Developing Mechanisms for Dealing with Politically Motivated Violence and Terrorism, 1975–1983

The Hilton Hotel bombing reverberated far beyond the reach of the explosion itself. Never before had state or federal instrumentalities had to deal with a crisis of this nature. Not since the Second World War had such a devastating bomb exploded in a major Australian city. Some deep thinking was required as to what this all meant and what needed to be done in response. It led to a significant re-evaluation of Federal and state arrangements to ensure the safety and security of visiting dignitaries, special events, sensitive sites and vital installations.

The decision to call out the troops, for instance, was made while the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM) was in progress. While it led to the deployment of troops from the Holsworthy-based 1st Brigade to assist, the extant arrangements and procedures did not address the complications that arose, and the ad hoc arrangements that were put in place were awkward, to say the least. The troops were tasked particularly with securing the route from Sydney to Bowral and with providing security patrols in Bowral, but they had never practised to perform such a task and had little direction from other authorities about what to expect or what to do.1 As the dust settled, it gradually became clear to the Government that some fundamental rethinking was required in terms of the nature of the domestic security threat in Australia and the mechanisms in place within and between the respective security authorities to handle such threats.

In fact, the Government’s and ASIO’s machinery for dealing with politically motivated violence and terrorism had been developing since at least 1973, following the visit to Australia of a man identified as a Palestinian terrorist (discussed in Volume II of this history). But the period from 1976 to 1983 would see these mechanisms expand and develop considerably in light of both the recommendations made by the Hope Royal Commission and the series of events that occurred during the intervening years. This chapter describes the development of that machinery, and it explains why politically motivated violence and terrorism increased in importance within ASIO.

The Monash affair

A spate of letter bombs occurred in the days after 11 November 1975, the date of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. A letter bomb addressed to Queensland State Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was opened and detonated, injuring two clerks on 19 November. That same day one addressed to Malcolm Fraser was discovered and rendered safe. Two days later, another letter bomb, addressed to the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, was discovered in a Canberra post office. These incidents clearly demonstrated the need for protecting physical assets and the people involved. They triggered a review of procedures, both within and outside ASIO.2

ASIO was pressed to reconsider its protective security assessments for Prime Minister Fraser after he was caught in a demonstration at Monash University in Melbourne on 23 August 1976. Fraser’s controversial replacement of Gough Whitlam in November 1975 aroused continuing protests around the country for several years thereafter, so it was no surprise that students might consider protesting a prime ministerial visit. ASIO’s threat assessment, issued to the CPF before the event, concluded that since students were on holidays, the prospects of a significant demonstration were small. Subsequent agent reporting on the morning of the intended visit, however, revealed that a protest would form and ‘incite demonstrators to act physically against the Prime Minister’. The group principally identified with instigating the protest was the Students for Australian Independence, which an ASIO report identified as ‘identical’ with the breakaway Maoist-oriented CPA (Marxist–Leninist). This group saw the Government, the press and multinational companies as ‘stooges and lackeys of super-power imperialism’ that could be destroyed only by a ‘revolution of a broad united front of all classes oppressed by imperialism and led by the working class’.3 Rightly, ASIO passed this information on to the police as it came in.4 In the end, the visit went ahead and the protesters jostled and spat at Fraser’s delegation, generating considerable media coverage.5 This prompted significant additional reflection on protective security arrangements and ASIO’s role.

In response to this incident, four days later, Fraser spoke to the Deputy Director-General, Barnett and challenged him as to why so little had been done when he, Fraser, had known for three weeks beforehand that there would be violence. Barnett retorted that ASIO had amply fulfilled its obligations by informing the police, whose duty it was to protect the Prime Minister. He then sketched out the intelligence received from ASIO sources, which had been fed into both the Victorian Police and the CPF, although the police alleged that ASIO had not provided the requisite intelligence. It appears both had a point. Barnett explained that at the time the intelligence was gathered, the students had not apparently made up their minds as to their likely course of action, which would be dependent on the ratio of police to students. Barnett defended ASIO’s intelligence as timely, accurate and not warranting an apology to the Prime Minister, despite what the police claimed.6

With the Monash affair fresh in his mind, and conscious of the legacy of public antipathy regarding ASIO’s approach to counter-subversion, Woodward wrote a memo to staff clarifying the Organisation’s role concerning demonstrations and violence. ASIO’s task, he explained, in all cases where violence was a real possibility, was to try to discover which organisations were involved, gather all possible information on the plans and intentions for physical violence, and then pass such intelligence to the civil authorities responsible for public order—that is, the police.7

With a view to reducing the prospect of controversy and misunderstanding over ASIO’s role on university campuses, Woodward also issued a memorandum outlining fresh instructions governing ASIO’s engagement with university staff and students. He noted that since the last time an instruction on this matter was issued in 1971, there had been major changes in the political climate in Australia. While ASIO had a ‘lawful and proper function to perform’, Woodward wanted to outline explicitly the limits of ASIO’s role. When staff or students were nominated as referees for people undergoing security vetting, Woodward indicated his preference for these referees to be interviewed off campus. ASIO officers attending university as students were not permitted to report on security matters that came to their knowledge by virtue of their presence on campus for the purpose of their studies, nor were they to be tasked to collect information. This did not preclude ASIO, however, from recruiting agents and contacts who were university students, given there were instances where some ASIO targets may have attended university or been in touch with people who did. But all stages of recruitment were to be subject to high-level review and approval, and each agent was to be given a clear and specific brief concerning their task and ASIO’s requirements. As a general rule, surveillance teams were not to enter university property, and exceptions were to be approved by no less than a regional director.8 Woodward, it appears, was trying to limit the prospects of ASIO finding itself on the wrong side of societal expectations and in the media for the wrong reasons, as it had during the Vietnam War years.

