Does Australia need some 20th-century spying?

There is, or there should be, more to spying than high-tech electronics. As we have seen, it can get agencies into trouble. It can lead up the wrong paths, to dead ends and bear pits. We need to get back to basics, feet on the ground.

In this piece I look at information gathering as once practised. Later I will look at how our high-tech security agencies are making a complete hash of our relationship with China.

There has been much talk of spies and spying recently, particularly in the Murdoch press and among right wing camp followers. The right is enthralled, enamoured and thoroughly seduced by the notion of spying.

Just as boys and girls with leanings toward the right tend to join the armed forces so, too, do right-leaning youngsters get recruited as spies.

A spy is a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another country and individuals within it. Spies come in many shapes and forms. They can be full or part time, they can be sleepers, activated as needed, or members of professional or sporting associations and academics who report regularly or as required, or when they judge something is of interest to their minder. They might be journalists, but they shouldn’t be. Sometimes diplomats are spies, sometimes spies use the cover of diplomacy to undertake their activities.

When I went to South Africa, as second secretary in the Australian Embassy, I was spied on. I was followed, my phone was tapped. The reason being that I had contact with black South Africans including the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), who were rightly regarded by the white regime as hostile to apartheid. The apartheid regime believed the BCM were sympathetic to the banned South African Communist Party (SACP).

Many of the people I met were monitored, observed or under full-time surveillance, including the leader of the BCM, Steve Biko, who was murdered by police in September 1977. It subsequently emerged that the regime thought I was a spy, no doubt in light of my contact with the BCM and blacks opposed to apartheid, particularly as none of my diplomatic colleagues developed a network.

Under these circumstances maybe I was a spy, although not recruited or appointed by Canberra. The networks I maintained and the circumstances under which they were maintained were those that might have been deployed by a spy in terms of secrecy and subterfuge protecting black political activists and informers from association with me.

Certainly, that is what the South African Government was convinced of when it tried to have me expelled in 1979, but it back fired. In any case, without having set out to do so I became conversant with the craft of spying. I knew the mood of the townships and sometimes plans which extended beyond them.

The CIA and MI6 worked closely with BOSS in seeking to prevent ‘the downward thrust of communism’ in Southern Africa. The Americans believed it, the British did not. When a British MI6 operative learnt of my activities in helping people cross the border, he organised visas from the British High Commission. This was not part of his official brief.

In Saudi Arabia my phone was tapped. An embassy-based CIA agent told me that when an American company set up the Saudi telephone system, the CIA bugged it. The Americans knew everything the Saudis were saying. Much as they did with the Collins Class submarines, they can be tracked worldwide. Don’t worry about the Chinese, big brother has got Australia well and truly covered with Pine Gap playing an important role.

In Pakistan, after I had become a confidant and friend of the future prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, my phone was tapped and I was followed. Of course, developing a relationship with Benazir was a legitimate and proper undertaking for the diplomatic counsellor at the Australian Embassy.

What was not quite so regular was for me to take photos of Russian soldiers, tanks, radio communications, trucks and bases in Kabul during three monthly visits from Islamabad in the period 1986 to 1988. The Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in Canberra supplied a magnificent little camera with a hot shoe and lots of film. And they expressed themselves happy with the results.

Kabul was a city under siege from the Mujahideen. Entering the office of some diplomatic colleagues, fear was palpable. Fear has a distinctive smell. Rank, tinny and slightly fishy. I knew it from South Africa. Fear does strange things. The only way I could go to sleep in our beautiful little dacha in Kabul was lying on my back so I could ‘see’ the rocket or mortar that came through the roof.

In 1987 I met the Polish First Secretary at the airport when flying from Delhi to Kabul. I made arrangements to call on him. The weather was cool. He had on a jumper. Underneath it was a ‘box’. We talked. He was cautious, but clearly had a lot more to say. I organised a lunch party at home. Behind a high wall the house had a lovely garden with almond and apricot trees and a terrace overlooking them. On that I placed a trestle table with dishes of salad, chicken, fresh bread and many bottles of vodka. I invited our Western as well as some of our East European friends and the Chinese but not the Russians.

After a time, I asked my Polish colleague what was the box under his jumper and he said it was a recording device and I said his technology was crap and he laughed. He wanted to talk. We quickly established a rapport and I said anything he could pass on about the Russians would be great and he did, the Poles were fed up with the Russians. He eventually arranged for me to meet with them.

The Chinese and Indians had good information about the Russians but the Chinese knew more and were happy to share with Australians. They had a big and well-equipped embassy. They understood the difficulties of a fly in-fly out Australian diplomat and had me to dinner at least twice during a 10-day visit, and that was all on the basis of the strong relationship established by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972.

The British Embassy in Kabul was staffed mainly by MI6 people and the US Embassy by CIA. The US Embassy in Islamabad was responsible for more than 600 ‘aid workers’ based in Peshawar, Quetta and inside Afghanistan. They were involved in training and supplying the Mujahideen. A friend in Peshawar, who worked with MI6, was married to a Frenchman who took photographs inside Afghanistan, he was a spy. He was shot at the back door of his house in Peshawar with an AK47 by a person dressed as a Pathan.

His wife later married a man who had been through Sandhurst and worked with the British SAS in their operations across the border in support of the brilliant Mujahideen leader, Maqsood. The man was later killed in Russia when working as a journalist, widowing his wife for a second time.

An Australian working for a journal based in Asia accompanied me to a meeting in Peshawar with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an unsavoury and untrustworthy Mujahideen leader. He somewhat blew his cover when a report turned up in our diplomatic bag from one of our agencies reporting the meeting.

The Russian assistant defence attaché in Islamabad was shot dead as his car slowed at a corner near our embassy and it was at a reception at the Russian Embassy that I learnt from an Indian diplomat, who was also the senior RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent that General Zia had been blown up half an hour earlier in his air force Hercules. It was impressed upon me that although the aircraft had come down close to the border, the Indian Government was not involved. Raw believed a group of middle-ranking Pakistan army officers were behind it and they were right. My interlocuter, knowing of my relationship with Benazir, wanted that information conveyed to her, which I did within a short space of time.

Spying requires boots on the ground, getting down and dirty and first-hand observation. People heading intelligence agencies with only screen and cyber experience don’t know the half of it. Others have claimed their leather seats by political brown nosing and cruising corridors. But more on that later.

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Bruce Douglas Haigh is an Australian political commentator and former diplomat.

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