New Approaches for Changing Times, 1983–1989
ASIO’s protective security responsibilities changed significantly once the Hawke Government came into office. The Fraser Government had pursued the reforms Hope had recommended, and Woodward and Barnett implemented them faithfully. But the Combe–Ivanov affair early on in the term of the Hawke Government, and the results of the Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies added further momentum for reform. Technology was rapidly changing the face of industry as well as government bureaucracy. Similarly, changes to the flow of migrants to Australia and evolving requirements for managing its international connections meant the Hawke years would witness considerable change in how ASIO approached its protective security responsibilities. This chapter examines the extent of those changes and their impact on ASIO from 1983 to 1989. It does so by examining four principal areas: overseas security checks, threat assessments and VIP protection requirements, internal personnel vetting, and other protective security tasks.
Explaining protective security
Senator Evans, in a speech to the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties in May 1989, explained ASIO’s protective security function as ‘utterly uncontroversial’ and for the most part ‘totally ignored in the debate about ASIO’s existence’. He highlighted the release of ASIO’s first unclassified annual report in 1983, the first of its kind submitted to Parliament. The report brought ASIO in line with every other Commonwealth Government department and agencies. The activities listed in the report included 700 threat assessments relevant to the protection of VIPs, 20,000 security assessments concerning departmental and ministerial staff, 39,000 security checks in immigration cases involving 4500 interviews by liaison officers overseas, 204 physical security reports to departments and instrumentalities, and active participation in the vital installations program affecting buildings and electronic systems.1 Protective security was clearly a major focus of attention for ASIO, and resulted in much work, however unappealing it may have been.
In a similar vein to that of Evans in 1984, Alan Wrigley, in his 1986 speech to the National Press Club, spoke about what he described as an area of ASIO’s work that seemed to be misunderstood by many: the security assessment of those Australians who chose to work in a job that carried ‘the privilege and responsibility of access to the nation’s secrets’. A popular misconception, Wrigley argued, was that ASIO, ‘in some all-powerful way, can black-ball membership of this club’, and that it did so ‘through a system of information collection capable of searching out the inner-most secrets of every citizen’.2 Wrigley dismissed this notion, declaring, ‘The truth is nothing so disturbing—or reassuring—depending on your point of view.’ In fact, responsibility for deciding whether a person should be trusted with the nation’s secrets lay with the head of the department concerned: ‘The Department Head is expected to decide whether the person has the necessary personal qualities of trustworthiness and loyalty and the like.’ ASIO’s part in the process was to provide a security assessment.
Wrigley explained that under the new arrangements arising from the reforms initiated by the royal commissions, if ASIO expressed the view that it would not be ‘consistent with the requirements of security’ for a person to be given access to secret material, then that person had to be told and was entitled to a review of the assessment by an independent tribunal.3 In turn, the tribunal’s opinion overrode that of the Director-General of ASIO, not as a requirement of law but as a judgement of ‘the requirements of security’. On one level, Wrigley explained, granting security access to individuals in some departments might seem innocuous. But when a person was given access within one department, it was ‘very difficult in practice to limit their access to the secrets held in another—much less to remove it’. The system was devised, in Hope’s words, ‘to achieve a balance between the interests of the state and the rights of the appellant’.
