The Protest Years – The Official History of ASIO, 1963-1975

By John Blaxland

Allen & Unwin 2015
ISBN – 9781925266931
RRP – $ 49.99 hb

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

John Blaxland’s The Protest Years is the second in a three-volume series on the history of the Australian Intelligence Security Organisation (ASIO). David Horner’s The Spy Catchers covered ASIO from its inception in 1949 until 1963.  The Protest Years deals with the period between 1963 and the demise of the Whitlam Labor government in late 1975. The final volume, also to be written by Dr Blaxland, will cover the period of Malcolm Fraser’s government and that of Bob Hawke, until the end of the Cold War in 1989.

The Protest Years is a very important but deeply flawed book. It is long on information but, at times, short on knowledge.  The preface to both the “official” histories of ASIO, published so far, contains the following “disclaimer”:

Although the vast majority of this book is based on government records, in certain areas the author has drawn on information in publicly available books and articles. It should not be assumed that ASIO has confirmed the veracity of the information sourced from these books and articles.

The disclaimer works for some authors – but not for others.  David Horner’s The Spy Catchers has been widely praised for its attention to detail and considered analysis.  The Protest Years, on the other hand, contains a number of serious errors which the author is reluctant to acknowledge.  (See, for example, correspondence between Gerard Henderson and John Blaxland which was published in the “Correspondence” section of Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog blog on Friday 29 January 2016 – Issue 301 here).

And then there is the issue of what “official” means – especially since ASIO has generously funded the authors of the two volumes. In The Protest Years, like David Horner before him, John Blaxland writes that it should not be assumed that ASIO has confirmed the veracity of the information sourced from publicly available books and articles.

So how is this an official history of ASIO – if ASIO will not validate the information in its “official history”?  Moreover, with respect to The Protest Years, ASIO has provided the “official history” gong to a work which criticises – unfairly – much of ASIO’s work during the years of the Vietnam War.

“ASIO During the Vietnam War, 1963-1972” is the title of Part 1 of The Protest Years. Part II is titled “International and Overseas Engagement”, 1963-1975” and Part III “ASIO and the Whitlam Years”. Part 1 of Blaxland’s book is deeply flawed while Part III contains new and important material.

ASIO during the Vietnam War: 1963-1972

The problem with Part I of The Protest Years is that John Blaxland has essentially accepted the fashionable left-wing view of ASIO’s role in the 1960s and early 1970s.

For example, at the end of the chapter titled “Grappling with Dissent: Anti-War Protests, 1963-1972”, Blaxland writes:

Many things seem much clearer in hindsight, and this applied equally to ASIO. The period from 1963 to 1972 saw the Organisation devote much of its energy and resources to monitoring and responding to what it called the radical protest movement. But rather than grappling with subversion, ASIO was grappling with dissent and, in the main, failed to draw the distinction. Decades of seeing the communists as the source of their problems left ASIO poorly prepared to make the adjustments necessary to the changing times.

Earlier in the chapter, the author had this to say about the results of a survey which ASIO director-general Sir Charles Spry commissioned in 1968 about the student protest movement:

The results showed that only 7 per cent were foreign-born, indicating the ethnic origin of student protesters did not appear to be an important factor.  Nor did the political views of their parents; only a small faction had parents who had previously come to notice through communist affiliations.  In addition, the great majority of the students were around 21 years old, “from the middle and upper classes” (where most tertiary education students were drawn from) and some at least were from “particularly well-to-do families”.

Such findings arguably should have triggered a profound reconsideration of the nature of the challenge.  Yet instead, ASIO officers were directed to persevere in its established path.  Regional officers were exhorted to continue to “make every effort” to identify student protestors and forward the relevant details to headquarters.

Blaxland’s analysis is naïve. In history, many a revolutionary has been young and from a relatively well-to-do family. Blaxland’s conclusion that the 1968 survey findings should have triggered a profound reconsideration of the nature of the security challenge overlooks the fact that many of the young demonstrators worked with organisations of the communist movement, broadly defined.  Namely the Communist Party of Australia which up to 1968 was financed by the Soviet Union, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) which was financed by China and the Socialist Party of Australia which in 1971 took over from the CIA as the Australian recipient of Moscow finding.

