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The mathematics of spying: when the figures don't add up

By Warren Reed - posted Wednesday, 31 July 2019

In recent years, Australians have been told that foreign espionage operatives are thick on the ground in this country. Few in our intelligence community would dispute this, with Russia and China being the prime gatherers of our secrets, especially those shared among our Five Eyes partners. And American intelligence is at the top of every operative's shopping list. The public, however, are generally unaware of the fact that if those thousands of foreign spies fail to produce quality intelligence within, say four-six months, they'll be promptly withdrawn and replaced by someone more aggressive. After all, spies aren't posted here because Australia is the espionage world's favourite holiday destination.

But the question of how many spies there are in Australia, and their level of success, is only half the story. The other half you'll never get to hear about is the number of Australians they're paying to procure the secrets they want, and pay handsomely for. One foreign operative here doesn't run just one Australian agent (traitor); they'll have a stable of local providers with good access to highly classified material doing their bidding. The total number of traitors therefore will be exponentially greater than the number of operatives.

One of the great failings of our Canberra system is its continuing aversion to prosecuting identified traitors in the court system (or in any other way), as the Americans and our other allies do. Canberra prefers Australians to believe that, as a people we are more pristine than the Immaculate Conception and consequently have no traitors in our midst. If that were true we'd have had a thousand or more PhD theses published on this phenomenon.


This tendency towards denial is not uncommon; where Australia differs is that traitors here are never subjected to harsh punishment. In the United States, treachery in any form is ultimately dealt with in a most severe manner, especially where moles are exposed inside its intelligence agencies. A leading KGB agent-handler, Victor Cherkashin, who ran two of America's most damaging traitors, commented in his 2005 memoirs (Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer, The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen & Aldrich Ames ), the FBI and CIA were both risk-averse. "They concentrated on protecting their own and were in denial about the possibility of having traitors within their own ranks," he writes. "Secrecy was aimed at avoiding scandal and maintaining careers."

In Australia, this syndrome was highlighted by the late Paddy McGuinness, a veteran Australian journalist, writing in The Australian in March 1994, before a Judicial Inquiry into ASIS began its hearings: "It has now been revealed," he wrote, "that in the latter half of last year six Russian intelligence agents [spies] operating in Australia were expelled. The Government has for some reason tried to play down the significance of this. For an agent to be expelled in this way means that he or she was sufficiently important to be 'running' a number of Australian agents – not casual contacts, not 'agents of influence' or silly dupes, but people who were actively co-operating in passing on secret information about Australia and Australia's allies."

As Cherkashin indicates, denial is generally driven by the fact that by the time the traitor is identified, particularly if they've been at it from some time, a lot of people around them who have promoted and protected them stand to suffer acute embarrassment. Or worse, if it is shown that these people have ignored giveaway signs such as an expensive lifestyle incommensurate with a traitor's known earnings, they too are implicated. The support network around a traitor has often been actively engaged in perpetuating the existence of the offender in deliberate and blatant defiance of the national interest.

A recent history of ASIO (taxpayer-funded) acknowledged that a handful of traitors had almost certainly existed inside that agency – our key spy-catching organisation – and that it had been penetrated by Russian intelligence. But we've not been told who they were or how damaging their treachery was, nor how they were punished.

In 1985, a top KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky, had defected to the British and brought with him a wealth of information. From this, it was obvious that all was not well with Australian intelligence. The debriefing of Gordievsky by Australian officers appeared to have been deliberately delayed and when it did take place the details were tightly restricted. This was a manifest slap in the face to those loyal and experienced ASIO officers who were interested in seeing their agency cleansed.

In 1992, it was revealed that Vasily Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist, who had been exfiltrated from Russia by MI6, had brought with him a treasure trove of information on KGB operations in the West. A certain amount of information was ultimately released to the public in two books authored by Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University, but anyone seeking references to Australia was destined to be disappointed. The British Government acknowledged that information relating to Canadian and American operations was relayed to the appropriate agencies in those countries in that same year. In a review of one of Andrews' books, The Mitrokhin Archive II, published in 2005, an American scholar, Stephen W. Stromberg, comments that: 'The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation even used the files to break up a network of local agents in Australia. Many of the documents remain classified."


Other claims also circulated that ASIO's counterespionage operations had been totally compromised. In the early 1990s too, a former KGB general, Oleg Kalugin, who resided in Washington, claimed that his old service had had a great coup in Canberra by penetrating Australian intelligence and gleaning valuable US-supplied secrets.

Again, in 1992, an exercise of an unprecedented nature was launched. This was an Australian Federal Police investigation into treachery in ASIO. It was the equivalent of Britain's Metropolitan Police Special Branch running an operation into the affairs of MI5, the domestic security service. Known as Operation Liver, the AFP investigation was wide-ranging. ASIO offices were bugged, officers themselves were subjected to close surveillance and home and office telephone calls were intercepted. The results were too hot to handle publicly and no statements were issued.

Laurie Oakes, a now-retired veteran political correspondent in Canberra, reported in 1999 that several ASIO officers were pensioned off in mysterious circumstances. One source, he said, claimed that those involved were given payments in excess of their normal superannuation rights. Oakes perceptively observed that those involved in engineering that silence would no doubt prefer the term "damage control" to "cover-up". They certainly would, and that's because damage control carries the connotation of serving the national interest.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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