Overthrowing Allende: Australia’s special role in destroying a democracy

Sep 20, 2023
Salvador Allende Image source: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional / Wikimedia Commons /licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Chile license.

Every September 11, those in the United States mourn the 2001 attacks that reduced the Twin Towers to rubble and holed the Pentagon. Some 3,000 people perished. US President George W. Bush declared in a speech following the attacks that the US had been targeted for being “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”

Another September 11, as worthy of commemoration, saw the extinguishment of a democracy at the encouragement of that said “brightest beacon” in 1973. Five decades ago, the socialist government of Chile’s Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup that saw the instalment of the butcher General Augusto Pinochet. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had warned US President Richard Nixon that the Allende government had to be removed, given its “insidious model effect” that could be emulated by other nation states. An insidious military dictatorship of sadistic propensity was far more preferable.

In an all too familiar pattern, a country unequivocally aligned to the security interests of Washington also weighed in this effort to destroy a Latin American democracy. In December 1970, at the urging of the CIA, Liberal Party external affairs minister William McMahon granted approval to the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in December to open a station in Santiago. ASIS, for its part, admitted that “there was no vital Australian political or economic interest in Chile at the time”. To this day, the role of that station and Canberra’s broader policy of disrupting and meddling in the affairs of Chile has never been acknowledged. Efforts to investigate and expose that role have also been frustrated, either at the level of declassification or via standard journalistic channels.

In 1983, Australia’s Attorney-General Senator Gareth Evans told the Senate that there was “no foundation for any suggestion that Australia in any way assisted any other country in any alleged operations or activity directed against the Allende regime.” Clyde Cameron, a former Minister for Labor and Immigration in the Whitlam government, almost fell off his chair on hearing the news.

In an interview with the ABC Four Corners program, and a letter, Cameron revealed being baffled on becoming Minister for Immigration in 1974 that the department had been providing generous overseas cover for 19 full-time Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation agents. “I was further advised,” wrote Cameron, “that one of these so-called migration officers had been operating in and out of Santiago around the time of the military coup which murdered the democratically elected President of Chile.”

The letter went on to disclose that Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had informed Cameron that he was aware of ASIS involvement in Chile. Cameron’s own investigations also found that his “ASIO ‘migration’ officer, together with ASIS, had acted as liaison officers with the CIA which masterminded that coup.”

The official position taken by Evans in the Senate jars with the 1977 admission by then opposition leader Whitlam to the federal parliament “that when my government took office Australian intelligence personnel were still working as proxies and nominees of the CIA in destabilising the government of Chile.” The remarks were made in the context of leaks from the first 8-volume secret report, authored by Justice Robert Hope as part of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security surveying the conduct of Australian intelligence activities.

To this day, the full extent of Australia’s Chilean operations in the report remains classified. Not even Brian Toohey and William Pinwill’s otherwise magnificent Oyster: The Story of the Australian Intelligence Service, sheds light on the precise details of the Santiago activities. Gareth Evans, this time as foreign affairs minister, would later directly intervene via the Federal Court in 1988 to suppress relevant unvetted material on ASIS’s role.

In 2015, SBS journalist Florencia Melgar began poking around in the murky depths of Australia’s Chilean chapter, spurred on by her story that Adriana Rivas, a former Pinochet intelligence agent residing in Sydney, was wanted by Interpol for the kidnapping and disappearance of seven members of the Chilean Communist Party. Melgar’s formal request to the Australian government to investigate ASIS’s role in Santiago was curtly dismissed. It was also accompanied by a diabolical, if incongruous statement, that publishing material on the subject, even if sourced from Chile’s Foreign Affairs official records, risked a legal prosecution.

In 2017, Clinton Fernandes of the University of New South Wales, along with barrister Ian Latham and solicitor Hugh Macken, collectively sought to declassify documents relevant to Australia’s Santiago station. In September 2021, the National Security Archive, an invaluable forum for intelligence documentation hosted by George Washington University, published a selection of Fernandes’s findings.

The documents note McMahon’s collusion with the CIA by offering up Australian agents while also documenting the operational and logistical problems of the station. In June 1971, a highly placed Australian official, whose name is redacted, even wondered about, “The need to go ahead with the Santiago project at all, at this stage.” The “situation in Chile has not deteriorated to the extent that was feared, when we made our submission”. But ASIS officials, their functions having been almost entirely outsourced to the CIA, would hear none of it.

The election of Labor’s Gough Whitlam spelled an end to the adventure, though by then the damage had already been done. In April 1973, he quashed a proposal by ASIS to continue its clandestine outfit, feeling, as he told ASIS chief William T. Robertson, “uneasy about the M09 operation in Chile”. But in closing down the Santiago station, he did not, according to a telegram from Robertson to station officers sent that month, wish to give the CIA the impression that this was “an unfriendly gesture towards the US in general or towards the CIA in particular.”

Five decades on, some parliamentarians have called for a formal acknowledgement of Canberra’s role in the destruction of a democracy that led to the death and torture of tens of thousands by a brutal military junta. The Greens spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Peace, Senator Jordon Steele-John, stated his party’s position: “50 years on we know Australia was involved, as it worked to support the US national interest. To this day, Australia’s secretive and unaccountable national security apparatus has blocked the release of information and has denied closure for thousands of Chilean-Australians.”

In calling for an apology to the Chilean people, the Greens are also demanding the declassification of any relevant ASIS and ASIO documents that would show support for Pinochet, including implementing “oversight and reform to our intelligence agencies to ensure that this can never happen again.”

One decent reform comes to mind: serving the Australian people rather than the interests of a foreign power.

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