Professor Paul Dibb works at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, is a former defence intelligence official and is the author of (most recently) Inside the Wilderness of Mirrors: Australia and the Threat from the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Russia Today [MUP, 2018]) Throughout the Cold War, Paul Dibb worked with the highest levels of Australian and American intelligence, and was one of very few Australian officials to be given the top-secret security clearance for access to Pine Gap. To discuss many of the issues raised by his new book, Paul Dibb addressed The Sydney Institute on Monday 3 September 2018.
AUSTRALIA, THE SOVIET UNION & THE COLD WAR – AND RUSSIA TODAY
Thank you Gerard for the invitation to speak here.
First of all, I’d like to explain the reason I wrote my book Inside The Wilderness of Mirrors. It’s part autobiography, which made me very nervous because I usually never write about myself. That’s what intelligence officers don’t do. At the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, we run a Master’s degree program of about 70 students in strategic and defence studies. Most of the students are in their mid to late twenties to early thirties. Then there’s some mature age students. I got fed up with questions to me on whether they could find a good book on the Soviet Union.
It’s part autobiography, which made me very nervous because I usually never write about myself. That’s what intelligence officers don’t do.
Looking around this audience, most of us here lived through the persistent threat of global nuclear war. And that’s now been forgotten; nuclear weapons are scarcely discussed, let alone their destructive capability. At the height of its power, the Soviet Union had 12,000 strategic nuclear weapons. To give you an idea of the destructive effect, the latest unclassified British cabinet document says that, in the 1960s, 10 one-megaton Soviet war heads would have obliterated England as a modern functioning society. It would have reverted to barbarism, looting, robbing with the military in control. And radioactivity would have meant most people would have had serious illnesses, let alone the capacity to have children.
the latest unclassified British cabinet document says that, in the 1960s, 10 one-megaton Soviet war heads would have obliterated England as a modern functioning society
Today, the good news is that Russia “only” has 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads, plus several thousand theatre nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons. As Jim Mattis, the Secretary of the US Department of Defense, has said in the Pentagon’s annual report for 2018, Russia is the only country capable of eliminating the United States with nuclear weapons. China cannot do that. China could do serious damage, but it is not able to completely wipe out a country like America. America, by the way, is capable of wiping out China if you think losing four to five hundred million in an exchange is the definition of destroying effectively the population and economic base of a country the size of China.
The other reason for writing this book was my experience as head of the national assessment staff in the late 1970s, the authority responsible for writing all the national intelligence assessments for the National Intelligence Committee, and later as director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, and Deputy Secretary of Defence for intelligence and strategic policy. I have got fed up with people claiming – and not just students – that Australia didn’t do much in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We weren’t a member of NATO. We weren’t in the Fulda Gap facing 300 Soviet divisions as the NATO countries were. The nearest the Soviets got to us in terms of military capacity was at Cam Rahn Bay and we had that operation of theirs under still highly classified submarine surveillance. They didn’t really get any closer to Australia than that.
However, as I shall explain to you, we operated with the Americans the joint intelligence collection facilities at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, Nurrungar near Woomera, and North West cape near Exmouth. To this day, very few people hold the Pine Gap clearance. I held it for 30 years, including for 10 years as Professor Dibb.
To this day, very few people hold the Pine Gap clearance. I held it for 30 years, including for 10 years as Professor Dibb.
There are a few things I want to quickly address. One is ASIO. I worked for ASIO covertly for 20 years as a counter espionage agent trying to infiltrate the Soviet embassy. And the question I want to briefly address is whether there was a Soviet spy in ASIO and whether ASIO was successfully infiltrated as was MI6 with Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and two others. All were private school Cambridge graduates and known today as the Cambridge Five.