Indeed there is evidence in The Protest Years itself that sections of the protest movement were either controlled by, or heavily influenced by, sections of the communist movement.  See, for example Page 170 where Blaxland documents that a demonstration outside the home of prime minister Harold Holt in 1967 was instigated by the Eureka Youth League, a communist front organisation.

It is notable that ASIO’s “official history” is far more critical of the Organisation’s assessments in the 1960s and 1970s than the left itself.  In 2014 SBS screened a four-part documentary on ASIO, titled Persons of Influence, by leftist film maker Haydn Keenan. As would be expected, Persons of Influence was highly critical of ASIO – focusing on its investigations into author and journalist Roger Milliss, student radical Michael Hyde, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley and author Frank Hardy.  Only Foley gets a (brief) mention in The Protest Years. John Blaxland’s decision to ignore Haydn Keenan’s documentary is a serious error.

According to Blaxland (writing in 2015) ASIO failed to recognise that the Vietnam protest movement was engaged in dissent – not subversion.  But this is not what some members of the Vietnam protest movement told Keenan for his documentary (which aired in 2014). Take Michael Hyde, for example, who was the main focus of Part 2 of Persons of Interest. Hyde told Haydn:

I became chairman of the Monash University Labor Club which was the most radical organisation in Australia.  I helped organise the Vietnam Moratorium campaigns. I was chairman of the Worker Student Alliance and I was an active leading member of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist).

There were many students, but few workers, in the Worker Student Alliance.  The important point here is that Hyde boasted about the link between the China financed Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), the Monash University Labor Club and the Worker Student Alliance. Hyde went on to tell Haydn that in 1968 the Worker Student Alliance aimed to “smash up” and “occupy” the United States Consulate in Melbourne.  In 1968, ASIO was correct in anticipating that Hyde and his comrades “planned a violent 4th of July demonstration”. The protest, which was violent enough, was thwarted by Victorian Police. The ASIO document cited here was referred to in Persons of Influence but is ignored in The Protest Years.

The female student activist Kerry Miller, who was interviewed on Persons of Interest, suggested that in 1968 some demonstrators took petrol bombs to the protest with a view to torching the US Consulate.

The once-upon-a-time Monash University student radical Albert Langer (who now goes by the name of Arthur Dent), also appeared on Persons of Interest.  The program quoted from a contemporary ASIO document which recorded Langer stating that if the race between ASIO and the Worker Student Alliance “was won by the WSA, ASIO operatives and the entire bourgeoisie would be executed”. So in the late 1960s, according to ASIO records, Langer was contemplating executions of the WSA’s opponents. This ASIO document, which is supportive of ASIO’s interpretation of the protest movement at the time, is also overlooked by Blaxland.

Then there is Darce (who also once called himself “Jon”) Cassidy.  After his time on the barricades at Monash University with the Worker Student Alliance, Cassidy had a successful career at the ABC.  No surprise there.

Like Langer, Cassidy still holds the delusional view that, in the late 1960s, ASIO was intent on murdering members of the Worker Student Alliance.  This is what he told Persons of Interest:

In fact, that was one of the prime functions of ASIO – to decide who would be taken to the soccer stadium and dealt with. And, you know, I think we held the view that, if there was a revolution, then we’d probably need to do the same sort of thing.

So there you have it. Cassidy told Haydn that, “if there was a revolution”, the comrades of the Worker Student Alliance would “probably” have murdered their opponents.

All the material in Persons of Interest came from ASIO’s files – or from interviews with individuals who were persons of interest to ASIO at the time.  Moreover, all the activists quoted above were young 20-somethings and from middle class or well-to-do families. This makes nonsense of Blaxland’s criticism of ASIO that it focused on dissent, not subversion and that young students from well-to-do families were not, by definition, a threat to national security.

The evidence suggests that, in the late 1960s, ASIO was correct in believing that sections of the radical protest movement, who were in receipt of funds from foreign communist powers, were intent on subversion and not just engaging in dissent.  Yet The Protest Years simply ignores the evidence.   ASIO paid good money for poor scholarship in this instance.

ASIO and the Whitlam Years, 1972-1975

By December 1972, when Gough Whitlam was sworn in as prime minister, all Australian combat forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam.  While conscription was still a reality, it no longer applied to overseas service since Australian forces were no longer engaged overseas in South East Asia or elsewhere.  Whitlam soon withdrew Australia’s few remaining military advisers from South Vietnam and ended conscription.  Consequently, by the end of 1972, the Vietnam protest movement no longer had anything much to protest about and was no longer a focus of ASIO’s interest.