Saving on protective security costs

Other government initiatives were introduced not just to keep up with technology but to find some financial savings. With an economic slowdown and competing financial priorities, the Fraser Government’s cost-cutting initiatives led to pressure on the AFP to look for savings. This had a knock-on effect on ASIO, where guards were provided by the police. The guarding services provided to Commonwealth Government buildings, including those used by ASIO, were a prime target for cost-savings. Woodward acknowledged to Commissioner Sir Colin Woods that viable alternatives to existing arrangements were possible, but he was also mindful of the letter bombs and other incidents, and was eager to ensure that the AFP did not act too quickly in withdrawing its services. Woodward kept the secretaries of the departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and of Administrative Services informed of his concerns.9 For Woods, however, the existing arrangements were ‘a scandalous waste of money’ that required urgent attention. So he asked Woodward to provide a physical security expert to help the AFP urgently to review the level of protection necessary and ascertain the appropriate means of provision.10

Harvey Barnett, acting as Director-General, wrote to Woods suggesting that a list of current Commonwealth establishments being guarded be drafted so that a threat assessment on each of the premises could be prepared. Barnett also advised that the Assistant Director-General of C Branch, Les McBride, was the ASIO officer responsible for the project.11

Securing assets

While ASIO was dealing with changed security arrangements, other initiatives were being taken to bolster security. The Organisation generated, for instance, protective security circulars addressing certain technological security vulnerabilities—of telephones, facsimile machines, ‘reprographic machines’ (copiers) and intrusion alarm systems.12 It was discovered, for instance, that one particular phone model passed the audio line signal while the handset was not in use. A protective security circular warned of the dangers of sensitive phone calls being overheard until replacement models could be acquired.13

Numerous government instrumentalities were assessed in terms of protective security, but the one of perhaps the most concern was the seat of government in Parliament House. In February 1977, the Attorney-General, Robert Ellicott, called for a review of physical security arrangements in ministerial offices in Parliament House, in government departments and in the state offices. In most instances the review was made in conjunction with the then CPF but much of what was observed concerned the handling and safe custody of classified or sensitive information. A number of physical security weaknesses were identified, including insufficient suitably approved safes and ‘the almost complete disregard’ of protective security measures intended to reduce the prospect of espionage. Concerns included desks left unattended, open access to unlocked offices and photocopiers, and discarded one-time-use printer ribbons from electric typewriters, the indentations upon which showed clearly exactly what had been written.14 This reflected a very low level of concern about security and to ASIO made the premises ripe for becoming compromised. Their fears were not unfounded, given what they knew about the level of social unrest and protest activity, as well as Soviet methods and intentions. Experience at the Australian Embassy in Moscow bore testimony to their concerns.

In mid-November 1978, the Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, reported to Parliament that a network of listening devices had been found hidden in the walls of several rooms in the Australian Embassy in Moscow.15 The devices were exposed by an electrical fire, which damaged part of a wall. The wires were followed into the basement then across the rear-side grassed area of the embassy compound to the boundary wall.16 The story made headlines, and newspapers reported that the Australian Government had summoned the Soviet Ambassador, Alexander Basov, to lodge a protest over the ‘flagrant and serious breach of diplomatic propriety’.17 Fraser reportedly told Basov that if any more bugs were planted, Australia would insist on the expulsion of some officials at the Soviet Embassy.18 In fact, Peacock had warned Basov in July, only weeks after the discovery in Moscow, that if the matter became public knowledge, the Government would have no alternative but to reveal the facts. The media revelations triggered the Government’s public declarations. Basov reportedly appeared ‘fairly relaxed’, reading as a positive sign Peacock’s assurance that the Australian Government was not to be deflected from bolstering relations with the Soviet Union.19

The discovery of Soviet eavesdropping equipment served as a strong reminder of the risks associated with lax physical security arrangements. At the same time, Peacock’s remarks pointed to the tension, discussed in later chapters, between ASIO’s priority of exposing and expelling Soviet espionage and the Department of Foreign Affairs priority of relationship building—particularly with a view to fostering trade ties. Nonetheless, the news vindicated ASIO’s focus on bolstering physical security measures.

Prime ministerial security

Apart from security at events at such places as Monash University, ASIO made considerable effort to meet the requirements of Prime Minister Fraser. The 1980 Federal elections, for instance, presented ASIO with a range of protective security challenges. ASIO was beginning to recognise that the CPA was no longer a source of concern regarding violent protests, but other ‘more provocative groups’ meant that there was a perceived need for ASIO ‘to maintain adequate coverage of the situation’.20

Following several indicators that Fraser would face considerable protest action in a number of locations where he intended to campaign, ASIO was pressed to provide ongoing up-to-date threat assessments. In the end, a plethora of VIP travel notifications were issued between the end of September and 18 October 1980, and several assessments were provided per day for the Prime Minister. During this period, twelve demonstrations against the Prime Minister were reported to ASIO, of which ASIO had predicted eleven. ASIO also happened to indicate another eleven incidents that did not eventuate. ASIO staff seemed ‘generally happy’ with their performance.21