Cessation of ASIO immigration security checks
These refinements to the approach to security vetting were implemented while a major shift was taking place concerning ASIO’s approach to security assessments for migrants to Australia. September 1983 saw agreement reached between ASIO and the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs to cease ASIO security checking for citizenship. Indeed the decision was an easy one for ASIO, as the overwhelming majority of citizenship applicants were not known on ASIO records and little by way of actual security assessment was involved.4
Non-favourable assessments were issued when the individual was considered to represent a threat to national security. Unless there was a readiness to deport people with adverse assessments, the threat posed by them remained unaltered because they already possessed residential status. In addition, for a non-favourable assessment to be issued, a nexus had to be established between individuals and their acts representing a present danger to national security. Hence, ties with organisations, political allegiances and even advocacy of militant or revolutionary ideologies did not satisfy the requirements that had to be met.5
In discontinuing security checking in citizenship cases, ASIO was heeding the view of Justice Hope, who stated that the system of security checking in immigration cases should be directed to protecting the security of the nation. Hope’s view, in turn, was influenced by the Canadian Royal Commission report of August 1981, which emphasised that granting or non-granting of citizenship would only marginally alter the danger factor posed to Canada from a security point of view.6 In addition, ASIO recognised that security checking was not an economic proposition when the cost was compared with the rare cases that produced action. This was particularly true given that ASIO’s coverage of the CPA had ceased after the Rix case in 1983 and the Organisation was no longer able to assess whether individuals under consideration were members. Indeed, ASIO came to the view that any continued involvement ‘would represent an unnecessary intrusion by ASIO into the affairs of persons who should not properly be subject to such intrusion’.7
One consequence of the discontinuation of citizenship checks was that ASIO’s liaison officers in a number of countries were withdrawn or their roles changed. Along with other cuts to government positions abroad, the Cabinet Expenditure Review Committee of 1986 oversaw a significant reduction in ASIO’s posts overseas following the removal of the immigration screening function.8 In the case of the senior liaison officer in London, for instance, the role of supervising ASIO liaison officers in Europe was discontinued from the end of 1986 onwards, with remaining liaison officers authorised to liaise directly with ASIO’s Central Office in Canberra on matters affecting their jurisdiction. As a result, the title of the Chief Liaison Officer in London was changed to Senior Liaison Officer.9
Threat assessments and VIP protection
One area where ASIO’s protective security remit remained largely unchanged concerned assessing the likelihood of threats of violence against senior officials and visiting VIPs. Since November 1979, Cabinet had nominated ASIO as the sole agency responsible for producing national threat assessments in the field of terrorism and politically motivated violence. This responsibility was interpreted to cover ASIO’s provision of advice to the Protective Security Coordination Centre and police. Much of this advice was derived from information obtained by telephone interception, human coverage of targets and the study of publicly available information.10 ASIO’s responsibility included providing advice concerning the safety and security of the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who was targeted for criticism over his stance on uranium mining, nuclear weapons and advocacy for Israel. ASIO reported there was no indication that any of the revolutionary or protest groups had the inclination to commit significant acts of violence against him, ‘although he may be the target of “soft missiles” and heckling at rowdy demonstrations’. ASIO assessed that potential threats to Hawke came from Palestinian and other Middle Eastern groups that were opposed to his ‘pro-Zionist attitude’. ASIO recalled that he had been mentioned by name as a possible terrorist target of the PFLP in 1975, and the Black September Organisation reportedly threatened to kidnap his children in 1973 when he was president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. But in the absence of any international operations since the late 1970s, a modest presence in Australia, and the potential negative fallout to the Palestinian cause, ASIO assessed that the threat against Hawke was low.11
As time passed, however, and as ASIO’s human coverage of subversive targets declined and several telephone intercepts were discontinued, the Director-General, Harvey Barnett, wrote to the Attorney-General in October 1984 seeking his agreement to advise the Protective Security Coordination Centre and other affected government departments that ASIO could no longer respond to requests for assessments of the threat of demonstrations and of ‘street’ violence to VIPs. Barnett argued that a continuation of the existing system would place ASIO in a position of attempting to issue reliable VIP threat assessments without the necessary information. For that reason, he argued, ‘we believe that it is better to cease issuing assessments than to run the risk of misleading the authorities charged with the protection of VIPs’.12
Barnett might have been looking to reduce the risk to ASIO from making difficult-to-substantiate assessments, but the demand for ASIO to deliver on threat assessments only grew, spurred on by the recommendations Hope made in his 1979 Protective Security Review. When Hope was critical of the way ASIO produced threat assessments for the Government, Barnett tasked his Deputy Director-General with overall responsibility for the general supervision of ASIO’s national threat assessment. Barnett also stressed that ASIO’s national internal security threat assessment was crucial in establishing the Organisation’s ‘professional reputation and credibility’. The findings would be available to ministers, the Secretaries Committee on Intelligence and Security, and senior officers of departments.13 Expectations of what ASIO could and should deliver were not diminishing. This included in the realm of diplomatic security.