Secondly, what was the key secret role of Pine Gap? My book contains a chapter on Pine Gap and the other joint facilities. Matters that are 40 years old, with rare exceptions, can be talked about these days. You can’t talk detailed operational questions, but the Americans have put huge amounts of stuff in the public domain about Pine Gap, which in Australia we tend not to do. So, our American ally reveals secrets about itself which we don’t. There’s something wrong there. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not arguing for total transparency. When you’ve worked in the game there are still things that, if exposed, can do enormous damage to our national security.
My book contains a chapter on Pine Gap and the other joint facilities. Matters that are 40 years old, with rare exceptions, can be talked about these days.
The third matter I want to explain is that the Cuban missile crisis was not the nearest we got to global nuclear war. It was in 1983. And I’ll explain the reasons why and again there’s a chapter in the book detailing all this. I hope you’re all going to have to buy this book!
Fourth is the question of why we got the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union so badly wrong? When Ronald Reagan was at Reykjavík and Gorbachev was trying to dramatically reduce nuclear weapons, the Americans were still advising Reagan that it was all a “put-up job”. True, when you worked with the Soviets as I did for 20 odd years, you had to be highly suspicious. They were a nasty group. Gorbachev changed all that. He was a different man. He knew the Soviet economy was busted.
When Ronald Reagan was at Reykjavík and Gorbachev was trying to dramatically reduce nuclear weapons, the Americans were still advising Reagan that it was all a “put-up job”.
Finally, is Russia today a serious threat, including for Australia? The answer is yes. A matter Dennis Richardson, the former Secretary for Defence, has raised with me is what are the parallels that we need to learn methodologically in terms of getting the collapse of the Soviet Union wrong. Are we now doing the same with China – kidding ourselves that China has no problems. China has plenty of problems.
I’d been in Australia three and a half years when I made my first visit to the Soviet Embassy. I was working as an economist for Stuart Harris, who was later the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. I was working in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. I was writing for “Black Jack” McEwen a report on the economics of the Soviet wheat industry. At the time, Britain was joining the Common Market. Australia was set to lost some of its biggest markets in the UK. I spoke and read enough Russian to read the Soviet statistical yearbook which told me what the acreage was sown, what was winter wheat, what was spring wheat and so on. There wasn’t a copy in the National Library of Australia. There was not such a copy in the ANU’s Chifley library. So I said to my boss do you think I should go and knock on the door of the Soviet Embassy? He said yes and I did. I got the statistical yearbook, which I still have. Within an hour of getting back my boss informed me that I was in deep trouble. ASIO wanted to see me. The Soviet Embassy, which is still in Canberra Avenue, is near Manuka. ASIO occupied the top floor of the funeral parlour opposite the Embassy. Next door to that was the Kingston pub, which was also used by ASIO for surveillance purposes.
There wasn’t a copy in the National Library of Australia. There was not such a copy in the ANU’s Chifley library. So I said to my boss do you think I should go and knock on the door of the Soviet Embassy?
Within a few weeks, I had met Ron Richards who was at that time the deputy to Brigadier Spy at ASIO. Ron Richards was the man who encouraged Petrov and his wife Evdokia Petrova to defect. And you can imagine this stuck has in my mind. I met him in what’s called a “safe house” in Manuka.
I met him in what’s called a “safe house” in Manuka.
Ron Richards told me I had potential for a career in intelligence and asked would I work for ASIO. They wanted to know what the Soviet Embassy’s priorities were, what they thought about Australia and America, were they interested in Pine Gap and satellite photography, as individuals what were their strengths and weaknesses, including their drinking habits, how they drove a car, relations with women and so on. I accepted – it all sounded rather exciting. But I wanted my career protected and said so to Ron Richards.
