National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 84, 2011

How the ABC maligned former ASIO director-general Sir Charles Spry

(Author’s name withheld)


The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) television docudrama, I, Spry: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy (broadcast on November 4, 2010), was widely praised in the mainstream media as some sort of epic or historic milestone. In truth, it represented a crude attempt to re-write history and besmirch the reputation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)’s second and longest-serving director-general, Colonel (later Brigadier) Sir Charles Spry.

Following the broadcast of the programme, a small but significant number of former intelligence officers, whose names cannot be disclosed for legal reasons, were as outraged as their unnamed former colleagues who wrote articles in The Australian and News Weekly, protesting about the national broadcaster’s misrepresentation of ASIO.[1]

The docudrama was commissioned by the ABC, and written, directed and produced by well-known filmmaker Peter Butt. Shortly before I, Spry was aired, Sydney Institute director and media commentator Gerard Henderson wrote an unsparing critique of the programme in the Sydney Morning Herald. He said:[2]

“The documentary accepts that there was a Soviet spy ring in Australia in the 1950s. But it concludes that Spry used the weapons of the communists against Australian citizens. This is mere hyperbole. …

“Most of the views expressed on I, Spry are critical of ASIO, and the documentary is littered with exaggerations and howlers.”

Naturally enough, Dr Henderson’s condemnation of the programme made little impact on the members of the chattering classes of the political Left, who had made up their minds many years ago about the nature of ASIO, and who today — unfortunately — have a preponderant voice in the media, both electronic and printed, grossly disproportionate to their actual numbers.

Nevertheless, the minor protests against the programme’s inaccuracies gathered some momentum, and the former intelligence officer assigned to write this piece for National Observer received submissions on the subject from a number of former ASIO officers.

A common theme was evident in the comments of former officers. It was certainly not novel, but it was tinged with more than a little anger and it followed a particular and rather well-worn theme — dismay at the official silence from the Commonwealth Government and ASIO in the face of attacks on our country’s security and intelligence agencies.

There was no public statement on the matter from ASIO or any of its current senior officers, thus continuing the long and disappointing tradition of ASIO’s not commenting publicly on anything, unless it coincides with the agenda of a director-general. Where comment has been made of late, it has resembled a paean of self-justification, accompanied as it is with calls for extended legal powers, more staff and an increased budget.


Loss of staff

It is public knowledge that an official history of ASIO is being written to cover the period of the Cold War. There have been at least four “official” histories written in the past, but none to date has reached the public domain.

The current project, technically, is in the hands of Professor David Horner of the Australian National University in Canberra. Its commencement coincided with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of ASIO and the release of hitherto classified archival material up to the year 1979. We know this because it’s on the ASIO website,[3] together with a professionally-designed logo and the motif, “Helping secure Australia’s future”.

Apparently, a vital part of helping secure Australia’s future was ASIO’s expensive 1987 move from Melbourne to Canberra and its acquisition of new premises, a purpose-built monolith, in the national capital, where it was opened by the then Prime Minister. The move was regarded by many to be a security risk in itself and resulted in the loss of many valuable staff. Its timing coincided with the closing phase of the Cold War, and the subsequent drastic reduction in ASIO staff numbers was justified as a beneficial saving resulting from the fabled “peace dividend”. However, as one cynical former officer commented at the time, “I’d back those who left against those who were left at any time”, and this was taken to be a criticism of the loss of the most talented staff.

The then “new” ASIO headquarters, opened in 1987 and located in the Russell Hill complex, was more than half empty, and the organisation was compelled to take on lodgers, sharing the building with other elements of the intelligence community, most notably the Office of National Assessments (ONA) — but more about that interesting story another time. In fact, the millions of dollars spent on advertising for staff, induction and training barely stand scrutiny. At one stage, separations or departures of staff outstripped recruitment. One rumour had it that there was a 15 per cent turnover in staff in one year alone, forcing changes in methods of recruitment, including subcontracting the task of hiring to different companies in the private sector.


Loss of corporate memory

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the virtual collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a general feeling, both in Australia and abroad, that intelligence organisations could safely be cut back. There is every reason to believe that this was an ill-considered move not only because it appeared to many that the targets of intelligence organisations had not substantially diminished; they had just regrouped. The unintended consequence of the cutbacks simultaneously affecting all Western security and intelligence services was a great loss of corporate memory. In intelligence work this is foolish and short-sighted, if not downright dangerous.

Damage to the institutional or corporate memory, of course, is nothing new for ASIO. Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government of 1972-5 came close to abolishing ASIO[4] and restricted many of its operations, although that government did not see the practical result of the official inquiry it called into intelligence and security conducted by Justice Robert M. Hope, which became known as the first Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (RCIS) or simply, the Hope Commission.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP), when it next came to power federally, in 1983 under Bob Hawke, was promptly plunged into an espionage controversy, the Combe-Ivanov affair, which prompted the calling of yet another royal commission, also conducted by Justice Hope.

