Threats to our national security remain as real right now as they were last century, writes IPA Future Leaders Program intern Jacob Watts.
Spies and Sparrows: ASIO and the Cold War attracted my interest because although I was not even born when the Cold War ended, I am keen to learn more about Soviet spies in Australia and work done by Australia’s national security agency ASIO to frustrate them. For me this period resonates with more recent coverage of the role of agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Australia.
Spies and Sparrows was written by Phillip Deery, Emeritus Professor of History at Victoria University, Melbourne. The book’s main thrust is highlighting the ‘overreach’ by ASIO in monitoring and safeguarding Australia during the Cold War, and seeking to downplay the risk of the Communist Party of Australia, whose loyalty lay in Moscow. Deery claims the Menzies government was overtaken by McCarthyistic hysteria, using ‘McCarthy’ as a shorthand for anti-communist paranoia (as portrayed in so many Hollywood movies). But there really were communist spies in the State Department in America and in government agencies in Australia, so ‘overreach’ and paranoia are loaded terms.
Spies and Sparrows unintentionally shows Australia must be vigilant, and academics are not the ones to trust. As Liberal Senator James Paterson, speaking (in the modern context) as Chair of the Senate Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, on 26 March 2022, said:
It is important for universities to reflect; do they really want to be party to a soft-power exercise for a foreign, authoritarian government which has engaged in systemic human rights abuses, and has even been accused of genocide?
For that reason I would encourage anyone reading Spies and Sparrows—which does include some interesting history—to do so alongside ethics professor and former Australia Institute executive director Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Hardie Grant, 2018) which unpacked how the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to infiltrate Australia, with methods borrowed from and expanded upon from the Soviet Union. Australia must learn the lessons from the Cold War and apply those lessons now to safeguard the Australian way of life.
In Spies and Sparrows, Deery dedicates a chapter each to eight people who for various reasons had their lives changed by ASIO from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Chapter headings describe them as The Scientist, The Grouper, The Doctor, The Housewife, The Defector, The Airman, The Migrant, and The Sparrow.
Tom Kaiser handed out pro-communist leaflets at a rally.
The Scientist in the first chapter is Tom Kaiser, who Deery paints as a brilliant man whose promising career in Australia was derailed by ASIO’s persecution for mere youthful indiscretions. Nonetheless, after moving from Melbourne to the UK, Kaiser became a renowned radar astronomer and space scientist. The second chapter is about fraud and imposter William Dobson, one of the book’s three ‘sparrows’—ASIO’s codename for agents willing to penetrate Communist Branch meetings and networks. (This term is distinct from the more specifically female role of entrapment in espionage, popularised in the movie Red Sparrows.)
The Doctor is Paul Reuben James, sacked from a Melbourne hospital after—like Kaiser—attracting ASIO’s attention. In James’ case, he joined the Heidelberg branch of the Australian Peace Council; a political group which according to public records formed in response to Federal legislation to dissolve the Communist Party in 1950.
The Housewife is another ‘sparrow’: Anne Neill, who successfully infiltrated the Adelaide branch of the Communist Party of Australia in order to act on her personal belief that her highest obligation was to protect Australia’s national security.
The Defector is Evdokia Petrov, wife of Soviet defector Vladimir Petrov famed for his central role in what became widely known as the Petrov Affair. Despite their defection being a famed success story for the allied security services that uncovered Russian espionage networks around the world, Deery has focused on Evdokia’s hard and lonely life resulting from “betrayal of her family and country”.
The Airman is Michael Brown, a British clerk with the Royal Air Force who while working at a weapons research facility near Adelaide copied top secret documents about guided missile tests and passed them on to a Ukrainian in return for money.
The Migrant is a Greek Cypriot, Demetrius Anastassiou, whose efforts to obtain Australian citizenship were delayed for about a decade because ASIO informed Australia’s Immigration Department that he was an agitator for the Communist Party of Australia.
The last chapter is about ‘The Sparrow’, undercover ASIO agent Maxmilian Wechsler, who Deery writes “illuminates the murky world of undercover operations by the security services against the Australian Left”. Despite being psychologically unstable and later revealing his identity as a spy, Wechsler provided ASIO with useful information such as the Trotskyist Socialist Workers League (SWL) infiltrating and controlling the ALP’s Young Labor Association.
Let us return for a closer look at The Scientist, The Housewife, and The Airman.
Tom Kaiser was a radio physics scientist at the CSIR, the precursor to the CSIRO, and was engaged in the Long-Range Weapons Project at Woomera. ASIO and MI5 identified that he appeared at a pro-communist gathering against the project. Kaiser also attended an ‘anti-nuclear’ rally in London and was questioned by Scotland Yard in 1949.
The Age described it:
Two years later, on a warm July afternoon, Kaiser attended a demonstration in London outside Australia House. The protest had been hastily organised by a small group of Australian communists living in Britain, who were outraged at the jailing of trade union leaders by the Chifley government during the 1949 coal strike.
Kaiser handed out pro-communist leaflets protesting the action taken by the Chifley government to break up the strike. A woman he met on a boat travelling to Britain, who was now working for Australia House, identified Kaiser. She cried out, “There’s Tom Kaiser, the nuclear physicist”. At that moment, Kaiser was in the eye of the public, with newspaper headlines in the UK reading ‘Atom Scientist in Red Attack on Chifley Government’.
Kaiser was a member of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Association of Scientific Workers (a communist front). In January 2005, The Age described Kaiser as “a brilliant young physicist blacklisted for his political views” and this “offers a dramatic example of how the secret world stalked everyday life in the early Cold War period”.
