Tag Archives: ASIO

Spy v Spy in Australia

February 28th 2017 print

TONY THOMAS

Moscow gold or comedy gold? At this distance in time, it’s possible to enjoy the Cold War in Australia as entertainment, even if it was rather serious for forty years.

A bad habit of communist parents in the 1940s was to name their infant sons after Joseph Stalin. An Adelaide friend of mine, Joe Lane, who now does archival research on Aboriginal history, was named after Stalin. A worse case was Patrick Brislan, who became a distinguished player of the tenor horn. Pat’s father Tom in 1940 registered his new infant as Patrick Stalin Brislan. Patrick was mortified whenever asked officially for his full name. After Stalin died in 1953, “he lived on in my middle name”, Pat laments. It was not until he was nearly eighteen that his father changed the middle name officially from Stalin to Sean.

It could be said that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was over-diligent in pursuit of communists. In the November 1950 ASIO file on the feminist Lucy Woodcock is this report: “Mrs Reed very militant, active … Son Johnathon (4½ years old) an active school propagandist … Organises groups away from teacher’s grasp.”

ASIO so riddled the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) with agents that in the 1960s they comprised 10 to 20 per cent of total party membership. ASIO mobilised them to stir up rancour during the Sino-Soviet split in 1963. They would call for party-room debate and then some would take a pro-Soviet line and others a pro-China line.

Another operation, coded “Curried Chicken”, involved ASIO encouraging a wide group of supporters to write letters to the editors of newspapers, supporting ASIO and condemning the CPA. In Perth, two ASIO agents in the CPA, to curry favour with party bosses, were writing to the newspaper supporting the CPA, while other ASIO contacts were orchestrating letters attacking the CPA. None of these letters were published, so “Curried Chicken” was a waste of time.

In the 1950s, through no fault of its own, ASIO found itself with four agents in the Australian-China Society in Brisbane, none of whom were aware of the others. This came about because all four had been infiltrated into the CPA in Brisbane. The party had then selected them to join the small Australian-China Society branch and turn it into a party front. ASIO exfiltrated three of them to other tasks, taking the view that one agent was sufficient for promoting Australia-China friendship.

Mark Aarons is the son of one-time CPA president Laurie Aarons. Mark’s ASIO file started when he was thirteen, when cunning ASIO agents acquired his entry forms for the 100 and 220-yard races at a young communists’ sports carnival. By the time he finished high school in 1969, his file had reached 300 pages, and ASIO operators were conducting spoiling operations against his girlfriends.

I particularly like the way ASIO agents tripped up the CPA’s top-secret leadership school in the bush outside Sydney in 1958. The CPA was annoyed with ASIO’s penetration of its regular meeting places, and bought a property at Minto which it re-birthed as the “Bush Lovers Club” for revolutionaries revelling in Georges River eucalypts. ASIO kept a watching brief on the bush-lovers, who included at least one of their own agents. On a Sunday night, ASIO launched “Operation Black Snake” as a spoiler for an important Marx School seminar on the Monday public holiday.

Agents Ron Richards and Max Monkhouse drove to Minto with specially-prepared signage: “Communist Training School, 10 miles.” They attached these signs to existing street signs on the way in. ASIO telephone taps later found one party member congratulating Eric Aarons, then secretary of the CPA’s South Coast District, on this help with directions. Aarons was nonplussed and the member said, “It is very nice—nice big letters in black and white. The Main Roads put it up I think. It is very handy. I have been trying to find that place.” ASIO tipped off the press, but party president Richard Dixon denied all knowledge of bush-loving Marxists.

The clubhouse, still active in 1971, hosted a weekend conference of anarchists and libertarians. Fifteen of them, including one agent, arrived on Friday night. The agent reported superfluously that Paddy McGuinness (Quadrant editor, 1998 to 2008) was “a big drinker”. He added that the meals were the most “atrocious” he had ever eaten, being “frankfurts camouflaged in three different ways”. The agent continued, “Sex and drugs were blatantly displayed and there were rumours of quite a bit of swapping going on.”

These low-life episodes can be contrasted with a high-life one, or at least a potentially high-life one, from two decades earlier. It involved CPA secretary-general Lance Sharkey. Sharkey was a one-time lift-driver, short, scruffy, stodgy and unsociable. He rose through the CPA ranks before the Second World War as an ardent Stalinist and purveyor of mind-numbing communist dialectics, after occasional setbacks like being tossed into a creek by factory workers during a state election campaign.

While claiming, “We have no personal ties in the Communist Party,” he jostled with Sam Aarons for the hand and other parts of beautiful young member Esme Odgers. Not being a good loser, Sharkey forced her to publish a grovelling Soviet-style self-criticism for the romancing Aarons.

Sharkey would deliver anti-Semitic rants during rum-fuelled binges, which didn’t go down well with the Aarons clan, and at one large CPA gathering he fell on his face dead drunk. He generated his own personality cult, including such improbabilities as “temperate in his habits”.

Nonetheless, in the run-up to the young Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 Australian tour, there was press and ASIO speculation: Would Sharkey be given the opportunity to dance with the Queen at the Royal Ball at Sydney Town Hall? The speculation arose because in similar circumstances in London, the Queen had made a point of talking to communists. ASIO warned, “Possibly Communist leaders would like to meet the Queen in order to further their United Front policy.”

For his part, Sharkey did not want to don black-tie and quick-step with Her Majesty while making small talk about the class struggle and social fascists. Au contraire, he warned members to avoid the royal progress to avert any “red scare” stories in the press.

ASIO ran rings around Sharkey. On one occasion he flew to Canberra to pick up from the Soviet embassy some sensitive documents about the latest Soviet party congress. Two ASIO agents were at Sydney Airport’s carpark to tail him on his return. Sharkey drove off to the city but stopped at a betting shop to put some money on a horse. He left one car window slightly down and the agents used a wire to open the door and remove his briefcase with the documents. By day’s end the briefcase was at ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters and Sharkey was perplexed about what happened to it.

CPA security was often woeful. ASIO checked the garbage after one important party national congress and pieced together close to forty documents from scraps that delegates had torn up. Pat Clancy of the Building Workers Industrial Union left his conference notes in his unlocked car while he went to the pub. ASIO agent Ernie Redford nicked them, got them copied at Sydney headquarters and put them back in the car, with Clancy none the wiser.

An important ASIO target was Sharkey’s secretary Jessie Grant, who was also a central committee member. When ASIO noticed that she was drinking and playing darts regularly at a local hotel, it sought a “darts champion” among ASIO staff to insert at the hotel. While ASIO people had many talents, darts was not one of them and the plan had to be dropped.

I mentioned “Moscow gold” earlier. Happening to read Mark Aarons’s memoir The Family File the other day, even I was surprised at the extent of this gold, and its esoteric transmission routes.

In 1952 the CPA suggested to Vladimir Petrov that the Soviets donate US$140,000 (no harm in asking!). Moscow came good with US$25,000 a year later, partly in US$25 banknotes, Petrov told the 1954 Royal Commission on Espionage. Such $25 banknotes had never been printed but the Commissioners accepted that CPA boss Lance Sharkey got the US$25,000 from an embassy official.

In 1958 Laurie Aarons was in Moscow rattling the CPA can for more fraternal funding. “The Soviet comrades were rather bureaucratic and crude in their methods and I wasn’t impressed,” Aarons confided later. Early in 1959 he got a message to be at his Fairfield home at a certain day and time, Laurie’s son Mark Aarons says. The house had a tall paling back fence with double gates and through them came a car that pulled up in the backyard. Out came a Romanian with a suitcase. He went inside with Laurie and they pointedly shut the door. But the handover hit a snag: the suitcase was full of bank­notes, but they were all five-pound sterling notes, almost impossible to change to Australian money. Laurie had to send them back. Eventually a suitcase arrived with Australian pounds. In that year the Soviets paid over $US112,000, a hefty AU£45,000 equivalent.

The Soviets’ golden showers continued in 1961 (either US$168,000 or US$180,000), 1963 (US$80,000) and 1966 (US$130,000). In 1967, Laurie Aarons wheedled a further large sum out of Moscow, despite knowing that the CPA was about to publish criticisms of the Soviet line on the Czechs. “I suppose you could say it [getting the money] was a rather reprehensible thing to do,” he said later, “but frankly I’m proud of it.” The money helped buy the CPA a new national headquarters in Day Street, Sydney. When the pro-Soviets in the CPA split to form the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971, Moscow sent the SPA US$40,000 via the Romanians.

The Chinese chipped in later with a slush fund for their own Australian followers, involving $60,000 in used Australian notes.

In Life of Brian, you can enjoy the sniping among the various Judean People’s Fronts. The spoof hardly touches the sides compared with the real-world Australian communists. Numbering some 3000 in 1980, they had split into eight camps—two in the mainstream, two pro-Soviet, two pro-Beijing, one ultra-Left group of young radicals and a breakaway among the Stalinists.

It was hard for ASIO people in a small city like Canberra to maintain their cover stories about who they worked for. One section’s officers were young, had money and drove nice cars, and neighbours were convinced they were a clandestine group of homosexuals.

Worried about its image, ASIO in 1959 fantasised about a television fiction series starring one of its own as an antipodean James Bond. In at least one respect, sex obsession, ASIO’s later director-general Peter Barbour (1970–75) fitted the Bond mould. According to Molly Sasson, long-time UK and Australian intelligence agent:

He was a tall male with heavy-lidded eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, often described as having “bedroom eyes”. His conduct did not befit his position. He certainly was not the gentleman that his high office demanded. He was a creepy individual whom I instinctively avoided … He was a very complex character with airs and affairs. He betrayed his office by chronic mismanagement and exploitation of his position for sexual favours. He had a voracious sexual appetite which offended many people’s moral and professional perceptions …

Whitlam sacked Barbour after Barbour returned from a lengthy but unproductive overseas trip reviewing counterpart agencies, accompanied by his beautiful Eurasian secretary.

CPA offices had their own share of pheromones. Perth’s CPA headquarters in London Court had a “Marx & Boon” or maybe “50 Shades of Red” quality. Sam Aarons arrived in Perth as new state boss around 1948, under yet another cloud in the Party over an affair with a young married woman. “I find him totally irresistible,” wrote playwright and party worker Dorothy Hewett:

A passionate, highly intelligent, charismatic man with a glamorous history … He bends me back on the desk in his office, but before we can consummate our affair we are interrupted by the old Party caretaker, locking up for the night.

Sam tells her, “Sharkey has already told me that if there’s any more gossip about me and other women, I’ll be on the outer. He’s had it in for me ever since I stole his girlfriend in Spain.”

Dorothy and Sam lived in a ménage à trois with Sam’s unwitting wife, until Dorothy found another lover while Sam was on Party business in the eastern states.

Molly Sasson worked for ASIO from 1969 to 1983. She arrived to find Canberra headquarters infested with public service sloths in an ambience of complacency, unawareness, inefficiency, indiscipline and incompetence.

Long lunches were followed by afternoon snoozes until knock-off time. Vital intelligence was tossed straight into unlocked drawers and left there for months. Her suggestions for anti-espionage activity were brushed aside as make-work.

One new recruit was an enthusiastic ex-RAAF wing commander. Sasson gave him the job of delivering a highly secret tape in a box to another department. She watched him from the sixth floor dashing to his car, but the tape fell out of the box onto the road. She got the doorman to collect the tape and the wing commander didn’t return till next morning, sheepish and apologetic about losing the tape:

Flying aeroplanes had been his business, distinctly different from this office where very little moved at all. After this episode, some of his eagerness disappeared and he reverted to reading the newspaper in the office, drinking coffee and doing crosswords before lunch. He kept well out of the way of anybody who was likely to give him a job. He had understood it was the safest way to get ahead without upsetting anyone. This was the way to get promoted.