The weakness of The Protest Years turns on its unfair criticism of ASIO’s take on the Vietnam protest movement in the late 1960s. Its strength turns in the analysis of Gough Whitlam and his senior ministers between December 1972 and November 1975.

The Protest Years provides, unintentionally perhaps, a devastating critique of left-wing heroes Gough Whitlam, Lionel Murphy, Jim (“call me Doctor”) Cairns and more besides. Here’s why.

▪ On becoming prime minister, Gough Whitlam was unaware that ASIO did not have executive power since it was not a law enforcement agency.  In other words, Whitlam was confused about the respective roles of ASIO and the Commonwealth Police Force (now the Australian Federal Police).

▪ Shortly after becoming prime minister, Gough Whitlam declared that appointees to the staff of Labor ministers were not to be subjected to security checks – including the prime minister’s personal staff.  This despite the fact that some were required to handle top secret intelligence material.

▪ Early on, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy ordered that ASIO no longer conduct surveillance on the Communist Party of Australia, the Communist Party (Marxist- Leninist), the Socialist Party of Australia and Trotskyist organisations.  This despite the fact that, in the early 1970s, the CP (M-L) and the SPA were funded by Beijing and Moscow respectively.

▪ On 15-16 March 1975, Murphy conducted an extraordinary raid on ASIO headquarters in Melbourne – without a warrant.  ASIO staff were effectively put under house arrest and were unable to go to their offices or to the toilet.  This has not stopped the left praising Murphy’s (alleged) commitment to human rights.

▪ Whitlam and Murphy subsequently lied when they declared in the Parliament that ASIO director-general Peter Barbour did not complain about the raid.

▪ As it turned out, Murphy’s justification for the raid – namely, that ASIO had been withholding information about Croatian terrorism in Australia – turned out to be misplaced.  No such information was withheld by ASIO.

▪ Following Murphy’s ASIO raid, Vladimir Petrov (who defected from the Soviet Union Embassy in Canberra in 1954 and was living under a new identity in Melbourne) suffered a severe stroke.  Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov were among the most significant defectors from the USSR during the Cold War.  Vladimir Petrov became stressed after the raid, believing that the Whitlam government would send him and his wife back to the Soviet Union. Petrov required full-time care until his death in 1991.

▪ When Whitlam was advised by ASIO that the Soviet Union’s Venona code had been cracked by Western intelligence in the 1950s, the Prime Minister instructed ASIO not to brief Murphy on this matter. Clearly Whitlam did not trust his attorney-general with respect to matters of national security.

▪ Whitlam instructed ASIO to sever all links with United States’ intelligence agencies. Since Barbour believed that such an order – if implemented – would damage Australia’s national interest, he ignored it.  Barbour’s action was courageous – and proper in the circumstances.

▪ US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger were so worried when the leftist Jim Cairns (who was favourable to China) became deputy prime minister in 1974 that they expressed concern that he could attain access to American intelligence. They received advice from Barbour that Cains had no portfolio responsibilities which would require him to access intelligence documents.  This matter was dealt with by ASIO and the relevant departments of the Commonwealth Public Service – not by Whitlam.

▪ Kep Enderby, who succeeded Murphy as attorney-general in 1975, passed highly classified security material to journalists in Canberra. He subsequently mislaid a secret document which he had used to brief journalists.

There was much praise for the Whitlam government following Gough Whitlam’s death in 2014. The Protest Years serves as a useful reminder of the incompetence of Whitlam and some of his senior ministers in the area of national security.

Burying the Lead

The Protest Years contains much interesting material along with some fresh insights.  Yet sometimes the items of interest are buried in bureaucratic sludge.  Take this reference, at Page 44, for example:

The three branches known as BI (Counter-Subversion), B2 (Counter-Espionage) and Q (Special Services) were abolished [in 1970]. Two new branches, B Branch (Research and Analysis) and D Branch (Operations), were created as part of a radical organisational departure from the past and incorporated into the Intelligence Division under FADG (I).

How frightfully interesting, in a bureaucratic kind of way.  But here are some real stories buried in the book.

