Counter-subversion, 1975–1983

Counter-subversion had been a principal task of ASIO throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but much of the Organisation’s work in this field had been contentious and was the source of strong criticism. Part of the problem was that for the purposes of ASIO’s mandate, subversion was not well defined in the ASIO Act 1956. As an interim measure, while waiting for Parliament to decide, and based on the final wording from the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, Woodward took it to mean ‘working towards the forcible overthrow of constitutional government’. This was interpreted as threats to the life of people directly or indirectly involved in the Constitutional Government.

Royal Commissioner Hope was not sympathetic to ASIO’s handling of subversion domestically, where much of the criticism against ASIO had been levelled. He nonetheless acknowledged that extremists from both ends of the political spectrum remained active and, by implication, warranted some ongoing attention from ASIO. The Trotskyists and other ‘left radical’ groups were active in academic and political areas, and were ‘succeeding in establishing themselves in many places of influence’. Meanwhile, right-wing radical groups were still active, and Hope could see that the potential sources of extreme right-wing action were ‘certainly not dormant’.1

ASIO’s task in cases where subversive violence was considered a real possibility was to try to discover which groups were involved or likely to be involved, and to pass intelligence as to their intentions on to the police. But Woodward stressed that ‘it is not part of ASIO’s role to attempt to penetrate non-subversive organizations or to go out of its way to gather intelligence about the demonstration itself’. The problems of keeping within ASIO’s charter arose, Woodward acknowledged, ‘because legitimate political demonstrations can be turned into subversive occasions’.2

After examining the matter, the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security recommended extending the definition of ‘security’ in the ASIO Act 1956 to include ‘active measures of foreign intervention’ and ‘terrorism’. The ASIO Act 1979 included these expanded definitions. The royal commission also called for a distinction to be made between subversive activities directed or strongly influenced by a foreign power or foreign political organisation, and subversive activities without such external links. To this end, domestic subversion was explained as concerning activities directed to the violent disruption of the Australian community by promoting violence or hatred between different groups of people within the community.3 In broad terms, the counter-subversion task was focused on domestic left- and right-wing radicals who advocated violence in attaining their political objectives.

To a certain extent, ASIO management recognised the changes taking place in Australian society and looked to adjust its allocation of resources accordingly. Of the telephone interception operation warrants issued during the Fraser years, for instance, ASIO devoted only a small fraction to its counter-subversion targets discussed in this chapter. Against the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), for instance, ASIO directed 2.4 per cent of its telephone interception efforts, and a further 1.2 per cent against the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), 7.8 per cent against the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), 0.6 per cent against the Socialist Workers Party, and 1.2 per cent against the International Socialists. That amounted to only 13.2 per cent of ASIO’s telephone interception warrants. The vast majority of ASIO’s interception effort was spent on Soviet and Soviet bloc targets.

The figures do not provide a comprehensive picture of all of ASIO’s efforts aimed against its counter-subversion targets, but they do indicate that ASIO’s overall resource allocation against the traditional ‘revolutionary left’ targets was relatively minor, despite the fact that many books have been written about members of such groups who were targeted by ASIO.

Nonetheless, given the evident public interest in this domain, this chapter examines ASIO’s counter-subversion work during the Fraser years, including its attempts to monitor and understand communist and other revolutionary groups. It considers some technical successes and some spectacular failures, which prompted introspection and further changes. To many, conspiracy theories about ASIO dating back to the Petrov defection and the split of the Labor Party in the mid-1950s addressed in Volume I of this history, still resonated, and ASIO’s work in the field of counter-subversion remained politically controversial. This was fertile ground for the development of fresh allegations of partisan and illegal activity. One such allegation was levelled at ASIO in 1977.

Alleged break-in at the ALP headquarters

In early May 1977, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the ALP, Bob Hawke, supported accusations made in the press by ALP National Secretary David Combe to the effect that ASIO had been responsible for a break-in at the national ALP headquarters at Curtin House in Canberra.4 Woodward asked Barnett if there was any truth to the allegations. After consulting his colleagues, Barnett reported back ‘most firmly’ that he did not believe an intrusion had taken place. Woodward then called his predecessor, Frank Mahony, who was then in Europe, and asked him if he had authorised such an operation during his incumbency. Barnett recorded that ‘The phone spluttered and I gathered that Mr Mahony most emphatically denied authorising such an operation.’ Normally such allegations would simply not be confirmed or denied, but Woodward felt that because such a prominent person had supported the allegations, as a matter of principle a public denial was warranted.5 Woodward also wrote to the Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, giving his personal assurance that ‘there was no ASIO involvement in any break-in which may have occurred at Curtin House in about December 1975’. Woodward stressed that his inquiries left him ‘no shadow of doubt’ that there was no ASIO involvement.6 The matter reflected an enduring sense among some elements of the community that ASIO operated above the law. Overcoming such perceptions would take some time to accomplish.

The National Liberation Front for East Timor (Fretilin)

The National Liberation Front for East Timor, or Fretilin (based on its Portuguese acronym) was not an organisation that would normally have been of direct interest to ASIO. The grounds for ASIO’s interest in it rested more on its association with certain members of local communist parties, like Denis Freney, rather than in the organisation itself.7 But the unusual circumstances that arose in the period between Portugal’s abandonment and Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor compellingly drew attention from ASIO.

Woodward spoke to Prime Minister Fraser in October 1976 about the situation concerning the Fretilin ‘Defence Minister’, Rogerio Lobato. This happened after an officer from the Prime Minister’s Department had asked ASIO to see to it that Lobato was refused a visa by the Department of Immigration. Fraser told Woodward he had ‘given no instructions concerning ASIO’s part in the matter and did not want to interfere with the exercise of ASIO’s normal functions in such matters’. Fraser did say he was very concerned that Fretilin refugees in Australia might become a running sore in Australia’s long-term relations with Indonesia. But what exactly the Prime Minister was asking ASIO to do about the Timor question remained ambiguous.8

Timor would remain an issue of interest and concern to the Government over the coming years. In 1977, Opposition Leader Whitlam asked to be briefed on the support of the Fretilin movement in Australia, particularly among Timorese refugees in Darwin. He also wanted to know who was behind the Fretilin movement in Australia and where the money for their activities originated. Woodward assured Whitlam that to the best of his knowledge there was no significant pro-Fretilin support base in Darwin and that what support there was came from across a fairly wide spectrum of the community. Woodward explained that apart from some funds brought in from Mozambique, Fretilin simply did not have access to large sums of money.9 The activity of most interest to ASIO, Woodward admitted, was the work of Denis Freney and the CPA. Freney’s political journey took him from communism to Trotskyism and back again. Not surprisingly, therefore, he featured as an ASIO target.10 As time passed, the CPA’s influence faded and East Timor became a less prominent point of contention. ASIO attention declined commensurately.