Sasson’s reference to ASIO drawers full of neglected intelligence had its counterpart at Communist Party headquarters in Melbourne. The Party’s captain of security was its control commission leg-man Ernie O’Sullivan, a shuffling snoop who was dedicated, ignorant and paranoid. Like a toothless version of Stalin’s “bloody dwarf”, the later-executed Yezhov, O’Sullivan scribbled semi-literate “unmaskings” of loyal Party members accusing them of being spies and wreckers.

One weekend O’Sullivan, on orders from chairman Ted Hill, came in and removed 100 drawers from party workers’ desks, to check for security breaches. He parked twenty of the bulky drawers at the Surrey Hills home of CPA executive Bernie Taft, and to this day no one knows where the other drawers went. Party workers arrived on Monday and mourned their lost drawers. Over the years, observant visitors wondered why the party’s desks were all drawerless. Bernie Taft, a one-time state executive member, writes: “I suppose O’Sullivan must have thought that, after the revolution, which he confidently expected, he might be able to put the drawers back in our desks.”

Among Party people in the Victorian branch, perhaps the most heroic was the wife of Bernard Heinz Jr (Heinz Sr was assistant secretary with the Building Workers Industrial Union).

The Party in the early 1950s decided to create, yet again, a secret wing that could carry on if the Party got banned. Bernard was nominated to become a “sleeper”. He had to resign from the Party and cut links with all his leftist friends. What’s more, he was told to accommodate a senior Party sleeper plus a printing press in an underground bunker at his suburban home in outer-eastern Melbourne, where he had just settled in with his new wife. The project meant laying a concrete slab and then digging a big hole below for the literally underground operations.

Initially, Party members dropped by to assist in the dig. But not all the workers’ friends have horny hands, and soon Bernard was left to dig unaided. He dug till the 1970s but his important guest and the printing press never turned up.

This was all very well for Bernard and the Party, but what about Mrs Heinz? Did she mind? Apparently, she never complained, at least officially.

A touch of paranoia in Party offices was understandable, given ASIO’s constant bugging and occasional raids in quest of documents. Similarly, some ASIO paranoia was understandable given Ted Hill’s advocacy of caches of buried weapons, armed struggle and protracted guerrilla warfare in the jungles of northern Australia (wherever such “jungles” may be).

The ninth-floor CPA (Vic) headquarters had a drama in 1952 when Hill pressed an alarm button to signal all rooms that an ASIO raid had started. State President Ralph Gibson emptied his person of all useful documents, and ate them. Party functionary Gwladys Bourke could not work out how to get rid of her sensitive financial records. She prepared to dive out the ninth-floor window with them, a human sacrifice to the betterment of the working class. Just in time, she discovered from Hill that the alarm was only a test.

ASIO bugged Hill’s office and in 1956 leased an office on the eighth floor as a listening post for a husband-and-wife team. This office was disguised as a “market research business”. The bogus firm wrote sheafs of letters to overseas suppliers purely to get letters back that would be noticed by the ninth-floor dwellers. Rather cleverly, ASIO technicians made the cable from the ninth floor to the eighth floor twice as long as required. The ASIO woman was listening in when the line went dead because Hill’s people had discovered it, and she had the presence of mind to disconnect the cable and drop it down the wall cavity. The communists measured the cable and deduced that it went to a firm of investigators on the seventh floor. They not only accused the people there of being ASIO agents, but outed the firm in the party newspaper Tribune. ASIO’s “marketing firm” on the eighth floor continued for a couple of months and then quietly closed down.

ASIO’s snoopy coups against Ted Hill were often ingenious, not to mention illegal. In 1972, for example, ASIO specialists created a duplicate secret key to the Melbourne offices of an accounting firm, W. Alexander Boag, in Goodwin Chambers, Flinders Lane. ASIO was then able to enter secretly at will for the next eighteen months to photograph Hill’s tax and financial records. To aid the exercise, ASIO set up an office on the same floor for a front company, Kalamunda Mineral Reserves.

Not all bugging went smoothly. In late 1960, ASIO bugged the home of two of its main agents in the CPA in Sydney, in the hope of listening in to social conversations there with CPA leaders. There was a microphone in the lounge room wired to a tape recorder in a cardboard box under a workbench in the garage. But as David Horner puts it in Volume One of ASIO’s history:

Unfortunately, dogs destroyed the wires that ran under the house, rats chewed the tape in the garage, wood shavings fell from the workbench onto the recorder, and the fluorescent light in the lounge room interfered with the recording. Nothing of intelligence value was gained …

ASIO never lacked ingenuity. For example, it needed covert photos of communists among Labour Day marchers in Brisbane, but its subjects were facing the wrong way from the camera post. On a pre-arranged signal, an ASIO officer lit a big cracker behind the crowd. All heads turned towards the bang, and the cameramen got their snaps.

ASIO ranks were not solidly conservative. At least one ASIO officer bravely joined the Vietnam Moratorium march in Adelaide in 1970 as a supporter rather than an agent. Instead of getting into trouble, he got knowing looks from the special branch police, who assumed he was “on the job”.

One of ASIO’s constant problems was agents’ expense claims. Its all-time prolific plant was Czech immigrant Max Wechsler (code-named Bosch), who generated 702 reports from 1973 to 1975, meeting his handlers initially thrice-weekly and then every weekday. He passed through communist and Trotskyist security barriers as if they didn’t exist. On February 21, 1973, according to historian Dr Phil Deery, during a single day, Wechsler, then twenty-three, applied to join the CPA, was accepted and was given the task of answering the phone on behalf of Party president John Sendy. Wechsler also acquired the part-time job of cleaner for the Party offices. Penetration doesn’t get any better than that.

