Responding to the Ananda Marga, 1977–1983

On 15 September 1977, the Indian Military Attaché to Australia, Colonel Iqbal Singh, was stabbed in his own bed and then he and his wife were abducted at gunpoint and forced to drive a car to an isolated spot about 8 kilometres from the centre of Canberra. The colonel struggled and was stabbed again by the assailant, but while driving on the Monaro Highway on the way to Cooma, Singh managed to wrest the .22 calibre rifle from the man, who then ran away. Police subsequently interviewed members of several communes of the organisation known as Ananda Marga, but there was nothing forthcoming from the interviews.1 This happened only three weeks after a spate of incidents occurred around the Air India offices and the Indian Consulate-General in downtown Sydney, involving splattered pig’s blood, pigs’ heads and a bomb threat against an Air India flight from Sydney.2 Together, the incidents marked a disturbing new security challenge generated by the rising prominence of the Ananda Marga that would perplex authorities for years.

Initial police action indicated the matter could be resolved, when in September 1977, an Australian Ananda Marga member, John William Duff, was arrested. He pleaded not guilty to the crime of kidnapping and stabbing Colonel Singh and to being motivated by his desire for the release of the incarcerated leader of the Ananda Marga sect in India.3 But Duff was convicted of the crime in August 1978.4

Ananda Marga literally means ‘path to bliss’. Founded by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, known as Baba, or Shrii Anandamurti, in 1955 in India, it was primarily a Hindu spiritual organisation that fiercely advocated a socioeconomic theory known as progressive utilisation theory or PROUT. The group advocated, among other things, tantra spiritual practices, yoga and meditation, and openly sought converts internationally, including in Australia, where several Ananda Marga communes were established by the mid-1970s. Despite the apparent peaceful ideology, to ASIO Ananda Marga came to be closely identified with a range of violent acts in Australia and overseas. Sarkar was arrested and incarcerated in India in 1971 along with four others for the alleged murder of six former members. His imprisonment triggered a series of violent actions around the world against Indian officials.5

This chapter addresses how ASIO responded to the emergence of domestic terrorism by people associated with the Ananda Marga. It explains ASIO’s focus on the Ananda Marga and, in particular, how it responded to incidents, including the Hilton Hotel bombing in February 1978. The chapter also sets the scene for the reforms initiated by the Protective Security Review commissioned by the Federal Government immediately after the Hilton Hotel bombing. This chapter demonstrates the extent to which ASIO focused on Ananda Marga before the Hilton Hotel bombing, how ASIO came to realise that the threat from terrorism was real, and how the Organisation responded to the events as they transpired.

ASIO’s early response

ASIO was aware of the Ananda Marga before Singh’s abduction and stabbing. In 1976 it categorised the group as a ‘religious sect’ and an ‘extreme right-wing organisation’ originating in India. But while a reasonable amount of information was available, ASIO took little action.6 The Organisation was given a jolt when a month after the Singh incident, an Air India employee in Melbourne was stabbed in the chest and the attacker left a note threatening further violence. The note indicated that the attacker was a member of the Ananda Marga seeking the release of Sarkar in India.7

ASIO later came to understand that Ananda Marga activities commenced in Australia in 1970, but they did not come to ASIO’s attention until 1975 when four Ananda Marga members were jailed in New Zealand for conspiring to bomb the Indian High Commission in Wellington. Hindsight shows that elements of the Ananda Marga were not only capable of but intended to use violence. In late 1975, for instance, the Indian High Commission in Canberra reported that it had received threatening telephone calls it attributed to the Ananda Marga.8 This, coupled with John William Duff’s conviction, led to an increase in ASIO’s focus on the Ananda Marga.