Protests against uranium mining

Following a demonstration against Prime Minister Fraser at the University of New South Wales in August 1977, Woodward identified protests against uranium mining as ‘likely to become a very divisive and emotional political issue’ and so, he argued, ASIO had a responsibility to collect intelligence. ASIO’s focus was to be on target organisations and personalities ‘likely to provoke, commit or incite acts of violence, thus threatening the safety of prominent figures’. These were seen principally as the ‘Maoist’ groups ‘invariably’ present at such demonstrations. The intelligence collected was to be passed to the Protective Security Coordination Centre.11

When the Movement Against Uranium Mining and Friends of the Earth came to the attention of Prime Minister Fraser and Attorney-General Peter Durack in mid-1977, they called Woodward in to discuss the matter. Woodward explained that unlike groups clearly linked with the Soviet Union or Communist China, including the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) and the SPA, other organisations ‘could not be shown so clearly to be externally sponsored’. Woodward conceded that ‘Many worthy citizens were involved in, for example, the Australia-USSR Society and the Australia–China Society.’ This was ‘even more true’, he said, of the Movement Against Uranium Mining and Friends of the Earth—even though, according to Woodward, ‘subversive groups were jumping on those bandwagons’. That said, Woodward emphasised what he saw as ‘the need to get priorities straight’. To him this meant that examining the role of subversive groups in political confrontation over uranium mining required ‘high priority in the immediate future’. Fraser reportedly agreed with Woodward on this.12 But there were many other issues of concern apart from uranium mining that captured the attention of ASIO.

Monitoring ASIO’s traditional subversive targets

By the mid-1970s, ASIO’s principal counter-subversion target of the 1950s and 1960s, the CPA, ceased to be a high priority. In part this was because the CPA had come to operate independently of both the Soviet and Chinese communist parties. ASIO also recognised that the CPA’s focus had shifted from revolution to issues of broad community appeal, including to the role and place of women in society, world peace, the mining of uranium, the role of multinational corporations and the inequitable distribution of wealth.

In so doing, ASIO assessed, the CPA aimed to highlight what it regarded as the ‘inherent weaknesses of the capitalist system’, and thereby attract members. ASIO observed that the CPA’s financial and propaganda resources were considerably in excess of those that might ordinarily be expected of a group with fewer than 2000 members, of whom only an estimated 700 were actively involved in the party’s affairs. Nevertheless, the CPA’s relatively small size, the rivalry it faced from other ‘revolutionary’ groups, and the strength of the traditions and institutions it sought to challenge all combined to reduce significantly the threat ASIO perceived it to pose to the security of the state.13 It had taken a long time for ASIO to reach this point.

Beyond the mellowing of the CPA and despite considerable debate within ASIO, a selection of groups remained aligned with either the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), with its links to Maoism and Communist China, and the SPA, with its connections and funding support from the Soviet Union. While ASIO placed less priority than beforehand on the traditional subversive targets, operations in the regional offices, particularly from the mid-1970s onwards, largely focused on the two priority groups, the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) and the SPA.

In light of these changing priorities, in late 1977 ASIO established a Subversive Studies Group with the task of reducing the amount of case officer time spent on running superfluous cases.14 Under the group’s coordinator, it monitored the level of political extremism among Trotskyists, anarchists, the CPA, SPA, CPA (Marxist–Leninist) and right-wing extremist groups. The group also examined subversion in all sectors of society.15

Monitoring the CPA (Marxist–Leninist)

The actions of the breakaway CPA (Marxist–Leninist) belied its tiny size. Its stated aim was ‘The complete overthrow of the Bourgeoisie, the establishment for the dictatorship of the proletariat … and the triumph of socialism over capitalism. The ultimate aim of the party is the realization of communism.’16 The method proposed to achieve this aim was, at least according to ASIO records, ‘the seizure of power by armed force’.17 Such claims were alarming to an organisation such as ASIO, with its long history of focusing on counter-subversion, and generated considerable attention. ASIO estimated that the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) had only 103 members in 1976, based primarily in Victoria. Not surprisingly, therefore, it assessed the party as ‘lacking in capacity to achieve its aims in the foreseeable future’.18 But the party did not aim to be a mass party, emphasising secrecy in its structure, method of operation and membership.19 These features in themselves generated concern within ASIO. The CPA (Marxist–Leninist) also tended to be more active than its CPA counterparts.

The party chairman, the fiery and strong-willed Melbourne barrister Ted Hill, was a supporter of Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution, and gained kudos and praise from his hosts on his almost annual visits to China. But following Mao’s death in 1976, politics shifted in China. The ‘Gang of Four’, a faction that rose to prominence during Mao’s last years, was removed from office and blamed for many of the excesses of that period. From that point on, Hill appears to have fallen out of favour with his Chinese mentors and struggled to reconcile his views with the changed dynamics inside China.

In monitoring the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), ASIO faced similar issues to those it had encountered in the past with its coverage of the CPA. Despite having several agents targeted against the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), ASIO’s coverage was considered patchy.20 ASIO agents reported on the interest of the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) in the Australia–China Society and a particular archaeological exhibition, tours to the PRC and planned demonstrations against the forthcoming visit to Adelaide of Queen Elizabeth II.21 The CPA (Marxist–Leninist) was understood by ASIO to be ‘of considerable importance’ to the PRC, and several factors indicated to ASIO that the party appeared to receive financial support from official Chinese sources.22

In 1978, ASIO officers acknowledged that the Organisation simply did not have sufficient intelligence to prepare a definitive and professional assessment of the CPA (Marxist–Leninist). But, in contrast to their latest approach to the CPA, they did not take the next logical step and question whether the absence of any information might suggest there was nothing of consequence to find.23 One way tried to judge the CPA (Marxist–Leninist)’s size and strength was to investigate the distribution of the party’s Vanguard and Australian Communist newspapers. They worked on the assumption that the number of copies printed and distributed would give a reasonably accurate estimate of the number and type of CPA (Marxist–Leninist) adherents.24 In hindsight this seems like clutching at straws.

With so little information available about the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), some within ASIO did begin to question whether it warranted much attention at all. One officer suggested that given its secretive nature and small size, the image of the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) was largely an illusion created by Ted Hill. According to this reasoning, Hill was complicit with the Chinese Communist Party in maintaining an illusion in order to save face and foster international prestige for Chinese communism. But there were other views as well. Overseas services, for instance, less plausibly suggested that the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) was a client party of the Soviet Union, initiated by the KGB after the Sino–Soviet split of 1961.25 This line of thinking suggested that the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) was part of a Soviet disinformation campaign. Reconciling alternative interpretations presented ASIO analysts with a conundrum.