Once you’re in the wilderness of mirrors, which I’m about to explain, there’s always a risk. You’re getting close to forbidden Soviet “officials” and you might be seen as one of them. The “wilderness of mirrors” was a phrase first coined by a person I only met once – the CIA’s head of Soviet counterespionage throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He had a great name – James Jesus Angleton. He grew orchids, by the way, and he loved T.S. Elliot the poet. He believed that everybody was potentially a traitor, including in CIA. And to understand why you need to understand that it was Kim Philby who was sent by MI6 to help establish CIA. I cannot exaggerate the damage that Philby did. As a result, James Jesus Angleton saw every Russian as not to be trusted, including ones who had defected, such as those with valuable information about the split between the Soviet Union and China. Angleton had them tortured because he presumed they were lying. James Jesus Angleton took the phrase “wilderness of mirrors” from a T.S. Elliot poem. As you walk down the wilderness of mirrors you see your own reflection and everybody else’s reflection and nothing is trustworthy. Nothing. In this game against the Soviet Union, this intelligence game, this was a consistent problem.
Once you’re in the wilderness of mirrors, which I’m about to explain, there’s always a risk.
It was Kim Philby who was sent by MI6 to help establish CIA. I cannot exaggerate the damage that Philby did.
So, do I think there was a Soviet spy in ASIO? I do. My best friend in ASIO Donald Ralph Marshall, who ran me for 10 years and whose father had done the Russian language translation of the Petrov documents, used to tell me that, time after time, ASIO operations against the Soviet embassy failed. Now ASIO was not as capable MI6 but they weren’t incompetent. And they had no luck penetrating the Soviet embassy, despite the 54 reports about Soviet Embassy officials I wrote for them over the years. So, who was it? The rumour mill is still hot, despite the release of the Official History of ASIO. A former senior person’s name was kicked around and I’m not going to mention it because the evidence in the end wasn’t there. A minor ASIO person who was taking classified files home did some damage. But the proof that there was a Soviet spy is what CIA told us a decade ago. The KGB resident Lazovik had been given a medal for his operations in Australia. The KGB resident I operated against most intensively, however, was Lev Koshlyakov, whom I met two years ago in Moscow. He freely admitted what he was and has been described in the ASIO history as the most dangerous KGB resident. I don’t underestimate Lev Koshlyakov, but I think Lazovik was the one.
The rumour mill is still hot, despite the release of the Official History of ASIO. A former senior person’s name was kicked around and I’m not going to mention it because the evidence in the end wasn’t there.
Secondly, Pine Gap. Until recently, the only detailed account published was by an ANU colleague of mine, Des Ball, When I was in Defence, I was forbidden to have a relationship with Des. He got information out of the American Congressional records using freedom of information. That was an order of magnitude close enough to much of the truth. Pine Gap is the USA’s most powerful intelligence collection operation anywhere in the world outside of the USA.
In the late 1980s, the Pine Gap satellite was in geostationary orbit 32,000 kilometres out in space, pointing at the Soviet Union. And when it got into orbit at 32,000 kilometres, it opened an antenna 40 metres in diameter. Think about that. It monitored all Soviet ballistic missile launches. We intercepted the telemetry. We had data about the power of the rocket and what type of warheads it carried. And it intercepted lots of Russian military communications. It still does, against Russia, China, North Korea, and some other places. It is an incredibly powerful operation. The ANZUS alliance is not just about our Defence Force, which is equipped with highly advanced American military equipment that the Americans sell only to us and the Brits but not to the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Japanese and so on. But Pine Gap is the crown jewels which is why Prime Minister Gough Whitlam put us in jeopardy over the whole publicity about Pine Gap and his expose that it was run by CIA and not the Pentagon.
We intercepted the telemetry. We had data about the power of the rocket and what type of warheads it carried. And it intercepted lots of Russian military communications. It still does.
The facility at Woomera called Nurrungar has now been absorbed into Pine Gap. Nurrungar detected the infrared heat of missile launches. It could tell the Americans that silo is now empty and not to waste a shot on it. Some critics of Pine Gap and Nurrungar argue this probably encouraged the Soviets to believe we were part of the American nuclear war fighting capability. Equally, in my view, it encouraged the Soviets to believe in mutual assured destruction.
