What else have the Archives got?

Jul 26, 2020

Jenny Hocking’s persistence has revealed the ‘Palace Letters’ between Canberra and London which the National Archives didn’t want Australians to see. If there were other exchanges with Washington and Langley they may be even more reluctant.

Gough Whitlam was to make a speech in Parliament on 11 November 1975 disclosing the CIA’s role in Australia, and announcing that the agreement with the US for the Pine Gap base would not be renewed. Before he could do so, Kerr dismissed him.

Whitlam upset the established system from the start. He made good his promise to withdraw the remaining Australian troops from Vietnam. He didn’t require security clearances for his staff (although some had already been cleared, and others were later), and when this was communicated to the Americans, a US diplomat told journalist Richard Hall, ‘Your Prime Minister has just cut off one of his options’. Whitlam proceeded to cut off more: he ordered ASIO to stop talking to the CIA. In December 1972, Whitlam wrote to Nixon deploring the bombing of Hanoi and mining of Haiphong harbour, and Kissinger responded with a threat to the alliance.

Whitlam foreshadowed Australia’s withdrawal from the moribund SEATO, and proposed inviting East Asian nations to join Australia in an appeal to the UN and North Vietnam to revive ‘serious negotiations’ for peace. The CIA in Saigon were told the ‘Australians might as well be regarded as North Vietnamese collaborators’, John Pilger recorded (‘The forgotten coup – how America and Britain crushed the government of their “ally”, Australia’, johnpilger.com, 28 October 2014). In 1973 Nixon sent Marshall Green, who had been US Ambassador in Seoul during Park’s coup and in Jakarta during Suharto’s, to Canberra to keep watch over Whitlam’s remaining options, perhaps even to oversee another coup.

Mutual confidence was low between the Australian government and the CIA. Whitlam’s predecessors had not discouraged covert CIA investment in Australia during the Vietnam War, when the Agency funded the Nugan Hand Bank, Air America, and Continental Air Service, which were said to be running drugs and laundering the proceeds through Sydney and Melbourne. The Bank collapsed in 1980 owing more than $50 million. CIA Director William Colby, a director of the Bank, discussed the ’Whitlam problem’ with his British counterpart Sir Maurice Oldfield. Colby warned that ‘surging Australian nationalism’ would put the American bases at risk. MI6 people decoded Australian cables, and passed what they learned from inside Australian Cabinet meetings to the US, while Kerr kept the Palace informed.

The CIA was trusted by some Australians, however, including Kerr’s friends in the Council for Cultural Freedom. The CIA station chief in Canberra, who reported to his boss Theodore Shackley in Washington, rented a house from the leader of the Country Party. American leaker Christopher Boyce decoded Pine Gap messages and copied CIA cables in 1975, later revealing to Ray Martin on ‘60 Minutes’ that the Governor-General was referred to as ‘our man Kerr’ and that through him the Agency wanted to depose the Prime Minister.

If Kerr was the CIA’s man, the Governor-General was also the Queen’s man. Some 210 letters between him and Elizabeth II before and after the dismissal remained embargoed ‘on the instructions of the Queen’ in the National Archives, until the High Court ordered their release in May this year. Although they show Kerr acted alone on 11 November – no-one else could dismiss the Prime Minister – he discussed it with the Palace and the FCO, and with several Australian High Court Judges, as Hocking has shown. Did he also consult Green or Shackley, who he knew were concerned? Whitlam, Kerr, and his successors Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen, and the Queen’s private secretary Lord Charteris are all dead. But Sir David Smith, Official Secretary to all three governors-general, is not. What he knows about any correspondence between Kerr and the Americans he has not said.

Whitlam warned the US Ambassador about the CIA spy base at Pine Gap: ‘Try to screw us or bounce us [and it] will become a matter of contention’. This threat caused ‘apoplexy’ in the White House and ‘a kind of Chile’ – meaning a coup – ‘was set in motion’, a CIA man told Pilger. On 10 November 1975 Whitlam was shown a telex in which CIA’s Shackley – who had experience organising coups in Latin America – described the Prime Minister as a security threat to Australia. A deputy director of the CIA said Kerr did as he was told, implying there were direct or indirect communications between them. Labor’s Defence Minister Bill Morrison recalled that Kerr ‘sought and received a high-level briefing from senior defence officials on a CIA threat to withdraw intelligence cooperation from Australia’.

Rupert Murdoch, whose papers had supported Whitlam’s election in 1972, directed his editors to ‘kill Whitlam’ ten months before he was dismissed on 11 November. Murdoch columnists in recent days have dismissed the supposition of CIA involvement out of hand. Whitlam himself denied that the CIA had a part in his dismissal, as did Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Peter Edwards, Law, Politics and Intelligence: a life of Robert Hope, 2020). Other historians, including James Curran and Brian Toohey, are equivocal, and what Whitlam knew about any American plot against him he took to his grave. But by stating that ‘For all its enduring importance, adherence to ANZUS does not constitute a foreign policy’, Whitlam brought Australia closer to sovereign independence than any prime minister before or since. It took five decades for Malcolm Fraser, by then out of office and out of the Liberal Party, to call for the same thing in Dangerous Allies (2014). In recent days, Malcolm Turnbull has said he wants all Kerr’s letters released.


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