In late October 1981, the Deputy Head of the Protective Security Coordination Centre, Brigadier Mike Jeffery (later Major General and Governor-General of Australia) called Woodward to advise that a crisis had arisen over the security of Nareen, Malcolm Fraser’s country residence. Fraser had detected a Federal policeman asleep on duty, and the Prime Minister was anxious to order electronic sensing equipment to provide early warning of intruders. He asked ASIO for an estimate of cost. Les McBride suggested that a formal threat assessment would be appropriate and that C Branch could provide this fairly easily, as ASIO officers from his branch had recently visited Nareen.22 Fraser later recalled the matter slightly differently. Referring to a conversation he had with his personal security detail he recalled:

they wanted to put a security fence around Nareen and the central blocks. I thought it was excessive and stupid and in the end something far less intrusive and more modest was arranged—we gave the police a cottage at the end of the drive so they could see who was coming in and going out, with some communications but nothing much more than that. I said to my department the protective services people are saying this is necessary, but have you asked ASIO to see if they think it is necessary. Is there any threat? Do they make threat assessments? They said no. Well I thought ASIO would support me and say no, it wasn’t necessary; which is what they did. But the request, I think, went to Ted [Woodward], that the prime minister wants you to do all of this, which was quite misleading about my intentions.23

Reflecting the resentment over the Whitlam dismissal, large demonstrations continued to occur at events involving Fraser or the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, until his term finished in December 1977. Some ASIO threat assessments suggested that Fraser was likely to be subjected to protesters throwing eggs and tomatoes at public appearances. In response, Woodward recalled, Fraser was ‘justifiably annoyed’ that this kind of threat would not be a matter of concern. Fraser did, however, have concerns about more serious attacks, and had bulletproof windows installed in his Melbourne office in the Treasury Buildings.24

Creation of the Protective Security Coordination Centre

As it happened, the Monash incident of 23 August 1976 immediately preceded the creation of the Protective Security Coordination Centre, an organisation with the aim of protecting ministers, foreign visitors and other VIPs. Its creation was inspired in part by concerns over possible security incidents during events such as the visit of Yugoslav Prime Minister Dzemal Bijedic in March 1973 (discussed in Volume II). The Cabinet decision of 24 August 1976 was in train before the Monash incident but events there gave it immediacy. The decision mandated that the Protective Security Coordination Centre would be established within the Department of Administrative Services, with a seconded officer from ASIO. This officer was tasked with establishing a policy for managing the relevant pooled intelligence material available to the Protective Security Coordination Centre and ensuring it was properly handled and disseminated, in accordance with endorsed security practices.25 In essence, ASIO provided the threat assessments upon which the coordination of protective services was based.26 In doing so, ASIO built up a ‘very close and very healthy working relationship’ with that centre.27

When Fraser repeated his visit to Monash University in March 1980, he excited a similar response from student protestors. Like before, ASIO provided advanced information concerning the demonstration—this time to the Protective Security Coordination Centre.28 Afterwards, one ASIO agent who reported on the event ‘did not wish to be presumptuous’, but said ‘as long as the Prime Minister continued to enter through the front door, demonstrations will continue’. This was because ‘The target organisation sees the Prime Minister’s actions as provocative’.29 Demonstrating also happened to provide the target organisation with ample publicity. Fraser, saw it as ‘essential that any Prime Minister should exercise his right to move freely around Australia and accept invitations as he wished’.30 He was not one to change his actions in the face of such threats.

From ASIO’s perspective, there was some sensitivity about how much intelligence advice could be provided before such events. It noted that such demonstrations were rarely organised a long time in advance and were rarely subject to detailed planning by participants. Prior intelligence reports tended, therefore, to be available only shortly before the demonstration itself, and were usually only of a general nature.31 The situation was compounded by the fact that frequently the organisations demonstrating were not categorised as subversive, and ASIO therefore did not have agents or contacts targeting them. This meant that when seeking to report on such groups, ASIO did not have the advantage of using intelligence derived from well-placed covert sources who could report on the groups’ intentions in advance of an event.32 There was pressure on ASIO to deliver intelligence of a very high order for effective protective planning to take place.33 But to deliver what was requested pushed ASIO into operating at the edges of its legal mandate, monitoring otherwise relatively benign targets that might not be categorised as subversive and therefore did not warrant ASIO’s attention.

Committee for Protection Against Violence

Apart from university-based protest groups, ASIO had other more substantial security threats to consider. These prompted additional inter-agency cooperation, particularly with regard to counterterrorism and crisis management. One notable development was the formation of the Commonwealth Special Inter-Departmental Committee on Protection Against Violence (SIDC-PAV), which was formed out of a joint meeting of the Special Inter-Departmental Committee on Domestic Violence (SIDC-DV) and the Special Inter-Departmental Committee on Counter-Terrorism (SIDC-CT) in late 1977.34 ASIO’s job within SIDC-PAV was to provide security intelligence, threat assessments and protective security advice to both the committee and the Protective Security Coordination Centre. ASIO also was required to advise SIDC-PAV on the appropriate condition under which the security intelligence it provided could be further disseminated to outside bodies, such as the State Crisis Centres and state police forces. A working party established to examine these issues observed that countering terrorism was a multi-departmental responsibility given a high priority by the Government. ASIO saw it as in its own interests to reduce the gaps in intelligence collection, assessment and security advice by interpreting its functions ‘in a pragmatic light’, to avoid misunderstanding and unnecessary overlaps.35 In so doing, ASIO recognised that in most cases the police would utilise their own resources but call upon ASIO to act in support. In such circumstances (such as a terrorist attack), ASIO officers would have to be coordinated by the police and operate largely at their direction.36 The SIDC-PAV would have a wide range of issues to deal with in the years ahead, not the least of which concerned the fallout of the Hilton Hotel bombing and the subsequent Protective Security Review.