Deery outlines how the CSIR had a disdain for security and secrecy, with CSIR chairman Sir David Rivett, an Oxford educated academic and pacifist, saying, “I just loathe it”. Kaiser then acted as a supporter of Nunn, who leaked nuclear secrets to the USSR. The Kaiser incident had wide implications for Australia, resulting in ASIO being subject to an intelligence embargo by the UK and US. Australia stopped receiving sensitive intelligence briefings, and any intelligence that was divulged was on a ‘need to know basis’.
Rupert Murdoch’s actions were deeply patriotic.
Kaiser sent a telegram to President Truman demanding the release from custody of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had passed US atomic bomb secrets to Soviet agents. They were executed for treason in June 1953. Incidents like these resulted in the Menzies Government backlisting Kaiser. Kaiser lost his job at the CSIR and applied for work at Melbourne University (in the nuclear field) but was unsuccessful. Deery saw Kaiser as a victim, saying “victimisers rarely wish to leave footprints”. Deery seeks to paint people such as Kaiser as saintly, peace-loving individuals who suffered merely due to having differing political views.
The personalities of the ‘sparrows’ ASIO cultivated during the Cold War are fascinating. Anne Neill provides an interesting example of a seemingly unremarkable middle-aged and middle-class woman who was able to subvert the CPA and provide vital intelligence to ASIO.
Neill was living off a war widow’s pension in suburban Adelaide. Grief stricken after her husband’s passing, she sought engagement with the Peace Council. However, Neill soon realised the Menzies government placed the ‘Peace Council’ on the prescribed list of subversive groups. When Neill heard this, she sent the propaganda she received from the ‘Peace Council’ to the Country Women’s and Liberal Council, who in turn forwarded this information to ASIO. From then on, Neill became an ASIO sparrow.
Neill’s ASIO case officer described her as “having a strong loyalty to the crown and a patriot”. The CPA assessment of Anne Neill was of someone who “enjoys the feeling of self-importance that it gives her”. Having gained the trust of ASIO and having fooled the CPA, she got straight into subverting the Communist movement in Australia.
Neil was the first ASIO sparrow to visit the USSR to gather intelligence, and built extensive personality files on key communist figures in Australia. Neil also had access to office records and was keenly involved in fundraising for the CPA, including selling their party paper, Tribune.
The Airman, Michael Brown, was a Briton who sold secrets about intercontinental ballistic missile and anti-aircraft tests to a Ukrainian for £15. In 1958, according to ASIO records uncovered by Deery, Robert Menzies managed to convince Rupert Murdoch, who owned Adelaide evening paper The News, to suppress the story for five weeks.
Murdoch’s actions were deeply patriotic and gave security personnel time to arrest Brown before he was able to sell more documents to a Soviet agent. Brown was detained and flown to the UK where he received a jail sentence. However once in jail, the story leaked to the British press. This one moment in history proved to be defining for Australia, as it quashed whatever ambitions Menzies might have had for obtaining tactical nuclear weapons for Australia.
Despite ASIO’s successes last century, Australia’s security continues to be threatened by communist forces. Silent Invasion outlined the slow creep of subversion instituted by the United Front Work Department, the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) foreign interference department. Its reach is staggering. In 2008, it could mobilise 10,000 pro-Beijing protesters in Canberra staging a violent backlash to Australian support for the persecuted people of Tibet.
By contrast, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the USSR were never able to muster a wide diaspora for the cause. In Silent Invasion, Hamilton outlines how far the CCP’s reach goes.
In 2019 IPA Adjunct Fellow Matthew Lesh highlighted how CCP operations in Australia now reach onto Australian campuses, including Victoria University in Melbourne:
The ability of pro-CCP forces to mobilise hundreds of people on one Australian campus in a couple of hours should raise eyebrows. There are more than 152,000 Chinese students at Australian universities, making up almost 40 per cent of Australia’s $34 billion international student market.
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Hamilton lamented how the Chinese regard Australian university students, academics, and journalists as baizuo (白左), or ‘white left’, mocking their love of postmodern ideologies, support for climate change, and obsession with gender identity. DD Yang, co-host of popular Mandarin language pop culture podcast Loud Murmurs, has said:
Baizuo evokes white liberals from rich countries with imperialistic pasts who have shallow, simple moralistic views about the world. There’s always an undertone of hypocrisy, privilege, and self-righteousness.
The chapter ‘Engineering Souls’ makes the case that Huawei is a CCP-controlled telecommunications company that undertakes CCP grey-zone activities aligned with the Third Department of the People’s Liberation Army military cyber-espionage arm. CIA records allege Huawei stole intellectual property for the benefit of the Chinese Communist Party.
As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War:
To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
Hamilton went to great lengths to highlight the raw naivety, stupidity, and vulnerability of Australian universities (and the Australian Research Council). Hamilton and Alex Joske have detailed perhaps the most egregious example, which is the University of Adelaide securing a $400,000 ARC grant for a project with the Chinese state-owned aviation corporation responsible for manufacturing the lethal J-20 stealth fighter jets. I doubt Sun Tzu ever said “fund your enemy’s war machines”.
The IPA’s Dr Bella d’Abrera has observed that Australia has the third-highest number of CCP-sponsored Confucius Institutes in the world, behind the USA and the UK:
The formal mission of the Confucius Institutes is to promote Chinese language and culture around the world. However, the informal mission is to ensure that the Beijing-determined narrative is adhered to by everyone.
The lessons learnt from Hamilton are essential to navigating the Indo-Pacific in the age of China’s growing ambition in the region, where a new cold war has just begun. It also gives us vital context to read the work of academics who seek to downplay the real threats to our national security, during the Cold War with the Soviets, or now, with the CCP. Spies and Sparrows should be read in that light, whatever its other merits as a work of history.
Jacob Watts was a Future Leader at IPA during the first half of 2022.