As a good intelligence officer, you should be able to think as the opposition does, you need to know their history, their geography, their culture, it isn’t for you to side with them. But I came to the view, if I was a Soviet, whilst Australia wouldn’t be a prime nuclear target, America, Britain, Germany, Japan would be. When you’ve got 12,000 warheads, you’ve got a few to spare. Why wouldn’t you take out Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape? And if you really wanted to damage Australia as the USA’s closest ally in the entire Asia-Pacific, take out a place like Sydney. I did some calculations in the 1980s on a Soviet nuclear attack on Sydney. It resulted in one million instantly dead in Sydney and another 750,000 deaths later from massive radiation doses. There’s a chapter in the book that deals with this. And a further question I have is, was Canberra one on the Soviet target list?
I did some calculations in the 1980s on a Soviet nuclear attack on Sydney. It resulted in one million instantly dead in Sydney and another 750,000 deaths later from massive radiation doses.
I said that the Cuban missile was not the most dangerous nuclear crisis, but it was dangerous enough. The Soviets backed down. They were in an inferior position. In 1983, Able Archer was a NATO exercise. The Soviets were being run by a sick but very intelligent man called Andropov, a former head of the KGB. He was convinced the Americans were developing the capacity for a sudden disarming first strike. The Soviets had deployed theatre nuclear weapons called SS20s which were not intercontinental missiles and therefore not under the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and they were capable of wiping out Germany, Britain and so on. The Americans deployed Pershing 2 into West Germany. It had a flight time to Moscow of six minutes and its aim was to decapitate the Soviet leadership. That’s what the Soviet leadership thought. There were lots of other things going on. A South Korean airliner with 300 people on board was shot down over Siberia. Exercise Able Archer was an annual exercise, but this time it changed the code words for simulated nuclear weapons release. Andropov off sent out an instruction to all KGB residents – including the Soviet one in London, Gordievsky, who later defected and whom I met in ASIO – that they had to look out for every sign that the Western allies were going on to short warning nuclear attack.
The Soviets were being run by a sick but very intelligent man called Andropov, a former head of the KGB. He was convinced the Americans were developing the capacity for a sudden disarming first strike.
In my book The Incomplete Superpower which was published in the 1986, I wasn’t quick enough to see the end of the Soviet Union, but I recognised that the Soviet Union had serious economic and, indeed, ideological weaknesses. I’d finished doing my Australia Defence report for the then Minister of Defence, Kim Beazley, and I was the director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation. In 1987, I went to the CIA headquarters in Langley where Robert Gates, whose name you may remember later as Secretary of Defense in America, was deputy director. Gates told me he had read my book The Incomplete Superpower and that I was wrong. The Soviet Union, he said, is poised to outstrip America in military power. Then came 1989 and down went the Berlin Wall. And in 1991 I can’t sing my favourite Beatles song “Back in the USSR”!
In my book The Incomplete Superpower which was published in the 1986, I wasn’t quick enough to see the end of the Soviet Union, but I recognised that the Soviet Union had serious economic and, indeed, ideological weaknesses.
Which brings me to my fourth point – why did some 250,000 American intelligence officials, the whole of CIA, the whole of the NSA, DIA and most US academics, get the USSR so wrong? My simple answer, which you may well challenge, is “groupthink”. You dared not express a different point of view in Washington in the late 1980s. Even though blind Freddy could see there was something really wrong in Moscow. This wasn’t to say that the Soviets weren’t still very powerful, they were. Until the dying days of the Soviet Union, there was still a risk that the Soviet military and the KGB could have overpowered Gorbachev and use force to defend the Soviet motherland. It’s still a puzzle why they didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the Soviet Union was an enormously difficult target to get right. The US had good technical information on the Soviet military, their missiles, their nuclear weapons, on their tanks artillery and so on. But the Soviets produced little in the way of economic statistics and most of them were absolutely a waste of time. They lied for the Communist Party. We knew that ideological control was an iron fist in Soviet Russia. But there were so many Russian jokes about going to Russian restaurants and whatever you chose from the menu the answer would be it was off. Another joke also was “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”. These sort of jokes reflected acute cynicism about the communist system. Russians weren’t about to rise up, but they were dragging their feet.
