Top Shows

Contact ONE News

Australia's Cold War spooks revealed

Published: 5:46PM Friday May 30, 2008

The secretive world of cold war espionage emerged from the shadows this week with the release of more than 3,000 previously classified documents.

Thirty years after Justice Robert Hope's royal commission into Australia's spy agencies, the 3,357 pages released for public scrutiny by the National Archives revealed a domestic spy agency riven by gossip and cliques, unable to catch enemy spies and incapable of keeping proper records.

"ASIO could not be taken seriously as an efficient organisation, still less an effective security organisation," Hope wrote in one report.

"I found in ASIO's files cases of officers who were victimised for supposed misdeeds."

"I found, too, evidence of favouritism, even nepotism, over many years. Promotions were made arbitrarily without cause shown."

Worse - Hope suggested ASIO may have been infiltrated by the enemy.

"ASIO may be, or may have been, penetrated by a hostile intelligence service," one of the previously classified documents said.

"Many of the more thoughtful and responsible ASIO officers who gave evidence before me sought an opportunity to voice their fears of a penetration."

In the 1970s the Australian Intelligence Security Organisation, or ASIO as it is more commonly known, was focusing intently on home-grown leftists and failing to do its real job of catching locally-based Soviet spies, Hope wrote.

When Gough Whitlam won office in 1972 he took action after years of mutual suspicion between Labor and ASIO.

On March 16, 1973, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, under the full glare of the media, went to ASIO's Melbourne headquarters and demanded to see documents about a group of Australian-based Croatian terrorists called the Ustasha.

Murphy believed the spies had been withholding information from him.

In the wake of what history labelled the "Murphy Raids", Whitlam called on Hope to conduct a wide-ranging royal commission into ASIO and a host of other spy agencies, including the foreign spy service the Australian Secret Intelligence Service or ASIS.

George Brownbill was the royal commission's secretary and this week he was on-hand as the documents he had not seen in 30 years were unveiled.

"I must say that when I consigned the Royal Commission into Intelligence Services records to the department I did not expect 30 years later to be talking about them and the work of two-and-a-half-years that they represent," Brownbill said.

The man who came to know most of the great secrets of Australian espionage talked openly about the mutual distrust of the cold war, his boss and, of course, ASIO.

Even setting up an office for the commission was a mission in suspicion.

"I asked ASIO to install a secure electronic perimeter (at the office), just to be on the safe side, however, I got the special operations people from ASIS to put in another inside the ASIO one," Brownbill said.

And he even gave up one of his own secrets.

"I announce today that Bob Hope was in line to be appointed to the High Court but the late Justice Murphy asserted claims to the vacancy which the cabinet of the day did not resist."

It was one tantalising secret on a day filled with the wide eyes of historians and journalists having questions answered for the first time.

Hope wrote eight reports in total, some of them four volumes in length.

The fifth series deals with the ultra-secretive ASIS, a body that had its very existence denied by the federal government until 1977.

While scores of pages remain blacked out, the information still too sensitive to reveal, the ASIS report shows something of the lengths the organisation went to in keeping itself secret.

A special tax office staffer was appointed to file the tax returns of ASIS operatives and all the records were kept at ASIS headquarters.

Group certificates were never issued to the spies because an organisation that didn't exist could hardly exist as a group employer.

And funding for the body was hidden inside the Department of External Affairs, later renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Hope recommended the existence of ASIS be recognised.

In 1977, Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser did just that.

It was one of the many recommendations implemented by government.

Thirty years on, ASIO's director general Paul O'Sullivan told an assembled crowd of academics, journalists and intelligence officers that much had changed.

"Many of his (Hope's) recommendations were accepted, implemented and have endured to this day," O'Sullivan said.

Indeed, the entire intelligence community now has what O'Sullivan described as an in-house "24-7 royal commission" - the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.

Mr O'Sullivan or his predecessor will be back at the archives in 2014 when the documents from Hope's second royal commission may be released and yet more secrets thrown into the light.

Until then, there are 3,357 pages to pore over.