One of the traditional protective security responsibilities for a security intelligence organisation remained providing advice to help ensure the safety and security of diplomatic representatives of other nations. There were some explosive reminders of this priority between March and August 1988, when four attacks against property belonging to United States and South African diplomats occurred in Canberra. Each attack involved fire bombing, aimed in one case at a diplomat’s house, and in the others diplomats’ vehicles.14 The Regional Director in Canberra, Don Marshall, argued that four incidents ‘clearly fall within’ the ASIO Act 1979, specifically Section 4 on politically motivated violence.15
In one instance, the US Defence Attaché, Colonel Dean Stickell, had parked his car in the driveway of his house in the Canberra suburb of Red Hill in the evening. The next morning he found one side had been burned and a note left nearby saying ‘Yankee imperialist murderers out’ with a symbol identified as linked to the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. Three incendiary devices had been placed under the car but not all had exploded.16 Luckily, no one was injured.
The AFP worked closely with ASIO to conduct surveillance on principal suspects. A succession of warrants was applied, ruling suspects out as evidence mounted to increase or decrease suspicions.17 ASIO also liaised with its international partner agencies for any additional clues of motives, particularly concerning the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania.18 The agencies collaborated well together, ASIO undertaking its operations in coordination with police patrols, but there was little to show for their efforts.19
Time passed and Wrigley wrote to AFP Commissioner Peter McAulay, stressing that ASIO’s surveillance resources were limited and questioning the cost-effectiveness of pursuing surveillance when there were indications that the principal suspects, a couple, Kerry Anne and Maxwell Nemadzivhanani, knew they were under surveillance and therefore, it was surmised, were circumspect in what they said and did. Wrigley observed, ‘I have had to conclude that I must limit further surveillance to specific purpose tasks.’20 An ASIO surveillance team continued working into October, coordinating their actions with the AFP.21
Eventually, ASIO surveillance provided some significant clues, prompting a police search on 14 October that revealed some incriminating evidence.22 This included a range of ingredients for an explosive device, and incriminating notes and equipment consistent with those found at the four incidents earlier in the year. The breakthrough led to charges being laid and ASIO suspending its surveillance operations, although with insufficient evidence charges later were dropped.23
Threat assessments for VIP visits involved ASIO in considerable inter-agency interaction as well as community engagement. This was the case in October 1985, for instance, once Prime Minister Hawke announced the visit by India’s Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, to Canberra and Sydney, scheduled for February 1986.24 In fact, the visit was postponed to October 1986, but the postponement and a series of terrorist incidents occurring in the meantime only added to the level of scrutiny called for. Hawke declared publicly that Australia would cooperate with Indian authorities to ensure Gandhi’s visit was safe and successful.25
But that was quite a challenge for ASIO, because Gandhi was a controversial figure, particularly among India’s Kashmiri and Sikh communities, in which he was seen as a symbol of Indian repression. ASIO observed that Kashmiri extremists had conducted operations where there was an established politically active Kashmiri community, but had not demonstrated a capacity to operate without community support. In the absence of such support in Australia, ASIO had no adverse information regarding the Kashmiri community.26
In contrast, the Sikhs had been very active in a number of places. Worldwide, expatriate Sikhs had been linked to eight terrorist operations in 1985 and 1986, in large part in response to the Indian authorities’ assaults on the Golden Temple in India in 1984 and 1986. ASIO’s threat assessment referred to plots in Britain, the United States and Canada, which had seen scores killed, most noticeably from the Air India flight destroyed off Canada’s Atlantic coast on its way to India by an explosive device placed on board.27 ASIO worked closely with its international partner agencies, establishing links to facilitate effective, timely and secure communications.28 ASIO rightly deduced that the main danger came from overseas, and this led the Organisation to call for robust measures to ‘ensure tough entry hurdles for any would-be terrorist’.29
