Protective Security, 1975–1983
In Justice Hope’s Second Report of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, he noted:
it has sometimes been suggested that Australia has no secrets which need protection, or which any foreign power could wish to obtain clandestinely … My enquiries have satisfied me that it does have secrets to protect, including secrets which various foreign powers want to learn. These secrets are not limited to matters of national defence or foreign policy. They extend to matters relating to national resources and the national economy.1
This was a ringing endorsement from the royal commissioner of ASIO’s protective security and counterespionage mandates.
Responsibility for protective security lay primarily with C Branch, which employed dozens of staff.2 Protective security was a multifaceted field, covering the vetting of applicants for government employment; the screening of migrants; the security of physical assets, notably buildings, equipment and documents; and the provision of advice on potential risks to security, notably for major national and international events and for VIPs.
This chapter reflects on how ASIO adapted its protective security functions to the changed security dynamics arising during the Fraser years. The most significant development in terms of security checking and assessment arose from the work of Hope and particularly the royal commission’s Second Report.
The necessity for a system of security checking of people in Australian Government employment was confirmed by the Second Report of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, but the report drew attention to the need for a review of the vetting mechanism. Hope recommended that security checking be confined to people with access to classified material or to security areas. The report also noted that ASIO’s own personnel security needed improvement.3
Vetting for immigration to Australia
Vetting for citizenship underwent considerable renegotiation with the Department of Immigration during this period. ASIO had gradually come to the view that this type of vetting had very little to do with security. While in the 1950s it was seen as important, by the late 1970s it was evident that people of security interest were not necessarily Australian citizens.4
The period from 1976 to 1980 saw an eight-fold increase in the number of applicants for visas, a number of whom reportedly conformed to a ‘terrorist profile’ (457 cases in 1976 up to 2352 in 1980), while the number who were visiting on business from communist countries more than doubled (1291 in 1976 up to 3027 in 1980). Both categories were handled by the Non-Access Checking Unit within C Branch. While these were the more sensitive cases, the bulk of the non-access vetting work involved checking applicants for citizenship and for resident status, and these actually decreased during the same period (from 108,467 cases in 1976 down to 94,495 in 1980).5 The years from 1981 to 1983 saw ASIO process 244,037 Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs citizenship check requests.6
ASIO had been liaising with that department over vetting matters for some time. In September 1977, for instance, Woodward met with the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Lou Engledow, in Canberra, and explained that from ASIO’s point of view a person’s security status was not affected by naturalisation. ASIO officers also continued to be posted overseas under the aegis of the Department of Immigration, principally for screening purposes. Over the years, however, their function changed in line with the evolving security environment, and the Organisation focused more on mainstream liaison with overseas services. Woodward argued that while relatively few applicants were refused visas, preventing the entry of even a small number of terrorists or foreign intelligence officers justified the cost of screening.7
In the fifteen months following the ASIO Act 1979 coming into force, ASIO checked nearly 27,000 potential migrants, temporary residents or visitors, and advised against visas being granted in 27 cases. ASIO also checked more than 15,000 permanent residence applicants and issued only one qualified and seven adverse assessments. In addition, ASIO made checks with regard to citizenship and the issuing of passports for about 59,000 cases, issuing only one qualified and two adverse assessments in the period.8
A qualified assessment generally meant that ASIO had identified information relevant to security but was not recommending any administrative action. This left the decision with the government department concerned as to whether any action should be taken against the individual applicant. In adverse assessments, on the other hand, ASIO recommended that ‘prescribed administrative action’ be taken by the respective department. For example, it could recommend the cancellation of a passport, or declining access to a security-controlled area. This would mean that someone who already had a security clearance would lose that clearance.9
Public service vetting
A number of changes to the personnel vetting system were implemented during Woodward’s term as Director-General from 1976 to 1981. After extensive negotiations with other government departments, ASIO eliminated ‘primary vetting’ from being generally applied to anyone who joined the public service. It remained in place for diplomatic recruits to the Department of Foreign Affairs and for certain areas of the Defence Department, such as the officer intake into the armed services.10 Once ASIO implemented these changes, the departments concerned faced the challenge of adjusting their procedures to make their own inquiries into the general trustworthiness of employees and applicants for employment.11
In the years from 1979 to 1983, ASIO’s security checking and assessments reached a plateau for non-access checking and dropped considerably for confidential and secret access, but increased marginally for top-secret access. Non-favourable assessments (qualified and adverse) totalled 135 over three and a half years from 1980 to 1983.12
The Security Appeals Tribunal
