The evolution of Australian intelligence: revisiting Harvey Barnett’s ‘Tale of the Scorpion’
19 Feb 2024|

Scorpions are fascinating. Found on every continent except Antarctica, their fossil records span 420 million years. Indeed, they might be the oldest land animals still in existence. With astonishing resilience, they withstand heat and cold extremes, tempering their metabolism to thwart starvation. Calculating and precise animals, scorpions can even consciously adjust their sting’s venom level.

SCORPION was also the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO’s) long-standing, publicly registered telegraphic address—and inspired the title of a most unusual and candid memoir of Australian intelligence, 1988’s Tale of the Scorpion by Harvey Barnett.

It’s level of venom: measured, subtle but stinging.

Barnett was ASIO Director-General 1981-1985, having served two decades with ASIO’s sister agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). By 1984, and owing to the second Hope Royal Commission, Barnett would be thrust into the public spotlight.

Similarly, his unusual memoir was a first of its kind, opening the door to Australian intelligence’s historically closed shop. While Sir Edward Woodward’s One Brief Interval (2005) included some chapters on ASIO, Tale of the Scorpion is not autobiography. Rather it’s a meditation on the Australian way of espionage and counterespionage.

Despite the passing decades, the book’s themes resonate in the 21st century and deserve re-consideration—regardless of its limited contemporary impact (my copy is from a Canberra school fete bookstall).

Unusually, we know much about Barnett’s life in intelligence, most particularly due to public release of his extensive testimony to the second Hope Royal Commission (including on his background and professional expertise). Barnett appeared for 50 hours, resulting in 700 transcript pages.

Western Australian by birth, navy war veteran, and teacher by profession, by his own account Barnett joined the nascent ASIS in 1957, serving overseas before rising to director of operations. In 1976 new DG ASIO Woodward picked Barnett, a fellow outsider, to be his deputy.

When Woodward resigned and returned to the judiciary in 1981, Barnett wanted to succeed Ian Kennison as head of ASIS. Instead, he was successfully lobbied to accept the ASIO promotion.

The next four years saw Barnett lead ASIO through sometimes wrenching changes begun under Woodward. In 1975 ASIO had still been traumatised by the Murphy Raid, untrusted by government, organisationally amateurish, and still resident in Melbourne (characterisations shared with other intelligence agencies). By 1986 ASIO was subject to modern legislation, in Canberra, professional, and finally accepted on a bipartisan basis.

But what made Barnett momentarily a public figure was not organisational reform of ASIO. It was the Combe-Ivanov affair, and much of the book is a defence of himself and ASIO following earlier accounts by Combe partisans and critics.

In short, ASIO determined in early 1982 that Soviet diplomat Valeriy Ivanov was actually a KGB case officer. This prompted Operation BUSHFOWL, ASIO’s technical surveillance of Ivanov’s phone and home in the Canberra suburb of Curtin.

Some months later Ivanov began actively cultivating prominent Labor Party figure and fledgling lobbyist David Combe, in what Justice Hope concluded was an attempt to recruit Combe as a KGB asset. A month after the March 1983 election, Barnett briefed Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the relationship.

The initial result was cut and dry—Ivanov’s expulsion. But this initiated escalating political crises, including the resignation of a Cabinet minister, Mick Young, a Royal Commission at which the government and its security service would be represented by different (and eventually opposing) counsel, the remarkable witness appearance of a sitting prime minister, an internal Labor Party war, and a concerted media campaign on Combe’s behalf.

ASIO, claimed Barnett, was the government’s ‘sacrificial lamb’.

Of course, the caravan eventually moved on and the dogs stopped barking. Almost all key figures are deceased: Hope, Barnett (died 1995), Combe, Young, Hawke, Bill Hayden, Laurie Matheson (excepting then Attorney General Gareth Evans.) Ivanov disappeared behind the Iron Curtain and did not re-emerge after its collapse.

But Barnett’s musings on Australian innocence in espionage matters remain relevant.

‘With the simple self-confidence which living in an island state breeds, Australians are sometimes doubtful that their country might be of interest to foreign intelligence services. “It can’t really happen here” is a stock attitude. It has, it does, it will.’

Our understanding has improved in four decades, amidst globalisation and a new-found place on the frontier of Indo-Pacific power politics. We are no longer such ‘happy-go-lucky innocents’.

In 1983 the idea of an ‘agent of influence’ was controversial, and ASIO strove to show why the KGB might be so interested in a private citizen without official access to classified material. That is a stark contrast to today’s informed acceptance of the reality of foreign interference and information operations.

The bureaucracy has also grown up. Barnett notes how reluctant the then Department of Foreign Affairs was to countenance expelling foreign intelligence officers uncovered by ASIO—unless they were proven to be engaging in ‘illegal activity’. That was despite other Western governments doing just that, across the 1970s and 1980s. Compare this with the Australian Government’s latter-day actions.

Whilst Barnett’s part in Combe-Ivanov earned him public attention, he also had a behind-closed-doors legacy for ASIO and the National Intelligence Community (NIC). The Woodward-Barnett modernisation efforts had a profound impact.

In Tale of the Scorpion Barnett canvassed a still ongoing discussion about the merits of internal (or indeed other intelligence professional) versus external appointees to agency leadership positions, most particularly DG ASIO. A debate still ongoing today.

Barnett himself notably recommended against appointing his successor from within ASIO. Today’s approach typically prioritises some intelligence background but also cross-agency appointments—just like Barnett himself (nb Kerri Hartland’s ASIO experience before becoming DG ASIS, Mike Burgess going from DG ASD to DG ASIO, Kathryn McMullan’s Office of National Intelligence experience before heading the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation [AGO] and so on).

But this tendency is not uniform. Whilst it certainly holds true for ASIO and ASIS (where the last, strictly internal appointments to leadership were, respectively, Peter Barbour in 1970 and Rex Stevenson in 1992) it is considerably less the case at the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

Tale of the Scorpion has much on the post-1975 introduction of modern management: advertised positions, formal promotion processes, general encouragement of tertiary education.

It is interesting to consider these sometimes-challenging reforms in light of recent media speculation that alleged KGB penetration of ASIO in the late 1970s was partially enabled by alienation occasioned by such modernisation.

Sparked by the seminal Scientology v ASIO case before the High Court, Barnett’s contemplation of what should be the right level of transparency on behalf of intelligence agencies and leaders reflects a similar debate today. And his pride in being assailed from both the extreme right and left fringes of politics doesn’t seem that far away from the social media-scarred landscape of 2024.

He was also prescient about challenges and incongruity faced by ASIO in carrying out foreign intelligence collection (that is, collection on foreigners) inside Australia on behalf of other Australian agencies. That view was not shared by later DG ASIO Dennis Richardson’s recent review of national security legislation which upheld the status quo.

Barnett might have been relatively visionary, but he remained a prisoner of his time and experience. This is most apparent in his reflections on oversight—by ministers, the Inspector-General of Intelligence & Security (IGIS being created a year after his retirement) and Parliament. His scepticism about IGIS’s value has been thoroughly disproved. His vehement opposition to a Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO (now the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence & Security) a clear misjudgement.

Sometime even scorpions miss their target.