While the plots overseas were highly alarming, ASIO assessed that the vast majority of the Sikh community in Australia were politically conservative and not activists, and that the growth in Sikh political activity in India and elsewhere had no radicalising influence in Australia. Sikhs staged demonstrations in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra after the 1984 storming of the Golden Temple, but these saw only localised unrest and no life-threatening behaviour. ASIO concluded therefore that a terrorist threat to Prime Minister Gandhi existed but had ‘no local reflection’. Still, ‘given the fluidity of Sikh affairs in India’, ASIO recommended that this assessment be updated as the time for the visit approached.30
This meant ASIO had to maintain extensive surveillance in the lead-up to the visit. The Attorney-General, Lionel Bowen, approved such operational activity ‘without hesitation’.31 Meanwhile, planning continued through the SIDC-PAV which considered a range of special security measures that must be put in place for the visit.32 The Security Committee of Cabinet was updated on progress, and in July 1986 endorsed special screening procedures for Indian visitors to Australia from July until the end of the visit while reaffirming the role of the Security Committee and other relevant ministers in examining and deciding upon recommendations for special security procedures to be applied for the visit.33
Gandhi’s visit took place without incident and afterwards the Director-General wrote a telex to all staff, thanking them for their diligence, dedication and professionalism over the period leading up to and during the visit.
Your actions were critical in ensuring the safety of the Indian Prime Minister and in light of the real threat to him from Sikh terrorists and the immense political interest in making the visit a success. You came through with flying colours. Well done.34
Normally such internal praise could be discounted as biased, but it was clear that ASIO was performing its statutory functions very well, coordinating inter-agency consultations, acquiring information from sources in the streets, and delivering valued and actionable assessments. The SBS television program Voice of the People, which aired in mid-October 1986, revealed that Australia’s Sikh community held a range of extremist opinions regarding the Indian Government in general and Rajiv Gandhi in particular. But, as one ASIO officer observed,
About the worst thing you could say in regard to ASIO’s interest is that it shows that ASIO has done its job well in regard to the Sikh community. You are left with the impression that ASIO has been everywhere and seen everybody, and that this is resented only because the Sikhs have been unfairly branded as ‘terrorists’. There is no allegation of ASIO impropriety or abuse.35
The end of Gandhi’s visit concluded ASIO’s coverage of the Sikh community.
In doing its day-to-day work of collecting information to make its threat assessments for the Gandhi visit, ASIO officers had to interact with a wide range of people from all walks of life—some savoury and some less so. In many instances, it was risky if not dangerous to identify oneself as an ASIO officer. For this reason, ASIO officers had a long-established practice of explaining who they were and what they did by using ‘cover’; light cover was a means of deflecting superficial questions in a non-operational setting.
Heightened media attention and frequent exposure by groups such as the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police (see Volume II) had led to difficulties and embarrassment for some ASIO staff. The cover was important to deflect unwanted attention from casual inquirers and in other non-operational circumstances, but with overexposure it lost credibility. ASIO therefore sought to use other measures to provide cover. This was agreed to some time after the move from Melbourne to Canberra was completed. ASIO officers were reminded that cover was for privacy, not concealment.36 It was hard to know exactly how useful cover was in the context of Soviet espionage, but there were indicators that the Soviets knew well who was seeking to monitor their activities in and around Canberra and the other cities.