Protective Security Review

After the Hilton Hotel bombing (covered in the previous chapter), conspiracy theories began to emerge. People, including ALP MP Bob Hogg and CAPP president Joan Coxsedge, asked whether the bombing was a bungled attempt by any section of the security forces—by which they meant ASIO—to justify their existence. The idea was that it was intended to scare, but backfired due to the unfortunate involvement of the garbage disposal unit.37 While baseless, the fact that such assertions were made by prominent public figures demonstrates the need for the story to be examined in detail here. Conscious, in part at least, of the need to address such fears, Prime Minister Fraser declared that a far-reaching examination of what happened and why it happened was necessary. In addition, decisions had to be made about what should be done in response to the threat and how to improve performance and reactions in the future.

It was evident, Fraser said, that a review should be undertaken of ‘the whole area of protective security in Australia by a person who has an appreciation of intelligence and security operations, and a concern for the liberties of individual men and women of Australia’. Justice Hope, who had only recently completed the final report of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, was once again commissioned. Fraser declared: ‘His past experience will help him enormously in this present task.’38 Hope’s brief for the Protective Security Review was ‘to consider relationships between State, Territorial and CPF and between law enforcement agencies, intelligence and other relevant authorities’, including ASIO and the various police special branches. He was to provide clarification and guidelines on the division of responsibilities between state and various Federal agencies on protective security matters, and advise on further measures for coordination. As before, his report was to balance security with the rights of citizens.39 ASIO offered Hope ‘wholehearted support’ and provided a special executive officer to assist.40

Hope spent September 1978 visiting relevant security, police, diplomatic, intelligence and emergency response organisations in the United States, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and France, to learn about the latest counterterrorist techniques.41 ASIO’s Senior Liaison Officer in Washington, Mike Leslie, coordinated the two-week program of visits and meetings.42

The next month, ASIO made a submission to the Protective Security Review explaining its role in counterterrorism and VIP protection. It acknowledged that devising measures to eliminate threats entirely was ‘clearly impossible’, and it was therefore necessary to ensure proper contingency planning and to see that information and intelligence from local and foreign sources was made available to those needing it and regularly updated. Given the complexities and time-sensitive nature of sifting through masses of overt and covert intelligence—both from within ASIO and from other sources, including intelligence agencies, the police, the public and the media—and then assessing, evaluating and communicating, it quickly became apparent to ASIO that performance should be tested through exercises and mock situations.43

ASIO’s submission also raised a concern, based on its experience of the Hilton Hotel bombing, about the miscommunication of intelligence between agencies.44 The Protective Security Coordination Centre, ASIO argued, did not have the expertise, nor was it the right organisation to coordinate intelligence during a terrorist or politically motivated violence incident. Rather, ASIO believed that it alone was best placed to act as the central authority responsible for assessing intelligence and information on terrorism. Other agencies, therefore, should be required to pass all related ‘raw’ intelligence to ASIO in the first instance.45 The Protective Security Coordination Centre, ASIO argued, should be responsible for coordinating appropriate responses based on ASIO’s threat assessments and the recommendations of SIDC-PAV.46

The unclassified version of Hope’s Protective Security Review report, completed in March 1979 and released to the public in mid-November,47 had implications for how a wide range of Federal, state and territory governmental bodies approached protective security issues, as discussed below.48Only a small portion of the report remained classified, on the grounds that it ‘might be of use to terrorists’. Based on Hope’s findings, the Permanent Heads Committee on Intelligence and Security recommended that ASIO should have sole responsibility for producing national threat assessments on terrorism and politically motivated violence, and that because the protection of VIPs was basically a state responsibility, ASIO’s VIP threat assessments should be readily made available to all police forces.49 ASIO retained the central role it had hoped for.

Cabinet also expanded ASIO’s role by endorsing Justice Hope’s proposal that the Organisation should play a central role in protective security across a range of domains, including advising on equipment security, computer security and efficiency auditing of departmental protective security systems and procedures.50 ASIO appointed a project officer in C Branch to lead the work. The Director-General, Woodward, insisted that the appointment be based in Canberra, where the Protective Security Coordination Centre was based and where the principal government agencies involved were headquartered.51 Perhaps the single most important recommendation from Hope’s review, in the context of what was about to follow, was that there be a central repository for threat assessments for the Commonwealth and that the responsibility for providing those threat assessments should rest with ASIO.

