A recent ABC docudrama does little to uncover the truth behind one of the most secretive periods in Australia’s post-WWII history.
THE ABC’s recent docudrama, ‘I, Spry’, on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s director general, the late Sir Charles Spry, must be judged a patchy effort.
State Scene realises 57-minute productions on spy catchers’ lives require considerable selectivity.
Filmmaker Peter Butt spent a good part of his precious 57 minutes focused on Spry’s drinking.
On that I quote an anonymous (in “accord with terms of employment”) one-time ASIO agent.
“My first [divisional] boss in ASIO was a former RAAF pilot, the second a Z-Special Force veteran, and the third a member of the wartime security service,” he/she, wrote (The Weekend Australian, November 13-14).
“These brave men were almost worn out before they began the battle of the Cold War.
“... [W]e may forget those who spent six years in combat in World War II received no assistance whatever, and post-combat stress syndrome was no doubt as alive then as now.”
Spry served with the British India Army on the north-west frontier during 1935-36, with the 7th Division in both the Middle East and New Guinea, including the Kokoda Track, and received the Distinguished Service Order for his war service.
True, many battle-fatigued men, like journalists of those times, drank heavily.
But on to more substantive matters.
After the Menzies government won the 1949 election, Spry became ASIO’s director-general and remained so until he resigned in 1969.
For reasons of space we cannot fully consider every intricate twist in ASIO’s major achievement, the 1954 Petrov Affair, sparked by the defection of the Soviet embassy’s third secretary, Vladimir Petrov and his intelligence officer wife, Evdokia, just before the 1954 election.
It’s well described and analysed in Robert Manne’s The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage.
What’s puzzling is why, two generations on, we’re still getting the inevitable hypercritical line on ASIO and Sir Charles Spry, with patriotic anti-communist Australians also easily written off.
Perhaps it’s because Australia’s broader-left, meaning communists especially, emerged so badly battered from the affair.
Or perhaps Labor leader Herbert Evatt’s dismal handling of matters continues to discomfort some.
But a little-known, and therefore overlooked, reason for Evatt’s bungling of the Petrov defections was because he had a clandestine adviser who envied Spry.
The Petrov documents pointed to Australians assisting Moscow, some of them even in Evatt’s offices and his department of external affairs. Understandably a royal commission was therefore convened.
Foolishly Evatt, rather than allowing the inquiry to proceed unhindered, became involved; he even appeared before it.
He’d come to increasingly believe the defections were deviously manipulated by Menzies, and increasingly despised several Catholics and Labor MPs, who he contended ensured he lost the 1954 election.
Was someone with inside ASIO links perhaps deliberately boosting Evatt’s mounting suspicions when he’d have been wiser to publicly back the Royal Commission’s incontrovertible findings?
Here’s one succinct account of those days.
“The final report of the Royal Commission was released on September 14 1955,” it says.
“It concluded that the Petrov documents were genuine and that the Petrovs were ‘witnesses of truth’.
“However, no prosecutions were recommended as a result of the inquiry.
“Although the commission cast suspicion on six people – Fergan O’Sullivan, Rupert Lockwood, Frances Bernie, Ian Milner, Jim Hill and Walter Clayton – there was no existing Australian law covering their alleged crimes.
“In the case of Milner and Hill the commission’s judgement rested on evidence that could not have been produced in court – the results of a top-secret [America’s and Britain’s Venona] code-breaking operation.
“The same day Evatt admonished the commissioners for their failure to expose what he regarded as the Petrov conspiracy.
“Less than a week later, Evatt initiated the ill-fated (for him) Molotov debate in the House of Representatives.
“During his speech Evatt announced that he had written to the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, asking him to confirm if the Petrov documents were forgeries.
“The Hansard records could not capture what followed – a moment of stunned silence followed by outbursts of laughter from both sides of the house.
“Evatt had essentially asked the Soviet foreign minister to confirm whether the Russians had spies in Australia. Not surprisingly, the answer was ‘no’.”
Anyone with doubts about those named should read Desmond Ball and David Horner’s Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network, 1944-1950.
Milner (codename, ‘Bur/Dvorak’) of the Department of External Affairs, went to a New York-based UN job, and in mid-1950 fled to communist Prague.
During 1953, Spry warned Evatt about Fergan O’Sullivan (‘Zemliak’) because he’d been seen fraternising with Soviet officials.
Wally Clayton, (‘Klod’), a spy/courier for a network of Canberra contacts, and Evatt’s Sydney office staffer and Communist Party member, Frances Birnie, (‘Sestra’).
Others also feature in both books mentioned.
Peter Butt needed to focus more fully on the role of Robert Wake, but gave him only brief attention.
Like Spry, Wake had a long and honourable public service career, including as deputy director of ASIO’s precursor, the Commonwealth Investigation Service, in Brisbane and director in Sydney.
After the war, Wake remained close to Evatt, who, as wartime attorney-general, oversaw national security surveillance matters.
Interestingly, Evatt wouldn’t release the author of 30 books, Percy ‘Inky’ Stephensen, who Labor interned without trial, thereby showing he regarded that war’s efforts as overriding individual freedom.
Understandably when the Chifley government established ASIO – because of American and British Intelligence insistence since the top-secret Venona global radio monitoring showed Canberra secrets were reaching Moscow – Wake took-over ASIO’s important counter-intelligence division.
Judge Geoffrey Reed was ASIO’s inaugural director-general. When he retired, Wake expected his job.
But Menzies wanted a military intelligence man, meaning Spry, not Wake, became director-general.
Australia now found itself in the same position as when former FBI associate director, Mark Felt believed he’d been unjustly overlooked by president Richard Nixon for the FBI’s top job.
Felt avenged Nixon by morphing into ‘Deep Throat’ for The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
Several years ago, State Scene was invited to deliver a lecture at Adelaide’s Flinders University history department.
After the lecture I visited the campus’s library, which holds the Herbert Vere Evatt Collection, since his papers were bequeathed there.
Because of a tip-off years earlier, I requested the ‘Phil’s friend file’, which held private letters.
Among other things, these warned Evatt of an alleged global plot against him, ostensibly masterminded by Washington and the Vatican and directed within Australia by Adelaide author of 25 books, a Catholic, Paul McGuire.
They were signed ‘Phil’s Friend’, but were from Wake, who outlined other conspiracies that certainly seemed to reflect his bitterness over being overlooked for ASIO’s top job.
Hopefully Robert ‘Phil’s Friend’ Wake’s strange letters, if read by Peter Butt, weren’t brushed aside in the ABC docudrama for the seemingly more gripping drinking question.
Until the impact of those important archived letters upon the politically ambitious Evatt’s troubled mind are considered, a huge gap will remain in understanding Evatt’s foolish behaviour, Spry’s spy catching years, and thus post-war Australian political history.
Just as any account of Watergate without Mark ‘Deep Throat’ Felt’s input must be deemed lacking, so too must any docudrama about Charles Spry without the Robert ‘Phil’s Friend’ Wake’s letters be regarded.