Acting Head of Centre
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A visit by former Yugoslavian president Dzemal Bijedic to Australia in March 1973 came with a great deal of fuss attached.
A few days before he was scheduled to arrive, a squad of Commonwealth Police officers stormed into the then Melbourne headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), barricaded staff inside the building’s auditorium, and made them wait as safes and stairwells were sealed.
A vague speech outlining the purpose of the visit was given by then Attorney General, Lionel Murphy, while a humiliated Director-General of ASIO, Peter Barbour, watched on.
As agents nervously fumbled over safe combinations, Murphy waited in vain for evidence ASIO was holding secret information on right-wing Croatian terrorist networks operating in Australia. He was disappointed with the result and was later pilloried for executing a raid on the organisation at the heart of Australia's Cold War security apparatus.
The incident is relayed in meticulous detail in volume two of the three-part official history of ASIO, The Protest Years, by ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) academic Dr John Blaxland. Launched on Friday at the organisation’s new Canberra headquarters, it covers 1963 to 1975.
“This is a story about Australia during one of its most turbulent periods – when anti-Vietnam War and anti-conscription protests were in full swing and the Baby Boomer generation was rewriting the rule books,” Blaxland says.
It was also a time when the number of communist countries with a presence in Australia was increasing, presenting new challenges for ASIO at a time when Australia was still involved in the Cold War.
At the time of Bijedic’s visit, when the Whitlam Labor government was in power, the role of ASIO was unclear, lending to overlapping responsibilities between it and federal and state police forces, over how best to handle potential threats from Croatian extremists.
“ASIO’s alleged conspiracies against Labor, its obsessions with the left, and apparent failure to investigate right-wing extremists had by 1972, established it as a Cold War relic in the minds of many in the ALP [Australian Labor Party],” Blaxland explains.
That ASIO had financed certain Croat terrorists, or protected them from government action in return for information, was never proven. But the suggestions, made by then prime minister Gough Whitlam, were partial justification for Murphy's 'raid' on ASIO's Melbourne headquarters.
A subsequent report on the raid, prepared by one of Barbour’s staff, captured much of the fallout.
It read: “The magnitude of the raid on the headquarters had a shattering effect not only on the Director-General but all headquarters staff, it stunned the Public Service and left all Western security and intelligence organisations bewildered… the unheralded visits were seen by the Director-General and his staff as a complete lack of confidence in them by the Attorney-General and the Government.”
US intelligence agencies responded to the “unsettled conditions in Australia,” by severely restricting the two countries' intelligence-sharing relationship, withholding about 3000 pages of material.
Forced to resign, Barbour left his position as Director-General in 1975 for a posting to the US as Australian consul-general in New York.
“He was not sufficiently decisive,” Blaxland says.
“He was well regarded by-and-large, but he needed to make tough decisions, and they weren’t being made.”
Published by Allen & Unwin, The Protest Years follows volume one of ASIO’s official history, The Spy Catchers, by fellow ANU SDSC academic and ASIO official historian Prof David Horner.
A third book in the trilogy, due to be released in 2016, explores the theme, ‘the secret Cold War’.
“It’s the story of the Cold War that people don’t know about,” Blaxland says.
Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU.