what had happened could be clearly identified, who was involved and what the damage appeared to be,” he says. 

“Counter-espionage operations against Soviet officials in Australia continually and explicably failed throughout the 1980s. 

“In hindsight, it became evident that these operations were failing because their details were leaking – penetration had happened at a fairly senior level and it had revealed the prospective operations to the Soviets, so they were ahead of the game.” 

Blaxland says it is extraordinary how much activity ASIO was engaged in around Canberra at the time. 

“The Cold War was on for young and old during this period – there was enough espionage and counter-espionage around the suburbs of Canberra to make recent TV shows pale by comparison,” he says. 

“It was going on with the Soviets, the East Germans, the Yugoslavs, but for the first time the Chinese come onto the scene. 

“How ASIO did its business [monitoring embassies in Canberra] remains pretty sensitive so there is some opaque wording [in the book] about the nature and detail of the surveillance, for some very reasonable operational and legal reasons. 

“But what is very, very clear is that it was happening on and around the ANU campus and the suburbs of Canberra, around the diplomatic residences, and around the shops and parks – surveillance and meetings and drop-offs. 

“It was going on in restaurants, cafes, bars, in Manuka, Kingston, Deakin and Yarralumla, around the Chinese Embassy and the Soviet Embassy.” 

“It’s important for the truth to be out there, for the words to show, for this story to be credible.”

Professor John Blaxland

The book gives a unique ASIO view on national security issues such as the befriending of former National President of the Australian Labor Party David Combe by Russian diplomat and suspected intelligence officer Valery Ivanov. 

“ASIO was monitoring Ivanov and had his house bugged – David Combe crossed the field of view and got sucked into the counter-espionage game,” Blaxland says. 

Convinced it was a case of Russian cultivation, Director-General of Security Harvey Barnett briefed newly elected Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the case. 

“Combe was definitely being cultivated by Ivanov, and happily so – he put himself there because he wanted to do business and he wanted Ivanov to open doors for him,” Blaxland says. 

“But then Ivanov effectively says to him, ‘let’s go below the radar’ and that sets off alarms with Harvey Barnett and that’s when he decides to go to the Prime Minister. 

“It blows up – Hawke acts precipitously. Barnett had the best intentions in briefing the Prime Minister but it got out of hand when the story went public.” 

ASIO’s headquarters on St Kilda Road in Melbourne in 1974. ASIO’s main office was relocated to Canberra in 1986. Photo: NAA, A6135, K12/8/74/47

Blaxland says the book will make for ‘uncomfortable’ reading for many ASIO insiders. 

“It is a no-punches-pulled account … there are things we say about penetration and failed operations that are not glorifying of ASIO,” he says. 

“It’s important for the truth to be out there, for the words to show, for this story to be credible. 

“This could not be some kind of hagiographic account of ASIO, and it isn’t, and that’s why some people wince when they read it. 

“This is an uncomfortable read for many people but one that places ASIO front and centre as an important – and now accountable and more responsive – organ of state.” 

The first volume in the trilogy, The Spy Catchers, covering the period from 1949 to 1963, earned a coveted Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for the author, ANU historian Emeritus Professor David Horner. 

He also won the UK’s ward for the publication, which was released in late 2014. 

It sheds new light on a conspiracy theory that ASIO and the government engineered the Petrov defection, specifically to embarrass the Labor Party and keep it out of power. 

The book also outlines tactics ASIO used in counter espionage, from embassy bugging to surveillance of local suspects. 

The ‘warts and all’ history overturns many other popular myths about the top secret organisation. 

The second instalment of the secret history of ASIO covers the tumultuous period in Australian history from the end of the Menzies era to the downfall of the Whitlam Government. 

It covers events from 1963 to 1975, including street protests over women’s rights, Aboriginal land rights and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. 

The book also explores the alleged ASIO role in the demise of the Whitlam Government, the question of CIA involvement in Australia and the controversial 1973 police raids on ASIO’s Melbourne offices. 

Blaxland also wrote the second volume which he describes as ‘an untold story about Australia through the secret prism of ASIO’. 

“It’s extraordinary, unheralded,” he says. 

The authors were granted unfettered access to ASIO’s archives while researching the three volumes of the official history of the internal security organisation. 

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