why did some 250,000 American intelligence officials, the whole of CIA, the whole of the NSA, DIA and most US academics, get the USSR so wrong? My simple answer, which you may well challenge, is “groupthink”
So, is Russia today a serious threat? The answer is yes. My book has a long chapter on that which brings it right up to date. Why is it a threat? I believe – and again you may well want to challenge this – most countries are prisoners of their history, their geography and their culture. That includes us, in a different way.
Is Russia today a serious threat? The answer is yes. My book has a long chapter on that which brings it right up to date.
As Russian history was developing with the proclamation of Christianity in Ukraine over a thousand years ago, the nobles in a particular city called Novgorod voted. But, very quickly, Russia was occupied for 250 years by the Mongol horde that taught them the use of the knout and oppressive cruelty. At the same time, they were being attacked by the Teutonic knights out of Germany. You all know the history of the Swedish invasion in the late 1700s, they got deep into Ukraine at Poltava before the Russians defeated them. Napoleon, you know how that ended up in 1812. And the invasion by Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War, which still figures hugely in Putin’s Russia every May to celebrate what they still call ‘The Great patriotic War’.
Putin can’t boast about Russia as a superpower; it’s not a superpower these days. It’s a regional power except for its strategic nuclear weapons. If you watch the parade in May for the Great Patriotic War involving 13,000 troops, you’ll see how it is manipulated by Putin with Xi Jinping sat next to him two years ago, and last year with Netanyahu next to him.
Putin can’t boast about Russia as a superpower; it’s not a superpower these days. It’s a regional power except for its strategic nuclear weapons.
Russia’s geography from a defence planner’s point of view is vulnerable. We Anglo-Saxons have grown up in countries like the UK, Australia, and New Zealand that are effectively island countries with no common borders with other countries. Right now, the nearest NATO military airfield in Estonia is 140 kilometres from St Petersburg. That is the distance from Canberra to Cooma. In my view, expanding NATO to such close proximity to post-Soviet Russia was a mistake.
Some of my academic colleagues ask me: ‘Why do you study Russia Paul? It’s finished. It’s a waste of time. Its economy is about the same size of Australia’s with five times the population.” Well I have news for them. Russia is not finished militarily. Putin has built up Russia’s military might again. In 2008 he goes into Georgia and stares the Americans down. He goes into Crimea in 2014 and stares NATO down. He’s still in eastern Ukraine and not giving up. And he’s in Syria where he’s displacing the Americans. And he’s using advanced weapons systems in Syria, including cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea and missiles from submarines in the Mediterranean. Putin wants to be recognised as a great power and you could discern the triumph on his face at the dreadful Helsinki Summit in July as President Trump put his foot right in it.
Russia is not finished militarily. Putin has built up Russia’s military might again. In 2008 he goes into Georgia and stares the Americans down. He goes into Crimea in 2014 and stares NATO down. He’s still in eastern Ukraine.
Russia is not in our part of the world. In that sense, it does not pose the same threat to us as China, which does pose a threat. But, listen to what Russia is doing. It’s supplying small arms, rifles and mortars to Fiji. They didn’t do that in the Cold War. They didn’t have a presence in the South Pacific. In the G20 in Brisbane, you’ll recall Tony Abbott wanted to shirtfront Putin over the shooting down of MH17, a dreadful barbaric act, and Putin was there sat by himself. Meanwhile two of his major warships had moved to waters in the Coral Sea off Brisbane from Vladivostok, the cruisers “Varyag” and the “Marshal Shaposhnikov”. They had just been completely modernised and they carried tactical nuclear weapons. Last December, two long range Russian Tu95 strategic bombers landed at Biak in Indonesian Irian Jaya and did an eight hour navigation patrol in the South Pacific. So don’t tell me there isn’t a Russian presence near us – there is.