Hope’s Second Report focused primarily on security checking and assessments, and the need for a security appeals system. It made a number of significant judgments that pointed to the tone and direction Hope wanted to be set, including a proposal to establish a security appeals tribunal.13The function of the tribunal would be to review, upon application by the person concerned, adverse or qualified security assessments and any supporting information provided by ASIO. The Government would be able to refer particular cases to the tribunal. The tribunal’s decisions would be advisory, and the employing department or authority concerned would make the final decision.14 In November 1977, Woodward called for guidelines to be prepared for vetting appeals in anticipation of legislation establishing the Security Appeals Tribunal.15
The Fraser Government endorsed the proposal that ASIO’s security assessments should be subject to an appeals system, and in one of the most significant decisions made by the Cabinet’s Intelligence and Security Committee, set about establishing the Security Appeals Tribunal.16 Given that about 65,000 people were security-checked by ASIO in 1975 alone at the lowest level, a further 15,173 at ‘secret’ level, and a further 2550 at ‘top-secret’ level, the existence of the tribunal had the potential to generate a large volume of extra work for ASIO.17 But with the number of adverse or qualified reports in the categories likely to be vetted averaging only about twenty per year, Woodward was confident that this was manageable.18
After Cabinet’s decision on 21 September 1977 to establish the Security Appeals Tribunal, the Permanent Heads Committee on Intelligence and Security agreed to implementation arrangements that were to be put in place by mid-October.19 The ASIO Act 1979 subsequently ratified the new arrangements—a mechanism that the Attorney-General, Senator Peter Durack, described as ‘the first attempt, at least in a common law country, to provide a comprehensive statutory framework regulating the making of security assessments of individuals and providing a right of appeal to an independent judicial tribunal’. They therefore represented one of the most important steps taken in the Australian Parliament for many years to protect the rights of individuals.20
The Permanent Heads Intelligence and Security Committee could foresee difficulties with immigration cases, particularly citizenship applications, that would potentially place large demands on ASIO’s resources. Deliberating over such matters also demonstrated the need to ensure nationwide consistency between government agencies in security checking procedures. Potential immigrants to be screened out included those reasonably suspected of becoming engaged in espionage, sabotage or subversion within Australia; extremists from either the right or the left of the political spectrum with a propensity to undertake politically motivated violence; and ‘terrorists and urban guerrillas’. Membership of any ideological or political party did not bar someone from entry unless that person was judged likely to play an actual subversive role in Australia.
Appeals to the Security Appeals Tribunal were to be in relation to ASIO’s security assessments, not to departmental executive decisions informed by ASIO assessments.21 When announcing the decision, Prime Minister Fraser declared that in addition to matters concerning entry visas, passports and citizenship, all Federal Government employees would have appeal rights against any adverse or qualified security assessment, and those affected would be notified of adverse assessments and of the general nature of the supporting information. In addition, the number of those subject to assessment would be drastically reduced.22 This marked a significant step towards the greater accountability and transparency for which the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security had called.
Up until this point ASIO had no experience in litigation or appeals since the Royal Commission on Espionage more than two decades earlier. ASIO not surprisingly struggled with meeting the legal requirements to justify its assessments and with the significant additional workload and short time frames. The rigorous judicial standards demanded that the Organisation ensure certainty of facts when rejecting clearances on security grounds. This led to ASIO officers becoming more attuned, both in the collection and the analysis of intelligence, to the possible requirement of defending their actions in the tribunal.23
Woodward made clear that ASIO accepted the recommendations of Hope’s Second Report, although the internal task force suggested some qualifications and amendments. Initially, Woodward was hesitant about the tribunal and the question of source protection, but his reservations were sufficiently alleviated by the decision that the appellant’s and respondent’s cases (often derived from sensitive agent reports that if revealed would expose ASIO’s agents to real life-threatening danger) would be put privately before the tribunal without cross-examination.24 The concern was that the appellant could not be confronted by the agent or be cross-examined by the appellant’s counsel. The reasoning was that in most cases it would not even be possible to supply details of the appellant’s activities ‘because often only a handful of people will know of them and a process of elimination may point to the agent’. A proposed solution was to have an officer of the tribunal, or counsel assisting, to question both ASIO’s and the appellant’s witnesses.25 As Woodward explained to the Attorney-General, Robert Ellicott, ‘It goes without saying that, if ASIO is to have recourse to such agents, they must be protected.’26
Apart from significant incidents such as the bombing of the Hilton Hotel, other major events during this period became the focus of ASIO’s protective security efforts. These included the CHOGM in Melbourne in 1981 and the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982. These events passed successfully and largely without security incidents, to a certain extent because of the protective security efforts made beforehand, including the vetting reforms discussed above.
