The Sheraton incident and John Ryan: ASIS Cold War Warrior

Dec 1, 2023

John Edmund Ryan, OBE was a former soldier, career diplomat and acting director of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). He entered Australian folklore on 30 November 1983 when an ASIS team raided Melbourne’s Sheraton Hotel, during a training exercise. The subsequent political controversy engulfed the federal labor government and it claimed Ryan’s career, with his early retirement. This is an extracted related obituary, forty years after the raid.

In October 1981, John Ryan was appointed as the acting Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). While he originally believed it to be a temporary placement, for some six months, until a new director was found, he remained in the position for two and a half years, holding out the expectation of at least one more ambassadorial posting (to Greece). Fate determined otherwise.

It came on 30 November 1983, the night before summer, during an ill-conceived “training exercise”, when a team of ASIS officers “raided” the Sheraton Hotel at 13 Spring Street in Melbourne. In their attempts to “rescue” a hostage, weapons were brandished and guests and staff were menaced alike. Some of the operatives were soon arrested by the Victorian Police. The subsequent fall-out from this simulated “anti-terrorist” operation was a major political scandal for the new federal labor government. The Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility assumed a vicarious nuance. The media frenzy also stoked the ongoing controversy. For Ryan, his career survival was unsure and he left it to hope. A senior judge was appointed to head the inquiry into the incident. In Justice Robert Hope, CMG, John Ryan would find none. Hope was a former wartime bombardier and he was not easily deceived. Ryan became the Sheraton’s first victim, “resigning” on Sunday 18 December. The formality was not promulgated until May 1984. Until then, Ryan endured much. Like some of his predecessors, he had drunk from a poisoned chalice.

There are conflicting reports on the nature of Ryan’s separation from the service. Was he pressured to resign or did he do so in some act of conscious volition? The latter notion is more compelling. Responsible press reporting in the aftermath of the raid was most emphatic. Ryan had not informed his minister, Bill Hayden, of the impending training exercise. At the outset, it was alleged that Ryan urged Hayden to hush up the affair, attempting to implicate the Canberra-based Crisis Policy Centre. Here Ryan encountered a defeat in administration. In public policy terms, Ryan escaped an understanding of Dunn’s “principle of methodological congruence”. The implication of that theory is that “problems”, if not “adequately structured”, cannot be solved, since the “wrong” problem is addressed. The Attorney-General could not accept responsibility for any enactments administered outside of his portfolio. As Canberra’s Greeks say about any project: “Great idea, but use your money”. John’s peers were similarly unsupportive. They dubbed that raid as “Von Ryan’s Excess.”

The raid had created more problems than solutions, as it severely tested the federal government’s political relationship with Victoria, despite their shared party consanguinity. In short, Cabinet had decided that Ryan’s departure was a foregone conclusion. He acknowledged that he no longer enjoyed the full confidence of the government. Soon after the raid, with his “resignation”, Ryan was placed on “special duties”, back with his old department. The term itself is often used as a management euphemism to describe the status of officials who have been removed from any position of authority or responsibility. Ryan would have acknowledged the implications of such a lateral transfer to an “off-line” position, in the senior executive ranks, where he had no influence in determining his future, which would be determined at a political level. After all, Ryan could only acquiesce with any formal ministerial decision taken on his future as a senior agency head in the Commonwealth Public Service. The Executive Council paperwork was already being processed to facilitate his way to egress.

At an instance, any chance of a final posting to Athens had been removed. More personal ordeals followed. Senator Primmer from Victoria raised sensational allegations in the federal parliament about John Ryan. Freed from the consequence of any libel action, they were as injurious as unjust, considering Ryan had little opportunity to publicly defend himself. He had no legal redress. His wife understood his plight too well. He was old breed. Because of his position, and the oath he took, he was fighting a rear guard action. Now, his enemy was behind him.

Senator Primmer used parliamentary privilege to make serious charges against Ryan’s personal integrity and professional competence. Primmer did not act alone. He allowed himself to be manipulated by a few serving diplomats who were personally disloyal to a fellow member of the corps and the department itself. The officers themselves, due to their individual pre-dispositions, had thwarted career ambitions and saw any hit on Ryan as a blow to departmental prestige and the reputation of the senior executive. That the subsequent institutional damage on the Foreign Service would also impact on morale throughout the ranks was an intended consequence of their misguided actions. It was a shameful period to be lived through in Canberra.

John Ryan often paced outside the old Administrative Building courtyard, eking out what he knew to be his last of numbered days. He wore a Prince of Wales (glen plaid) lightweight worsted grey suit which paid homage to the Conte di Roma collection. In their timeless elegance, his brown suede hand-treated brogue shoes screamed Salvatore Ferragamo. Ryan, he felt the rising heat of a Canberra summer. He was also weathering remorseless political heat and intrusive media scrutiny. His gimlet eyes squinted from the sun as he grimly surveyed the approaching traffic as he waited for his transport from Parkes Place. Perhaps that arch-imperialist Kipling came to mind. “Who would break the British square?” Uncomfortably he shifted, deep in thought, distracted by his insuperable burdens. Few could engage him. He was in a holding pattern waiting clearance. Career-wise, his body language was palpable. Lost in the passing throng, he was a dead man walking.

