The final volume of the official history of ASIO admits, in muted tones, that there were multiple Soviet moles in the organization during the Cold War. Not one or a possible one, as so often rumoured in the past; but a number of them. The language is vague and elliptical, but the statement is there and it is buttressed by the rhetorical question with which the authors finish the whole work: ‘how extensive was the betrayal and how extensive was the damage?’ The official history was the best possible place to answer this question, but its authors were forbidden by ASIO itself to do this. The highly classified 1994 Cook Report contains the truth. The official history does not. As a consequence, we the people, for whose sake ASIO exists in the first place, are being kept in the dark about its betrayal from within and consequent grave failures during the Cold War. We must have the truth in this matter – clear and unredacted.
Speaking on national television last year, one of the three authors of the three volume official history John Blaxland, stated that there had been a ‘handful’ of Soviet moles in ASIO; that the official historians had seen the documents and know the names of the moles in question; that it was ‘deeply shocking’ to finally realize what had happened and that the damage done had been ‘devastating’. Yet none of this was printed in the official history. All that ASIO would allow into print was the oblique statement that there were a number of moles and that the whole story is still being kept secret for undisclosed reasons. As someone who is a former senior intelligence analyst and has written about this matter for many years – claiming that there had been four or more moles in ASIO – I feel both vindicated by the official history and badly let down by it.
This is a big story. In 1981, in the National Times, Brian Toohey wrote that the KGB had been ‘more successful in its penetration operations in Australia than in any other country, according to hard evidence available to the American Central Intelligence Agency.’ It is worth quoting him at length on this, because last year he played a completely different tune in reviewing the official history:
The CIA evidence has been built up over many years from defectors, its own agents in Moscow and intercepts of Soviet communications. It shows that the KGB consistently has been able to obtain a much higher level of classified information from Canberra than from anywhere else. The special value of the leaks is that they include sensitive US information given to Australia under intelligence and other swapping arrangements…A top CIA source told the National Times that, despite intensive efforts, the agency had been bamboozled in trying to work out just who were the KGB penetration agents in Australia. But he said CIA studies of what they knew was turning up in Moscow demonstrated that the KGB had magnificent sources in Australia. ‘The product was better than anything else they were getting – and still is.’…According to this source, who at one stage in the 1970s was head of the division that included CIA activities in Australia, the KGB operation in Australia had the hallmarks of a penetration that went back at least 30 years.
This assessment has now been vindicated by the official historians – but not in the official history, except in the most muted possible language.
ASIO and both sides of politics, at the highest levels, have known the truth since 1994, but have been withholding it from the public. The Russians, of course, have known it all along. Those concealing the Cook Report’s findings have been aided and abetted by those who think that talk of moles is just the old hunt for ‘reds under the bed’, which was always misguided and should be consigned to the dustbin of history. In reviewing the third volume of the official history last year, Brian Toohey, of all people, took the position that the history provided no evidence that there had been Soviet penetration of ASIO; that it wouldn’t matter if there had been; and that Dennis Richardson, in the early years of this century, had justifiably stripped away ASIO’s counter-intelligence capability to concentrate resources on counter-terrorism.
Toohey has lost the plot. The muted manner in which the official history admitted that there had, indeed, been penetrations is a fig-leaf over the organization’s acute embarrassment about the grim truth. Hostile penetration matters a great deal. The stripping away of what counter-intelligence (CI) capacity had presumably been put in place since 1994, if that is indeed what happened in the 2000s, is astonishing. A very tightly held AFP and DSD program dubbed Operation Liver reviewed and cleaned out ASIO in 1993-94.
The 1994 Cook Report laid out the evidence of how rotten ASIO had been in the Cold War. It has been dubbed ‘the report no-one is allowed to read’. Given, however, that ASIO was established in the first place (in 1949) because Canberra was leaking like a sieve and that throughout the Cold War it was supposed to be the guardian of our intelligence alliance with our Anglophone allies, the discovery that there were multiple Soviet moles inside it for much of its history calls into question the very rationale for having such an organization at all.