Handling sensitive personnel files
Managing sensitive personnel issues was a part of the routine of protective security work, but it generated its own concerns. For decades ASIO had monitored subversive groups with which some politicians were associated, particularly the CPA. But given the CPA had abandoned its advocacy of violence and ceased to be pro-Soviet, by the time the ASIO Act 1979 was proclaimed, the question arose as to what to do with those ASIO records. How much needed to be stored and how much could be culled? Was it important to keep the records complete for later historical purposes or should records of people’s past deeds, once considered of perhaps marginal concern, now simply be destroyed? In the end, some were kept and some destroyed.
ASIO took it as a matter of principle that politicians should not be entitled to different treatment from any other citizens. Conscious of the reports from Britain, where politicians were demonstrably on the Soviet payroll, Barnett felt compelled to write, ‘Indeed, politicians are likely targets for recruitment, especially as agents of influence, by foreign powers or internal subversive groups. Any politician so recruited or influenced would be in a position where he could do great harm to the national interest.’27 Internal policy and procedures regarding members of Parliament pointed out that ASIO was under a duty to see that intelligence affecting them was handled with care and understanding.28
While ASIO’s records on a range of political figures were to be retained, including those of Federal politicians John Wheeldon, Arthur Gietzelt, Jim Cairns and Albert James,29 Woodward ordered that records on some other public figures be destroyed.30 In time, this destruction of files proved problematic, as it left considerable ambiguity concerning what had transpired that led to the creation of the files in the first place and who was responsible for what had taken place.
ASIO’s own direct ministerial head in 1975, Attorney-General Kep Enderby, was on the files for contact with the Soviet Embassy in the mid-1960s and later, after leaving Parliament, in 1980. Yet in examining the records on Enderby, ASIO officers were frustrated in their efforts to clarify matters, as a file on him appeared to have been destroyed. The Coordinator of Soviet Bloc Affairs observed that providing accurate assessments was a particularly difficult task, and few conclusions could be drawn because of the ‘culling of files which had taken place some years before’. The ‘fallacy of culling files,’ he observed, was that often there was more than one copy.31 There had clearly been scope for the introduction of a more rigorous control mechanism, and the legislation introduced following Hope’s Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security and his Protective Security Review went a long way to address such concerns. Beyond the reforms initiated as part of the Archives Act 1983, particularly concerning control over the creation and destruction of Commonwealth records, there was also growing awareness of the need for enhanced training in protective security awareness.
Protective security awareness and training
In May 1980, following on from the work undertaken on the Protective Security Review (discussed in Chapter 5), which was launched after the February 1978 Hilton Hotel bombing, Justice Hope recommended to the Australian Public Service Commission that protective security policies be written and promulgated, and that training based on the policies should be designed and conducted for the public service. Hope also recommended establishing an interdepartmental protective security group to handle protective security matters. Cabinet decided not to support the creation of such a group, but it did agree that ASIO should play a central role in protective security, including the development of a training program for departmental security officers.32
Hope’s Protective Security Review had commented critically on the lack of formal training for these officers and on the lack of suitable reference material for them.33 Being responsible for the training of staff from other departments presented ASIO with additional financial, equipment and personnel issues.34 The Organisation seconded two full-time officers to this function, which proved to be one of ASIO’s most successful undertakings.