The basic terms of this second inquiry were to investigate, first, the relationship between a senior KGB officer, Valery Ivanov (then acting as First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Australia), and a former national secretary of the ALP, David Combe, and, second, ASIO’s handling of the matter.

ASIO was established in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War, quite possibly against the inclinations of the postwar Chifley Labor Government, which was pressured by its American and British allies to address Australia’s serious security shortcomings. ASIO’s establishment was certainly vehemently opposed by the left-wing Dr H.V. Evatt, sometime Minister for External Affairs and Attorney-General and later leader of the Opposition, and his staff. Thus ASIO has been in many respects a bastard child of government — unloved by many on both sides of politics and only grudgingly accepted as a fundamental necessity.


Professor Desmond Ball

With no little irony, the reasons for establishing a new security service were quite clearly set out in the ABC-Butt documentary. Moreover, they were validated by the presence of Professor Desmond Ball, co-author with Professor David Horner of a path-breaking study, published 13 years ago, on Soviet espionage in Australia.[5]

For many years, Ball was heavily engaged in the work of decrypting Soviet coded messages from around the world. ASIO had granted him a security clearance (despite some misgivings given his earlier radical political views) to view what became known as the Venona material. This was data from the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service (USASIS)’s code-breaking project, responsible for intercepting clandestine Soviet radio signals to communist agents around the world. The Venona material demonstrated beyond any doubt the presence in Australia — and other Western democracies — of major Soviet spy-rings, both during and after World War II.

It was therefore very disappointing that Professor Ball, with his almost unique access to and knowledge of crucial primary sources from the Cold War, did not do more on the programme to refute some of the more outrageous allegations made by Butt about ASIO’s activities.


ASIO’s historical role

The anger of many former intelligence officers is no small matter; historical misrepresentations cut to the very quick of their being and the ABC programme re-opened many old wounds. This taxpayer-funded piece of television apparently had as its basic objective, not a dispassionate examination of the history of ASIO, its important role in the Cold War and subsequent events, but a systematic denigration of ASIO’s second and longest-serving director-general, the late Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, who served in this position from 1950 until his retirement in 1969. In short, the programme was little more than a smear campaign in the finest traditions of the hard Left — that is, the opponents and haters of ASIO and anything to do with Australia’s security needs.

Some former officers participated in the making of the programme, and at least two have died since, from old age or sickness. A couple mentioned were the salt of the earth by any reckoning. The generation of happy warriors who joined ASIO in 1949 for the most part comprised men of the utmost integrity, war heroes who enjoyed various nicknames including, naturally enough, the ’49ers. Those who worked in Sydney going through the old Commonwealth Investigation Service files were often proud to call themselves “salt miners” in an oblique reference to Soviet political prisoners who were incarcerated in Siberian forced labour camps.

These officers’ work at the height of the Cold War was, by all accounts, something of a harrowing experience. Many found living a double life, which is the lot of an intelligence officer, to be excessively stressful and demanding. The then Colonel Spry, who in 1950 succeeded ASIO’s first director-general Justice Geoffrey Reed, was a driven man. His brief was to be the first “real” (i.e., professional) director-general of counter-intelligence, charged by government with establishing an effective security service.

The job came without any handbooks or training manuals. The UK state security service, colloquially known as MI5, assisted ASIO with advice and on-the-ground aid, some of which came back to haunt counter-intelligence staff like an unwanted spectre, because one of those involved was Roger Hollis, a future MI5 director-general, but suspected by one of his subordinates, Peter Wright, and a number of others as being a Soviet mole.[6] Was ASIO at this time penetrated by hostile forces? Having a passing familiarity with all the arguments and a lot of the relevant documents, this charge cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Colonel Spry, doubtless owing to his background as a much decorated military man, regarded ASIO as being the fourth arm of defence and quite openly stated that, in the event of a national emergency, officers would find themselves in uniform next morning. The early organisational culture was very much in the tradition of the military, but more importantly the first law of intelligence was based on the unwritten principle of the “Need to know” (NTK), often accompanied by a tap on the nose. Officers who shared rooms with people working on the same target area very often did not know what the other was doing, let alone why. The left and right hands were deliberately kept apart.

The raison d’être for establishing ASIO was to fulfil the demands placed on the Australian government by its recent wartime allies, Great Britain and the United States. It is fairly common knowledge that domestic security in Australia during World War II was problematic — in some senses, that is a generous assessment. For example, during the first two years of World War II, when Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, were allies, communist-dominated trade unions in Australia sought to undermine the war effort through constant industrial action. It took considerable will at the political level to curb the power of Australia’s Communist Party and counter its influence.