But fight back he did, as much as he was able, to both seek and direct support. It came on 25 February 1984, when John returned to his alma mater, St. Patrick’s, Goulburn. Accompanied by Patty, once more, he made a stirring speech, imploring for justice, as he had done over forty years ago. His old school presented him with the Age Quod Agis award. Translated, it means: “Whatever You Do You Do It Well”. He called on his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bill Hayden, to clear him from allegations made by Senator Primmer in Parliament. On the Sheraton incident itself, Ryan offered: “Of the exercise itself, I shall only say that it was misconceived and did not reflect well on the service.” Furthermore, Ryan accepted responsibility for it, but he said that subsequent attacks made on his career as a diplomat by Senator Primmer had been unjustified.

To his credit, the next month, Bill Hayden defended his former service chief from accusations made against him by his party colleague. The minister countered: “In my experience Mr Ryan, as acting director-general of ASIS, had always sought to apply himself attentively to his tasks, and I saw nothing in his character or behaviour which gave me cause to believe that any of the deficiencies of character and behaviour attributed to him in the allegations was evident”. There would be no more search parties during this battle. It was not enough to save the no longer private Ryan. At another level, his minister was distancing himself from Ryan, saying: “Mr Ryan has suffered severe criticism for deficiencies in his administration of ASIS by Justice Hope in the report tabled in this Parliament today (28 February 1984)”.

On the last day of the summer of 1984, Justice Hope had sealed Ryan’s fate. In the default season of three months, from the heady enthusiasm of the raid to the tabling of a sober parliamentary report, Ryan’s career was over; he was as quartered as the seasons. It had been a long hot summer. The exegesis of Ryan agonistes was played out in full public glare. Implicit in Hope’s criticism was the role of its acting head, John Ryan. “Mr Ryan’s involvement in the exercise was a factor in the cause of the incident”. On 9 May 1984, John Ryan formally resigned from the public service, after 38 years. In his short retirement, Ryan remained embittered about the affair, which would forever define his public life, for it also denied him any hope to serve as the ambassador to Greece. Frederick Stuart Fry replaced Ryan soon after the incident. A fluent Mandarin linguist, he had served in Hong Kong, Jakarta, Singapore and Phnom Penh. He was also implicated for his role, but escaped sanction, later being awarded an AM, in 1988.

John Edmund Ryan died of lymphoma, after a short illness, at the Royal Canberra Hospital, on 9 February 1987. A Rosary for him was recited at a Kingston funeral home on the evening of 11 February. A Requiem Mass was held at St. Christopher’s Cathedral, Manuka on the afternoon of 12 February. On conclusion, a service followed at the Norwood Park Crematorium. Senator Primmer, Justice Hope, Bob Hawke, Bill Hayden, Stuart Fry and Patricia Ryan have also since died.

How will history regard John Ryan, a man who attracted admirers and detractors in a steady measure? To dismiss Ryan as a “tough Irish Mick” merely begs the question. It was a sobriquet which never offended him. Ryan grew up in a hard-edged world and he was your consummate “cold warrior”. His faith was deep and abiding and he would need every ounce of it as he stared down Japanese militarism and Soviet expansionism. They were hardly a challenge for an industrial strength Catholic who was never embarrassed by any local display of public piety. His faith was aggressive glue to which he always adhered. He set out to war, two times, as a soldier and as an officer, girded by his religion, his wits, a rifle and a few thin sets of greens. As a fellow commando noted, if he experienced fear, he never showed it.

The profession of diplomacy calls for maturity, sophistication, cultural awareness and emotional intelligence, attributes which Ryan possessed in abundance. Yet in any hardship post, far removed from accepted comforts, toughness often came as a prevailing virtue, to deal with equally hard-headed foreign officials who, too, strongly asserted their own national interests. A former departmental head, the late Sir Arthur Tange, depended on emerging young leaders such as Ryan, to forge progress in a nascent Foreign Service. “John Ryan’s a strong man, not ostentatious. His actions and reactions are all controlled by his solid sense of what is right. He’s a good man to have on our side. He’s competent, he’s universally well respected”. As did his departmental secretary, Alan Renouf, who supported him in 1974, when Ryan’s posting as ambassador to Rome was temporarily suspended by his minister, over a trivial perception of an error caused by one of his subordinates. Ryan was jealous of his reputation. Less able officers were equally jealous of his career success.

John Updike once stated: “Easy on the guilt trip. We didn’t deal the deck down here, we just play the cards” (The Witches of Eastwick). John Ryan dealt a suit from that same pack, and it proved to be a bad hand. Had his wartime experiences clouded his judgment? Did his exuberance for covert action outstrip his common sense? The raid was an obvious aberration, being uncoordinated and unauthorised at any federal or state level. Sufficient official liaison, and an enhanced regard for the political sensitivities, would have produced a different outcome, in another scenario, in a more distant and less public locality. Hindsight can be a fickle companion.

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