Indeed, prior to the Duff case, ASIO counter-subversion and counterterrorism officers had considered the Ananda Marga unlikely to pose a material threat.9 The day after the stabbing incident, ASIO counter-subversion staff reported that Ananda Marga membership was small and, apart from demonstrations and protests, it had ‘given little evidence of activities of a violent nature’. The same staff conceded, however, that ‘there is some indication that demonstrations, hitherto peaceful, are becoming more forceful’.10

The Singh incident was discussed at an interdepartmental committee meeting on 16 September 1977. ASIO pointed out that while it had information about the Ananda Marga, that organisation was still not a formal ASIO target and only limited resources were employed against it. ASIO promised to ‘make all necessary enquiries overseas’.11 But ASIO’s Deputy Director-General, Harvey Barnett, objected to placing telephone taps on the Ananda Marga. He wanted more evidence before he would agree to it becoming a legitimate ASIO target.12

The next week, a senior counter-subversion officer wrote to Director-General Woodward, pointing out that the Ananda Marga appeared to be engaging in the process of subversion and that this warranted the attention of ASIO, including field inquiries and telephone interceptions. Woodward agreed that, in the first instance, the Ananda Marga should become a subject of detailed investigation, the results of which would help ASIO determine whether it should become a formal target.13 As promised earlier, inquiries were also made with the intelligence agencies of other countries.14

Meanwhile, between August and November 1977, a series of violent incidents directed at Indian targets, notably in Afghanistan and in London, were perpetrated by a group calling itself the Universal Proutist Revolutionary Federation. The aim of these incidents, like the two in Australia, was to secure the release of the Ananda Marga leader, Sarkar. While not evident at the time, subsequent investigations revealed that although the Ananda Marga and the Proutists shared similar tenets, they appeared to have separate memberships and aims. In simple terms, the Proutists operated as a splinter group. This division was identified as being between the practitioners of a spiritual philosophy, the Ananda Marga, and ‘those who undertake practical and social steps towards social reform’.15 Not surprisingly therefore, the Ananda Marga officially denied responsibility for the incidents, which they claimed were perpetrated by Indian security authorities trying to discredit them. But subsequent investigation showed that at least some of the incidents were perpetrated by a small group of Sarkar followers described by ASIO as ‘senior Ananda Marga members’, apparently acting without the knowledge of ordinary members of the Ananda Marga.16

In late 1977 and into 1978, the CPF worked to isolate and identify the ‘criminal and fanatical element within Ananda Marga in Australia’.17 A senior counter-subversion officer pondered whether ASIO should become more involved or hand the matter over for the CPF to pursue. His rationale was that the Ananda Marga did not aim to overthrow the Indian state and was not a threat to the security of Australia.18 This was consistent with Barnett’s previous position that the Ananda Marga was not a legitimate target, but in the light of recent events, he conceded that his position needed to shift. In November 1977 he argued:

I don’t think we can slide out from under on the [Ananda Marga]. We do not know what evidence is in the pipeline and to excuse ourselves responsibility because our knowledge is poor … could be harmful to us in the long-term … In short, I think we’ve got to stick it out on the [Ananda Marga] for a while longer yet, until there is clarification.19

ASIO subsequently mounted a number of operations to clarify the connection between the Universal Proutist Revolutionary Federation and the Ananda Marga, and to gain prior warning of any planned violent activity. These initiatives echoed those undertaken by counterpart organisations in Europe and North America.20

In Australia, Woodward submitted a request to the Attorney-General for a warrant to intercept the telephone line at the Ananda Marga’s NSW office, which also acted as its national headquarters. ASIO was looking for confirmation of the suspected link between Ananda Marga and the Universal Proutist Revolutionary Federation, and to identify Universal Proutist Revolutionary Federation members and assess their capacity for further violence. One major concern was the projected visit of the Indian Prime Minister for the CHOGRM scheduled for Sydney in February 1978.21The Attorney-General, Senator Durack, was reportedly ‘pleased to sign the warrant for the interception of the [Ananda Marga] telephone’, which he approved for six months from 19 December 1977. Events were to demonstrate the importance of that warrant.22

Informed by ASIO’s concerns and the case it had mounted for telephone interception, the next day Cabinet decided to ban the entry to Australia from overseas of people known to be associated with the Ananda Marga. The ban was initially to be in force until March 1978, although it was subsequently extended.23

While the Singh stabbing was of concern, particularly given the Government’s obligation to offer protection to foreign diplomats, the most significant driver for ASIO’s focus on the group was the bomb explosion that occurred at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney early one morning in February 1978, timed to coincide with CHOGRM.