Some criticised the way changes were being implemented, claiming that the proposals seemed to ‘make a bureaucratic mountain out of a protective security molehill’, draining the resources and overlapping the responsibilities not just of C Branch, with its protective security remit, but a range of other branches within ASIO. The counterespionage liaison officers, for example, already provided what the head of C Branch, Les McBride, saw as ‘the appropriate degree of liaison’ with departmental security officers,35 advising them not only on protective security matters, but also on counterespionage.36
The counterespionage liaison officer arrangements initially arose in 1963, out of the need to follow up espionage leads related to the Skripov case. But they had developed into a close operational relationship between ASIO and particularly the Department of Supply, which, through its control of the Weapons Research Establishment, was assessed as being the most likely department to be targeted by the Soviets at the time. The arrangements changed with the absorption of the Department of Supply into the Department of Defence in 1974. Thereafter, regional counterespionage liaison officers were tasked with maintaining close liaison with regional security officers for all Australian government departments and agencies. They were to offer counterespionage advice and report on cases indicating involvement of ‘Hostile Intelligence Services’.37 In particular, ASIO’s counterespionage liaison officers liaised with the departments of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Foreign Affairs, the Bureau of Customs, the Commonwealth and state police forces, the three armed services, Australia Post and Telecom (later Telstra).38
Beyond training and liaison, reference material was required. The Protective Security Handbook had first been published in 1948 and revised a number of times in the 1950s and 1960s. The Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security recommended that the handbook be further reviewed, and in June 1978 a revised version was produced. A complementary volume, the Protective Security Manual, was issued outside ASIO in 1980, with detailed advice for implementing the principles found in the handbook.39
One of the outcomes was that ASIO established a Departmental Security Training Centre, which developed a program of five separate courses, two annual conferences and a travelling regional security-awareness presentation.40 This catered not just to the public service but also to security personnel in the private sector. The training program commenced in February 1982, covering the spectrum of protective security tasks and responsibilities. The principal officer involved in creating the course, Rod Andrew, observed that the training program helped change the image of ASIO in the wider community while providing much-needed support for security personnel.41 He recalled:
[Course participants] described ASIO as being this organisation that was just like a sponge, everybody was forced to give them stuff but nothing much came back. This training program represented a significant opportunity for ASIO to change this perception in all government agencies, state, local and Federal. Initially designed for Federal departments and agencies, once state and local government departments heard of how good the courses were, and realising they too had sensitive information and other assets that required protecting, joined the program. All of a sudden we found the course numbers swelling dramatically. Airlines, banks and security agencies were next to join the training programs. As an example, the Maribyrnong Local Government possessed building surveys they realised needed some form of protective security, since they had a number of leaks of sensitive information. As a result, some staff members joined courses that dealt specifically with the threats to assets and methodologies used to counter the threats. A significant benefit emerged during the training as a result of the networking taking place between Government agency personnel and private sector attendees. They all began to sail in the same direction, using the same knowledge base, and this fostered greater cooperation across the emerging protective security private sector industry. It was just a tremendous mix of attendees, and ASIO benefited through greater cooperation from both sectors.42
ASIO had to ‘have a human face’ in the public arena, Andrew argued, to ‘break down this mystique and the security thing’. And so the first courses were designed with that in mind, offered free of charge to government agencies invited to participate. Later on fees for photocopying and to cover incidental costs were charged for a two-week course or a week-long course. According to Andrew, the protective-security training program helped ASIO to be seen as a friendly and reliable source of advice.
ASIO retained responsibility for training of departmental security officers until 1987, when the task was transferred to the Attorney-General’s Department as part of a wider reallocation of responsibilities for protective security policy coordination.43
In the meantime, ASIO’s Physical Security Section conducted inspections of installations, documents and procedural security measures in regional offices and at Headquarters ASIO on a continuing ‘as required’ basis. The section also provided detailed physical security advice for regional offices and for the planning of the new headquarters building in Canberra. In addition, the section was involved in testing waste-destruction equipment and provided routine security advice on document handling and destruction.44 As an indication, in the 1981–82 financial year ASIO’s Physical Security Section conducted 123 inspections of Commonwealth and state installations assessed to be exposed to a security threat.45 Clearly, there was a considerable amount of work to be done, and ASIO advice was an important catalyst for adjustment and improvements.