Threat assessments

The expanded remit stretched ASIO to work beyond the matters it had understood to be its responsibility from the ASIO Act 1979. This meant that the Organisation’s threat assessments had to draw on information sourced from state and Federal police. This raised concerns among insiders, who saw their responsibilities becoming increasingly broad and potentially unwieldy.52

Despite these worries, others saw the changes making ASIO’s threat assessments ‘more directly related to the end user requirement’.53 Overall, there was a sense that these developments were helping to make ASIO more accountable to the Commonwealth Government for the intelligence and security services it provided to government instrumentalities.54 An ASIO officer was appointed as the initial point of contact for departmental security sections on protective security matters; this officer would also fulfil tasks associated with the Protective Security Coordination Centre.55

Within ASIO, a Threat and Vulnerability Working Group was convened in August 1978 by the officer in Protective Security Branch designated C2, drawing on representatives from E Branch (Counter-Espionage) and S Branch (Counter-Subversion and Counter-Terrorism) to ensure that the threat assessments were prepared on time and with full coordination between the respective sections. The objective was to attempt to ensure that ASIO’s security advice to government bodies reflected an awareness of the spectrum of current and foreseeable threats. ASIO’s more focused and collaborative efforts appeared to have a positive impact outside the Organisation.56 As a consequence, ASIO’s protective security role was enlarged and enhanced. This growth was not discouraged within the Organisation, in part at least because staff could see that it would allow ASIO to improve its relations with government in the protective security area, ‘to offset the perennial bad press we seem to attract in other areas of our activities’.57

As discussed earlier, in the aftermath of the Hilton Hotel bombing, terrorism and politically motivated violence became a focal issue for both the Government and ASIO. In fact, ‘Terrorism and Politically Motivated Violence’ was the title of a joint ASIO and Office of National Assessments (ONA) paper prepared with the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Department’s Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO), with input also from the AFP and the Protective Security Coordination Centre. The paper concluded that the threats posed by terrorist and revolutionary groups could be divided into four categories or threat levels.58

The first was groups posing a relatively high threat of violence, including terrorist acts. The second was groups with a high capacity for but low threat of committing violence, including terrorist acts. The third category was groups with a capacity for sporadic violent incidents. The fourth category included those groups with a low capacity for and low threat of violence. This spectrum included Croatian separatist groups, the Ananda Marga, Palestinian terrorist groups, the Japanese Red Army and other groups such as the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), the Students for Australian Independence, the Worker Student Alliance for Australian Independence, the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand, the Socialist Labour League, and the International Socialists. Others also monitored included ‘regional national liberation movements and groups’, Vietnamese groups, right-wing extremist groups, opposing sections of the Middle Eastern community, Asian student groups and South American groups.59

The report pointed out that ‘the level of threat from any particular group may change quickly in response to external stimuli’ and that ‘many individuals or groups are capable, under conditions of perceived strain and stress, of engaging in politically motivated violence’. A ‘special security problem’ was seen to be presented by ‘fanatical individuals with a deep sense of personal and political alienation’. The ‘volatile and largely unpredictable nature of contemporary terrorism’, the report argued, require the continued study of international and national trends and developments, to maintain reliable estimates of the capabilities and intentions of terrorists.60

Coordinating responses to concerns over terrorism

As the nature of international security challenges evolved, ASIO’s original focus on counter-subversion expanded and adjusted to include concerns over politically motivated violence and terrorism. This was in response to threats emanating from or linked to the Palestinian and Croatian communities in Australia, as well as the proliferation of terrorist incidents elsewhere in the world, notably following the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.61 Notwithstanding the small numbers of people involved, concerns also were aired about the apparent merger in Europe of ‘extreme left subversive groups’, such as the Trotskyists, with anarchists and nationalist terrorist groups to form new manifestations of ‘armed subversion’.62

Such concerns had led to the creation of SIDC-CT and the SIDC-DV. Early on in its tenure, the Fraser Government, initially with Robert Ellicott as Attorney-General, endorsed ASIO’s shift in focus on to collecting intelligence related to politically motivated violence and terrorism.63 ASIO provided two officers, including Richard King, to assist as planning staff.64 King went on in 1977 to assist with the Protective Security Coordination Centre as well as the Counter-Terrorist Operations and Planning Staff within the Attorney-General’s Department.65

One mechanism seen as helpful in developing and refining responses to terrorist incidents was conducting multi-agency counterterrorism exercises. These were designed to test the ability of agencies to react to and coordinate their actions in a crisis situation. The first took place in Canberra in February 1976 and was called Exercise Can Top. This was a poorly coordinated activity at first, with few agencies providing advanced warning and with limited positive results as a consequence. But it did demonstrate the need for more and better coordinated activities of this nature to refine procedures and capabilities.66

Exercise Sea Gull, held in New South Wales in late May 1976, was the first joint Commonwealth and state anti-terrorist exercise held in Australia.67 ASIO provided much of the scenario material, supplying ‘intelligence’ on a guerrilla-type group with Maoist tendencies that had notionally taken some VIPs hostage.68 As the scenario unfolded, the terrorist demands for transport were met, the prisoners released, a plane secured and eventually the ‘terrorists’ were ‘shot’ (with blank ammunition) and the ‘hostages’ saved. One ASIO officer involved reported that the communications worked well, and the exercise was a success and ran smoothly. He also noted that on the basis of both exercises Can Top and Sea Gull, it was apparent that the demands upon ASIO would be greatest during the early stages of a terrorist incident, when the authorities required identification, background information (to help assess motives and modi operandi), and details of Australian contacts and supporters. Exercise observers concluded ASIO should look to respond as quickly as possible to provide necessary support for the early stages of any such incident.69More broadly, outside ASIO the exercise demonstrated the need for greater planning in the development of future exercises.70 Not surprisingly, more such exercises were scheduled, including in the states, with the intention of testing the ability of state and Federal agencies to cooperate and coordinate their efforts.

Exercise Bull Finch, for instance, was organised with agreement from the Victorian Government in December 1976. Planning was undertaken by Counter-Terrorist Operations and Planning Staff, and ASIO’s Richard King played a prominent role.71 This time the exercise tested the procedures for issuing warrants for the interception of a telephone line.72 Several procedural weaknesses were identified by the exercise, providing pointers for refinements in practices and procedures.73 Similar exercises continued to be held in successive years.