By 1981, ASIO perceived some ‘distancing’ of relations between the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) and the PRC, which analysts attributed to China’s desire to avoid harming new and stronger links with the Australian Government, even if it was only ‘a superficial distancing’.26 But this did not deter ASIO from retaining the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) as ‘a full target for penetration’, even though ASIO officers would describe only a small handful of its agents as ‘successful sources’. These ASIO agents were people who had built up a background of socialism over a long time, several of them having previously been members of the CPA.27

The CPA (Marxist–Leninist) certainly withered once it no longer enjoyed significant external support. By the time of the Sixth National Congress in late 1984, it could only muster a handful of delegates for its first sessions. Ted Hill was 69 years old by this stage, and calls for a change of leadership were made, in part at least in light of his autocratic style.28 His approach certainly helped limit the appeal of the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) to other would-be revolutionaries, many of whom turned elsewhere.

Monitoring the Socialist Party of Australia

One group that did attract significant ongoing ASIO attention and resources was the SPA. Since its formation as a breakaway from the CPA, the SPA had avoided the CPA’s tactics of alienating the ALP and ACTU. Instead, as ASIO saw it, the SPA sought to influence the ACTU by establishing itself as an effective ally and a willing partner of the ALP in Federal elections. ASIO pursued the SPA as a subversive target due to the party’s belief that revolutionary violence was ‘unlikely to be avoided’ if its aims were to be met. Although the SPA seemed to reject the use of violence for political purposes ‘at present’, ASIO took this to mean that the party would resort to violence in future. ASIO’s concerns were reinforced by the fact that the SPA was a client party of the Soviet Union. This understanding, internally at least, provided justification for ASIO’s continuing interest in the SPA.

The SPA’s close relationship with the Soviet Union, notably through the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, was of particular concern to ASIO. The Organisation knew that the Soviets provided financial and training assistance to the SPA to act ‘as a significant component of the Soviet foreign policy apparatus’. Thus, an ASIO report concluded, ‘despite its lack of capacity for domestic action, the SPA remains a useful instrument for Soviet subversion which, in the short term, provides the main reason for ASIO’s interest’.29

As for its other significant targets, ASIO maintained coverage of the SPA through agents and intercepts. These resources were focused on providing an assessment of the SPA’s capacity as a revolutionary organisation. In particular, ASIO was interested in the quality, number and motivation of the SPA membership; its financial situation, including any signs of outside funding; and the leadership ‘pecking order’ and effectiveness. Signs of dissent or lack of receptiveness to direction, and information on the production of SPA propaganda, including The Socialist, were closely monitored. ASIO was also interested in monitoring any contact SPA members had with other revolutionary groups.30 Figures from 1976 indicate an SPA membership of 800 nationwide.31 Although this was several times the membership of the CPA (Marxist–Leninist), it was still electorally insignificant. But it was not the SPA’s size that worried ASIO so much as its perceived revolutionary activism and its contacts—both with the Soviets and with other domestic Australian and regional political and activist groups.

Over time, through monitoring the SPA, ASIO detected a trend of subversive activity in the South Pacific increasingly being directed not just through the SPA or representatives of Soviet missions but through international front organisations controlled directly by the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. ASIO sought to ascertain the level and nature of subversive activity associated with a number of Soviet initiatives. According to ASIO reports, these included attempting to promote the South Pacific and Indian oceans as a ‘Zone of Peace’, ‘proscribing’ (denouncing) Australian–American relations, increasing naval activity, preventing the spread of China’s political and ideological influence, negotiating regional trade and fishing agreements, encouraging the development of pro-Soviet communist parties and attempting to improve Soviet bilateral relations in the region.32 While not directly of consequence to security in Australia, reporting like this helped inform the Government about external influences on regional security affairs.

Writing in 1978, ASIO assessed that the SPA used its propaganda apparatus and its significant contacts in the trade unions and the labour movement to advance policies that coincided with those of the Soviet Union. The report declared ‘Frequent contacts between senior Soviet officials en poste in Australia and the SPA has been noted.’33 ASIO felt the SPA had to be monitored closely, but much of what it covered was banal and routine, which is often the case in intelligence work. In South Australia, in March 1977, for instance, ASIO agents reported on the SPA General Meeting, the SPA Party School at Easter, SPA interest in various unions, and the Young Socialist League, which was reported to be ‘in some difficulty in this State’—a sentiment common elsewhere in Australia as the appeal for Australian youth of the Young Socialist League waned.34

ASIO went to considerable lengths to understand the internal machinations of the SPA. Planning for a technical operation commenced late in 1976 with the intention of targeting the SPA headquarters at 392 Sussex Street, Sydney.35 Headquarters ASIO particularly wanted to know what role, if any, Soviet diplomats played within the party, but there was considerable procrastination. Before it would approve any detailed technical planning, headquarters required details of the office layout to assess whether a technical operation was even feasible.36 Sketches of the layout were supplied in January 1979, and again in July, but by this stage the SPA was looking for new premises.37 ASIO therefore switched its focus to the new site.38

Learning from its previous failures, ASIO realised it would need to be ready to mount the operation before the SPA moved. It therefore required early notice, from its sources, of the location of the new premises.39 Officers in ASIO’s NSW office, aware from their experience of Operation Bossanova (a technical operation mounted against the CPA discussed in Volume II) of how draining such an operation could be, expressed ‘some reservations’ about whether the effort was worthwhile given that ASIO’s current sources provided an ‘adequate’ picture of general SPA business.40Headquarters replied that if it went ahead, any listening post would not be staffed on a continuous basis as it had been for Bossanova, but rather on selected occasions and after important meetings.41

The first ASIO heard of the SPA’s intention to buy the property to which it eventually moved at 237–239 Sussex Street was through telephone interception in October 1981.42 With little time to prepare, ASIO’s NSW office was tasked to undertake a feasibility study.43 They got to work, but the SPA moved in on 7–8 November 1981, before ASIO could inspect the property.44

The delay meant ASIO would have to wait until fresh information came to hand.45 By March 1982, the NSW office had gained access to the building,46 but then the SPA changed the access arrangements.47 Headquarters was frustrated by the slow progress, but spirits lifted when the NSW office obtained an observation post across the road for surveillance purposes. Headquarters jumped at the opportunity, approving first a three- and then a six-month lease on the observation post.48 Finally, the operation seemed to be gaining momentum. In June, ASIO ascertained various details about the office and its layout and a headquarters technical officer concluded that more intrusive operations were feasible.49

After further planning, the Attorney-General signed a six-month warrant on 11 August 1982.50 The installation of devices for an intrusive surveillance operation was carried out on 15 August and was to focus on Peter Dudley Symon, a major ASIO target on whom ASIO maintained a number of files.51

There were some early technical problems, and the intelligence gained was considered ‘almost non-existent’. A better site was considered necessary. To improve its coverage, therefore, ASIO organised clandestine entry into the SPA headquarters. It also installed a camera in the observation post to take photographs of those leaving the building.52 Relying on telephone interception for forewarning of meetings, ASIO was able to turn on its equipment when a meeting was held in the bugged room. Using this technique, ASIO monitored a number of meetings, including one between SPA members and the East German (i.e. the German Democratic Republic) Ambassador in January 1983, and a series of party meetings in March 1983 in which it was decided to abolish the position of president, then held by Pat Clancy.53 Similarly, it recorded a meeting between Symon and the Vietnamese Ambassador in early September 1983 and with the Polish Consul-General in late September.54 The operation would continue until 1983.

