As you can see, the blog’s title and header pictures have changed. I started blogging just under a year ago, and, having found that I enjoy it, decided to revamp the site.
The new title, “the Murphy raid” refers to a pivotal event in Australia’s security history. This post explains this bit of history, the pictures, how they relate to the blog, and reflects on my experience of blogging so far.
What was the Murphy raid?
On 16 March 1973, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy and senior Commonwealth Police officers forcibly entered ASIO’s headquarters in Melbourne. Murphy suspected ASIO was withholding information on terrorist threats and undermining the newly elected Whitlam government.
The Yugoslav Prime Minister was due to visit Australia and there were concerns that local Ustasha groups were planning to assassinate him. The Ustasha was a Croatian fascist movement that had been allied with Germany in World War Two and had active networks in Australia. Dreaming of overthrowing Tito’s communist regime, Ustasha supporters bombed Yugoslav diplomatic buildings and social clubs throughout Australia in the 1960s and 70s. In 1962 and 1973 they launched unsuccessful military raids into Yugoslavia.
But the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was relatively indifferent to this terrorist threat. ASIO was chiefly concerned with Soviet espionage and the perceived menace of the time, communist subversion. The NSW Police Force had uncovered evidence that a Ustasha group planned to assassinate the Yugoslav Prime Minister, which was passed through the Commonwealth Police to Murphy, but ASIO denied knowledge of these threats.
Not trusting ASIO’s assurances that they had no information to support these concerns about assassination threats, the Attorney-General entered their Melbourne headquarters on St. Kilda road. Murphy declared to the ASIO staff that “it is our policy to bring open government to Australia” and demanded to know if they had been hiding information from him. Murphy questioned the officers for hours while Commonwealth Police carted off documents.
It created a media storm, prompted a crisis in Australia-America intelligence relations, and became scandal for the Whitlam government (as the raid was accused of endangering security). Some ASIO officers were so outraged by the elected representative enforcing his authority that they speculated that Murphy was a KGB agent, and launched an investigation. Whitlam later described the raid as his government’s “greatest mistake”, but it marked the beginning of many positive changes.
The event, widely reported as “the Murphy raid”, is not widely known today. I wish it were better remembered, and so I’ve named my blog in honour of the event, which relates to the three key themes I blog about: security, terrorism, and human rights.
The Murphy raid was also a key event in making Australia’s security services more democratically accountable.
ASIO has had a shady history. Under the management of General Spry, a Cold War hardliner and partisan of Menzies, ASIO successfully foiled some Soviet espionage operations. However, it also carried out mass surveillance on political dissidents it considered “subversive”, usually on the left. The organisation also attacked perceived enemies by using intimidation, dirty tricks, selective leaks to friendly journalists, and damaged people’s careers.
For that reason, the newly elected Labor government was unable to trust ASIO’s judgements about the threat of Ustasha terrorism, believing that ASIO was in denial over a far-right terrorist threat.
The Murphy raid signified changing times for ASIO. From 1973 on, the Cold War hardliners were gradually purged and measure after measure was introduced to make ASIO and other agencies more accountable.
In 1974 Whitlam established the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, which dug up, examined and condemned many of ASIO’s activities, leading to reforms.
In 1979 a new ASIO Act was passed, which narrowed the scope of “subversion” as a security concern and requiring ASIO to focus more on tangible security risks like “politically motivated violence”, while maintaining its focus on espionage and other traditional threats.
In the same year a Security Appeals Tribunal was established for citizens who failed ASIO’s security assessments, and the organisation was required to report to Parliament annually.
In 1983 Prime Minister Hawke established the Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies (RCASIA). This was the second Royal Commission into ASIO, and the first one for the other agencies.
Following this second Royal Commission, Attorney-General Gareth Evans successfully pushed for amending the ASIO Act in 1986 to remove “subversion” as a security interest altogether.
In 1987 the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security was established, which has been described as “a standing Royal Commission on all Australian intelligence agencies”, and celebrated 25 years of existence in February 2012.
In 1988 the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD was created, providing further oversight, and after the Cold War ended the security agencies experienced further reviews and inquiries, though no subsequent Royal Commissions.
So from the Murphy raid onwards, the trend has been one of increasing accountability for Australia’s intelligence agencies, even when accompanied by expanded budgets and new powers. Unfortunately, there are still some areas where accountability is lacking, and overall Australian intelligence agencies are less open and accountable than those in some other Western democracies.
This is an important but under-studied issue. Intelligence-gathering is a necessary function of the state, and is vital for tackling crime and national security threats. Intelligence-gathering helps protect citizens’ security, rights and ultimately democracy, but only if there is adequate democratic oversight and accountability mechanisms.
The appropriate role of security agencies in a democracy is a key theme of this blog. It’s represented by the first photo, which shows the Wireless Message Sender used by Ivan Fedorovich Skripov, Soviet spy caught by ASIO.
The Murphy raid also marked one of the first times an Australian government regarded terrorism as a major security issue. In one sense the Murphy raid was a failure, as he did not find evidence that ASIO had been hiding information from him. However, he did find something damning.
