Among the many rather disconcerting admissions made by Cardinal George Pell, in his testimony from Rome to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, was that he had allowed a pedophile Catholic priest to retire on the grounds of ill health despite knowing of complaints made against him over several years and without asking to see evidence of his medical condition.
Pell commented, regarding the secrecy and complete lack of moral responsibility exhibited over decades in this matter: “This was an extraordinary world — a world of crimes and cover-ups and people did not want to disturb the status quo.”
Why, however, would senior figures in a body which purports to be the moral guide and guardian of society have any inclination to protect such a status quo? What possible excuse can they plead for having done so?
While bleakly fascinated by the ongoing proceedings of the royal commission, I have found myself drawing a comparison between the Catholic Church’s negligent treatment of sexual offenders and our intelligence system’s treatment of moles and traitors. I am referring to those who betrayed this country during the Cold War by working within our security and intelligence community as moles for the communist world, chiefly the Soviet Union.
The sexual abuse scandal is all over the newspapers, but the quiet pensioning off of those who penetrated and undermined our security for decades has gone almost entirely unnoticed and no one is being held to account for it. It has been done in the same manner as the retirement sanctioned by Cardinal Pell and the attitude to it appears to be similar: that the world of espionage and security is secretive and murky and it is best not to “disturb the status quo”.
In the wake of the Cook Report, ASIO was culled extensively and many officers were quietly retired. The report itself is one of the most closely held documents in Canberra. It is said to have concluded that ASIO was penetrated during the Cold War not by one Soviet mole but by a clutch of them. What’s worse is that there is compelling evidence the problem went beyond ASIO. Yet no one, on either side of politics, appears to want to open up this can of worms.
The official history of ASIO was an opportunity, in principle, for this matter to be brought out into the open. It has been used, instead, to continue a longstanding pattern of obfuscation and cover-up. Neither the first, nor the second volumes comes close to addressing this crucial issue, but there is a telling passage on page 411 of the second volume — John Blaxland’s The Protest Years — which throws the matter into relief by its very ellipses and omissions.
The official historian relates that, in late 1974, ASIO discovered that the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) officer Vladimir Dobrogorskiy “routinely drove to Haig Park in the Canberra suburb of Braddon”. One evening in December 1974 they put a surveillance team on him. That team spotted and watched a lone, agitated man in Haig Park at dusk apparently waiting to rendezvous with Dobrogorskiy. When he realised he was being watched, this agitated individual “suddenly took fright and ran away”.
After a little further investigation, the conclusion drawn at ASIO was that the man was an Australian civil servant working for the Department of Defence, “known to have very high security clearances” and known, also, to have: “travelled overseas to a communist country”. The official historian relates, however: “But with little further to go on and no substantive accusations to make, ASIO was reluctant to ruin a man’s career on the basis of only tenuous evidence. The case effectively stopped without a conclusion being drawn either way.”
Just so we’re clear: a known GRU officer, operating under cover, makes a rendezvous with an Australian Defence official with very high security clearances at dusk in a public park, where the GRU officer is known to go regularly. This Australian official is found to have visited a communist country. He looks agitated and, when he realises he is being watched, he takes fright and runs away. Yet ASIO concludes it should not “ruin a man’s career on the basis of only tenuous evidence”. Really?
As a former intelligence analyst, I must say this shocked me. But I am credibly informed that the communist country which that agitated individual had visited before 1974 was the Soviet Union; that he visited it again some years later, as a guest of the KGB; that he had numerous meetings with Soviet intelligence officers over many years; and yet rose to the highest levels in defence intelligence in the late 1970s and 80s. I have been informed the official historians know who he is, but that ASIO insisted they not cite his name and wanted to kill the story completely.
I submit this is completely unacceptable. If there is an “innocent” explanation for how all this happened, it needs rather urgently to be given. Perhaps the individual in question — whose name, for the moment, I withhold — was travelling to the Soviet Union and liaising with the GRU and the KGB as part of a brilliant Australian black operation that fooled the Russians for years? Somehow, I find that hard to believe.
Yet the alternative is too awful to contemplate: that a Soviet mole was able to penetrate to the summit of our defence intelligence, with access to virtually everything to do with our national security and our alliances with the US, Britain and Canada, while meeting clandestinely with Soviet intelligence officers and visiting the Soviet Union. How was this even possible — unless?
But who wants to open up that “unless”? There’s the rub. It would certainly disturb the status quo. Who wants to know the truth? More precisely, who wants us, the citizen body, to know it?
Paul Monk is a former senior defence intelligence analyst. His latest books are Opinions and Reflections (2015) and Credo and Twelve Poems (2016), from www.echobooks.com.au