As part of the security arrangements for CHOGRM, ASIO provided information to the Protective Security Coordination Centre (see Chapter 5), including threat assessments, daily situation reports and personal security checks as requested. The assessment on 2 February was that there was ‘no indication of organised protest activity by subversive groups, or mass organisations influenced by subversive groups’.24 By 6 February, however, ASIO had information from a sensitive source indicating that some unidentified members of the Ananda Marga were ‘intending to plan some form of demonstration against the presence of the Indian Prime Minister at CHOGRM’. In light of adverse publicity following the recent acts of violence, a prominent figure in the Sydney-based Ananda Marga group, Tim Anderson, was reportedly pressing for an orderly and controlled demonstration. The Department of Administrative Services, which was responsible for CHOGRM arrangements, was informed, as were ASIO regional offices and ‘major overseas security services’, which were asked to advise ASIO ‘should any terrorist group have an interest in CHOGRM’.25

As a precaution, and as part of their responsibility to ensure high levels of information security for the delegates, ASIO officers conducted ‘audio counter-measures’ tests, at the Hilton Hotel before CHOGRM. The CPF was assigned responsibility for the close personal protection of the visiting VIPs and the NSW Police were responsible for security outside the hotel and most areas inside, except for the meeting rooms and accommodation. ASIO did not have personnel at or near the hotel during the conference.26

In the early hours of Monday, 13 February 1978, a garbage truck pulled up near the Sydney Hilton Hotel’s George Street entrance. As one of the Sydney City Council garbage men emptied a large bin into the truck a violent explosion ripped the back end of the truck apart, instantly killing two council workers, William Favell and Alec Carter. A policeman, Constable 1st Class Paul Burmistriw, standing on duty nearby died from severe blast wounds to his head nine days later. In addition, another police officer, Terry Griffiths, was seriously wounded. Several others nearby were injured. Shocked and uncertain as to what might occur next, Prime Minister Fraser realised he had a responsibility to protect overseas political leaders attending CHOGRM so, using the Constitution’s Defence Force Aid to the Civil Power provisions, he called out the Army.27

ASIO’s response to the Hilton Hotel bombing

After the explosion, the NSW Police and CPF worked together to undertake a detailed investigation. In the meantime, however, ASIO conducted its own investigation. ASIO’s telephone interception had not established that the Ananda Marga was planning an attack. For a long time ASIO remained uncertain as to who had conducted the attack and why, although the Ananda Marga was implicated early on. In fact, ASIO did not conclude its own investigation into responsibility for the attack until 1982. In that year, ASIO assessed, on the basis of what it judged to be reliable information, that the attack was carried out by members of the Ananda Marga and that it was intended to kill the visiting Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai.28 ASIO’s role and its lack of foreknowledge of the bombing were confirmed by later investigations in 1984 and 1994, the latter conducted by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Roger Holdich.29

While controversy raged for years, the basic facts of what ASIO did and what it knew were established within a matter of days. The activities of the Ananda Marga in the lead-up to the Hilton Hotel bombing were covered by the interception warrant.30 ASIO monitored a call early on the morning of the bombing from the media seeking to speak with a spokesman for the Ananda Marga about the explosion: ‘[unidentified] female seemed surprised and called Timothy Edward Anderson to the phone. Conversation indicates Anderson [was] stunned by the news and really shocked at the news. He claimed [Ananda Marga] opposed violence and was upset that people might suspect [Ananda Marga] involvement.’31 This recording of Anderson’s comments seemed hard to reconcile with the view within ASIO that the Ananda Marga was responsible for the bombing and that ASIO had identified a hard core within the leadership that appeared committed to violence. The question of who precisely was responsible would remain for quite some time. To the Prime Minister, however, there was no question. Reflecting on the events years later, Fraser confidently blamed the Ananda Marga for the bombing, declaring ‘I never doubted it.’32