Support to other government departments
Physical security inspections, including for document security, appeared all the more warranted as reports of a series of leaks to the media from various government departments gained momentum from 1976 to 1978. The Permanent Heads Committee on Intelligence and Security discussed how best to investigate these unauthorised disclosures of classified information. Hope’s Protective Security Review added impetus by recommending that additional interdepartmental coordination and expert support was required.46
The Permanent Heads Committee on Intelligence and Security endorsed the CPF as the proper agency to investigate criminal activity against the Commonwealth, including leaks. The question remained as to what extent ASIO should become associated with internal departmental investigations. The Permanent Heads Committee recognised that ASIO was not empowered to trace people responsible for security leaks other than in cases where there were grounds for suspecting espionage or subversion.47 ASIO’s role was constrained by the fact that the majority of leaks were identified as relating to information ‘other than that involving national security’.48
Nonetheless, ASIO was under pressure to play a leading role in helping other government departments manage their security requirements. Woodward was concerned that involving ASIO could seriously damage its relations with the public service generally. This would particularly be the case if it were called upon to conduct stringent interrogations ‘in cases which did not appear to involve espionage or subversion’.49 In saying this, Woodward was mindful that ASIO had an enduring image problem and while much of what was included in the royal commission reports was helpful, in the short term its impact on ASIO was adverse. Insisting on involvement in investigating leaks was seen as likely to exacerbate the already negative image of ASIO within the Federal bureaucracy and beyond.50 Thankfully for him, the proposal was not supported by Cabinet.51 The CPF—from 1979 the AFP—kept the job.
Tracking leaks to the media
Apart from seeking to examine what was happening within the public service in relation to leaks, there was a clear imperative to examine closely the media figures themselves, to try to identify their sources. The journalist Brian Toohey was a prominent example of such media figures. He generated considerable anxiety within Government throughout the late 1970s and 1980s by seeming to draw on inside sources from the broader intelligence community.52
In February 1979, Toohey was posted to Washington with the Australian Financial Review. While there, he wrote a number of articles based on information accessed courtesy of the US Freedom of Information Act, which included information on the origins of ASIO. Then, in March 1981, Toohey published an article in the National Times quoting extensively from the previously unpublished and top-secret Fifth Report from the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, which discussed ASIS.53 With some advance warning of the story about to break, Prime Minister Fraser phoned the Director-General, Barnett, saying he wanted an inquiry into the source of the leak, with a view to prosecution. Barnett pointed out that ‘the person responsible would have satisfied themselves that they could not be detected before embarking on this course of conduct’.54
An investigation found that the report from which Toohey had quoted had been printed and distributed through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Given the scope of people who had access to it, Barnett considered it virtually impossible to trace the source of the leak.55 The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Hayden, later phoned Barnett, embarrassed, advising that one of his staff appeared to be the source of the leak.56 With Hayden’s agreement, Barnett advised the AFP Commissioner, Sir Colin Woods, who agreed to an inquiry.57 But the AFP inquiry did not provide any conclusive evidence that the source of the leak had improperly collected the information while working for Hayden, so all ASIO could do was set about tightening the distribution of sensitive reports in the future.58
Toohey had suspected that ASIO was ‘all over him’ from 1976 onwards after fellow journalist Laurie Oakes commented that Fraser was obsessed with Toohey.59 Fraser had reportedly spoken to Attorney-General Durack about Toohey, but officials had dissuaded them from tapping Toohey’s telephone in the Parliament House Press Gallery on the basis that it would set a dangerous precedent, given Parliament House was off-limits for such interception by ASIO.60 Toohey would continue pursuing intelligence scoops for decades to come.61
Managing ongoing leaks
ASIO reports were not free from being leaked. One such disclosure, published in the Nation Review in November 1977, contained almost the entire text of an ASIO paper ‘The Yugoslav Intelligence Service in Australia Threat Assessment’ which had been supplied to the SIDC-DV in February that year. The paper detailed five identified and seventeen suspected YIS officers in Australia focused on acquiring intelligence on activities in the Yugoslav émigré community in Australia, particularly among Croatian nationalist groups. It also considered the tactics used by the YIS to discredit anti–Yugoslav Government groups and bolster the image of the Yugoslav state.62