National Anti-Terrorist Plan

Following the extensive work on exercises and internal working groups associated with SIDC-PAV, a National Anti-Terrorist Plan was prepared and issued by the Planning and Operating Procedures Working Group in July 1979. This replaced an earlier version prepared in 1973. The plan made clear that ASIO, as the national authority responsible for assessments relating to terrorism, was tasked with keeping designated Commonwealth and state authorities (usually the state police special branches) appraised of the situation, and with recommending changes to the level of alert. These levels, known generally as ‘Standard CT Precautionary Procedures’, applied as a default position—‘Special CT Risk’—when measures were to be implemented in response to an intelligence assessment, while a ‘Full CT Alert’ indicated the highest level of precautions to be applied when an act of terrorism was underway.74

Shortly after the release of the National Anti-Terrorist Plan, ASIO was involved with a range of ACT-based agencies in Exercise Bellbird. This was a counterterrorist exercise simulating a siege held in real time on the ground. It differed from previous exercises, which had primarily focused on testing communications.75 Justice Hope had reaffirmed the utility of such exercises when he attended a SIDC-PAV meeting on 28 June 1978, and this added impetus to inter-agency participation.76 Exercise Bellbird involved representatives from the Protective Security Coordination Centre, the ACT Police, the CPF and the Department of Transport. ASIO provided support for the planning and for developing the scenario, providing scripted intelligence reports for participants during the exercise.77 The experience was welcomed by ASIO, as it helped test and refine procedures.78Similar exercises were conducted with state police bodies in 1977 and 1978, and a number of important observations were made that would allow improvement of procedures and mechanisms for cooperation and collaboration.79

Woodward argued at a Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meeting in October 1979 that, notwithstanding the Hilton Hotel bombing in February 1978, the probability of another major terrorist incident occurring in Australia was low. He argued also that the probability of Army assistance being needed in such an incident was even lower.80

While Woodward downplayed the risk of a terrorist attack, concern over the prospect of such an attack in Australia worried Prime Minister Fraser greatly. The assassination of the Turkish Consul-General in Sydney in December 1980 and the Iranian hostage drama in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981 led Fraser to demand greater efforts in preparing for contingencies and protecting vital assets, including Bass Strait oil rigs owned and operated by oil company Esso.81

ASIO’s responsibility concerning the oil installations was to provide physical security advice (on locks, gates, mechanisms, security monitoring mechanisms and procedures, etc.) to ensure the safety and security of both onshore facilities (in conjunction with Victoria Police) and offshore facilities (in conjunction with the Army’s Special Air Service Regiment). Given the ‘singularity of a Commonwealth Government responsibility’ for offshore facilities with importance of national significance, such as the oil rigs, ASIO was designated as the only security agency concerned with threat assessments.82

Fraser asked ASIO for a general threat assessment but he reportedly was unhappy with its relatively benign conclusions and demanded that it be reconsidered.83 Despite their remoteness and the lack of a credible threat, there was little ASIO could do to avert Fraser’s fixation on providing security for these offshore platforms, some 80 kilometres off the Victoria coastline. One Special Air Service Regiment trooper and two sailors died in separate training accidents in 1982 and 1983, the aim of which was to develop the capability for dealing with a feared but unlikely offshore terrorist incident.84 ASIO’s benign threat assessments, it seemed, would not deter the Prime Minister from pursuing a task he considered of vital importance. Indeed, the deaths were arguably avoidable, a result perhaps of Fraser’s determination to develop a counterterrorist capability on a tight time frame and with a limited budget. As an upside, the experience saw the Special Air Service Regiment emerge as a significant partner with the AFP and ASIO for domestic counterterrorism and hostage situations.85

Technical Support Unit

The experience on the oil rigs, where Federal and state agencies played a role, helped generate additional standing arrangements, particularly when it came to the coordination of technical support. The Standing Advisory Committee of Commonwealth/State Cooperation for Protection Against Violence and the Federal-level SIDC-PAV both endorsed the establishment of a dedicated full-time Technical Support Unit in 1980. The concept for this unit was based on British arrangements, which had been tested and proven in operational situations.86 Its role in a counterterrorist siege or hostage situation was ‘to effect the technical acquisition of tactical information in support of police and/or army operations’.87 The Permanent Heads Committee on Intelligence and Security agreed on 26 September that a ‘high priority’ should be given to its development, as it was seen as vital to the effective operation of the Tactical Assault Group that was raised within the Army’s Special Air Service Regiment.88

Cabinet decided to base the Technical Support Unit in Canberra, where it operated within ASIO, not the AFP as had been initially proposed. Nonetheless, the Technical Support Unit would have the capacity to be placed under the control of the commanding police officer during an operation or exercise.89 The choice of ASIO over the police came down to their respective legislative powers. The ASIO Act authorised ASIO to investigate terrorism and provided it with powers, under a warrant signed by the Attorney-General, to search premises and use listening devices. The police—both state and Federal—did not have these powers, which meant they could not use invasive methods during an actual terrorist attack.90 Thus the Technical Support Unit, using ASIO’s special powers, would perform the work and pass the information to the police. This arrangement raised a number of legal questions about the authority of a non-ASIO officer to exercise command and control over the Technical Support Unit, and how to manage the collection, classification, storage and retrieval of its products—particularly as they could prove essential for evidentiary purposes.91The intention was that the Technical Support Unit would be operational by the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Melbourne in October 1981.92