In an account entitled Who Bombed the Hilton?, historian Rachel Landers unpicked and ordered the snippets of information and much of the innuendo surrounding the incident to present a fresh perspective on a cold case. Drawing on documents on the Hilton bombing in the NSW State Records and on a number of interviews, she pieced together a contentious and fascinating account of what happened.33 Her work showed that seeking to understand the events at the Hilton Hotel that day in February 1978 and wrestling with the evidence could easily fill up hundreds of pages. But a number of her observations are drawn from opaque and sometimes redacted information from ASIO documents. While Landers’ account does not necessarily accord with the ASIO records, it nevertheless presents another important angle on the case. In fact, ASIO’s monitoring efforts, including telephone intercepts, would prove central to much of the investigations.

One ASIO officer explained, for instance, that ‘Acting on [a] general headquarters’ directive to assist the police, after briefing a senior officer from the New South Wales Regional Office, I played a taped extract from telephone interception to about twelve police investigating the case.’ There was concern within the Organisation, however, that from some of the information this officer passed on, the CPF ‘could make an educated guess that ASIO had telephone interception’. The implication was that the police moved on the assumption that ASIO’s telephone interception had recorded an admission of guilt by members of the Ananda Marga, but the actual evidence was not quite so compelling. As the ASIO officer admitted, ‘This incident highlights the problem of handling sensitive ASIO information in a terrorist situation.’34

International alarm bells were set off by the incident, and a couple of days after the explosion, on 15 February, three Ananda Marga members were arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, and charged with possession of explosives.35

Oddly enough, an ASIO situation report of 16 February continued to state that ‘ASIO has no specific information which could indicate a threat to CHOGRM participants.’36 But ASIO’s assessment did acknowledge that violence probably stemmed from a small core of senior Ananda Marga members, while the membership at large remained in ignorance. It admitted, however, that ASIO had no solid evidence to support this theory.37

In addition to the telephone interception, ASIO set about penetrating the Ananda Marga after the blast. But penetrating the group proved time-consuming and difficult, as ASIO was playing catch-up, desperately trying to identify those members of the Ananda Marga who may have been involved in the bombing. In the end, ASIO did have some success in penetrating this small, tight-knit group.38

A later investigation by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security would observe that

In ensuring that ASIO agents do not become agents provocateurs, it goes without saying that ASIO is walking a very fine line in running agents in violent organisations, and that there will be a very careful briefing of agents. As a matter of propriety, ASIO will need to keep sufficient control of the situation to prevent unforeseen criminal acts.39

With the Ananda Marga, there is no indication that ASIO’s sources crossed this line. The Inspector-General put it this way: ‘In my view the current guidelines followed by ASIO in briefing agents who may become involved in planning or carrying out illegal acts are appropriate and effective.’40

In the meantime, the telephone interception warrant that had allowed the monitoring of the Ananda Marga’s immediate reaction on the morning of the bombing was renewed on 12 June 1978.41 Under this second warrant, ASIO produced hundreds of intercept reports, some of which were passed to NSW Police Special Branch and the CPF investigating the bombing. Intelligence from this interception also enabled ASIO ‘to become an authority on the personalities and the framework, and foreign and interstate travel of active leaders’ of the Ananda Marga. The intelligence provided ‘collateral’ for agent operations and enabled operational planning in advance with CPF and Special Branch for coverage of Ananda Marga retreats in May and September 1978.42 The warrant was again renewed on 17 October 1978,43 and produced several hundred additional intercept reports that were disseminated both within and outside ASIO.44