Other ‘revolutionaries’

Beyond the overtly communist groups, ASIO identified and sought to monitor a handful of Trotskyist factions, known as ‘tendencies’, which operated in Australia with evocative titles that spoke of international committees, secretariats, ‘Revolutionary Marxists’, ‘Spartacists’, ‘International Socialists’ and the ‘Communist League’. All were small and many appeared to have some form of international connections. Most adhered to the ‘revolutionary strategy of Trotsky’s “Transitional Programme” ’ which stated that the inevitable collapse of capitalism would be followed by a social revolution, during which time the masses would need to be armed for protection against the ‘armed defenders of Capitalism’. ASIO surmised therefore, that Trotskyists saw violence ‘as a necessary defensive measure to be implemented when the revolution takes place’. ASIO acknowledged, however, that as at 1976 there had been ‘no known instances of domestic [i.e. within Australia] violence emanating from Australian anarchist groups and only localised instances of Trotskyist violence such as clashes with police, vandalism and inter-group fighting’.55 That did not stop ASIO from looking. In hindsight, it is questionable whether such views would ever have taken hold in Australia, but old habits die hard—both within ASIO and among the ‘revolutionaries’.

The Socialist Labour League was one of the Trotskyist groups monitored by ASIO. Repeated warrants for telephone interception were sought and granted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to monitor the league’s intentions and its connections with the International Committee of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International, an international revolutionary body headquartered in London. The Socialist Labour League was very secretive about its numbers but ASIO’s intelligence sources ascertained that it had a national membership in 1980 of approximately 150, declining to 110 by 1983.56Its national office was said to exercise ‘dictatorial authority’ over regional committees to ensure that branches emphasised fundraising and recruitment. ASIO’s monitoring also revealed that Libyan diplomats funded the attendance in January 1979 of two leading Socialist Labour League members, Michael Owen (Mike) Head and James Patrick (Jim) Mulgrew, at a meeting listed by ASIO as a ‘World Conference for Solidarity with the people of the Jamahiriya’ held in Tripoli. Similarly, Iraqi diplomats engaged with the Socialist Labour League to attend a conference in Baghdad. In highlighting to the Attorney-General the utility of the telephone interceptions on the Socialist Labour League, Woodward explained that they assisted ASIO in understanding the continued contact between the Socialist Labour League and the Iraqi Embassy. Nothing more sinister than that was uncovered.57 Interception continued into the Hawke years, despite Attorney-General Gareth Evans’ unease over what ‘effectively amounted to nothing’. The ongoing Libyan connection, however, was deemed by both ASIO and the Government as sufficient grounds for continuing the interception.58

In retrospect, it is easy to see how small these groups were, yet they did seem to wield a disproportionate influence. To ASIO they had to be taken seriously no matter what their size; groups such as the CPA, CPA (Marxist–Leninist), SPA and Socialist Labour League remained important targets. ASIO still took their beliefs and objectives seriously—to ASIO they sought to undermine organised authority and state machinery. ASIO identified a number of breakaway groups from these parties, including the Federation of Australian Anarchists, formed in January 1975; the Self-Management Group, formed in 1972; the Anarchist Black Cross, formed in 1973; and Anarcho-Youth International Party, formed in 1975.59

ASIO’s concern was that they all believed that existing social ills could be eradicated only by a revolutionary change (that implicitly at least involved the violent overthrow of existing democratic institutions) led by a vanguard of politically educated workers. Two of the groups were ‘conspicuous for their organizational discipline, perceptive leadership and the gradual expansion of their membership’. While the groups were disruptive, as a whole they had little popular appeal or access to positions of power within the community, and were frequently distracted from their purpose by disputes within and between themselves.60 To ASIO analysts, however, these breakaway groups presented possibly an even greater threat than the groups from which they broke away. This probably should have triggered greater reflection within ASIO on the correlation between ways, ends and means and the increasingly marginal threat posed to society by such groups.

ASIO found recruiting and running Trotskyist agents to be extremely difficult, given that the fervour among likely candidates indicated a disconcerting determination to see their revolutionary visions fulfilled.61 Despite this, ASIO continued to penetrate the targets and monitor their activities. The results were mixed.

ASIO also maintained a watching brief on a handful of small, apparently unrelated anarchist groups, some of which had international links. But their influence in the community was seen to be insignificant and they were not known to have shown any propensity for violence. Nonetheless, in view of the support expressed by European anarchist groups for terrorism, ASIO considered that the activities of the local groups still required monitoring.62 In practice, however, they remained low-priority targets.

Agent exposure

During ASIO’s efforts to monitor potential subversive or revolutionary groups, operations occasionally unravelled in a spectacular fashion. In a couple of significant cases, ASIO agents were exposed to the media. The circumstances indicate where ASIO’s priorities lay and the shortcomings of its methodology at the time. The experiences of Lisa Walter and Janet Langridge are interesting case studies that demonstrate many of the pitfalls of recruiting and operating agents targeted against subversive groups.

Lisa Walter

Born in Adelaide in 1956, Lisa Walter was recorded in ASIO’s files as an ‘active member of the Socialist Workers Party’.63 But how she got there makes for a fascinating story. When in May 1976 she publicised her undercover role, she had been in ASIO’s orbit for less than a year.