There were rumours right through the 1970s and 1980s that ASIO (and possibly other parts of the Australian government) had been penetrated. But the general tendency was to assume that Australia was an intelligence backwater and to insist, as Toohey still does, that hunting for moles is a dangerous and unjustified ‘witch-hunt’. Yet it was discovered, in the late 1940s, that there was a large Soviet spy ring in Canberra. This ring was not uncovered due to a witch hunt, but by cable traffic intercepts and skilled decryption of Soviet codes. The fourteen spies in question were not working at the margins of Australian society, but in the offices of the Minister for External Affairs (H. V. Evatt), the Secretary for External Affairs (John Burton), and on the staff of Paul Hasluck (in External Affairs and at the United Nations).
The late Des Ball, doyen of Australian scholars on intelligence matters, declared in his last years that he believed both Evatt and Burton were knowing collaborators in this espionage in the 1940s. Both were resistant to the establishment of ASIO and to any vetting of External Affairs staff. Evatt notoriously remarked in the House of Representatives, in the mid-1950s, that there were no Soviet spies in Australia. He had asked the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and been reassured of this, he told his astounded fellow parliamentarians. Those, like Toohey, who now play down the penetration of ASIO are in the same category as the half-mad Evatt.
The Hope Royal Commission of 1974-77 and later investigations worried about possible Soviet penetration of ASIO. No truly serious investigation was conducted, however, until the Keating government, in 1992-93, learned disturbing things from unreleased portions of the Mitrokhin archive about KGB operations in Australia. Operation Liver and the Cook Report were commissioned by Keating to get to the bottom of the problem. What they found, however, was so disturbing that the evidence was buried by the Keating government. The final chapter of the official history’s final volume, ‘Looking for Moles’, begins:
Allegations of penetration – that the [KGB or GRU] might have placed moles within ASIO – have circulated for years. We now know…that penetrating Australia’s intelligence agencies was one of the KGB’s objectives following the resumption of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Soviet Union in 1959. It now appears evident…that they succeeded, although in most instances, the fact of penetration during these years was revealed through information that only came to light after the Berlin Wall fell…
This is an evasion of what the historians actually found and what Cook had long ago reported to the Keating government. The truth is that ASIO was deeply compromised and foiled, from very early on, in performing its most fundamental task.
ASIO’s counter-intelligence function, never robust, was broken in the Whitlam years. Lionel Murphy, as Attorney General, in 1973-74, actually forbad ASIO to bug the Soviet Embassy. As Blaxland and Crawley express it:
At its peak, in 1969, D5 had nine staff, but it had shrunk to only three people by 1974. By the mid-1970s, ASIO’s counter-intelligence capabilities were so poor, despite the continuing efforts of some judicious officers, that they were almost non-existent.
Yet in those very years we now know that a highly effective KGB officer, Gerontiy Lazovik was active in Canberra, recruiting inside the Australian intelligence services.
At a telling point, based on knowledge of who the moles turned out to be, the official historians comment:
In hindsight, it seems that the difficult questions were often avoided or not considered. Explanations were settled on, such as indiscreet agents, with no evidence, and these were accepted over the more sinister possibility that a mole was busy undermining ASIO’s efforts. All the while, as later intelligence would suggest, a number of moles were left to continue their treachery.
The wording here warrants close attention. Later intelligence would ‘suggest’ that a number of moles were at work within ASIO as of 1981. What exactly that intelligence was or is, the official historians do not disclose. Operation Liver and the Cook Report are the answers. We need their findings finally to come out. There can be no excuse, a generation after the end of the Cold War, for concealing from the Australian public what has always been known in Moscow and has long been known in tight circles in Canberra.
Lazovik was not the first or last successful Soviet intelligence officer in Australia. In 1988, just as the Cold War ended, ASIO learned from KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky that Lazovik’s recruit had almost certainly been in ASIO and that ‘the next two KGB residents, Gennady Nayanov and Lev Koshlyakov had also had successful tours of Australia’. Koshlyakov was here from 1978 to 1984 and is to this day a consultant to the Putin regime. He has been described as ‘one of the most dangerous KGB officers ever posted to Australia.’ Why are we still being told so little about his activities in the 1980s? If Brian Toohey is right and none of this matters, there is no reason to censor the record. But the official historians have stated that what happened was ‘shocking’ and ‘devastating’. It must, therefore, be brought to light and explained.