Woodward made clear, in his briefing to Opposition Leader Bill Hayden in May 1978, that while the espionage problem was ‘always with us’ and subversive threats ‘were still somewhere in the distance’, international terrorism ‘now presented an ever-present danger’.45 Woodward told Hayden that neither ASIO nor the police had any conclusive evidence of who was responsible for the hotel bombing. He still tended to rank the Ananda Marga as ‘favourites, but at fairly long odds’. It was even possible, he admitted, that the motive was not political at all, but instead was an extortion attempt that went wrong. Certainly ‘the absence of any claim of responsibility seemed to suggest that the bomb was not intended to go off as it did’, argued Woodward.46 But circumstantial evidence against the Ananda Marga was mounting.

Arrests, prosecution and fallout

There was a demonstrable lack of coordination between the police and ASIO’s investigations of the Ananda Marga, both before and particularly after the bombing. This can be explained in large part by the fact that the police were investigating several murders, including that of one of their own officers, and the severe wounding of another police officer, whereas the ASIO investigation was focused purely on security.

In an incident unrelated to the Hilton bombing, on 16 June 1978, three Ananda Marga members, the ‘Yagoona Three’ as they became known, were arrested in Sydney and charged with conspiracy to murder.47 Two of the three arrested, Paul Shawn Alister and Ross Anthony Dunn, had ten sticks of gelignite in their possession, along with a timing device and a detonator. The Ananda Marga public relations officer, Tim Anderson, was arrested shortly after. All three were charged with conspiracy to murder Robert Cameron, the self-styled leader of the fringe right-wing group National Front. They denied everything and claimed a ‘police agent’ had planted the gelignite in the boot of the car in which it was found.48

While controversy surrounds that event, it is clear that the police acted unilaterally; ASIO information was not used in the decision by NSW police to arrest the three men.49 Despite having been provided with information from sensitive ASIO eavesdropping sources following the February hotel bombing, NSW police remained sceptical about the information received from ASIO. They relied primarily on information provided by their own source, Richard John Seary, a police informant recruited after the hotel bombing—and apparently they did not ask ASIO to verify his claims.50 In fact, it appears ASIO did not realise that Seary was a police informant until later.

Anderson later wrote a book about his experience, outlining at length his case that the gelignite was Seary’s idea and Anderson had no prior knowledge that it was in the vehicle.51 Anderson’s position was supported by the author of Spies, Bombs and the Path of Bliss, Tom Molomby, who is described as a crusader for Anderson and the other two arrested.52 ASIO’s telephone interceptions helped lead the police to make the arrests, by establishing a link between the Ananda Marga and the Hilton bombing. The recruitment of Seary was done independently of ASIO. Indeed, ASIO had no role in the arrests of the Yagoona Three, and it was Seary who was instrumental in producing the controversial evidence that led to their convictions.53

On 16 and 23 August 1978, Ananda Marga members staged protests at Parliament House, Canberra, and made veiled threats of retaliatory action against the police. ASIO recorded that one prominent member, Michael Luke Brandon, indicated it was morally justifiable in a revolution to overthrow a corrupt government and that those circumstances existed in Australia.54 In her book, Rachel Landers speculates that Brandon, as Acharya Abhiik Kumar, may have been instrumental in the bombing—a claim he categorically denied.55 A search of the ASIO records does not provide clear corroboration.