Hawke’s visit to the Soviet Union
When Prime Minister Hawke announced his intention to travel to the Soviet Union in 1987, it raised concerns within ASIO. Wrigley wrote to Michael Codd, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, providing him with some briefing material and offering to send an officer to brief the Prime Minister and his delegation about the risks faced inside the Soviet Union.37 ASIO stressed that while a deliberately embarrassing incident such as a ‘honey pot’ was unlikely, due to the visit coinciding with the imminent summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Hawke and his party should remain vigilant to wide-ranging surveillance measures targeting their discussions. The Russians had the capacity to mount ‘very sophisticated technical operations’ against members of the delegations, ‘irrespective of where they are in the Soviet Union or what they are doing’. All members of the party could expect to experience extensive monitoring in their hotel rooms, restaurants, cars and outside, with infrared cameras, tape recorders and video all set up to monitor discussions and telephone calls.38
Document security was another concern. ASIO warned that sensitive papers and notes should not be left where they might be photographed by concealed cameras, including in hotel rooms. Typewriters and other portable office equipment left unattended ‘may be the subject of technical device implantation’. They stressed also that it must be assumed that the Australian Embassy and all residential premises were ‘technically penetrated’, and that countermeasures could not guarantee security. Not even embassy vehicles were to be considered safe from eavesdropping, and surveillance could occur on buses, taxis, planes or walking around. After decades of exposure to the ways of the RIS, ASIO knew how vigilant and thorough the Soviets were, and sought to ensure the delegation understood that.39
Vetting of politicians
Investigations carried out as part of the second Hope Royal Commission revealed that ASIO held dozens of files on state and Federal MPs. A large proportion of these were security-checking files,40 but there was considerable sensitivity about ASIO’s holdings on these subjects. Justice Hope therefore indicated that ASIO needed to reach an agreement with the National Archives of Australia regarding arrangements for the continued culling of ASIO records where material on file could be legitimately destroyed. One ASIO officer involved observed that the destruction of this information could lead to unnecessary doubts and suspicions being raised in the future. In addition, the information was placed on file for a reason that was valid or thought to be valid at that time, and thus it was in the interests of security that it should be retained.41
Guarding the Petrovs
While new measures and responsibilities imposed on ASIO continued to mount, ASIO still had residual responsibilities harking back several decades. Vladimir Petrov, for instance, had been given a new name as cover. The Petrovs became Australian citizens and lived in suburban Melbourne, often being called on to confirm Soviet identities or other corroborating information.42 In the mid-1980s, as the National Archives of Australia prepared to release the ‘Petrov papers’ covering their defection 30 years earlier, plans were prepared to protect the Petrovs from harassment by the news media. Before the plans were implemented, a photographer from the Melbourne Truth managed to reach Mr Petrov in the Melbourne Hospital in which he was a patient.43 In fact, Vladimir Petrov lived in hospital for many years following his stroke, while Evdokia remained in the house.
In weighing up the pros and cons of relocating Petrov to avoid exposure, the medical staff at the hospital reached the opinion that a move from the hospital would have a seriously adverse effect on his health. He was at least moved from a four-bed ward to a single-bed ward adjacent to the nurses’ station and close to where a plain clothes police officer could watch over him. In the meantime, Evdokia was temporarily moved into a suburban motel of her choice, accompanied by an ASIO officer she knew well.44
With Vladimir Petrov’s whereabouts known, Barnett was concerned about the possibility of KGB retribution. He noted that both had been sentenced to death in September 1954 by the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, and that famous dissenting figures who had left Russia, such as Leon Trotsky, had been hunted down and killed, so the fear was real. But KGB defectors elsewhere agreed that from the mid-1950s, assassination operations by the KGB had virtually ceased. In weighing up the risks, Barnett decided that the Soviet politburo ‘would well recognise the political implications of the Petrov’s’ assassination’, which therefore made such a move unlikely. He assessed the threat of a KGB attack on the Petrovs as low.45
Protecting the Petrovs was an important task that would persist until Vladimir died in 1991 and Evdokia in 2002, aged 87.46 They had ASIO case officers contact them right up to the end. Their funeral required protective security measures, which were handled by the Victorian Regional Office under Robin Knight.