However, ASIO had failed to notice that Wechsler’s wife in 1972 had been convicted in Brisbane on thirteen forgery and theft charges as a result of her infatuation with slow horses. Wechsler successfully conned ASIO into lending him $300 in June 1973 to buy a motorbike “to improve his agent role”, but he sold the bike for $200 in a fit of desperation over his wife’s continued losses.

His ASIO pay within two years shot from $10 a month (plus expenses) to $90. He was living better than he should as the Party’s cleaner on $18 a week, and ASIO had to tell him to stop taking taxis. He was also instructed, being “impoverished”, to badger the Party for a pay rise. At one point the ASIO Assistant Director-General noted: “This file is becoming cluttered up with the financial dealings with [Wechsler]. I thought that when the last request was made, this would be the end.”

Wechsler eventually turned rogue and in 1975 sold the story of his exploits to the Sunday Observer for $2000. The newspaper made the mistake of hiding Wechsler at the Wrest Point hotel and casino, where he went on a further spending and gambling binge at the newspaper’s expense.

Wechsler was not the only Eastern Bloc ASIO recruit with personality problems. In 1960 Dezio Rapaics, a former Hungarian general, demanded to see Lord Casey, who had just retired as Minister for External Affairs. The ASIO man present reported that General Rapaics virulently attacked the security service because one of its members had called him a “chap”. “I am not a chap,” Rapaics protested to Casey. “I am a Knight and a General, and I come from aristocracy. I am a member of the Liberal Party in your [Casey’s] district—you know my son-in-law …”

Party membership did not preclude people from becoming part of the establishment. George Zangalis was a full-time organiser for the CPA from 1961 to 1969, then a central committee member, CPA candidate for Brunswick in the 1973 state elections, and president of the communist-controlled Railways Union. With such a background, he was selected in the early 1980s for the ABC’s State and National Advisory Councils and the SBS Board. “Choosing Zangalis for the national council was a sign that the new board wanted to cast its net wide in the search for counsel from the ABC’s audience,” Ken Inglis wrote in Whose ABC?

Zangalis in his early years with the Party was nearly undone by a spelling mistake. He recalled painting “Out with Fascism” signs one night in 1950 on the Russell Street walls of the Queen Victoria Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. “We did the job all right, we thought, but when looking back we realised we had left the ‘c’ out of ‘fascism’. We rushed back to correct it and the cops promptly got us, brushes, paints and all.”

Quadrant readers like a happy ending, and I can supply one from Mark Aarons’s Family File. In 1988, when the CPA/ASIO struggles were over, Laurie Aarons got a friendly “Dear Laurie” letter from his ASIO opposite number, former head of counter-espionage Michael Thwaites:

You may be surprised to hear from me, in view of our former occupations. But I recently heard your interesting interview with Caroline Jones in the ABC series The Search for Meaning, and found myself in agreement with much of what you had to say. Your rejection of a society in which money becomes the measure of all things, is particularly timely. The book which you said you are writing could be a valuable contribution just now … A change in human motivation seems to be the need everywhere. Good luck with your book.

Thwaites’s son Richard confirmed to Mark Aarons in 2009 that he had read Laurie’s reply to Richard’s late father: “I was quite moved by it, knowing the sincere beliefs that had divided our respective fathers along ideological lines, while they shared similar underlying hopes for humanity …”

Tony Thomas includes many Quadrant essays on the Cold War in his book That’s Debatable: 60 Years in Print (Connor Court, 2016).

 

Brezhnev: My Part in His Downfall

I once found myself being courted by an oily Soviet diplomat, who somewhat ineptly pursued what he mistakenly hoped would be a valuable intelligence source by plying my children with storybooks featuring anatomically correct puppy dogs. No need for me to worry, ASIO was on the case

leonidOn a limpid autumn day in 1977, my phone rang in the Age’s office in the Canberra press gallery. We were in the rabbit warren of second-floor rooms in what is now the Old Parliament House. A heavily accented voice said, “Good afternoon, Mr Thomas. My name is Oleg Petrovich Tsitsarkin. I am with the Soviet embassy.”

“Well, hi, Oleg Petrovich! What can I do for you?”

“I would say first, that at the embassy we think highly of your economics writing.”

That was nice, I love compliments. I had been Economics Writer for the Age for seven years.

“Thanks. I do my best.”

Mr Tsitsarkin continued, “I must tell you I have a problem. My boss Mr Shilin sends a monthly briefing on economic policy back to Moscow, and he has gone on leave and these briefings I now have to write. But I do not know much about your economics and my reports will be criticised. Perhaps you can help me with advice?”

“Sure! CPI, GDP, SRDs, whatever. I’m a walking encyclopaedia.”

“Mr Thomas, let us have lunch and a talk. You can explain about Mr Howard’s Treasury policies perhaps. May I suggest next Monday, the 19th Hole at the golf club?”

I don’t know about other journalists but I would sell my grandmother for a swanky lunch. Plus I had been angling unsuccessfully for an exclusive interview with the reclusive Soviet Ambassador Mr A.V. Basov, and Mr Tsitsarkin could be a useful lever.

The Royal Canberra Golf Club’s restaurant is no longer called the 19th Hole, but it’s still a ritzy joint for “a memorable and enjoyable experience”. That’s what I got, four decades ago.

I gathered for Mr Tsitsarkin some economic bumph that cascaded across my Age desk, and a speech or two by the Treasurer.

He was a slim and nervous chap about my age (then thirty-seven). The restaurant had glossy panels and pretty views of the links. I ordered a rare steak and breezily selected a shiraz. Mr Tsitsarkin gallantly approved my choice. He was full of bonhomie and seized upon my “Treasury Round-Ups” with gratitude. I impressed him with the finer points of fiscal and monetary settings.

I mentioned my desire to interview the ambassador. A great idea! He would talk to the first secretary, Mr Pavlov, this very afternoon on my behalf.

By the end of the bottle I was full of goodwill. Poor Mr Tsitsarkin, he didn’t get out much, literally, holed up in the Soviet residential compound. His wife Ekaterina would get out even less. He was a guy just trying to do a difficult job. We had things in common.

“Tell you what, Oleg,” I said brightly. “Grab your wife and have dinner at our place in Empire Circuit. What about next Thursday?”

That was only a few days ahead. I was taking a real risk here, not because I was dealing with sinister Russians but because my then wife did not like being sprung with dinner guests at short notice.

Oleg gave a startled response. Sure, thank you, he said, he would ring me back to confirm. He seemed to have come by taxi so I offered to drop him back at his office in my Cortina. As we neared the embassy in Canberra Avenue, he suddenly remembered some dry-cleaning to collect at the local shops. I dropped him off there and returned to Parliament.

I waited for his acceptance to dine with Mr and Mrs Thomas. Days passed, Thursday came and went. I was curious about this breach of good manners, but spared a row with Mrs Thomas, so I didn’t think much more about it.

A couple of months passed and the phone rang again. It was Oleg, as if he’d never stood me up. How about lunch? Well, why not.

His new choice of restaurant was a budget-priced Chinese at Belconnen about fifteen kilometres out. When we met, he was at a table at the edge of the room. (Interjection from John le Carré—“So he can check out anyone else entering!”) Oleg had a few things to discuss and I was happy to enlighten him: the press secretary to the Minister for Resources was so-and-so, the private secretary was so-and-so, to get an appointment you would go through the chief-of-staff.

My interview with the ambassador? Oh, he’s been travelling, no opportunity. Expect an invitation any day now.

We parted amicably. He didn’t need a lift home.

He would ring now and then with inane questions. All my calls back to the embassy, I later realised, were three-way, with ASIO listening in and keeping an eye (ear?) on things.

The embassy now seemed lukewarm about my value. The next Oleg invitation, in early 1979, was for lunch—at McDonald’s!—to talk more economics. I liked getting tidbits about the diplomatic circuit. This time I showed up with my three-year-old daughter, who loved Maccas and chips, and I again handed over a few economics bulletins in an A4 envelope.

He looked a bit surprised to find we had a threesome. In fact it was a fivesome. ASIO, I later learned, had assigned a young man and woman, ostensibly courting or skirting domesticity, to join us at Maccas. Sadly, the racket in the store made conversation too hard to record.

Oleg accepted my envelope somewhat nervously. The ASIO couple took careful note. Technically it was a “live drop”, much interior to the favoured “dead drop” in the espionage world.

Oleg fobbed me off again on the ambassadorial interview. I still thought it would be nice to meet the friendly couple at home over dinner, and this time he accepted for lunch. But Mrs Tsitsarkin didn’t speak good English and he would come solo, he said.

Mrs Thomas was far from pleased but turned on some chicken and salad. Oleg arrived bearing children’s books for our three-year-old. They were dowdy but nice and the Russian illustrators ignored the Western convention (to this day) that puppy dogs lack an anus. All the rear views of the Russian puppy dogs included a small black dot.

At the table, the awkward atmosphere got worse when Mrs Thomas, who had never wanted this socialising, abruptly turned the conversation to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, now in the USA. Why was the Soviet Union bad-mouthing him? she demanded.

Poor Oleg. Whatever he replied would have repercussions. He would give the party line on Solzhenitsyn, even if it meant hostilities with Mrs Thomas and loss of best-buddy status with me.

Solzhenitsyn was a dishonest person who had cheated in his high school exams, he said, and became an army coward and was now in someone’s pay to blacken the good name of Soviet society. Mrs Thomas revved up the dispute.

The rest of the lunch was frosty. Oleg decided he had little to lose, and made an announcement: “I wish to speak to Mr Thomas—alone!”

Mrs Thomas’s face changed colour at being ordered out of her own dining room. She exited with bad grace. I sensed I was going to hear more about this later.

With her out of the way, Oleg came close and lowered his voice. “I want to ask you, will China invade North Vietnam?”

I was dumbstruck. Why ask me? I had an inspiration. “You know, the Far East Economic Review had a piece on this topic only yesterday. I’ll find it.”

I rummaged through the pile on the coffee table, found the magazine, flicked to the article, ripped it out, and handed it to him with a pleased expression. He took it, unimpressed, and soon after he departed. I never heard from him again. A month later, China invaded Vietnam.

Alert readers may wonder how I know ASIO was on my case. Here’s how. A couple of years later I stayed the weekend in London with a friend, Ken, in the Australian public service. Also staying was another chap, Maurice. Ken mentioned that Maurice was with ASIO. I got chatting privately with Maurice and related my trysts with Tsitsarkin. We were interrupted and I never got to finish the story. We all went our separate ways.

Months later, back in Melbourne, Maurice phoned me and suggested lunch. Nothing loath, I agreed and over steak and shiraz, this time ASIO-financed, I gave him the full saga.

Maurice had done his homework and probed my inconsistencies. He seemed less interested in Oleg than in the Soviet embassy’s press attaché, Mr Lev Koshliakov. “Tell me about your contacts with him,” Maurice said.

I racked my brains. He was the chap I originally phoned for an interview with the ambassador. But I denied any other contact. Maurice kept at me. Eventually he disclosed his hand: they had logged me making a couple of calls I had forgotten about. Maybe Maurice was concerned I was using innocuous lines as code to Koshliakov. I hope I straightened him out. I also explained what was in the A4 envelopes I was handing over to the Soviets.

“Why so concerned about Koshliakov?” I asked.