The Socialist Workers Party was an organisation associated with one of the Trotskyist ‘tendencies’—the United Secretariat of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International—and with the Socialist Youth Alliance. Together, ASIO reckoned, the Socialist Youth Alliance and Socialist Workers League had only 80–100 active members.64

Walter, aged nineteen, had phoned ASIO’s Adelaide office in July 1975 asking about the Organisation. Because of her interest and her age, ASIO saw her as having agent potential.65

She was interviewed by two ASIO officers in August who concluded she would be a suitable candidate for an agent role. Her personality and her student background (she had started university but had pulled out of the course) highlighted her attraction as an agent against Socialist Youth Alliance.66 After the necessary background checks had been carried out, ASIO officers again met with Walter.67 She signed a secrecy declaration that day.68 The two officers again met with Walter on 8 October, where they expanded on the type of work she would be required to do, and some of the difficulties she could expect to encounter. She was still willing to assist, but would do so on top of her regular employment.69 After examining the facts, Headquarters ASIO approved her formal recruitment on 17 October.70 Her motive was assessed as ‘genuine loyalty mixed with a spirit of adventure’, and ASIO believed she was ‘sufficiently intelligent to withstand Target Doctrine’ (that is, to not start believing in the cause).71

Walter’s first meeting with her case officer was on 4 November. In a break from previous procedures aimed at protecting the security and identity of ASIO staff, Judge Woodward had stipulated that cover names were not to be used so, for the first time, agents were given their handlers’ real names. This measure inadvertently made the ASIO officers vulnerable to exposure. Walter was picked up in a car and her handler explained that she would be targeted against the Socialist Youth Alliance and, if successful, later against the Friends of Palestine and the Socialist Workers League. She was given $20 (her monthly expenses), to cover transport costs and to help her purchase target literature, including socialist newspaper Direct Action.72 She purchased her first copy of Direct Action from a street seller on 8 November, and her handler briefed her to visit the Socialist Youth Alliance bookshop on Rundle Street.73 Following their meeting, she visited the bookshop on 15 November, where a man took her name and address.74 When she ran into this same man on 22 November, as he was selling Direct Action in Rundle Street, he invited her to attend a Socialist Youth Alliance meeting at the bookshop on 27 November. ASIO’s plan appeared to be working—without much effort.75 As instructed, Walter attended her first meeting on 27 November, where she agreed to assist with the Socialist Workers League Senate election campaign that weekend. She told her case officer that she had no problems being seen publicly as a Socialist Workers League supporter, but she also told him something that should have rung alarm bells within ASIO. As her case officer reported:

Agent stated that she felt a little ‘guilty’ when confronted with the apparently legitimate [Socialist Youth Alliance] activity, but in discussing our [ASIO’s] real interest—SWL [Socialist Workers League], acknowledged that she already realised that the SWL ‘manipulated’ the [Socialist Youth Alliance].76

At her next debriefing on 5 December—the seventh meeting since she began her agent role one month earlier—Walter spoke about ASIO and the Max Wechsler case (an ASIO agent in the Socialist Workers League who gave his story to the Melbourne Observer in February 1975).77Recognising the difficulties of acting against the Socialist Workers League, given its security consciousness, and the intensive nature of Walter’s work for ASIO, her handler sought and received approval for $60 per month to help cover her expenses.78

In February 1976 her new case officer reported that he intended debriefing her more regularly.79 By the time of her fourteenth meeting with her case officer since commencing as an agent, Walter had been given provisional Socialist Workers Party membership and had been invited—and accepted—to the Socialist Youth Alliance Easter Camp. The case officer told her to go but warned her against taking notes in case it aroused suspicion.80

She added a new element to her agent role when she marched in the 1976 May Day march with Socialist Workers Party members in Adelaide.81 At the invitation of Jim Percy, ‘an important Trotskyist target personality’, she travelled to Sydney in May to stay with him. ASIO briefed her to report on the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party towards revolution and Percy’s role in the Socialist Workers Party (he was national secretary).82 ASIO met some of her expenses, noting it was ‘a unique opportunity to gather intelligence’.83 Her emergency ASIO contact while in Sydney was Lawrie Pollard (again with no cover name).84 The only contact she had with Pollard was when she called on 17 May and told him she was returning to Adelaide that day.85 But things were not working out as ASIO had planned.

On her return to Adelaide, Walter phoned her handler several times but he was not contactable. Eventually she got through and organised to meet him in a supermarket car park at Findon that afternoon: it would be her twentieth meeting since becoming an agent. They began talking and the handler used a tape recorder to make sure he got everything on record about her time in Sydney. The handler recalled:

After approximately ten minutes, a man appeared at the car door and said ‘I am from the National Times. We are doing a story on whether ASIO should run informers and would you like to comment’. I declined, whereupon he said ‘You are from ASIO and the person you are talking to is a member of the [Socialist Workers Party]’. At this stage, Agent said ‘I have had enough’ and alighted from the car. A photographer then appeared on the scene and attempted to photograph me sitting in the front of the vehicle. I shielded my face and attempted to drive away. He then rushed to the front of the vehicle and attempted to photograph through the front windscreen. I again shielded my face and accelerated away from the area.86

The handler went home, after employing counter-surveillance measures, and made contact with his Co-ordinator of Operations. A report was submitted to headquarters the next day.87

The same night that handler had been confronted, Lawrie Pollard received a phone call at home from Evan Whitton of the National Times, who said that Pollard and ASIO were using Lisa Walter to penetrate the Socialist Workers Party, and asked ASIO’s reasons for this and whether ASIO was also penetrating the Liberal and Country parties. Whitton said that Lisa had ‘turned’ and was ‘now convinced of the value of the side that she was infiltrating’. He finished by saying that the story would soon be in the press. Pollard did not confirm or deny his association with ASIO or Walter.88

Walter phoned ASIO’s South Australian Regional Director on Friday 21 May and confirmed that she believed in the Socialist Workers Party and now thought that what ASIO was doing was wrong, and that the way to fix it was for her to go to the papers. She acknowledged that her approach to the National Times was a decision made by the Socialist Workers Party’s political committee but said that she would stay with the Socialist Workers Party. The Regional Director reminded her of her secrecy declaration, but when she asked what would happen if she broke it he was non-committal. He believed she was not alone and that the conversation had probably been recorded.89

The National Times ran the story over two pages the following Monday. Under the heading ‘The Adelaide Spy Caper’, with photos of Walter and the confrontation with her handler, sitting in his white Ford, on 19 May, journalist John Edwards retold Walter’s story from that first call until the exposure. It also named several ASIO officers. Walter was quoted as saying that she confessed to her connection with ASIO on 20 April, a month before the confrontation. Her Socialist Workers Party mentors had told her to keep reporting to them until they could demonstrate ASIO’s actions. Jim Percy had then called the National Times, whose editor agreed to sit on the story until Walter next met with her case officer after her time in Sydney. Walter confirmed that while her handler was using a tape recorder on 19 May, she also had a recorder in her handbag. A transcript of that moment appeared in the paper.90

The media went into a frenzy and ASIO desperately tried to regain control of the situation. Aspects of Walter’s story appeared in papers, radio and television around the nation. Direct Action ran the story on 27 May.91 In spite of all of this publicity, and the fact that ASIO terminated Walter’s agent role, the Organisation still paid her $120 to cover her general expenses owing for May and June.92

On 24 May, the Sydney branch of the Socialist Workers Party held a meeting to discuss the case. Fortunately for ASIO, it had coverage of the branch that enabled ASIO officers to know what was discussed. According to the ASIO report, Percy had apologised for keeping the case secret, but everyone was ‘very happy with themselves and were gloating over the disclosure’.93

