TONY WRIGHT. Spy versus spy: in Canberra, cover is where you find it. (SMH 16.8.2019)

Aug 21, 2019

I have wondered occasionally whether ASIO has a few grainy pictures of me sauntering to the front door of the forbidding embassy of the USSR in Canberra. 

For long years during the Cold War, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) rented a room above a funeral parlour right across the road from the embassy.

Up there above the dead and the grieving, Australia’s spooks were said to have installed cameras and had kept a faithful record of everyone entering or leaving the communists’ diplomatic lair.

I visited the embassy several times during the latter months of 1988, anxiously checking on the glacial progress of a promised visa that would enable me to travel to the foundering Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s nod to a new openness, glasnost and perestroika.

Were the cameras clicking? Perhaps ASIO had wearied of the game by then.

Still, when I had completed my USSR tour and returned to Canberra, a fellow journalist asked me to meet “a couple of friends” who wanted to know what I might have learned.

Hilariously, they wore trench coats when we met in a Canberra hotel.

My colleague – a senior Canberra journalist who the capital’s media community had fingered for years as an ASIO informant – and his “friends” weren’t awfully impressed to learn I had gleaned no secret information beyond what I had written for the newspaper. Perhaps they thought the Russians had turned me.

All these years later, ASIO’s deputy director-general Heather Cook told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that “in Australia today, journalism is being used as a cover by foreign intelligence actors”.

Cook’s evidence was presented as an argument against granting journalists exemption from national security laws.

ASIO ought to know about journalism being used as cover by “intelligence actors”. The agency has been using the odd journalist as cover for its own activities for decades.

It should come as no surprise. In Canberra, everyone is in pursuit of secrets:  journalists, diplomats, politicians, lobbyists, international business types and, of course, actual spies.

Across the hill from Parliament House sits the biggest of all foreign intelligence actors: the embassy of the United States of America.

Its operatives, like those of many foreign embassies, duchess reporters with offers of overseas tours, invitations to cocktail parties and chats over dinner.

But these heavyweights tend to bypass mere journalists when they want real inside information.

In 2010, cables dumped into the public domain by the then-fashionable WikiLeaks revealed right-wing Labor powerbroker and frontbencher in the Rudd and Gillard governments, Mark Arbib, was a valued contact of the US embassy.

John Menadue, head of the Prime Minister’s Department under Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, ambassador to Japan, head of several other Commonwealth departments, early CEO of Qantas and these days a commentator, declares the US is the leading foreign actor in winning covert influence in Australia.

In a savage article which declared the US to be “the greatest threat to peace in the world”, Menadue wrote that a galaxy of Australian opinion leaders in the media, politics, bureaucracy, business, trade unions, universities and think tanks had benefited from American largesse.

“The US has nourished agents of influence in Australia for decades,” he wrote in his blog “Pearls and Irritations”. “China is a raw beginner in the use of soft power.” (Tugging our forelock again and again to our dangerous ally.  An update.)

China, of course, is the “foreign actor” that in the 21st century has replaced the old USSR as the nation of most concern in using its intelligence services for nefarious means.

Australia’s spies like to point to an article written in 2017 by the Australian Financial Review’s Angus Grigg to illuminate their concerns. Grigg wrote of being approached twice by Chinese agents when he was a foreign correspondent.

They had outright offered money in return for tip-offs about upcoming articles and information about changes to Australia’s foreign policy under the (then new) Abbott government.

Such a raw, clumsy approach seems about as subtle as the efforts of the Russians back in the Cold War.

Right up to the start of the 1990s, correspondents for the Soviet Union’s state media organs, Tass and Pravda, had passes that allowed them access to the Canberra press gallery. They were the subjects of amused suspicion.

The biggest known coup that a Soviet “journalist” ever pulled off in Canberra was to persuade a reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald in the 1950s, a fellow named Fergan O’Sullivan, to supply a series of pen portraits of members of the press gallery.

In the midst of the uproar over Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov’s defection to Australia in 1954, engineered by ASIO, O’Sullivan – by then press secretary to the leader of the Labor Opposition, H.V. “Doc” Evatt – admitted he had supplied information on members of the press gallery to the Soviets.

O’Sullivan was sacked and drummed out of the Australian Journalists’ Association, and Evatt’s political credibility, already shattered by his response to the Petrov affair, went further down the gurgler.

It was music to prime minister Robert Menzies’ ears.

In the three-quarters of a century since, nothing similar has occurred.

Nevertheless, police, intelligence services and the latest government find it convenient to argue that in this new period of anxiety there are good reasons to raid journalists’ homes and offices in search of the source of leaks embarrassing to the government, and to subject them to exotically harsh laws.

Who needs cover now?

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