ASIO’s branch responsible for security conducted a full inquiry into the matter and sought cooperation and assistance from ASIO’s regional offices.63 ASIO concluded that 105 copies of the report had been printed and distributed widely within ASIO and to departments represented on the SIDC-DV. After an exhaustive investigation, ASIO could find no firm evidence as to how and from whom the Nation Review received a copy of the threat assessment. The report on the leak investigation also claimed, however, that ASIO’s document-handling procedures had several noticeable weaknesses that would have enabled copying and removal of a copy to occur undetected.64
The matter of leaks once again generated discussion in Cabinet in June 1981, which later produced a Cabinet decision outlining the need for special handling of material considered to be particularly sensitive. ASIO consulted with relevant departments to evolve these special handling procedures and test them before general implementation across the Australian Public Service in 1982.65
Before leaving office in September 1981, Woodward made a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra about something he ‘frankly had not expected’—what he called ‘the degree of criticism amounting in some cases to obvious hostility, which has been displayed by certain sections of the press’. He opined that ASIO was a ‘sitting target for the press’. But he railed against what he called the ‘zenith’ of this sort of approach in a ‘dishonest distortion’ of Hope’s strong criticisms of ASIO, from which it was inferred that he had found ASIO officers were ‘members of criminal classes’, and that quite likely ASIO itself was responsible for the Hilton bombing. ‘It just hadn’t occurred to me when I took on this job that an allegation like that could be made,’ he declared.66
Reflecting on the leaks to the media, Woodward stated, ‘I am confident that there is only one occasion in the last five and a half years in which an ASIO officer has been responsible for a leakage.’ Woodward may have been referring to the McPherson case discussed in Volume II and also in this chapter. Woodward claimed that while ASIO documents had ‘found their way into the press’ on a number of other occasions, this was because ASIO papers were now more widely distributed than before. Woodward’s key concern, he said, was that
whenever any reference has been made to our targets the result has been that those targets have increased their security preparedness. They have gone to pains to try and make our work more difficult; so the only real result of the publication has been to alert those groups which can fairly be described as the enemies of this country, and to make our task in trying to monitor them, by the Marquis of Queensberry rules that we use, that much more difficult.
One of the problems created by this ‘cult of the leak’, as he called it, was that the Government was more inclined to stop distributing documents so widely. ‘It is a natural reaction,’ he said.67
Woodward was also concerned about the effect of such leaks on overseas partners: ‘I don’t think there is any doubt that international relations have suffered, Australia’s credibility with its allies has suffered.’68 Woodward was clearly agitated about this matter when he added,
I reserve my contempt for the public servants who in most cases are responsible for the particular leak that has occurred whether for reasons of spite, perhaps due to some misguided political view that is held, or perhaps because they were leaned on. But the fact remains that I have been able to see no evidence that there is any attempt or any willingness on the part of the press of Australia to do anything other than to reproduce in full the material which happens to fall into their lap.69
Despite Woodward’s concerns, the leaks did not stop there. On 20 July 1982, The Bulletin published an article, ‘Tension among the Spooks at ASIO’, by Greg Sheridan. The article stated that the newly formed ASIO Staff Association was unhappy with the Director-General, Harvey Barnett. It alleged that he had failed to act on the association’s concerns regarding the Leader of the Opposition Bill Hayden’s claim that the pre-1975 ASIO ‘was consciously and wilfully in breach of its charter’.70 The article appeared to show that Sheridan had some inside knowledge of ASIO, but also demonstrated ignorance on the part of Sheridan’s source of the true situation and of the correspondence between the Staff Association and Barnett.71
Upon reading Sheridan’s article, one of many that he was writing about ASIO at this time, Barnett spoke to members of the Staff Association and they assured him there was no basis in the story. Concerned about the leak, Barnett ordered the head of internal security to commence a ‘vigorous inquiry’ to identify the ASIO officer who had passed information to Sheridan.72 ASIO analysed the article for an insight into the possible motives and character of the source,73 and the internal investigation concluded that the source was likely a long-serving officer from the Spry days, disaffected by the current management.74 But there was nothing substantial with which to pursue the matter further.
Andrew Campbell and the Office of National Assessments
Other people generated controversy and media attention for ASIO, including the public servant Andrew Campbell.75 He applied for a position with ONA, and a non-adverse security assessment was issued by ASIO.76 Before taking up his appointment, Campbell had published a book, The Australian League of Rights: A study in political extremism and subversion, in 1978, raising the ire of the subject group.77 Campbell’s reputation inside ONA was damaged by reports of his dislike of communism and his apparent belief that only he had a proper appreciation of security requirements.78 He eventually resigned from his position in ONA, but not before becoming embroiled in public controversy.