Rewriting history

Recently, an American college professor described the intense surprise of his students whenever he has lectured them on the subject of the crimes of communism. His students’ utter ignorance of some of history’s greatest mass-murderers is a result of the political Left’s assiduous work in schools and universities, over many decades, in airbrushing history and downplaying the truth about communism.[7]

In a similar manner, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has used its many resources in a Left-inspired campaign,[8] which has been running for decades, with the intention of debasing history as fact and substituting a postmodernist interpretation, which ultimately will try to “prove” that the Cold War and the threat from the expansionist USSR were some sort of bogey, invented and stage-managed by the US and its agencies.[9]

The striking thing about political comment on the ABC is that it is predominantly drawn from the left-wing of academe. It would come as something of a shock for the ABC to run a number of French documentaries which appeared on SBS television in recent times, which exposed the scale of human suffering in the former Soviet Union under “Uncle Joe” Stalin.

This is not some fanciful speculation but an accurate account of the way in which the ABC has operated as a countercultural force against the government, especially against the Coalition parties, for well over half a century. Therefore, it came as no great surprise that the ABC would commission such a programme as I, Spry. It follows in its greatest tradition of muckraking and salacious rumour-mongering, and is altogether unworthy of a public broadcaster.

The ABC has attempted to do nothing less than destroy the reputation of a great Australian soldier and director-general of ASIO, Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, who bore considerable responsibility and the weight of history with more dignity than his enemies and counterfactual historians and film-makers would allow.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 84, 2011



[1]      “Aunty’s sneering aside, ASIO effectively kept communists in check”, The Australian, November 13, 2010.

        “ABC denigrates former ASIO director-general”, News Weekly, November 27, 2010.

        Anthony McAdam: Why does the ABC treat Charles Spry so shabbily?”, The Spectator Australia, November 13, 2010.

[2]      Gerard Henderson, “Scott needs to take control to ensure ABC represents diverse views”, Sydney Morning Herald, November 2, 2010.

[3]      Publications: History of ASIO.

[4]      Accounts vary, but at the 1971 ALP national conference in Tasmania, a motion was put to abolish ASIO. The vote was tied. (One of the better stories, probably apocryphal, is that a staffer had to prod Senator Lionel Murphy to raise his hand against the motion).

[5]      Desmond Ball and David Horner, Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network, 1944-1950 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998).

[6]      Peter Wright, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1987).

Chapman Pincher, Treachery: Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (New York: Random House, 2009).

Paul Monk, “Christopher Andrew and the strange case of Roger Hollis”, Quadrant, Vol. 54, No. 4, April 2010.

[7]      Paul Kengor, PhD, “Anti-anti-communism and the academy”, paper presented at the August 20, 2009 “Communism in the Classroom” conference, National Press Club, Washington, DC.

Kengor writes (see p.5):

“Of all the lectures that I do on college campuses, none seem to awaken the audience as much as my discourse on the savagery of communism. In these lectures, which are usually connected to my study of certain Cold War figures, I do a 10-15 minute backgrounder on the crimes of communists — from their militant attacks on private property, on members of all religious faiths, and on basic civil liberties, to the one product they produced better than any other: bloodied, emaciated, rotting corpses.

“As I review the casualties, the students in the audience — born around or after the fall of the Berlin Wall — are amazed at what they are hearing. They seem especially struck that I always ground every fact and figure in reliable research and authorities — books published by the top university presses, quotes from the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel and Alexander Yakovlev, anti-Soviet appraisals from Cold War Democrats like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and early liberals like Woodrow Wilson, anti-communist assessments by leftist intellectuals and Cold War scholars like Allen Weinstein, Sam Tanenhaus, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., George F. Kennan, and John Lewis Gaddis. I rarely use conservative sources because I do not want the professors of these students to be able to later poke holes in my presentation to try to undermine the overall thesis.

“And speaking of those professors, that gets to the central point of this paper: As the young people in the audience are engaged, hands in the air with question after question — obviously hearing all of these things for the first time in their lives (as they are eager to inform me after my talk) — the professors often stare at me with contempt. In one case, a British professor, who could not stop sighing, squirming, and rolling her eyes as I quoted the most heinous assessments of religion by Marx and Lenin — the quotes cited earlier in this paper — got up and stormed out of the room.

“These professors glare at me as if the ghost of Joe McCarthy has flown into the room and leapt inside of my body.”

[8] Aravind Balasubramaniam, “I, Spry: dramatising history”, Encore magazine, November 2, 2010.

Balasubramaniam wrote in this article: “The proposed launch of the National History Curriculum in 2012 may foster the development of dramatised documentaries that focus on Australian history.”

A co-producer of I, Spry, Anna Grieve, told Encore: “We are promoting our film definitely to the education sector because we think it’s absolutely critical that we get it out as far as possible. If an overseas audience is interested, we’d be rapt, it’s not as if we see it exclusively for us.”

[9]      The hostile histories of ASIO are not numerous, but for virulence and spleen, it is difficult to go beyond Frank Cain’s The Australian Security Intelligence Organization: An Unofficial History (Melbourne: Spectrum Publications, 1994), which makes ex-communist David McKnight’s Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994) look objective and balanced by comparison.