Spy Catchers Downunder

28 April 2015 by stermins

David Horner's THE SPY CATCHERS: The Official History of ASIO* 1949-1963 has won the St Ermin’s Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award 2015.

"David Horner knows his craft and has produced a hugely impressive account of ASIO’s work, supporting his text with highly informative charts, statistics and photographs, he is greatly deserving of this award," commented Chairman of the judges, author and intelligence expert Nigel West at the St James's Park, London hotel Wednesday 22 April, when announcing the £3,000 prize.

itboty 2015 judges


Nigel West (second from left), Chairman of the Judges of the 2015 St Ermin's Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award writes of the 2015 winner, David Horner's 'The Spy Catchers : The Official History of ASIO 1949 - 1963 :

Following the example of MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, which sponsored Christopher Andrew and Keith Jeffery respectively, to produce authorized histories of their organizations, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) has released an account of its activities during the period 1949, when it was created, to February 1963 and the expulsion of Ivan Skripov, a KGB officer operating under diplomatic cover.

Although Horner’s narrative is entitled The Spy Catchers, ASIO did not actually catch a single spy, in the sense of an arrest and successful prosecution. VENONA evidence, of course, could never be adduced in a criminal trial, but those implicated got away without a single day in gaol. It could be argued that ASIO served to neutralize rather than ‘catch’ Soviet spies, but that does not make such a great title, even if this choice is a little reminiscent of Peter Wright’s notorious SpyCatcher. Indeed, it might be remarked about Wright that he too failed to ‘catch’ a spy. In contrast, the FBI found other expedients, and used various excuses, such as prosecutions for perjury, to lock up numerous VENONA spies (William Weisband, Judith Coplon, Morton Sobell, Bill Remington, Miriam Moscowitz, etc.), and sent two to the electric chair.
Counter-intelligence cognoscenti will point out that that the business of locking up spies is properly left to law enforcement, whereas the intelligence arm will be content to identify and maybe penetrate an adversary’s apparatus, and to this extent we can be confident that ASIO exercised complete mastery over the CPA and appear to have disrupted the NKVD fairly comprehensively. However, we learn that there was always a nagging doubt about the extent to which ASIO, by concentrating on the legal rezidentura, had neglected to uncover anything more than hints of a parallel, illegal structure. Specifically, in an ultimately unsuccessful double agent operation run against Ivan Skripov, ASIO’s agent Kay Marshall had been entrusted as an intermediary to pass on an ingenious KGB burst transmitter to an illegal. Although she attended the rendezvous, the intended recipient never showed up.

After VENONA, ASIO’s other great triumph was the defection of the NKVD rezident, Vladimir Petrov, in April 1954. Horner’s authoritative account is absolutely compelling, and completely undermines the numerous other versions of the episode which have suggested that the entire scheme was an attempt by Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies to influence the imminent general election with a coup on the scale of the Zinoviev Letter. Horner disproves this oft-made allegation, and rightly heralds Petrov (if not the Royal Commission that followed his defection) as a success that brought ASIO worldwide respect and status, especially within the international Allied counter-intelligence community.Horner confirms, as has been suggested by others, that the Royal Commission was secretly indoctrinated into VENONA so as to enhance Petrov’s evidence, which lasted for 37 days, and his wife’s, which took 21 days. This meant that the panel knew that various witnesses had lied in their emphatic denials of contact with the NKVD, but they could not be confronted with the evidence.

Although there have been plenty of other accounts of the Petrov defection, this version contains extraordinary detail and reveals, for example, the role of MI5’s SLO George Leggett in supervising the escape of his wife Evdokia from her minders at Darwin airport sixteen days after her husband’s disappearance. Another fascinating disclosure is that right up until Petrov had switched sides, no-one in ASIO knew for certain that he was the NKVDrezident.. or even that he was a professional intelligence officer! As it turned out, he would prove to be one of the most valuable acquisitions for the west in modern intelligence history, with the added bonus being his wife, who was also his cipher clerk.

Another fascinating aspect to The Spy Catchers is the author’s treatment of Dick Ellis, the Australian-born SIS officer who was belatedly confronted with evidence that he had sold information to the Abwehr, and maybe the Soviets, before the war. Ellis confessed to the passing secrets to the Germans, but denied any contact with anyone other than White Russians acting on behalf of the Abwehr. Specifically, Ellis identified his main contact in Paris as a certain Vladimir Petrov. What makes Horner’s take on this episode so interesting is that he confirms that Sir Charles Spry was advised of Ellis’s admission in April 1967, although Keith Jeffery refused to address the issue at all in his 2010 official history MI6.

There can be no doubting the dedication and commitment of ASIO’s men and women, struggling with limited resources and a skeptical (if not downright hostile) political class, to keep an eye on their adversaries, In this respect, there is a gem on every page. We hear about the break-ins at the homes of Soviet journalists, the microphones inserted into the offices of the Communist Party of Auatralia’s leadership, and the fruitless telephone-tapping of potential moles. The escapades are legion, the mishaps all too human, even approaching Keystone Cops level, with one watcher assigned to Clayton suffering from malnutrition and pleurisy because his assignment required him to take refuge from inclement weather for hours at a time in a bus shelter.

What emerges from The Spy Catchers is an intensely political, partisan backdrop to ASIO’s development, from the first moment when Ben Chifley seemed very reluctant to authorize its creation, to Dr Evatt’s catastrophic decision to accuse the Menzies administration of manipulating the Petrov defection and of peddling forged documents. So many of those around Evatt were directly implicated in clandestine activities, either by ASIO’s physical surveillance, or by VENONA, or by Petrov’s documents and testimony, one can perhaps begin to understand the distrust the Australian Labour Party engendered. Evatt’s reaction to the Royal Commission caused his party to split, kept it out of power for seventeen years, and made ASIO intensely controversial.

Despite a constant barrage of ill-informed criticism from politicians (the bane of all intelligence professionals, the world over), ASIO survived and expanded. It even avoided hostile penetration, although that topic will be covered in the next two volumes which will conclude the history in 1989. As the co-author of Breaking the Codes, an instructive analysis of the Canberra VENONA traffic, with the redoubtable Desmond Ball in 1998, David Horner knows his craft and has produced a hugely impressive account of ASIO’s work, supporting his text with highly informative charts, statistics and photographs, and is greatly deserving of this award.