In ASIO’s assessment, there was a ‘remote possibility’ that Ananda Marga members would also become involved in more violent activity against ASIO premises, including throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails. In fact, ASIO had no information to indicate that it was under threat from the Ananda Marga.56

Through its increased coverage, ASIO also noticed that the Ananda Marga group had become very security conscious. Its members were ordered to watch for police or ASIO surveillance because they suspected ASIO had all of their telephones ‘bugged’.57 ASIO continued its coverage of the Ananda Marga throughout Australia for a number of years. A warrant on the Ananda Marga premises in Sydney was renewed in April 197958 and transferred when the Ananda Marga moved to new premises in August.59 That month, the courts convicted the Yagoona Three of the attempted assassination of Cameron and sentenced them to long terms of imprisonment. Several hundred intercept reports were produced within ASIO, providing pre-warning of more Ananda Marga demonstrations, this time in response to the Government’s refusal of a visa to the Ananda Marga leader in September 1979.60 The warrant was again renewed in October61 but was revoked, on the Director-General’s request, in December when the Ananda Marga again moved premises.62 With the Yagoona Three already behind bars, there seemed little to be gained by persevering with the close and continuous monitoring. Although there was interim telephonic interception of other premises, a new warrant for the headquarters was submitted and signed in May 1982.63 Until its expiry on 1 May 1983, the interception led to a covert bag search and targeted surveillance of Ananda Marga members, while also assisting in the handling of agents.64 Further coverage occurred during the period of the Hawke Government.65

In Victoria, ASIO had maintained coverage of one prominent Ananda Marga member since mid-1978, but over time it became apparent this was a fruitless exercise. In April 1979, ASIO therefore switched its coverage to the Ananda Marga headquarters in Brunswick St, Fitzroy.66 The Attorney-General approved a warrant for six months on 9 April.67 By September, this new source of intelligence had given ASIO considerable insights into the topics discussed between the Ananda Marga personnel in Sydney and Melbourne.68 It also showed that the majority of Ananda Marga members in Victoria opposed the use of violence ‘and were disgruntled by the radical protest action of some Ananda Marga members in Sydney’.69 This information allowed ASIO to focus on the violent minority and make better use of its resources.70 The interception of this line also enabled ASIO to provide advice to other agencies on demonstrations and protests, and helped ASIO identify—and therefore monitor—new Ananda Marga members.71 Eventually, in May 1982, ASIO decided that the recent lack of useful intelligence meant that continued coverage of the Melbourne headquarters was not warranted, and that it should deploy its resources elsewhere.72

The New Humanist Society

While ASIO was monitoring the Ananda Marga, it discovered that Kerry Lawrence (aka Kerry Ping), who was recorded by ASIO as having the Ananda Marga spiritual name Kali, was the leader of a clandestine group called the New Humanist Society. ASIO assessed this society to be a small but violent wing of the Ananda Marga. Reports indicated Lawrence had established the New Humanist Society in mid-1980 after returning from India where members were reportedly routinely trained in sabotage, weaponry and unarmed combat. To ASIO this was seen as just cause for active monitoring.73

Lawrence lived in Sydney and used a post-office box in the inner-Sydney suburb of Broadway for correspondence on New Humanist Society matters. In October 1980, ASIO proposed to intercept her mail in order to increase its knowledge of the society’s organisational structure, finances, membership and plans, and to ‘counter [politically motivated violence] and criminal activities’.74 After assessing its practicality, and the available ASIO resources, Harvey Barnett, the Deputy Director-General, approved the operation on 12 December.75

On 6 January 1981, ASIO officers concluded that the operation was feasible.76 ASIO devised a plan for the receipt, opening, copying and return of Lawrence’s mail.77 The Attorney-General, Peter Durack, signed a warrant later that month and the operation commenced the following day.78By March, ASIO assessed that the operation had ‘so far been of considerable benefit’.79 When the warrant expired in May, ASIO informed the Attorney-General the operation had confirmed that: the New Humanist Society operated on instructions from India; it had been asked to raise money that would be used to purchase weapons in India; and ASIO could now better brief its sources on the collection of intelligence regarding New Humanist Society matters in Australia.80