Internally, ASIO took the largely unprecedented step of circulating an account of the agent operation to all staff, which provided an early assessment of the consequences for ASIO of the exposure, noting that ‘considerable damage has been done’ with regard to ASIO’s recruitment and checking procedures, its agent-running techniques, its interests in Trotskyist groups, and the publication of several ASIO officer’s names. Moreover, ‘The validity of the Secrecy Declaration could be called into question by other agents’, and the exposure of this case had ‘left ASIO open to a charge of unprofessionalism’. Significantly, the incident led to a policy change. Woodward had decided that ASIO officers were not to use cover names as he believed it was illegal, but that decision was now reversed.94 A separate minute was sent to all agent masters warning them to be alert to other agents defecting or exposing their role, and to take counter-surveillance measures before each meeting.95 ASIO would continue to keep a close watch on the Socialist Workers Party and on Walter, who stayed in the party.96

Apart from giving publicity to some of ASIO’s methods, the saga also left many lingering questions. ASIO officers still did not have any protection or right to anonymity—that would not come until the ASIO Act 1979—and it was therefore not possible to prosecute the National Times or Direct Action for naming ASIO officers. Nor was it illegal to name Walter. But, as ASIO noted, the incident also called into question the validity of the secrecy declaration. There were some obvious policy and legislative changes required if ASIO wished to protect its people, sources and methods, but these changes would not occur quickly. In fact, the warning would prove to be too little, too late—further damaging revelations were about to occur. Another ASIO agent, Janet Langridge, who was targeted against the Spartacist League (another Trotskyist group), also went public.

Janet Langridge

The case of Janet Langridge was similar to Lisa Walter’s. Both were young women who had contacted ASIO and were recruited as ASIO agents and targeted against Trotskyists: a full-time and demanding task for any ASIO agent, particularly one so young and impressionable and still developing her own political views. ASIO, once again, seriously underestimated the complications associated with the age and maturity of its agents. Langridge, like Walter, eventually went public with her story, revealing the names of the ASIO officers she had dealt with. Also, like Walter, she worked as an ASIO agent for less than twelve months.

In July 1975, a nineteen-year-old Janet Langridge wrote to ASIO’s Sydney office seeking information about the Organisation and was thanked for her interest.97 There was no further action until August 1976 when, as part of its efforts to increase coverage of target areas ‘not covered by agent sources’, two agent masters from ASIO’s NSW office decided to get in touch with her.98 One of those was Terry Poulus.

Poulus and his colleagues were impressed and interviewed Langridge twice. They concluded ‘that she would be suitable for employment in an agent role’ but Poulus did not think the Trotskyists an ideal target for a young woman: ‘it was such a full-on commitment—and as an agent runner, you only got to see your agent infrequently. The Trotskyists were heavy on what they expected from their membership and had the member basically every day of the week.’ Such a commitment, he believed, ‘could create some problems and as it turned out, it did’.99 Langridge’s initial involvement was with the Young Socialist League and the SPA, but she later moved to a Trotskyist group.100

Aged only twenty, Janet Langridge accepted an agent role and signed a secrecy declaration. Her case officer, Poulus, assessed her motives as ‘mainly loyalty with an element of intrigue’.101 Poulus described what happened next: ‘To give her a left-wing background, the idea was to send her past the [New Era] Bookshop’—ASIO encouraged Janet to show an interest in ‘target literature’ and attend meetings. Janet visited the bookshop, and picked up leaflets and other reading material. Meanwhile, Poulus had to work hard to give her a background and an understanding of the ideology of the target.102

It was through this process that Langridge met members of the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand, and they asked her to attend a film evening on 19 November 1976.103 According to Poulus, ‘ASIO did not know anything at all about the Spartacist League’, which he described as ‘the most radical bunch of people you’ve ever met in your life’. As a consequence of this encounter, ASIO switched Langridge’s target from the Young Socialist League to this Trotskyist organisation. Given her progress, ASIO gave her financial support to return to university, as she desired.104According to ASIO’s records:

Langridge became extremely active, first of all as a probationary member and then a member of the Spartacist League. She sold the League’s publication ‘Spartacist’ on the university campus and actively participated in educational, organizational and social activities of the League to the extent that she became fully accepted by the senior members of the League. Her intelligence product [sic] was extremely good, bearing in mind that no previous successful penetration had been carried out against the Spartacist League.105

Langridge provided so much information about the Spartacist League that ASIO officers felt they ‘knew everything about the whole organisation’. But having to work so closely with the target meant that Poulus had only infrequent access to Langridge ‘and her continual time with the group was causing some problems with her fiancé, who was getting jealous with her being away all the time’. Running her was becoming more difficult. The chairman of the league pressured her, as a ‘good little Spartacist’, to marry him for visa reasons. Langridge and Poulus managed to weave their way out of that situation, but she was struggling to balance her agent and university workload.106

It all came to a halt in June. Langridge had confided to David Scott, a senior member of the party, about her undercover ASIO role. Scott took her to see a solicitor, who recorded her story. The first ASIO heard of it was when Langridge’s fiancé (who was aware of her ASIO role), rang Poulus on Friday, 10 June and told him to see Janet quickly because ‘I think something seriously wrong has happened’. Poulus thought the fiancé was just causing trouble because he was fed up with how little time they were spending together. Delaying in a way he would later regret, Poulus took no action until Sunday, 12 June, when he phoned his immediate boss and told him what had happened. Poulus was told to go and see the fiancé, which he did, but he was still not sure of the fiancé’s motives, so they went together to see Langridge. Poulus later recalled that Langridge was clearly unsettled and upset by the unfolding developments.107

With the Lisa Walter case fresh in their minds, ASIO went into damage control. Harvey Barnett ordered Lawrie Pollard, a case officer with expert knowledge of the Trotskyists, back to Sydney to assist Poulus. Pollard was uneasy, especially because he still did not have cover names, and was worried that if the story broke his name would again appear in the papers, as it had done during the Walter saga. Pollard and Poulus worked out a strategy: ‘we didn’t give her any warning, we just lobbed up to her flat’ on 15 June to try to ‘persuade her to retract’ her story.108 The two of them ‘adopted a very sympathetic, non-critical attitude … it was stressed that ASIO held no grudges and were sympathetic to the pressures within the role which had built up to such a degree [as] to cause [the] agent to voluntarily disclose her role’. She expressed concern about the impact of her actions on herself, her partner, Poulus and ASIO.109 She was expelled from the Spartacist League, and a story ran in its paper, Australian Spartacist, the same day, 16 June. The story named both Langridge and (incorrectly) her fiancé as ASIO agents. Poulus was also named as an ASIO officer.110 Woodward briefed the Attorney-General the same day.111

