ANU academic's new official history of ASIO captures the extraordinary story of Australia’s original spy catchers and the hidden secrets of our intelligence past.
It is one of Australia’s most guarded and covert organisations. So why is the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) keen to spill the beans?
That’s the question many have asked ANU historian Professor David Horner, who has just released the first volume in a three-part official history of the government organisation, The Spy Catchers
“ASIO have not told me why they wanted the book published,” says Horner, who is based at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
“But I can speculate. The first reason is that they want to demonstrate they are an open organisation and that Australians should know what they are doing.
“The second is that there are a lot of myths out there about ASIO, and ASIO would like to have the myths put to bed in an authorative way.”
Horner and his team have spent the last five years lifting the lid on ASIO’s operations and separating fact from fiction. They have been given what Horner describes as “unfettered” access to 1,900 of ASIO’s files for volume one alone, and been promised no censorship.
“That was the deal,” explains Horner, of when he was selected to undertake the write up. Horner also insisted that the history be written at ANU, to maintain suitable objective distance.
“The way I described it to ASIO is that we have a once-in-a-generation chance of telling ASIO’s story,” says Horner. “This is probably not going to happen again, and we need to tell it not only in an authorative way, but in a detailed and substantial way.”
But in an industry where the secret of your success is keeping your success a secret, is this really a warts and all study?
“Yes it is,” says Horner. “Many people were suspicious of the fact that ASIO wouldn’t show us all the files, they’d hide some from us. But we have seen everything we’ve asked for.
“In fact, we have found records that records that ASIO didn’t know they had.”
While there hasn’t been censorship, the book has been vetted, with some elements redacted – but only when national security or the identity of officers are at stake.
“If we have drawn conclusions that they didn’t like, ASIO have let us know, in no uncertain terms. But in the cases where they can’t prove that we’re wrong, they’ve just had to wear the criticism, grit their teeth and bear it,” says Horner. Former ASIO director general, Charles Spry, helped the organisation professionalise but also has a controversial legacy.
It isn’t just the top brass who’ve let the sunshine in. For the first time Horner and his colleagues have been able to name former officers, something not normally allowed by law. Sometimes peer pressure helped.
“The odd one or two who originally indicated that they wanted to remain anonymous, changed their mind and agreed to be named once they heard their mates were in the book,” says Horner.
And what a story ASIO and its people have to tell. Horner’s first volume covers the agency’s “shaky beginnings” in 1949 and culminates with the “high note” of the 1963 expulsion of Soviet embassy first secretary Ivan Skripov, who had been grooming a woman, Sylvia, to spy for the USSR. Sylvia it turns out was from ASIO.
“In that period, ASIO went from being a very small, initially amateurish operation, quickly expanding to become a very professional organisation.”
In between readers are taken on a roller coaster of success and failure across the broad spectrum of ASIO’s work in counter-espionage, counter-subversion and protective security. As Horner puts it, by 1963 “it’s a class half full or a glass half empty” scenario.
But like most things back then, it’s very much a hot tale about the Cold War, and the perceived threat of communism.
That includes the 1954 defection of Soviet agent Vladimir Petrov and his wife, which Horner says established ASIO’s reputation with overseas intelligence organisations and the Australian government.
“What we need to get our heads around is the environment of the Cold War, which is very hard for us to do now as it is so removed,” says Horner.
“Australia had just gone through the Second World War under the threat of invasion and suddenly you’ve got the communists appearing to pose a major threat.
“Internationally, with the Cold War, the Soviet Union, nuclear power, the Korean War, the Malayan emergencies, and insurgencies around the world, it appears as though communism is mounting a major offensive against the West.
“And you’ve got the Communist Party of Australia saying they support that. ASIO definitely had the view that the party is a threat to Australia.”
It’s in this environment that we discover two officers who, while walking past the Communist Party’s Adelaide office late one night, chance upon an open window. They immediately jump in, grabbing vital information – even though they were breaking the law and would have been prosecuted if caught.
“But they said they did it because they felt Australia was under threat,” says Horner. “That was the mindset.”
It’s an important theme, mindset. It relates just as much to understanding ASIO’s past as it does its present. So much of what it still does today is informed by its history; even though the threats have changed, and the organisation itself may be more open.
But more importantly, it goes to show that so much of what is considered security is a just as much a state of mind as it is a state of body. It’s a very gritty, and very human pursuit.
And from the hidden secrets of Australia’s intelligence past Horner has unearthed, one thing is clear; it would seem that many of those who have donned the cloak and dagger of ASIO employ, are ‘spies like us’.
“After all, ASIO is not separate from Australia. It is made of ordinary Australians who are seeking to do what they see as the best for Australia as a government agency,” says Horner.
“They are not fool proof. Obviously they make mistakes.
“But I’d like to think that after reading my history, people will have a better understanding of how ASIO operates, and through understanding comes appreciation perhaps, and a better opinion of a major government agency.”
You will have to read the book and judge for yourself. Now that the secret’s out, you can’t afford not to be in the know.
'The Spy Catchers: the official history of ASIO, 1949-1963' is available from Allen & Unwin. The second volume, covering 1964 to 1975 and the Vietnam War, will be released in 2015. The final volume, covering 1976 to 1989 and the end of the Cold War, will come out in 2016.
Article by James Giggacher.