By September 1981, with a Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting being planned in Melbourne (see Chapter 5), ASIO had information indicating plans for violence; it passed this intelligence on to the NSW and Victoria Police. On the basis that ASIO believed the New Humanist Society was linked to the Ananda Marga, it launched coordinated raids early in the morning on seven Ananda Marga houses in Sydney and five in Melbourne. The haul seemed relatively minor, including a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, some handguns, ‘Indian hemp’ (marijuana), and floor plans and photographs of the layout of the Melbourne Wentworth Hotel, where CHOGM was to be held later that week.81 In the media, an Ananda Marga spokesman denounced the raids as ‘scare tactics’.82 Indeed, in a telex to its Canberra office, Headquarters ASIO admitted that the raid was primarily ‘designed to convey to them that the identity of the group and its membership was known to the authorities’.83 In essence, in prompting the police raid, ASIO intended pre-emptively to derail any plans.

ASIO also used its intelligence to inform overseas security agencies of violence planned by the New Humanist Society overseas (including the possible murder of an Ananda Marga defector), and as a basis for advice to the Department of Immigration to deny visas to two women who were travelling to Australia to join the New Humanist Society.84 In December 1981, ASIO learned that Lawrence suspected her mail was being intercepted, and that some correspondents were using countermeasures, such as placing a hair under the seal, as a security precaution, to warn her when mail had been opened.85

ASIO had to be careful, but was capable of dealing with such measures and therefore continued to intercept and open the mail. In January 1982, the ASIO photographer reported the existence of secret writing in a letter addressed to Lawrence.86 Written in lemon juice, the writing showed up brown under ultraviolet light.87 The Attorney-General continued to extend the warrant to intercept Lawrence’s mail into 1982.88 The material intercepted between January and April, when the warrant expired, provided further information on the murder overseas, including that Lawrence had been asked to provide money and poison. It also added to ASIO’s knowledge of New Humanist Society members and their propensity for violence.89

Based on observations that the New Humanist Society in Brisbane was using multiple post-office boxes for communication, ASIO investigated whether Lawrence was doing something similar.90 But before the investigation was complete, the New Humanist Society disbanded in May 1982, as a result of its exposure and the bad publicity that had surrounded the Ananda Marga for the previous two years. The New Humanist Society was later remodelled, but Lawrence was no longer the leader, and as a result, the incoming mail dried up. ASIO continued to monitor the post-office box just in case until the warrant ended in July 1982.91

Reflecting on the merits of the operation, ASIO observed that from its inception in January 1981, it was ‘a very valuable source of information’.92 Telephone interception in January 1983 hinted that Lawrence’s post-office box may have been used again for overseas correspondence, but a three-week feasibility study did not confirm this.93 Any thought of a renewal was therefore abandoned.

Barnett understandably thought the Ananda Marga matter was largely closed, but there was more to come. Shortly afterwards, in June 1983, the NSW Police requested more information from ASIO, and in a subsequent meeting ASIO passed over dozens of intelligence items relating to the Hilton Hotel bombing.94

Controversy would continue for years afterwards, however. The verdict that saw the Yagoona Three convicted in August 1979 for the attempted assassination of Cameron was overturned in 1985 by Justice James Wood of the NSW Supreme Court.95 Justice Wood accepted many of the criticisms levelled at the NSW Police agent, Richard Seary, whose evidence had been largely discredited.96 An internal review by ASIO in 1986 concluded that the Ananda Marga was no longer likely to engage in acts of politically motivated violence, and all ASIO investigation of that organisation ceased.97

Conspiracy theories claiming that ASIO or the police were somehow involved in planting the Hilton Hotel bomb to justify their own existence have continued to circulate in the wider community for longer than they should. Part of the problem was that the roles of ASIO and the NSW Police were hard to distinguish in the eyes of many observers. In particular, while ASIO was seeking to monitor the Ananda Marga, the NSW Police’ agent, Richard Seary, was also collecting intelligence within the Ananda Marga—yet neither knew of the other’s intelligence sources. In 1985, columnist and author David Marr described Seary as a ‘psychopathic fantasist, drug taker and vagrant’.98 Seary’s testimony would later prove controversial, as he alleged the Ananda Marga men involved confessed their crime to him.99 But the reported confessions were not recorded, and Seary’s account changed over time, reducing his credibility.100 The controversy was left unresolved for years, including beyond the judicial review held in 1984 and 1985.101

