As published in the Canberra Times – 28.9.20, Independent Australia – 20.9.20, and Pearls and Irritations – 18.9.20
There is, or there should be, more to spying than high tech electronics. As we have seen high tech can get agencies into trouble; It can lead to dead ends and bear pits. We need to get back to basics, feet on the ground. Our high-tech security agencies are making a hash of our relationship with China.
There has been a lot of talk of spies and spying recently. The right is enthralled with the notion of spying. Just as boys and girls with leanings toward the right tend to join the armed forces so too do right leaning youngsters get recruited as spies.
A Spy is a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another country and individuals within it. Spies come in many shapes and forms. They can be full or part time, they can be sleepers, activated as needed, or members of professional or sporting associations and academics who report regularly or as required, or when they judge something is of interest to their minder. They might be journalists, but they shouldn’t be. Sometimes Diplomats are Spies, sometimes Spies use the cover of diplomacy to undertake their activities.
During a posting to South Africa, as Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy, I was spied on. I was followed and my phone tapped because I had contact with black South Africans including the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).
Many of the people I met with were under surveillance, including Steve Biko, the leader of the BCM, murdered by the police in September 1977. It subsequently emerged that the regime thought I was a spy.
Without having set out to do so I became conversant with the craft of spying. I knew the mood of the townships and sometimes plans which extended beyond them. When a British MI6 operative learnt of my activities in helping people cross the border, he organised visas for them from neighbouring British High Commissions.
During a posting to Saudi Arabia as First Secretary, my phone was tapped. An embassy based CIA agent told me that when an American company set up the Saudi telephone system the CIA bugged it. The Americans knew everything the Saudis were saying. Much as they did with the Collins Class submarines, they can be tracked worldwide. Don’t worry about the Chinese, big brother has got Australia well and truly covered with Pine Gap playing an important role.
In the course of a posting to Pakistan, after I had become a confidant and friend of the future Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, my phone was tapped and I was followed. Of course, developing a relationship with Benazir was a legitimate and proper undertaking for the diplomatic Counsellor at the Australian Embassy.
What was not quite so regular was for me to take photos of Russian soldiers, tanks, radio communications, trucks and bases in Kabul during three monthly visits from Islamabad in the period 1986 to 1988. I had been a national service tank gunner and radio operator. The Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in Canberra supplied a magnificent little camera with a hot shoe and lots of film. And they expressed themselves happy with the results.
Kabul was a city under siege from the Mujahideen. Fear does strange things. The only way I could go to sleep in our little house in Kabul was lying on my back so I could ‘see’ the rocket or mortar that came through the roof.
I met the Polish First Secretary at the airport flying from Delhi to Kabul. I made arrangements to call on him. He had a jumper on. Underneath the jumper was a ‘box’. We talked. He was cautious. I organised a lunch party at home. I invited our western as well as some of our East European friends and the Chinese but not the Russians.
I asked my Polish colleague what was the box under his jumper and he said it was a recording device, I said his technology was crap and he laughed. He wanted to talk. We established a rapport, I said anything he could pass on about the Russians would be good. He did, the Poles were fed up with the Russians. He arranged for me to meet with them.
The Chinese had good information about the Russians but the Chinese which they were happy to share with me. They understood the difficulties of a fly in flyout Australian diplomat and had me to dinner during my visits. Information and dinner were on the basis of the strong relationship established by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972.
The British Embassy in Kabul was staffed by MI6, the US Embassy by CIA. The US Embassy in Islamabad was responsible for over 600 ‘aid workers’ based in Peshawar, Quetta and inside Afghanistan. They were involved in training and supplying the Mujahideen. A friend in Peshawar, who worked with MI6, was married to a Frenchman who took photographs inside Afghanistan, he was a spy. He was shot at the back door of his house in Peshawar with an AK47 by a person dressed as a Pathan.
His wife later married a man who had been through Sandhurst. He was MI6. He worked with the British SAS in their operations across the border in support of the brilliant Mujahideen leader, Maqsood. He was later killed in Russia when working as a ‘journalist’, widowing his wife for a second time.
An Australian working for a journal based in Asia, accompanied me to a meeting in Peshawar with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He blew his cover when a report turned up in our diplomatic bag from one of our agencies reporting the meeting.
It was at a Russian Embassy reception that I learnt from an Indian RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent that General Zia had been blown up in his air force Hercules. RAW believed it was a group of middle ranking Pakistan army officers were responsible and they were right. My interlocuter, knowing of my relationship with Benazir, wanted that information conveyed to her, which I did.
Spying requires boots on the ground, getting down and dirty and first hand observation. People heading intelligence agencies with only screen and cyber experience don’t know the half of it. Others have claimed their leather seats by political brown nosing and cruising corridors. But more on that later.