Pine Gap security
One installation that received considerable media and security attention was the Joint Defence Space Research Facility operated at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, established in 1969. The ANU’s Professor Desmond Ball called the facilities ‘a suitable piece of real estate’, its utility being the ‘strategic essence’ of the bilateral security relationship between Australia and the United States.47 In light of the attention, and its strategic significance, as well as its value as an intelligence asset, it was seen as important and appropriate for ASIO to be involved in provision of appropriate protective security advice. Initially, security was managed through the Department of Defence, but in 1976, with Judge Woodward as Director-General and relations with Defence Department Secretary Sir Arthur Tange on a more cordial basis, closer ASIO involvement in the protection of Pine Gap was established. This involved a variety of security-related responsibilities.48
Occasionally, ‘persons of security interest … including Soviets’ were reported to travel to Alice Springs to participate in demonstrations. Usually, ASIO knew about such visits in advance, but ASIO regional offices were reminded to keep in mind ASIO’s responsibilities with respect to Pine Gap.49
Responding to the Family Court bombings
When the Whitlam Government established the Family Court, there was little idea that the ‘no-fault’ divorce mechanisms would see passions inflamed to the point where someone would seek to murder not only the family members and relatives against whom they were in dispute but the judges who sought to hand down judgments. The list of those attacked included Justice David Louis Opas, who was fatally shot when he answered a call at his front gate on 23 June 1980; Justice Richard Gee, who was injured in an explosion at the front of his house on 6 March 1984; and Pearl Watson, the wife of Justice Ray Watson, who was killed by a bomb explosion at their front door on 4 July 1984.50 A Joint Commonwealth–State Bomb Task Force was formed on 4 July 1984 to investigate the murders and bombings connected with the Family Court.
The NSW Police Bomb Task Force assessed that telephone interceptions would be valuable.51 There were four possible suspects, but they had little to corroborate their suspicions or refine their list of suspects. As a result the NSW Police appealed for ASIO assistance to provide some clues. To ASIO, there was justification for assistance on the basis that an element of the judiciary was being systematically terrorised, which made the attack political. In any event, argued one officer, the campaign of terror was sufficiently gross to warrant some deviation from ASIO’s normal functions.52
The Director-General, Wrigley, wrote to Attorney-General Bowen, in justification of this approach, citing the definition of ‘terrorism’ in Section 4 of the ASIO Act, namely: ‘acts of violence for the purpose of influencing the policy or act of a government in Australia.’ Wrigley observed that one man appeared to have personal motives, but they could be regarded as ‘political’ because they were aimed at the destruction of the Family Law Court system, although he admitted that the man’s true motives ‘are not known’. But the ‘attacks on judges and courts are, with little doubt, directed at the “office” rather than the individual and to that extent they may be regarded as political’.53
Wrigley cited the recently concluded royal commission, observing that Hope had sought to define politically motivated violence as ‘Acts that threaten or endanger persons … who … are the holders of public office in Australia and are designated, either generally or in the particular case, for the purposes of this paragraph by the Minister’. Wrigley believed that ASIO should continue to assist the Joint Bomb Task Force in its investigation of ‘those who might be reasonably suspected of the attacks on the Family Court’.54 Thirty years later the matter would return to the spotlight with the arrest of a suspect.
Protective security work during the Hawke years continued to present its challenges. Never seen as the most glamorous part of ASIO, protective security malfunctions or oversights could create enormous embarrassment or damage to national security and public safety. The reform measures implemented following the Hope reviews had added security clearance requirements, formalised and made routine the procedures for writing and promulgating threat assessments, and led to the development of protective security risk review mechanisms. These measures added an extra degree of objectivity and rigour to ASIO’s work. Protective security for visiting dignitaries both to Australia and on trips overseas, particularly to places such as the Soviet Union, presented ASIO with significant challenges that would often draw in resources not just from those directly involved in the protective security areas of the Organisation. Diplomats had to be protected, as did senior political figures. But unusual circumstances, such as the Family Court bombings, also led ASIO to work closely with the police with issues that were on the periphery of the Organisation’s remit (as defined in the ASIO Act 1979).
While there appeared to be measurable and verifiable progress in protective security during the period covered in this chapter, that was not quite the case in the realm of counterespionage. In fact, as the Cold War approached its end, there was little sign of its imminent demise, if espionage efforts from the Soviet bloc were any sign.