Before the Technical Support Unit became operational, it had to be tested. The Protective Security Coordination Centre announced its intention to hold six exercises involving the unit in 1981. In addition, the unit would conduct ‘lower key’ exercises with police in each state and with the Army’s Tactical Assault Group.93

One exercise, Sun State, held primarily in Queensland from 29 April to 1 May 1981, included staff from the Technical Support Unit. Its purpose was to test the inter-agency response to a terrorist incident in line with the National Anti-Terrorist Plan. The scenario ended with a Special Air Services assault on a building. ASIO’s Regional Director in Queensland, Mick Jiear, played a prominent role in providing support and coordinating ASIO’s involvement, which included input from officers in Canberra and at headquarters in Melbourne.94

Following the exercise, a debriefing was held to reflect on the lessons it provided. The meeting involved representatives from ASIO, the Attorney-General’s Department and the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Transport, Immigration, as well as Queensland authorities.95 They agreed that the exercise would stand them in good stead for the security precautions arranged for the 1981 CHOGM as well as the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982. In addition, this and similar exercises generated points for refinement of the National Anti-Terrorist Plan. In coordinating its post-exercise reflections and refinements, the Protective Security Coordination Centre sought input from ASIO and elsewhere.96 There was finally some semblance of centralisation and a whole-of-government approach.

The experience gained during these exercises showed ASIO that it needed its own internal Counter-Terrorist Contingency Plan so that all elements of ASIO, including the Technical Support Unit, knew their responsibilities in a crisis, and how those functions related to each other.97Addressing the contingency planning requirements took significant coordination between a range of key people in a number of branches throughout the Organisation.

Michael Boyle, an officer in the Headquarters Liaison Group in Canberra, pointed out that every exercise, no matter how inept, had demonstrated the overriding importance of reliable information to the success of the whole crisis management machinery. Such information was needed to formulate policy and decide on an adequate response, as well as to allow tactical planning in the forward area (i.e. in and around the site of the attack, which was the responsibility of the police). This is where the Technical Support Unit was most valuable, providing the local police commander with the information necessary to develop tactical priorities.98

Security planning for CHOGM, 1981

When the Australian Government decided to host CHOGM in Melbourne in 1981, ASIO was presented with a challenge. Given the bomb explosion at the Hilton Hotel in February 1978, ASIO was determined to be as vigilant and rigorous as possible to prevent a recurrence. The task covered the range of protective security responsibilities for which ASIO had oversight: providing threat assessments, vetting personnel with access to the conference and providing physical security advice on the facilities being used.99

ASIO took very seriously the challenge of ensuring the security of VIPs and their delegations, and set about coordinating its efforts with the other bodies concerned with VIP protection, namely the Protective Security Coordination Centre, the Victoria Police and the AFP. ASIO collected material from all Federal agencies and departments with any information relevant to political violence that might arise during the conference. Officers analysed the information gathered and provided threat assessments that were disseminated to the agencies involved in supporting the event.100

From mid-1980 onwards, ASIO worked on implementing physical security measures, including secure communications between police and intelligence agencies using dedicated telex and telephone lines. ASIO was concerned about monitoring by hostile intelligence services as well as ‘revolutionary, violence-prone and protest groups’ and international terrorists from the home countries of CHOGM delegates. This latter concern prompted consultations with overseas security services for their additional input.101

Mindful of the experience in 1978 and with several groups declaring in advance that there would be ‘blood on the streets’, ASIO felt justified in treating such threats very seriously. As a result, ASIO and police increased their cooperation in the period leading up to CHOGM, seeking information on potential demonstrations and protest activity while also ‘waving the flag’ and showing to the community that the police and ASIO were acutely interested in security.102

ASIO’s assessments were circulated to a range of Federal and state government bodies, including the Victoria Police, the AFP, the Federal Government’s telecommunications authority, Australia Post, and the departments of Transport, Customs, Immigration, Foreign Affairs and Defence. These agencies used the ASIO assessments to inform their own planning. Australia Post, for instance, used ASIO’s advice as a basis from which to implement mail-checking procedures at CHOGM venues in order to address the risk of letter bombs.103

The meetings thankfully proved uneventful from a security perspective. Barnett told Sir Geoffrey Yeend, the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, that through CHOGM a sense of purpose had developed through officers from different departments working closely together and feeling they were achieving something worthwhile. CHOGM had certainly raised the morale of the Organisation, Barnett declared.104 Fraser thanked Barnett and ASIO for their good work: ‘The fact that there was no real security incident during CHOGM is, I believe, a tribute to the overall security arrangements that were made. I should be grateful if you would pass on to all staff concerned the Government’s appreciation of their dedication and their sterling work.’105

Protection for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, 1982

The work undertaken in preparation for CHOGM meant that ASIO was well prepared for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games held one year later. ASIO worked closely with the Protective Security Coordination Centre, the AFP, the Queensland Police and the Australian Defence Force in planning and preparing for these events. Teams of ASIO officers participated, installing cameras, videos and microphones during mock situations and then processing the resulting intelligence. Once again, the exercises were seen as a good learning experience for the Technical Support Unit, allowing its officers to test procedures and explain its capabilities and roles to Australian Defence Force and Queensland Police personnel who were not aware of the unit beforehand.106 In the end, the games passed uneventfully from a security perspective, but both state and Commonwealth were as well prepared as possible for a terrorist eventuality.