“It’s like this. Koshliakov was the senior KGB man in the embassy. The press attaché bit was his cover. Some of his stuff was illegal and we hoped to expel him back to Moscow.

“Now about Oleg. He wasn’t that important but we like to know what they want to know. He was low-level GRU, that’s the military intelligence. He was called third secretary. I don’t know why he was cultivating you. Sometimes it’s cloak-and-dagger but sometimes these guys are genuinely at sea and need a local’s advice.” I was relieved. I usually take people, even Russians, at face value.

What about that first dinner invitation to Oleg and his wife, that he ignored? Maurice laughed. “To him, entrapment. Same as you trying to drive him back to the embassy. Everyone knows that we have photographers across the road.”

My economics help to Oleg? Useless, said Maurice. “Anything published, they already had. That’s why you got downgraded to McDonald’s.” I flinched.

In Canberra a few years later, a Labor Party apparatchik, David Combe, formed a friendship with a Russian diplomat and KGB man, Valery Ivanov. It blew up, Bob Hawke expelled Ivanov, and Combe was severely punished—by being sent to Western Canada as senior trade commissioner. Why am I never punished like that?

I was stupid to have any truck with Russians. Or, and this is delicious, I should have rung ASIO to be “wired” for my meetings with Oleg. But how would this fit with my day job? Technically, I should also have asked my Age editor Greg Taylor if he wanted an agent on the payroll. (Probably not!)

As for my hopes of an interview with Ambassador Alexander Vasilievich Basov, he was most unlikely to have been beguiled into giving me a colorful, potentially Walkley-winning scoop. I now know from John Blaxland’s Vol 11 ASIO history that Basov was a full member of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee (most unusual for an ambassador),  and freshly arrived here from ministering to the ill-fated Marxist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, who shot himself while literally besieged by the CIA’s  minions. ASIO found Basov ‘dogmatic, thrusting and difficult to deal with’. During his tenure in Canberra he flooded ASIO with work, from his ‘political interference in local affairs’ and ‘recruitment of agents of influence’ (ouch!).

The other day I acquired my ASIO file. It showed me tick-tacking with Tsitsarkin about a lunch at the Lotus restaurant (sounds plausible) on October 19, 1977. Then there were many pages about Tony Thomas doing rabid agitprop for the Palestinians against the Israelis—mistaken identity by ASIO, as that was a different “Tony Thomas”.

Then nothing (time-travelling backwards) until December 1972, when I attended evening cocktails at the Soviet embassy in my capacity as National Press Club treasurer. This evening appeared uneventful to me but a Soviet official, Lazovic, kept calling in as Duty Officer to see if everything was “in order”. It wasn’t. Soviet official Morosov “was reported to be ‘very drunk’ at 2225 hours and was collected from the residence and taken home”.

Geronty Lazovic, it emerged last year, went on to recruit a top agent inside ASIO or Defence and earned a medal for it. More satisfying than carting drunk Russians home from cocktail parties.

As for Koshliakov, he was rated Moscow’s most dangerous agent in Australia, with more than 115 press contacts. I could have been number 116. He became KGB station chief in Norway, was busted for spying, and got handed a top job at Aeroflot where he remained until at least 2010, about his retirement age of sixty-five.

On the excitements of my briefings of Oleg Tsitsarkin, ASIO files were blank. Not blacked out, but blank. Yet according to my chats with Maurice, ASIO was seriously interested. A little mystery there!

As to my part in Brezhnev’s downfall, well, sticking him for my steak and shiraz at the 19th Hole was another straw on the camel’s back.

Reflections on a Youth Carnival by a primary-school Stalinist

This article appears in the April, 2014 issue of Quadrant.

By Tony Thomas

Did Mr A.T. Jelly, probably of Nedlands, Perth, play some small role in 1952 in ameliorating Cold War tensions and bringing about a more peaceful world?
He was walking along the Stirling Highway footpath near the then State Saw Mills, and I, as an 11-year-old, blocked his way . I presented him with a petition for a Five Power Peace Pact between the US, UK, France, the Soviet Union and China. I explained why it was a good idea, and he became about my tenth signatory that morning.
I was a keen collector of signatures, so keen that I won the prize from the Eureka Youth League and/or its parent the Communist Party of Australia. The big prize! I became the sole delegate from Perth’s Junior Eureka Youth League (JEYL) to Sydney’s Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship.

At this distance it is safe to make a confession. I did forge 10-15% of my signature tally, enough to knock my sister, 12, out of the short-list for the prize. My parents, inspecting my petition sheets, immediately queried the authenticity of “Mr Jelly”. Mr Jelly’s signature was authentic. I was righteously indignant. Even today I notice two Jelly families in Perth’s White Pages, possibly Mr A.T. Jelly’s descendants.
At 11, I was already a petition veteran. At ten I had taken the World Peace Council’s petition to ban the atom bomb to Nedlands State School and got a lot of kids to sign before school – they were flattered to be asked. By playtime, to my disgruntlement, the kids virtually queued to scratch their names off my petition sheet. At a lunchtime interview, the doubtless horrified headmaster at this conservative school, Mr Thorpe, instructed me to cease and desist from signature collecting among his flock.
Joseph Stalin was my ultimate boss as the mainspring of the Five Power Peace Pact petition. Some press man interviewed him in February 1951. Comrade Stalin highlighted the need for the pact, which had been languishing as a topic since Foreign Minister Vyshinsky broached it in the UN a year earlier. (Vyshinsky had presided over the pre-war Zinoviev-Kamenev trial, remarking judicially, “Shoot these rabid dogs… Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses!”).
Insensitively, the General Assembly had voted against Vyshinsky’s peace pact, opting instead for an American protocol for ‘peace through deeds’.
After the Stalin interview, instructions about the petition speedily went out via Alexsander Fadeyev, of the Soviet Writers Union, and Ilya Ehrenburg, the writer, who were Stalin’s conduits to the Peace Council. What do you know, by December there were 600 million signatures, including Mr Jelly’s.
The predecessor petition against the atom bomb (then a US hegemony) had not done nearly as well, gathering only 500 million signatures, including the vestigial tally from my Nedlands State School peer group. Most of the signatures were from Soviet bloc citizens, where declining to sign involved a career setback.

