ASIO (2): the spooks and Oz politics
22 Jan 2015|

For decades, the Australian Labor Party hated the spooks with a passion. Indeed, many Australians still maintain that deep distrust of their domestic security service.

For Labor, though, the hatred of ASIO—the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—coincided with the barren years of opposition. In his official history of ASIO, David Horner writes that Labor’s approach to ASIO was poisoned:

In Australian political history, it’s unlikely that any other Commonwealth department has had to endure such concerted, vociferous and bitter criticism from the Opposition—over the two decades from 1951.

The legacy of scorn and scepticism is reflected in the words of the former Labor Leader, Kim Beazley, now ambassador to the US, who writes that ASIO

exercised its task in a democratic environment where many would challenge its relevance, its techniques and whether, in principle, it should exist. It has been impossible to view its role objectively in the public debate or see the organisation in its complete and complex history.

So, questions of relevance, technique and even whether ASIO should exist. The angst and the anger have several layers. Deepest secrecy surrounded the signals intelligence that had revealed the work of Soviet spies in Canberra in the 1940s (leading to ASIO’s creation) and that veil was not cast off until the 1990s.

The long anger-burn and many of the questions flowed from ASIO’s great public coup—‘the most important episode in ASIO’s first two decades,’ Horner writes—the defection of the Soviet diplomat and intelligence agent, Vladimir Petrov.

The Petrov Royal Commission that followed was a political disaster for the Labor Leader, H.V. Evatt, and fed the Labor belief that ASIO connived with the Menzies Government to commit political sabotage. Horner comments that Labor ran a ‘misguided campaign’ against the service, ‘based on completely false assumptions that were impossible to disprove without divulging highly sensitive intelligence sources on the Soviet Union’.

In a fine review of Horner’s book, The Canberra Times’ editor-at-large, Jack Waterford, notes that Evatt’s charges were ‘fantastic and silly’ but, stung by Labor slurs, ASIO officers ‘began to do some of the partisan things Labor critics were alleging they had always done’.

Horner’s official history shows that ASIO didn’t just gather intelligence, but conducted spoiling operations that were an ‘extravagant interpretation’ of its remit. And he comments: ‘The major consequence of the Cold War was that ASIO pursued its campaign against communists with an almost religious fervour’. Fervour saw ASIO become overzealous: ‘ASIO officers came to believe that any political movement or societal group that challenged a conservative view of society was potentially subversive’.

Here is David Horner in the second of his four ASPI interviews:

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.