Four days later, ASIO received word from one of its contacts that the story would ‘blow’ that evening in the media, and that both Poulus and Pollard’s names would be publicised.112 That same day the Principal Administrative Officer at Headquarters ASIO received a telephone call from a journalist asking for a comment on the story that Arthur Gietzelt had a signed statutory declaration from Janet Langridge claiming that ASIO had paid her $600 to infiltrate the Young Socialist and Spartacists leagues. He refused to assist.113 That night Langridge appeared on television on Channel 7, and her story ran in a number of newspapers on 21 June.114 Poulus, who was mentioned in the media, said: ‘It was unfortunate the way it ended … If I had my time again I would not have put her into the Sparts.’ The morning after, Poulus woke to the phone ringing. It was someone a few doors down warning him that there was a car full of people out the front of his house and that one of them had a camera. ‘For the next week or so there were TV channels and the target trying to make as much out of the publicity as they could.’115 ASIO sought assistance from the NSW Police Special Branch, and ASIO’s NSW Regional Director made funds available for Poulus and his family to move temporarily to a hotel.116

Following the television report, both Woodward and Harvey Barnett phoned Poulus and told him not to worry, given ASIO had come out of the whole thing looking quite good, and with the public sympathetic to its cause. That gave Poulus some encouragement, but as a professional case officer, he recalled, ‘it was a very deflating period of my life, I felt really bad about it. You didn’t think it was ever going to happen to you.’ He received more encouragement from a stranger at his local RSL club, who came up, put a schooner of beer in front of him and said ‘well done’.117Consequently, Poulus ended his term as an operational case officer in Sydney to take up an analytical position in the Melbourne headquarters.118

Lawrie Pollard later argued that it was ‘a dangerous practice to penetrate a Trotskyist target with young and impressionable, poorly-briefed agents’. He also observed that the Organisation had successfully run a dozen or so Trotskyist agents into these organisations without compromise or mishap.119

From then on, however, ASIO would be more circumspect with its agent recruitment and targeting. The Organisation reflected seriously on the implications arising from the poor handling of the Walter and Langridge cases, and particularly highlighted the need to tighten agent recruitment procedures. But there is little to indicate that ASIO reflected on the potential risk posed by possible exposure of its methods and priorities, nor on the nature of the threat posed to society by the target organisations. These catastrophic incidents should have prompted a serious re-examination of the importance of the targets, given both Walter and Langridge were affected by some aspect of the objectives of the target organisations. It seems their ‘conversions’ were dismissed without much deep reflection on the nature of the apparent threat posed or capabilities of these small and relatively marginal political groups.

Tightened agent-recruitment procedures

Despite the damaging cases of Walter and Langridge, ASIO failed to identify the two people selected as agents as unsuitable, given the target. This was exacerbated by the two agents being handled in the same manner as other agents on other less challenging targets. No allowance was made for the nature of the target itself (with its requirement for total ideological commitment and high demands on the time of its members), nor the threat it posed to the agents involved and the Organisation. ASIO’s procedures for selecting potential sources were informed by its experiences.120More than three years after the agent exposure incidents in 1976 and 1977, ASIO was still deliberating over the information required to appraise a potential source accurately and to ascertain any potential ‘character defects’ that would lead to them being exposed or undermined.121 ASIO’s consulting psychologist recommended a ‘structured approach to assessing the suitability of sources’, to allow for a more systematic and thorough screening of candidates.122

Beyond recruitment issues, ASIO was under pressure to ensure its policies and procedures were well documented and understood within the Organisation. This was seen as necessary to protect the identity of those who supplied information to ASIO and to ensure the quality, relevance and accuracy of reports, while providing a simple system with uniform standards.123 One officer observed that many agents ‘fly by the seat of their pants with “tradecraft” meaning different things to different individuals’. Given that ‘tradecraft’ was a term not well understood by all agents and implied an air of mystery, for the sake of clarity, insiders acknowledged, it would be best removed. ‘Method’ was preferred, as it was unambiguous.124

Monitoring prospects of a ‘coalition of the left’

The difficulties arising from the experiences with Langridge and Walter highlight ASIO’s ongoing focus on a range of groups it considered subversive or potentially subversive. One concern ASIO had was that these disparate groups, which were effectively hobbled by their disunity, might start to work together and thus present a clearer subversive threat. For this reason, monitoring inter-group dynamics was an important part of ASIO’s job.

ASIO officers knew that the relationship between the three main communist-aligned parties—the CPA, the CPA (Marxist-Leninist) and the SPA—had been hostile since the CPA (Marxist–Leninist) was formed as a CPA breakaway in 1964, and the SPA broke away in 1971. The earliest indication of cooperation between the SPA and CPA was the organisation of joint demonstrations to protest against the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in February 1979. Yet even after this, SPA officials warned their colleagues to be wary of the CPA ventures aimed at stealing the initiative from the SPA. By mid-1979, senior SPA officials declared, and ASIO reports noted cheerfully, that there was no possibility that the two parties would reunite and that although they might cooperate on certain issues, this should not be regarded as a sign of reconciliation.125

In 1980, with the sixtieth anniversary of the CPA approaching, some leading SPA members were invited to participate in the celebrations from 22 to 24 August. But by September, when the SPA was looking for support for its Senate ticket, the CPA national executive had decided to refuse to endorse it. ASIO assessed that the chances of reconciliation ‘must be slim’.126

On 1 February 1983, S Branch at Headquarters ASIO proposed a short-term technical operation against Pat Clancy, president of the SPA, who was to visit Melbourne the next day, staying at the Downtowner Hotel on Lygon Street.127 Notwithstanding earlier tensions between the three main communist parties, ASIO had noticed instances of growing collaboration between them, and believed that they were contemplating the establishment of a ‘coalition of the left’ in the Australian labour movement. This was an outcome ASIO saw as inimical to the nation’s security.

Intelligence indicated that Clancy was to meet with Ted Hill, Secretary of the CPA (Marxist–Leninist). ASIO assumed—given that Clancy was visually impaired and in poor health—that the meeting might occur in his hotel room.128 Coverage of this meeting, ASIO believed, could provide information about meetings between senior communists in Australia.129 ASIO officers installed a microphone in the room on 1 February.130 The Attorney-General signed a warrant on 2 February (a warrant was not required for the installation but a warrant was required to turn the equipment on).131 The meeting between Clancy and Hill did not eventuate, but from discussions Clancy held with other visitors, ASIO obtained information about the Committee for International Trade Union Unity, an offshoot of Moscow’s World Federation of Trade Unions. It also found out about disputes within the SPA over the role of the party in the trade union movement.132 Having served its purpose, the microphone was removed on 3 February.133

Investigating the Vietnamese community

While ASIO had been concerned about the emergence of a ‘coalition of the left’, a significant event occurred that would significantly alter the political and demographic landscape in Australia. The influx of refugees from Vietnam was welcomed by the Fraser Government, but this moment of hope also raised some unusual concerns for ASIO.