Last December, two long range Russian Tu95 strategic bombers landed at Biak in Indonesian Irian Jaya and did an eight hour navigation patrol in the South Pacific. So don’t tell me there isn’t a Russian presence near us – there is.
Russia’s main focus is Europe. Putin is happy that he can see Europe tearing itself apart. Britain is getting out of the EU, which is dividing the EU to Putin’s advantage. He’s delighted that Trump describes the EU as a foe and that the EU was invented to take advantage of the US economically. He rightly says that some NATO countries should spend more on defence. But the bullying way he does it is to the advantage of Putin.
Next week Russia is going to mount a nationwide exercise called Vostok, which means the east. It’ll have 300,000 troops and 3,500 from China. It is the biggest Russian military exercise since 1981 at the height of the Cold War. Putin can divert 80,000 troops under the guise of such an exercise into any of what’s called the near abroad – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and so on. And what is NATO going to do if he decided to march into the capital of Estonia, Tallinn? Is NATO actually going to go to war with Russia? Are the Germans going to go to war with Russia? And what will Australia do? We are a strategic partner of NATO and will we actually stand by and see a democratic independent Baltic country invaded?
And what is NATO going to do if he decided to march into the capital of Estonia, Tallinn? Is NATO actually going to go to war with Russia? Are the Germans going to go to war with Russia?
Dennis Richardson who ran ASIO, was our ambassador to the United States, and was Secretary of both Foreign Affairs and Defence, launched my book on 12 June. He had read it thoroughly and said that a lot of the things in the book, about today’s Russia and the lessons we should learn about our mistakes over the Soviet Union and the vulnerabilities of Russia, also applied to today’s China. China has an aging population. It’ll get old before it gets rich. Already, its work force is declining in actual numbers and there’s nothing they can do about it. They have a massive public welfare, health and pension problem. You don’t have to be a climate change believer to understand that pollution in China is dreadful. They have problems of severe corruption. Their military have not fought a modern war. The last so-called war that the Chinese were involved in was in 1979 when they announced they were going to teach Vietnam a lesson. Instead, it was a draw.
China has an aging population. It’ll get old before it gets rich. Already, its work force is declining in actual numbers and there’s nothing they can do about it. They have a massive public welfare, health and pension problem.
China has not shown they can operate in joint military operations. Their deep-water anti-submarine warfare is poor. Their submarines make as much noise as early 1983 Soviet submarines. Their air defences are purely Russian. And they still import high performance military jet engines from Russia because they’re not able to make them successfully. I’m not arguing that China is not making advances. It is. But as Dennis Richardson says, we need a study done in Canberra, of which I see no evidence, about the weaknesses of China, as well as its strengths. We need to ask how we can exploit their weaknesses, and come to some acceptance that we’ve gone too far in our economic dependence on China – a third of exports, the leading numbers of tourists and students. Should we draw a line? Economists here might tell us that might cost us. Well, when it’s getting to this sort of challenge to our national security we may have to think again.
We need to ask how we can exploit their weaknesses, and come to some acceptance that we’ve gone too far in our economic dependence on China – a third of exports, the leading numbers of tourists and students. Should we draw a line
My final words are these. Some colleagues and I are about to make a major ANU public lecture entitled “Why Australia needs a radically new defence policy”. We now have a country, increasingly in our neighbourhood, which is a major power with whom we do not share values and that is capable of mounting high intensity military conflict in our region and maybe against us. China now has the military capabilities to do that. All that has to change is their intention. I’m not saying China’s about to do that. There are good reasons why China does not want a war, including economic ones. But our defence planners cannot ignore this ominous development.
There are good reasons why China does not want a war, including economic ones. But our defence planners cannot ignore this ominous development.