▪ In 1964 Labor leader Arthur Calwell approached an ASIO officer.  According to The Protest Years, Calwell told the ASIO officer that he had ignored the Communist Party’s penetration of the ALP for years, hoping that it would go away.  But communist influence in the Labor Party had now reached a point that he could no longer ignore the problem.  Calwell had follow-up meetings with ASIO director-general Spry.  In his memoirs Be Just And Fear Not (1972), Calwell denied that the Communist Party had infiltrated the ALP and denied that he met with Spry, beyond chance meetings at airports. The Protest Years documents that Calwell was untruthful in his memoirs.

▪ In 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt and External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck rejected a United States request to grant asylum to Svetlana Iosifouna Stalin, the daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.  ASIO was not opposed to granting the request but Holt and Hasluck did not want to upset the Soviet Union and (unnamed) South East Asian countries.  This was a weak decision – Svetlana Stalin settled in the US.

▪ In the 1970s, ASIO received information that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was intent on assassinating the Israeli Ambassador in Canberra along with (then) ACTU president Bob Hawke, journalist Sam Lipski and Israel supporter Isi Leibler.  The Protest Years comments that “in hindsight it appears that ASIO’s work may well have saved the life of a future prime minister of Australia”.

Sure this information came to light when the cabinet papers for 1976 were released in January 2007.  Even so, ASIO’s role in preventing these planned assassinations by Black September terrorists deserves more than the scant coverage it receives in The Protest Years on Page 384-385.

Postscript – Some Serious Errors

Any book of this size is likely to contain a number of typographical errors, misspellings and the like. However, there are some significant errors to which attention should be drawn.

▪ As documented in Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog blog (Issue 301, 29 January 2016), The Protest Years contains a number of errors about B.A. Santamaria, the National Civic Council (commonly termed The Movement) and the Democratic Labor Party. Similar criticisms have been made by Greg Sheridan (in The Australian), Professor Ross Fitzgerald (in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) and Dr Peter Edwards (in The Weekend Australian).

The Protest Years, at times, goes over the top in an attempt to balance the case for and against ASIO.  For example, at Page 50, the following claim is made:

ASIO has long stood accused of being used as a political tool of government – particularly of conservative governments of the Liberal-Country Party Coalition, successively led from 1949 to 1972 by Prime Ministers Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton and McMahon. In addition, ASIO has been accused of manipulating the media, some even suggesting that ASIO was seeking to undermine, subvert and frustrate left-wing organisations in Australia, using any weapons it saw fit.

The reference in the final sentence is to “Greg Sheridan and Pat Jacobs, cited in Barnett, Tale of the Scorpion, p. 32”.   Harvey Barnett was ASIO director-general between 1981 and 1985.  Pat Jacobs was the nom de plume for Andrew Campbell. The fact is that neither Sheridan nor Campbell criticised ASIO for attempting to subvert left-wing organisations in Australia.  The Protest Years does not provide a primary source for this claim and the secondary source, Harvey Barnett’s Tale of the Scorpion, does not support the claim.   

In fact, according to Barnett (who quoted no source) Sheridan and Jacobs criticised ASIO for not devoting sufficient resources to subverting left-wing organisations.  In other words, Blaxland’s interpretation is hopelessly wrong.   But this assertion is damaging to ASIO, since it falsely implies that even anti-communists like Sheridan and Jacobs/Campbell criticised the Organisation for being too obsessed with the protest movement.

The Protest Years contains many fine photographs. Pity about one of the captions.  The caption at the bottom of the photo of Victorian Liberal Party Senator Ivor Greenwood reads as follows:

Ivor Greenwood, 1971, Attorney-General in 1971-72…, he believed Croatian extremists need not trouble ASIO.

This statement is false – according to Blaxland’s own research.  Page 153 of The Protest Years contains the following comment re Senator Greenwood’s attitude to Croatian extremism  in the early 1970s when he was attorney-general:

Meanwhile, on 29 September [1972] Greenwood circulated a Cabinet submission on terrorism and violence in Australia, which indicated that he was in fact taking the threat from within the “Yugoslav migrant community” more seriously than Whitlam alleged.

The Protest Years then quotes from Ivor Greenwood’s October 1972 submission, which read as follows:

There are allegations that Croat migrants have committed acts of terrorism in Australia. There have been proven instances of Yugoslav-born persons being found in possession of explosives.  There are counter-allegations of terrorism against Croat migrants in Australia and of the use of agent provocateurs.  It is also said that Yugoslav secret police are active in Australia.