In 1979, ASIO assessed that it had ‘only limited knowledge’ of intelligence activities by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Australia. This threat assessment noted that most of the officials from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam based in Australia had an intelligence background.134ASIO also considered it ‘probable that illegal agents have come to Australia through the refugee stream’. By 1979, 17,000 Vietnamese were living in Australia. Most were anticommunist, and not concerned with political matters. ASIO was aware of those who campaigned against the Vietnamese Government and its officials, but there was no evidence of any planning for an incursion back into Vietnam.135

With the surge of refugees to Australia in 1979, however, ASIO recognised that its coverage of potential extremist groups from both ends of the political spectrum in the Vietnamese community was ‘particularly weak’. ASIO had trained visiting Vietnamese Police Special Branch officers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but contact with them had been lost. ASIO therefore sought to recruit as contacts Vietnamese refugees with suitable police or army backgrounds who had moved to Australia and who would be prepared to assist ASIO. The Senior Liaison Officer in Washington was asked for relevant information from American security organisations regarding their own experience with the refugee influx.136 An ASIO liaison officer in South-East Asia was also asked to seek potential candidates in refugee camps there. ASIO felt the need to monitor a range of right-wing Vietnamese groups in Australia, including the Greater Overseas Alliance for the National Restoration of Vietnam.137

Of greater interest to ASIO was Doan Ket, an association considered sympathetic to the Vietnamese Government. ASIO assessed that Doan Ket had fewer than 70 members, but believed it ‘could prove a useful recruiting ground’ for intelligence officers to ‘control and direct the expatriate community’. In predicting future trends, ASIO highlighted growing Vietnamese Government interest in Kampuchean refugees and, as its relations with the Soviet Union grew, the possibility of Vietnamese intelligence officers running agent operations for the Soviets.138 ASIO’s specific intelligence interests regarding the Vietnamese Intelligence Service are discussed in Chapter 10.

Monitoring Irish republicans

Irish support groups in Australia were also monitored by ASIO. Papers were prepared on the subject, but no positive evidence was found revealing a threat posed by Irish people within Australia, or of the likelihood of material support for acts of violence carried out overseas. Still, given the situation worldwide, ASIO felt it appropriate to check and be sure.139 The 1979 assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten triggered another assessment, but once again there was no evidence that the calm in Australia would not continue ‘for the foreseeable future’.140 Once more, under pressure from the Attorney-General to be vigilant, ASIO sought to activate agent coverage, recruiting sources to provide greater clarity on developments within pro–IRA groups in Australia.141 ASIO’s attention was aroused by an expression of ‘disquiet’ by the British Consul-General in Melbourne, who was worried about the vulnerability of the Consulate-General to terrorist attacks, particularly but not solely from IRA sympathisers.142

A spike in bomb threats in 1981 helped justify the additional effort. Nonetheless, these were mostly discounted, and the Provisional IRA assessed as not having the ‘capacity or inclination’ to mount a terrorist operation against British establishments or personnel in Australia.143 Despite the benign assessment, a watching brief was maintained, not unlike the approach taken with other fringe groups.

Australian League of Rights

ASIO had been monitoring the Australian League of Rights (ALR) for several years. A December 1975 report on the ALR National Seminar from earlier in the year confirmed ASIO’s previous assessment that the group was ‘reformist rather than revolutionary’. The officer responsible for the coordination of ASIO’s counter-subversion activities recommended that agent monitoring of the ALR cease, as it did not qualify as a subversive organisation as defined by ASIO.144 Despite this view, as a precaution, ASIO continued collecting information on the ALR, although it was relegated to a relatively low priority, without a dedicated desk officer. The assessment that the group was not subversive was revisited and confirmed in 1978.145 Then, in 1982, ASIO counter-subversion staff were tasked with re-examining the ALR to ascertain whether any subversive activity was occurring.146 ASIO had a responsibility to continue verifying the approach of any such groups appearing to have a propensity towards illegal acts that fell under ASIO’s mandate. Another organisation under ASIO’s occasional eye for many years was the Scientologists.

Responding to Scientologists’ accusations

The Church of Scientology had come to the notice of ASIO in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but had received little attention. ASIO advised the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security that people associated with Scientology were not necessarily a risk to security. But the Victorian branch of the group was under investigation for ‘extracting money from the credulous’, and there were concerns that it was involved in ‘brainwashing’ and that as a consequence involvement ‘might render adherents unsuitable for employment on duties involving access to highly classified material’.147 This all seemed relatively mundane. But then, in 1979, Peter James Fowler and the Church of Scientology took Judge Woodward to court, believing he had been refused employment through ASIO interference.148 Although initially supportive of the role of government intelligence work, the Church of Scientology became convinced it was being investigated by the Government, and identified ASIO as the agency involved. ASIO surmised this was because of the scientologists’ opposition to ASIO’s alleged abuses of individual privacy and the ‘holding of secret dossiers on individuals affecting their employment, etc.’149 The writ was dismissed by the High Court, however, on 1 October 1980 because of the insufficient standing of the plaintiffs to bring the action, the generally vague nature of the allegations, the ‘inappropriateness of an action against a public authority for exceeding its “Charter” ’ and the inapplicability of the constitutional provisions to the allegations.150 In essence, ASIO was exempt from such prosecution under the ASIO Act.151

In a landmark decision, the High Court found it was not possible to suggest any rational test by which ‘relevant to security’, a phrase featured in the ASIO Act, could be meaningfully defined. As such, the High Court found that it might be relevant to security to determine that a person is not a risk to security just as it would be relevant to security if they were a risk. In fact, as a later ASIO briefing note put it, the Act stated that ‘only the Director-General could decide what was relevant to security’, and therefore in order to determine whether an organisation was relevant to security ASIO was entitled and required to investigate it.152


ASIO’s counter-subversion mandate during the Fraser years reflected some significant continuities and discontinuities with the past. ASIO remained committed to pursuing those groups it perceived to have a subversive inclination. The problem for ASIO was that these groups became smaller and increasingly insignificant with the passage of time.

Subversion had clearly decreased as a focus of ASIO’s efforts from the heyday of the 1960s, and the Organisation appeared to be prepared to draw lessons from operational failures and the changing political and social environment. Mistakes were still made, but by and large the Organisation’s propensity for learning from them had increased. Other than pursuing its counter-subversion tasks, one other enduring priority for ASIO concerned its protective security mandate for vetting, assessing and checking people, buildings and arrangements. It is to this we now turn.

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