ONA had been established in 1978 by Prime Minister Fraser on the recommendation of Justice Hope. Some were uncomfortable with the challenge this appeared to present to the established intelligence agencies, including the Defence Department’s JIO and ASIO. ONA Director-General Robert (Bob) Furlonger publicly dismissed talk of tension between JIO, ASIO and ONA,79 but Campbell believed that several officers inside ONA should not be provided with national security-classified material. The revelations of leaked reports from ONA to the parliamentary Opposition caused a minor political storm, particularly once ALP MP Clyde Cameron discussed it in Parliament in April 1980. The reports indicated that ONA’s assessment of the Soviet 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was less threatening than Fraser or the other agencies were comfortable with. But the most controversial aspect of Cameron’s speech was his fanciful claim that Campbell was an ASIO plant in the ONA and that this discovery had led to his dismissal from ONA.80
When media reports picked up on these claims,81 Furlonger asked Woodward to review ONA’s security practices. Woodward was also asked to investigate further allegations of deliberate security breaches. His report, which was considered by Cabinet in mid-June 1980, made a number of procedural recommendations to improve security practices, but a key conclusion was that there was no credible evidence of any serious security breach by any ONA officer.82
As part of the process, Furlonger had been invited to review Woodward’s draft report and had suggested a number of changes. He requested a concluding point be added: ‘There is therefore no reason, arising from this inquiry, to conclude that ONA is not basically a secure organisation.’ Woodward considered this point was ‘reasonably made, having regard to considerations of staff morale and the international standing of ONA’.83 But they had not yet heard the end of this story.
In early April 1980, reports emerged that an ASIO threat assessment for 1979 had been lost by ONA and Fraser rang Woodward to ask him what was being done about it. Woodward noted that some paragraphs in the assessment might generate some embarrassment concerning Indonesia, China, Iraq and Libya, but he argued that no lasting damage would be done to international relations or national security as a result of the loss. Fraser expressed ‘deep concern’ about the number of serious leaks that had occurred from various departments in recent times.84 In the end, an investigation was conducted within the intelligence community, and a number of recommendations were accepted that were intended to improve security and accountability for document handling and distribution.85
An article in News Weekly on 30 July 1980 indicated that Woodward’s investigation report had been leaked. It interpreted the inclusion of a clause from Furlonger as meaning the report was substantially ‘modified’ before reaching the Prime Minister.86 Woodward categorically denied this and stood by the rigour of the editorial and approval process for the report as having enhanced, not ‘watered down’, the final product’s observations and recommendations.87 Woodward speculated Campbell was the source of the leak that made the article possible, but there was no evidence to support this.88 Given the public controversy, Fraser decided to address the matter in Parliament and through a press release to the media, reiterating Woodward’s declaration that there was ‘no credible evidence of any ONA document having got into the wrong hands, nor of the improper use of classified information by any ONA officer, nor any serious breach of security by any ONA officer’.89
ASIO’s work in the protective security domain during the Fraser years stands in contrast to the approach taken in earlier times. To begin with, while immigration vetting continued, there were no more massive Vietnam War protests to worry about, or the related vetting of national service conscripts.
With the advent of the Security Appeals Tribunal, ASIO came under considerable additional pressure not only in terms of workload but also to justify its decisions relating to security vetting and checking. Although initially concerned about what would happen once the tribunal was established, ASIO officers eventually recognised that it added legitimacy to their assessments. The fact that people could appeal against ASIO’s decisions paradoxically added strength to its assessments.
Despite the emphasis within ASIO on handling sensitive material, and the Organisation’s role in providing protective security advice to other departments, leaks of sensitive material continued from Commonwealth agencies. To the Organisation’s surprise, and at government direction, it found itself having to investigate these leaks in the wider Australian Public Service, which generated considerable additional work for ASIO staff. Leaks would continue to gain much attention and distract ASIO from higher priorities, but its largely balanced approach to managing such leaks was a credit to the Organisation.
In reflecting on the enduring significance of vetting for ASIO, it is important to remember that vetting was not done for its own sake. It was primarily intended as a protective security measure, to minimise the prospect of espionage and of penetration by hostile intelligence services. Vetting was intended to screen out from employment within the government bureaucracy those whose loyalties lay elsewhere. For migrant vetting, the intention was to screen out undesirable extremists from either end of the political spectrum.
By the time the Fraser Government lost office in the March 1983 Federal elections, ASIO had made significant progress on the path of reform while remaining vigilant in the areas for which it was responsible, including the pivotal issue of counterespionage—the subject of our next chapter.