The Protest Years: a review of ASIO’s official history vol. 2
26 Oct 2015|

The Protest Years book coverMomentous global and domestic events between 1963 and 1975 revealed the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to be deeply flawed as it struggled, often in vain, to combat subversion in a changing world.

John Blaxland’s second volume of ASIO’s official history, The Protest Years, paints an unflattering picture of ASIO from 1963-75 as an organisation dominated by old soldiers and ex-coppers who were anti-intellectual, under-resourced, under-trained, underpaid and overworked, badly led, and heavily into booze.

Blaxland reveals ASIO’s continuing obsession with subversion from the old communist left long after more urgent threats to Australian security were emerging from New Left and Trotskyist organisations spawned by the Vietnam War and by right-wing Croatian terrorist violence. The organisation was caught napping and failed to adjust to forces reshaping Australian society, Blaxland argues.

Undoubtedly his most dramatic chapters deal with the impact on ASIO of the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972 and the extraordinary raids by the Attorney-General Lionel Murphy on ASIO’s Canberra and Melbourne offices in March 1973. Blaxland is deeply critical of Murphy’s raid, describing it as ‘ill-considered’ and describing Murphy as operating with an ‘evangelist’s zeal’. But on his own analysis it’s at least arguable that only a gesture as extreme as the raids would have forced reform on ASIO’s sclerotic leadership and organisation.

Blaxland asks (but doesn’t quite answer) two recurring questions about ASIO: Was the organisation, which between 1963 and 1975 failed to ‘turn’ or to expel a Russian spy, penetrated by Soviet agents? Did the Americans conspire with dark right-wing forces to bring down the Whitlam government? Clearer answers might emerge when the third and final volume of the history appears next year.

Blaxland’s scholarship is formidable. He has had unfettered access to ASIO’s records and he tells a great story about the secret world of intelligence collection with its covert operations involving double agents, phone taps, room bugs, hidden cameras and the other apparatus of counter-espionage. He details the ‘thankless and mundane’ work of vetting individuals and the controversy over the Labor government’s plan to disallow ASIO vetting of its staff.

There are, too, accounts of Labor’s deep and not unreasonable suspicions of ASIO’s political impartiality. After all, ASIO’s exclusive target and idée fixe was the Left—primarily the Australian and Soviet communist parties and their relations with the Labor Party. Moreover, the long-serving Director-General Charles Spry was a close confidante and friend of Prime Minister Menzies.

Spry retired and was replaced in 1970 by Peter Barbour, a thoughtful man who tried to initiate change in ASIO. But Blaxland criticises his ‘procrastination and reluctance to communicate verbally with his staff’. Whitlam sacked him in 1975 and appointed Justice Edward Woodward to replace him.

Blaxland also provides a detailed account of US outrage when Murphy raided ASIO headquarters and when Whitlam moved later to close down relations between ASIO and the CIA. It was perhaps the great crisis in US–Australian relations and encouraged speculation of a US conspiracy against Labor.

But The Protest Years is an official history, broad and rich in narrative detail rather than deeply conceptual, and Blaxland tends to qualify his criticisms with careful praise. ASIO’s work was hard, thankless, un-trumpeted, lonely and hard on family life, he argues. ASIO’s political masters (at least until Whitlam and Murphy) showed little interest in the work of the organisation which required ‘humility, discipline and dedication’. All true, but so what? ASIO spies were volunteers, not conscripts.

Blaxland further qualifies his judgements by portraying ASIO 1963-75 as an adolescent organisation in transition, concluding that by 1975 the organisation ‘was already taking significant early steps towards implementing the reforms the Whitlam government was concerned about and the Hope Royal Commission was examining’. This seems particularly generous given Blaxland’s earlier observation that ASIO ‘proved largely unable to muster the necessary internal resources and self reflection to trigger the reforms necessary to bring the organisation up to date…’.

Certainly ASIO 2015 is bigger, brighter and better resourced than ASIO 1963-75. Directors-General like Dennis Richardson, Paul O’Sullivan, David Irvine and Duncan Lewis have had a far better understanding of Australian society (and much more complex jobs) than Charles Spry and Peter Barbour.

But Blaxland’s account of the Croatian extremist activities in the 1960s and 1970s bears striking resemblances to ASIO’s current challenges in dealing with Islamist terrorism. From mid-1969 to mid-1972 there were 176 violent incidents—including bombings—of Yugoslavian interests in Australia, and significant numbers of Australian–Croatian citizens travelled covertly to Yugoslavia to engage in military activities.

Yet ASIO 1963-75 had to be dragged kicking and screaming by Murphy and Whitlam to focus more closely on the Croatians who were seen by Spry as ‘good anti-communists’. Happily today’s ASIO seems to be doing much better. Its international standing is high and it isn’t engaged, as ASIO 1963-75 was, in futile introspection about the difference between subversion and dissent, wrestling with the meaning of ‘order’ and ‘freedom’ and how to balance liberty and security. Those issues will never be settled but they seem, for the moment at least, to be in tolerable equilibrium.

Moreover ASIO is now under clear bureaucratic, political and parliamentary scrutiny as it goes about its necessarily covert activities. It certainly needs scrutiny and Blaxland’s book, among its other virtues, exposes the resultant dangers when politicians fail to watch the spies effectively.