What he found was that ASIO had little information on the Ustasha threat at all. This confirmed public perceptions that ASIO was neglecting a key security issue. There had been a surge of Ustasha bombings in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane during 1972 (which injured people and damaged property but fortunately cause no deaths) and the authorities appeared helpless. An editorial in the Sydney Mirror asked:
“Just what does the Australian and [sic] Security Intelligence Organisation actually do?… At enormous expense ASIO screens migrants. At enormous expense it operates a network of spies and informers from its ugly, but expensive, headquarters in one of the choice parts of Sydney, Kirribilli. They’re a dab hand at tagging woolly academics; they’re adept at keeping an ear to the nations campuses. But when terrorists explode bombs in Sydney, ASIO hasn’t a clue”
The raid and subsequent events prompted security services to focus more on terrorism than before. Before the end of the year, a meeting between all Police Commissioners and Commonwealth officials established the first National Anti-Terrorist Plan, and much of the counter-terrorism architecture that has lasted to today. Later legislative changes ensured that terrorism would become one of ASIO’s prime security concerns.
This was a necessary change. Many acts of terrorism (both attempted and successful) were carried out in Australia over the following decades, by supporters of many causes: Ustasha, Ananda Marga, Armenian nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, far-right Australian nationalism, far-left extremism, opposition to the Family Court, anti-abortion zeolotry, and jihadism.
Fortunately, no single one of these post-Second World War acts of terrorism ever killed more than three people. Yet political violence is a serious, if intermittent, threat in Australia and several groups have plotted mass casualty attacks but been foiled by security agencies. Globally, terrorism remains a major transnational security concern, and will likely continue to.
Terrorism is a key theme of this blog, probably its most prominent theme. It’s represented by the second photo, which shows the aftermath of the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel in 1978. The attack occurred during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and killed three people. The perpetrators were never found. Instead, three people were wrongly imprisoned for the crime, having their convictions overturned seven years later.
Less directly, The Murphy raid also relates to the final theme of this blog, human rights.
A month after the Murphy raid, Yugoslavia announced that it had executed three of the Croatian-Australians accused of carrying out an incursion into the Communist state. The Australian government rightly objected, highlighting a dilemma that recurs today.
Australia has an international obligation to prevent its citizens or residents from posing security threats to other countries (more so now with passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373). However, Australia also has an international obligation to promote human rights and a duty to protect its citizens from mistreatment.
Australian citizens are often arrested overseas on suspicion of terrorist activities (Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks are merely the most well known examples). Sometimes they are tortured or face less-than-transparent judicial proceedings, creating both moral and practical problems for counter-terrorism cooperation.
Moreover, Australia itself has not been innocent of human rights abuses, sometimes carried out in the name of counter-terrorism and security. This was also seen in the aftermath of the Murphy raid.
The Whitlam and then Fraser governments rightly cracked down on Ustasha terrorism, but the entire Croatian-Australian community became stigmatised even though only a very small number of people were involved in the violence. This has obvious parallels to the situation faced by Australian Muslims more recently.
Also, Tito’s Yugoslavia was a brutally repressive regime and assassinated its opponents abroad, including in Australia, and certainly didn’t distinguish between peaceful and violent opponents. Some of the incidents attributed to the Ustasha were actually set-ups by Yugoslavia’s State Security Administration (UDBA) and led to dodgy prosecutions. UDBA’s willingness to manipulate Australia’s legal system to take down enemies is in some ways similar to certain Mossad activities, and to the suspicions that Sri Lanka might be feeding false information to ASIO about Tamil refugees.
Human rights have rarely been an explicit theme in my writing, with the exception of articles on refugees who are detained indefinitely after receiving adverse ASIO assessments. More often human rights are an implicit theme of this blog, particularly in posts concerning the role of security agencies in a democracy. As discussed above, without democratic oversight and accountability mechanisms, security services can pose a threat to their own citizens and to democracy.
Human rights are represented by the third photo, which is an ASIO surveillance photograph of citizens peacefully protesting against the Vietnam War. At the time such surveillance was routine. This was chosen to contrast with the first photo, which represented an example of legitimate ASIO activity.
What’s it all for?
So that’s how the new title and pictures encompass the key themes I’ve been blogging about for nearly a year. This blog will continue to address these themes, and continue focusing largely but not exclusively on Australia.
Thanks to all of you who’ve been reading this blog, if I didn’t have readers I probably wouldn’t continue doing it.
I had a few key goals when I started blogging: to get feedback on ideas while they were still in the formative stage, to make myself write more, and discuss issues of interest online in greater depth than I was able to on Twitter.
It’s been a success in those ways; my only disappointment is that I’ve posted far less frequently than I had planned. Otherwise I’ve greatly enjoyed it and hope you have enjoyed reading it and that you continue to.
Finally, the 40th anniversary of the Murphy Raid passed last Saturday without any mention in the media. This is a shame. Discussion of current security controversies should be informed by past experiences, and hopefully this blog can help that to happen.