But the matter continued to fester and police continued to investigate the bombing. In February 1990, Tim Anderson was committed for trial on three counts of murder. He was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years’ gaol, then had his conviction overturned by the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal in June 1991. Seary also complained to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Roger Holdich, in August 1991, claiming that ASIO had withheld information that would have been relevant to various legal proceedings relating to the hotel bombing and to the arrests of the Yagoona Three and that would have corroborated his own testimony.102

In response, Holdich examined ‘every file holding on the Ananda Marga’ in ASIO and personally interviewed a large number of ASIO officers who had been involved in collecting and analysing information on the Ananda Marga. Holdich concluded that ASIO had no warning of the bombing and had passed all information of substance pertaining to the bombing to the relevant authorities.103 Seary made repeated allegations of misconduct by ASIO and these were refuted in detail by the Inspector-General’s report released on 21 September 1994.104

In February that year, David Sadleir, the Director-General of ASIO at the time, wrote to all staff reiterating the findings of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. He repeated what his predecessor, Alan Wrigley, had said in November 1985, ‘that ASIO had no part whatsoever in any action leading to the bombing at the Hilton Hotel’.105 There was no cover-up, for there was nothing to cover up.


In hindsight, it is clear that while ASIO’s actions were vindicated by repeated inquiries, collaboration between ASIO and the police could have been better. The years of conspiracy theories, inquiries, court cases, reviews and decisions overturned all bore testimony to that fact. They also pointed to a persistent theme throughout—that some members of the Ananda Marga were significant actors at almost every stage in the unfolding drama. Indeed, Malcolm Fraser’s certainty over the role of the Ananda Marga was supported by a number of ASIO officers involved, who remained convinced of the central role of the group in the Hilton Hotel bombing. These views are supported by Rachel Landers’ account, Who Bombed the Hilton?

ASIO’s experience in dealing with the Ananda Marga as a target had demonstrated the difficulty of using sensitive and patchy intelligence material for criminal prosecutions, which require high evidentiary standards to ensure a conviction in court. It also demonstrated the importance of ongoing vigilance and the importance of reviewing and updating its list of targets. When the Ananda Marga emerged as a target, there were few clear indicators of its inner circle’s propensity to violence and yet it has been continually alleged to have been involved in one of the most significant acts of terrorism in Australian history. Despite the fact that ASIO already held material on this group, it had no indication of any planned attack.

The experience further reinforced ASIO’s shift from its earlier emphasis on counter-subversion, focused on organisations linked with communism and revolutionary socialism. By the mid- to late 1970s, such targets justifiably attracted less and less attention and ASIO channelled its resources elsewhere.

The challenge of clearly identifying the culprits and then facilitating effective prosecution by the police and legal authorities indicated an ongoing need for effective, close and trusting cooperation between ASIO and its counterpart police bodies at the Federal and state levels. Procedures for appropriately handling source information and sharing highly sensitive information with other agencies remained areas where considerable improvement was still required.

The Ananda Marga had been a significant focus of ASIO’s attention, but it only consumed a small fraction of ASIO’s approved telephone interception warrants at the height of its prominence. In hindsight, the focus on the Ananda Marga arguably peaked after the danger it was ever capable of posing to society had ebbed. The group effectively lost its potency as a security challenge not long after the Hilton Hotel bombing—thanks in part at least to ASIO’s close monitoring of its words and deeds.

Other counterterrorist security challenges would occupy the minds of ASIO officers for decades to come. New terrorist threats—notably among immigrants from the Balkans and increasingly from the Middle East—would help generate a significant reorientation of ASIO’s organisation and its priorities.

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