We JEYL members in Perth, aged to about 15, wore the white shirts and red scarfs that were a la mode for Communist youth globally. Our troop mother was a nice but humourless young woman called Dot Calvert.
One morning about eight of us boarded a Stirling Highway bus for the beach, and half-way there Dot instructed us brightly, “Let’s sing the peace song!” We immediately piped up, “For peace, world peace! United for peace! For peace, world peace! U-u-NIGHT-ed for PEACE!” We then launched into the many verses between choruses, such as “Everywhere the youth are singing freedom’s song…We are the youth! And the world acclaims our song of truth!”
How co-passengers on the bus viewed this performance, I do not know. I think Dot imagined that our peaceful enthusiasm would inspire them to join the Communist Party.
Our main JEYL assignment was fielding a soccer team in the Saturday juniors. We played for two seasons, winning no games but memorably drawing one, at one-all. I was goalie. Our ability to field an 11-boy team, given JEYL’s miniscule numbers, was zero. Normally we fielded between 7 and 9 players, and the opposing team would assign us a couple of their spare players to make a better game of it. Those seconded players seldom put their heart into the game.
There was a Jewish team called the Maccabeans, probably boosted by recent arrivals from Yugoslavia, Hungary and the Ukraine. The Maccabeans, if you will excuse my anti-semitism, were bastards. They wouldn’t donate their spare players to our team, and they spent their hour banging goals past me into my net. Our or my worst score was 35-nil.
I’m a bit annoyed that our Eureka Youth League sponsors were so busy creating a better world that they never gave a thought to putting down our mortally-ailing little team.
Or perhaps they were just too busy cramming for EYL study courses. I turned up the curriculum for Victorian EYL studies, July 1951 – maybe they used the same one in Perth. Lesson 6 was ‘Historical Materialism’ . The poor EYL sods not only had to ingest Stalin’s work, “On origin and role of ideas” but do further reading including Zhdanov’s views on “Marxism and Linguistics” and even Boris Hessen’s tract on “Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia.” Zhdanov died in 1948, and in 1953 Stalin used the death as the fulcrum of his planned “Doctors’ Plot Trial” to deport 2 million Jews to extinction beyond the Urals. Boris Hessen was tried and shot (on the same day) in Moscow in 1936 so his work shouldn’t actually have been on the Victorian EYL curriculum in 1951, although Hessen was rehabilitated posthumously in 1956.

Sorry, I’m rambling. Anyway, I was soon Sydney-bound on the Trans-Continental Train. I can’t remember much about the Youth Carnival, except that I had a starring role in a big campfire evening where I sang Walter Scott’s song about “Bonny Dundee”, except I precociously substituted rhymes about NATO and its UK Labor supporter Clement Attlee. This went down a treat among the evening’s sausage eaters and keg-dwellers.
I still recall the atmosphere of excitement and self-importance. Much to my surprise, I found a newsreel about the carnival (http://tinyurl.com/l7ahuad)
and I’ve transcribed the commentary below. The background music was the march from Tchaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony, perhaps a musical pun on Russian influence on the Carnival. The newsreel opens with a Russian-language sign:
“Russian for ‘Peace & Friendship’ – one of many signs at Fairfield’s Hollywood Park where the Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship opens. The Carnival itself has been give little publicity but Cinesound presents these pictures, [shot of crowds, families, kids] because the Australian public should know what is going on in their midst. Suppression too often breeds strength.
[People march past under flags bearing the Carnival symbol, a dove plus a boomerang which seem slightly sinister/fascist in black-and-white footage].
Ten thousand people attended the opening day. Noticeable among flags missing from the carnival was that of the United Nations, of which Russia is also a member.
The Federal Government and the Australian Labor Party have both described the carnival as Communist inspired. [State delegations go past, and nice-looking female teenagers and young women are singing but not audible]. The procession of youth, the flags, the banners and marching songs are strangely reminiscent of the Nuremburg rallies of the late unlamented Hitler Youth. [Broad-chested young men march in T-shirt uniforms]. Not so many flags, not so many people, but the first German rallies were small too. To a man (sic) sitting in the centre, it is often difficult to tell the far Left from the far Right.
We seem to have gone all European suddenly don’t we? For this is hardly an Australian scene…
Yes Madam, [matronly woman applauds enthusiastically] it is impressive but it is the start of what?
‘Peace’, and marching in the procession are Chinese. [The Chinese, all locals, are in androgynous Confucian or Tai Chi sort of costumes, eschewing any militancy]. We seem to recall that Red China today is at war with the world in Korea…that Australian youth is dying there to restore peace.
Communist Waterside Workers leader Healy marches – a rather mature youth. [With a large tummy, too].
Perhaps the greatest job these people [Greeks and New Zealanders sweep past] could do would be to convince Russia that the whole world wants peace with a passionate longing. [A big truck float goes past, massively decorated with flowers forming the dove/boomerang symbol]. Frankly we can’t see how the cause of World Peace can be aided by a semi-theatrical parade in a picnic ground 15 miles from Sydney. We wonder too how many of those marching today and those who watch, really know what is going on – these children for instance. [Yay! A truckload of cheering, waving kids. Is that cute kid leaning out, me? Well, maybe!]
Let’s not fool ourselves. There is war in the world today and it was started not by the democracies. Maybe the Youth Carnival could start right there, if the authorities would let them. [Women in hats, a toddler wildly waves a flag in each hand]. Because if this were a democratic procession it could not happen in Moscow’s Red Square!”
And you thought ABC News was subjective?
An ASIO plant was in a cinema when the newsreel was originally shown. As described by historian Dr Phillip Deery, the field officer reported,
“The commentary itself was so biased and unfair that it drew groans from the audience…The audience consisted, not of Carnival supporters, but of suburban housekeepers in town for shopping and members of the public and their girlfriends sheltering from the rain [‘members of the public’ must have all male, unless the agent also spotted some lesbians] …the obvious injustice of the commentary provoked a sympathetic reaction.”