In May 2016, Paul Dibb – who was head of National Assessments in the Joint Intelligence Organization (JIO) in the mid-1970s, then later Deputy Director of JIO, head of the Defence strategic policy and force structure review for Kim Beazley in 1985-86, Director General of JIO and then Deputy Secretary of Defence for Strategy and Intelligence as the Cold War ended, spoke to The Australian’s Cameron Stewart about having been an undercover agent for ASIO throughout the Lazovik and Koshlyakov years. He expressed annoyance at the fact that innuendo had surrounded him for decades, claiming that he had been ‘cleared’ by the Cook Report. That claim was the first time anyone had claimed to be so much as a subject of the Cook Report or openly admitted its very existence.
Dibb stated that he had approached the Soviet Embassy in 1965 as a young geographer, been photographed by ASIO and then recruited by ASIO’s Deputy Director, no less, to cultivate Soviet Embassy officials and try to both identify intelligence officers and open lines for possible defections. By his own account, he performed this role for twenty one years, even as he rose through the ranks of JIO and completed the famous Dibb Review for Kim Beazley. He became closely acquainted with the top KGB officers in Canberra, most notably Lev Koshlyakov. There is a story to tell here. Dibb himself has not told the half of it. Yet neither the second nor the third volume of the official history has so much as an entry in its Index under ‘Dibb, Paul’. Why is this story, too, so secret?
The official history concludes with oblique objections to the veil of secrecy that has been cast over the whole matter of Soviet moles:
The question remains over the whole issue of penetration and whether the veil of secrecy needs to be maintained’ and ‘secrecy for secrecy’s sake can on occasion prove counterproductive.
Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, ‘men who compromised American intelligence operations and whose actions led to the deaths of scores of Soviet agents who were prepared to risk their lives collaborating with Western intelligence agencies’, are both behind bars and books have been written about them, the historians point out. But in Australia the moles remain at large and unpunished. All the official historians offer us, however, is a question to which they know the answers: ‘…how extensive was the betrayal and how extensive was the damage?’ They know, but ASIO has forbidden them to disclose the facts.
What possible justification is there for keeping these things classified? Five years ago, I put that question to Michael Cook himself, who now lives in retirement in London. He responded by email that neither
…[Neither Paul] Keating, nor anybody else, told me or even suggested to me that I give my report a high security classification. That I decided on my own for what I thought, and still think, were good reasons, which is why…, as you correctly recall, I would not do as you asked.
He declined to disclose the reasons themselves. Given that the official history has now both confirmed the existence of the Cook Report and the existence of ‘a handful’ of moles (meaning four or five) inside ASIO, we might reasonably speculate about those reasons. It could be that the Keating government did not want what would have been a scandal far more explosive than anything else in ASIO’s history. It therefore suppressed things that the public had and has a right to know. It did this not for our sake, or for the sake of national security, but purely to spare itself embarrassment and vexatious trouble.
But in that case, why did the Howard government not release the Cook Report after 1996? There must be bipartisan reasons for the matter being kept secret. The most plausible is that what CI sleuths sees as compelling is not always what a court of law will find convincing. A consensus therefore arose that the whole thing was too messy to drag out into the light of the courts and the media. Yet the official historians say they know who the moles were and that the evidence is clear enough to be shocking. So the argument about the evidence being inconclusive looks somewhat tenuous.
There may be another reason, but the official historians do not provide one and seem sceptical themselves about the decision. Given all that they have seen, that should itself be regarded as a compelling argument for the nonsense to end and for the Cook Report finally to be released. Until it is, we will know that ASIO failed in the Cold War, but we will have no grounds for believing that its old weaknesses have been remedied, rather than merely papered over in a Yes, Prime Minister kind of way. This is in an era of unprecedented Chinese penetration of Australian society and institutions. But that is a story for another time.