In addition to providing protective security advice and personnel vetting, ASIO closely monitored potential ‘threats to Australian interests’. Australian ‘subversive organisations’, such as the International Socialists, had been supporting and ‘attempting to influence Aboriginal protests’ (a comment that assumed they were being manipulated without their knowledge), and there were some indications of potential violence.107 Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins claimed that there would be about 200 Aboriginal people with helmets and weapons at the games ‘to settle old scores’. This information was relayed to ASIO by Brigadier Geoffrey Cohen, the Commander of the Army’s 3rd Military District, who had recently visited Perkins, an old friend. ASIO took a sanguine view of this, noting in a patronising way on the file that the propensity of Aboriginal people for violence was low, but they would ‘keep a close watch on the situation’ just in case.108

ASIO had a number of sources reporting on planned and potential land rights demonstrations. Aboriginal groups were not the only ones being monitored. Others included the Ananda Marga and the International Socialists, who had been involved in violent protests in Sydney and Melbourne. Given that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh would be in attendance at the games, there also was concern about Irish extremists, particularly as the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had been killed by a bomb blast in his boat in Ireland in 1979. But nothing of concern materialised.109

ASIO deployed resources for six months leading up to the games, and for their duration maintained a full-time staff of eight officers on duty in the Games Intelligence Unit in Brisbane as well as a 24-hour post at Headquarters ASIO.110 Les McBride recalled:

We had an astonishing success the way we had set it up. We took the officers from headquarters rather than just rely on the staff from the Brisbane office because we wanted the Brisbane office to feel that we were taking this very seriously—it was an internal PR thing as much as anything. There wasn’t a lot that they could do. But it did help the Queensland office to know that the whole organisation was there. My role was a front one. Every day I attended a meeting that the Protective Security Coordination Centre chaired to present the ASIO report on the intelligence that came from a number of sources. At the end of that time I looked back and there was not one thing that we didn’t predict.

McBride believes ASIO got it right ‘every time with one exception’—when Fraser visited the Hellenic Club in Brisbane and two drunken men staggered out of the park and abused him. ‘He was very upset about that.’111

According to McBride, the police had the Indigenous protesters who were camped in Musgrave Park ‘closely clamped down’, along with the International Socialists who were there and who were, in ASIO’s view at least, ‘stirring them up’. ASIO knew everything that was going on, he claimed. To his recollection: ‘The International Socialists were very clever. They were goading the Aboriginals to revolt. They never put themselves in the front row.’ ASIO also had agents within the International Socialists, who relayed to ASIO what was planned and what was going on.112

At the end of the games, Fraser requested from the police as complete and comprehensive a schedule as possible of people arrested during the games, including personal particulars, date of arrest and fate, whether they were ‘black’ or ‘white’, any known affiliations and whether they were known to have been involved in other demonstrations, including against the Vietnam War and against Sir John Kerr.113 This involved some legal concessions from the Queensland Police, which Fraser facilitated by discussing the matter with the Premier Bjelke-Petersen, who agreed that the information be collated by ASIO.114

From ASIO’s perspective, the Commonwealth Games was a very successful event. McBride argued the games helped lift ASIO’s standing in the eyes of the state bureaucracy because of the way ASIO had embedded itself in the Queensland Police and other state agencies. ‘So it was an important PR thing for us’ and a practical contribution, he said.115

Barnett later issued a congratulatory telex to all staff involved, declaring:

Our threat assessments were timely and accurate and reflected the Australia-wide intelligence acquisition plan stretching over several months. The extra-curricular activity we were called upon to perform for the Prime Minister was also handled expeditiously and with exemplary competence.116

It was a template for ASIO’s work regarding the Sydney Olympics a number of years later, during which ASIO officers were embedded in the various state police forces.


The Fraser years witnessed a transformation in the way ASIO and other Federal and state government agencies learned to grapple with the threat of politically motivated violence and terrorism. Essentially, they would have to work together and coordinate their efforts. The creation of the Protective Security Coordination Centre generated a focal point for protective security and counterterrorist initiatives and related activities, including coordinated inter-agency exercises. The development of SIDC-PAV enabled the respective government authorities to plan for such activities and establish practices and procedures to ensure proper handling of events as and when they occurred, while providing a forum for discussion of policy issues affecting one or more agencies.

The Hilton Hotel bombing came after these bodies were established but it had a galvanising effect, generating the momentum for change not only within ASIO but also within and between a range of government bodies. Most significantly, Justice Hope was commissioned again, this time to undertake the Protective Security Review. His report, presented in May 1979, addressed the relationships between law enforcement, military and security agencies at the state and Federal level, while remaining mindful of the balance to be struck between the rights of private citizens and the interests of security. Much of Hope’s review recommended arrangements or guidelines to improve systems and processes, and to clarify the respective responsibilities of existing agencies. This involved addressing parochial rivalries and overlapping responsibilities as well as legal uncertainties—particularly regarding when and how the Australian Defence Force could be deployed to aid the civil powers in an emergency.

Emerging from this process was a mechanism for threat assessments and a National Anti-Terrorist Plan that provided practical guidance for prioritisation of effort and streamlining of procedures for inter-agency cooperation and collaboration. These developments helped clarify exactly what ASIO was expected to provide in support of other government agencies regarding the threat of terrorism, including timely threat assessments and technical intelligence support during crisis situations.

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