Dr Deery, of Victoria University of Technology, in his excellent study of the Carnival, lavishly appropriated below by myself, complains that most historians of the post-war peace movement have ignored or downplayed it (http://tinyurl.com/n5kc7tc) The most detailed work has been by the ‘unremittingly hostile’ historians, including (Quadrant stalwart) Hal Colebatch of Perth, who treat it as a Communist stunt and ignore its broader community participation, Deery says.
He notes that the Carnival was the first outside Eastern Europe and was the child of the August 1951 3rd World Youth Festival in East Berlin (two years before the East Berlin uprising by less-conformist types). The 1951 show was attended by 26,000, compared with 10,000 at Sydney. Among those at Berlin were 135 Australians including Frank Hardy.
One delegate was 24 year old Frank Townsend, a lab assistant and former Student Council president at Melbourne Technical College. Although a political cleanskin in ASIO’s view, he became full-time organiser of the Sydney carnival in early 1952, keen to repay hospitalities involved in his Berlin trip. He envisioned that the carnival would, in the words of a pamphlet, “light a torch which will shine in a world where the people’s are kept too much apart from each other. This torch can light up the road to the happy, sane and peaceful Australian (sic) that we all hope and strive for.”
Getting 10,000 attendees was a good effort considering the hostile State apparatus. Attendees ran the gamut of refusals by 25 councils of halls, stadiums, parks, ovals and even beaches. The planned venue, the Harold Park trotting stadium, was withdrawn a bare fortnight before start-day. The hastily-arranged and privately-run Hollywood Park venue in outer Sydney was banned by Fairfield Council on the eve of the opening, and the council was only thwarted by a last-minute injunction. The State then banned private bus services to the park and in a Dunkirk-like miracle, the EYL organised private cars, trucks and lorries to shuttle the thousands back and forth.
Deery discovered that ASIO, in “Operation Handshake”, had two men and a woman in the Carnival headquarters and (probably) used agents to intimidate anyone offering Carnival services.
A Hobart ASIO man, J.J. Webberley, was flown to Sydney specifically to monitor Tasmanian attendees by trailing cars and identifying people in photographs. He even trailed himself into Taronga Zoo and Paddington Town Hall dances. He reported, “While at Sydney I was able to obtain the names and addresses of a large number of Tasmanians who have communist interests and will report on them accordingly on the following form.”
The Menzies government couldn’t ban the Carnival per se as the Liberals had just lost the referendum to ban the Communist Party and its ilk. But scores of Russian, Chinese, Czechs, Malayans and Americans were denied visas and had to stay home. Only New Zealanders got in. The ‘international’ flavour was from local ethnic groups.

Somehow the organisers created a panoply of sporting, dance, musical, art and literary events, many with handsome prizes of 200-250 pounds. Us kids were offered prizes for plasticine models, drawings and costumes.
Literary sponsors included Gavin Casey, Eleanor Dark, Dame Mary Gilmore, Eric Lambert, Alan Marshall, John Morrison, Walter Murdoch and Katherine Susannah Pritchard. Colin Simpson signed on but then signed himself out.
Cultural groups were transported to factories to do their stuff. On a single morning, seven groups got to seven sites, each group with chairman, a presenter, and sound equipment. Knowing what a hassle sound gear is even today, I feel respect for those organisers of 1952.

ASIO’s list of participating bodies in the Carnival runs to six pages, including the Atlas Greek Club, the NSW Ballroom Dancing Academy, the Melbourne Camera Club, and Geelong Choristers.
Individuals generously housed out-of-towners, including a Mrs Edwards of Fitzroy Street, Killara, who offered to billet two same-sex delegates in her spare room. She probably got the 2 pounds per person subsidy for costs.
As suggested by the Pathe newsreel, the wireless and the SMH, Tele and Sun ran a news blackout on the carnival. Deery says that the carnival’s EYL news-sheet Challenge had daily print runs of tens of thousands and issue No 10 involved 500,000 copies.
Deery then broadens his canvass to ask why Menzies, fresh from his referendum defeat, went all-out to disrupt the Carnival. Apart from obvious reasons such as the Korean war outbreak and the supposedly-imminent World War 111, Menzies viewed the Carnival as part of a Soviet phony ‘peace offensive’ via the World Peace Council. As External Affairs had advised him, “Like shady night club proprietors the Communist promoters are no sooner put out of business by exposure in one place, than they are busy organising a fresh venture under entirely new management.”
Deery puts the case that the Carnival none-the-less involved a genuine effort by young activists to connect with other youth through culture, sport and a bit of non-sectarian politics. “And it was, in the words of the woman who conceived the carnival, ‘an attempt to break through to a whole new section of the working class movement, we were trying something new and it was terribly exciting…we hoped it would be a new start.’ ”
I was chatting on the phone to Joe Lane in Adelaide about his archival research on SA Aborigines (http://firstsourcesguide.com). He mentioned that he too had attended the Youth Carnival, at an even younger age, 9, than myself. He also thought he spotted himself on the kids’ truck. Cue scepticism. Joe’s parents named him after Joseph Vissarionovich, about which he’s a bit embarrassed today. “At least I’m not called Joe Thomas,” I said. #

Despite his unusual childhood, Tony Thomas has grown up to be a model citizen.