Then, on Page 155, John Blaxland wrote:

Greenwood accepted the view that the greatest threat of terrorism came from the Croatians.  Whitlam’s comment that Greenwood maintained that there was “no credible evidence” of Croatian terrorism and that he “rejected the advice of his department” about it is not supported by the statements in Greenwood’s Cabinet submission.

So, according to the analysis in The Protest Years, the caption to Ivor Greenwood’s photograph in The Protest Years is wrong.  Misleadingly wrong – and quite unfair to the late Ivor Greenwood who is not around to defend himself.  How can this have come about?  Either Dr Blaxland did not know what was in the captions – or the caption writer did not know what was in Dr Blaxland’s book. Some mistake, surely.

▪ W.J. (Bill) Brown – the father of Greens’ Senator Lee Rhiannon – was one of Australia’s life-long Stalinists.  He left the Communist Party of Australia after it broke with Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  In 1986 W.J. Brown’s The Communist Movement and Australia: An Historical Outline – 1990s to 1980s was published – it is cited in The Protest Years.

Bill Brown and his wife Freda Brown were well known communists.  Yet, in The Protest Years, W.J. (Bill) Brown is referred to as “Wilton Brown”.  However, in The Spy Catchers, David Horner refers to Bill Brown – who is identified as W.J. Brown in the index.  It is reasonable to expect that the author of The Protest Years should get W.J. Brown’s first name correct – especially sinceThe Communist Movement in Australia is cited in the book’s bibliography.

Conclusion – On Moral Equivalence and All That

Despite the valuable material in The Protest Years, the second volume of the official history of ASIO is marred by the tone of moral equivalence.  This is evident early in the book where Blaxland wrote:

[ASIO] Staff members were expected to be selfless out of a sense of patriotism to the nation and loyalty to the Organisation.  For instance, officers could be tasked to operate a static observation post at Sydney’s Kings Cross throughout the night and be expected to report for work at the office the next morning, or follow a group of Russians visiting Sydney from Canberra for the weekend while working Monday to Friday and also meeting agents three nights a week.

ASIO employees also faced other damages and hardships.  Publicity and harassment, for instance, arising from the actions of irresponsible or extremist individuals, generated considerable stress for ASIO staff and their families, (although the same could be said of those people being targeted). Similarly for those tasked to undertake operational work on groups or organisations likely to resort to violence, the experience generated considerable stresses.

John Blaxland is asking his readers to compare the plight of ASIO officials who worked long hours without overtime (or days off in lieu of overtime) with the situation of individuals who were being targeted by ASIO.  Many of the latter proclaimed the need for revolution at home while they benefited from the financial support of such communist dictatorships as the Soviet Union, other Eastern Europe nations and China.  What’s more, Blaxland cites no evidence for his claim that ASIO officers harassed members of the protest movement or publicised their activities.

However, as documented in The Protest Years, law abiding ASIO officers were stalked by the so-called Committee for the Abolition of Political Police, led by Victorian left activist Joan Coxsedge.  One ASIO officer’s house, in the Melbourne suburb of McKinnon, was identified by a CAPP initiated letter box drop – subsequently rocks were thrown through his front window, narrowly missing a child.

Coxsedge and her comrades subsequently demonstrated outside ASIO director-general Peter Barbour’s house in Melbourne when it went up for auction.   Coxsedge and her comrade Ponchita Hawkes – who are subjected to an extraordinary four photographs in The Protest Years – subsequently confronted an ASIO officer in an office lift and called him a “fascist bastard”.  On another occasion, a group of CAPP activists terrified a number of female ASIO employees who were attempting to enter their workplace.

As The Protest Years documents, in the 1960s and 1970s, ASIO officers received modest pay and experienced modest conditions.  Joan Coxsedge, a hero of the Socialist Left in Victoria, went on to receive a generous taxpayer funded superannuation per courtesy of her election to the  Victorian Legislative Counsel in 1979 following winning an ALP pre-selection – thanks to her fellow comrades in the Victorian Socialist Left faction.

And John Blaxland, in the second volume of ASIO’s “official history”, asks us to accept that the stress experienced by ASIO staff at the hands of CAPP was comparable to that of those individuals who were targeted – discretely – by ASIO.  What a load of tosh.

Dr Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute, a columnist with the Weekend Australian and author (most recently) of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MP 2015)