Chapter 12 – A Bungled Entrapment Attempt


1. My Foolish Disclosure
2. ASIO Dogs Unleashed
3. The Suspicious Telephone Call
4. The Fake Telephone Call
5: ASIO: The Bumblers
6. Final Decision: Out of EA

It happened like this:

Having arranged with EA for my study leave, I had decided (foolishly in retrospect) to tell the Department about the Podolsk incident. 

At the back of my mind was the idealistic notion that they would appreciate knowing the details of yet another KGB operation against their Moscow embassy. But an even bigger factor was the need to clear the record about the reasons for my wanting to leave Moscow in a hurry.

All that EA had had to go on was some agitated correspondence from me turning down the New York posting, wanting to travel to China by train, and some jumbled remarks about a lovesick Moscow maid. 

None of those details would enhance a future career as a diplomat if I was to return after a few years at the ANU.

I needed to, and wanted to, get on the record exactly what had been happening to me in those crucial last few months in Moscow.

1. My Foolish Disclosure

I approached Peter Henderson, then head of EA administration (and later EA permanent head), to give him the true story. 

But he wanted no part of it, and immediately summoned ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) people to question me. 

For the best part of a day I was politely, but thoroughly, grilled in an ASIO safe room close to Canberra’s Civic Center.

At the time I accepted that this ASIO grilling was probably inevitable. But soon after I began to realise that my car was being tailed (my Moscow experience had made me very sensitive to back-mirror sightings). My telephone was also beginning to make strange noises.

In short, my offer to tell the truth about Moscow had backfired, badly. 

2. ASIO Dogs Unleashed

The ASIO dogs had been unleashed, and had leaped at the chance to home in on a former Moscow-based diplomat, particularly one who could speak two dangerous communist languages. 

Finally they could get their teeth into one of those pinko EA types, and one who could not fight back.

I had left a life of being under constant suspicion and harassment on one side of the Iron Curtain. Now I was getting much the same treatment on the other side. 


But worse was to follow, namely the botched ASIO attempt to trap me into incriminating myself which I have written up elsewhere. But let me summarise the details.

3. The Suspicious Telephone Call

One evening soon after moving to the ANU I had a phone call in Russian from someone claiming to be an employee of the Soviet Embassy. 

He said that a senior Embassy official (Petrov, whom I had met in Moscow before his posting to Canberra) wanted to talk to me urgently and could I be at the corner of such and such a street in the nearby suburb of Campbell at 9pm. 

Petrov would be there to meet me.

I was puzzled. I realised that the KGB might still be wanting to do some kind of follow-up on me as a result of the Volodya affair. 

But why try to do it in such a crude and obvious way? And the voice on the phone was elderly – strange for a Soviet Embassy employee.

Then the penny dropped. For in describing the alleged rendezvous in the suburb of Campbell the caller had used the Russian pre-revolutionary word ‘uezd’ for suburb. (The current word is ‘raiyon.’) 

In other words, the caller was almost certainly an elderly White Russian employed by ASIO. 

I was in a classic Catch 22 situation. And not just one Catch 22. Two, or maybe even three.

For if the call was genuine, it would very likely have been monitored by the ASIO people. If it was not genuine, then obviously ASIO knew about it.

In other words, if it was genuine and I had followed up on it – if I had gone to the rendezvous to see if it was genuine – ASIO would have been able to blacklist me as either an active or would-be Soviet agent.

But even if it was not genuine, as someone still on the books as a public servant I would be on another blacklist – the one reserved for public servants who failed to report attempted contacts by Communist bloc officials.

But even if I reported the call, I would go on yet another list – this time the list of people whom the Soviets felt they could use for un-Australian activities – even if I had done nothing to follow up.

There was only one way out: I would immediately report the incident to John Elliot, the then ASIO representative in Canberra, whom I had known earlier in Hong Kong where he had posed as an Immigration official. 

One of his jobs there was monitoring the movement of White Russian refugees from China into Australia.

I would ask for an immediate meeting with him and with the senior EA official in charge of personnel affairs (Keith Brennan – whom I had known earlier from Taiwan) since I was still theoretically a member of his department.

I would tell them about the mysterious phone call, and suggest it was my patriotic duty to follow up and go to the suggested rendezvous to discover if indeed the Soviets were wanting to use me for some anti-Australia plot. 

I would promise to report everything back to them. In the process I would be able to find out if the call was genuine or not.

Both agreed that I should follow up on the call (in the presence of Brennan it would have been hard for the ASIO man to say no). And when I arrived and waited at the purported rendezvous it was obvious that the call had been false. 

4. The Fake Telephone Call

Why? Because if Elliot had thought the call was real, he would have posted unobtrusive cars near the site to monitor everything. 

But there was not a single car in sight. 

In short, he had known from the beginning that it was phoney and had probably organised it himself using one of his White Russian contacts. 

From the start it had been an ASIO plot to incriminate me, whatever I did. It was the same kind of slimy experience as one expected to have on the other side of the iron curtain

It was also humiliating. Not only was I now seen as a legitimate target for KGB-style stunts; the Australian version of the KGB was so incompetent that it had to rely on White Russian relics who could not even speak the contemporary Russian needed to handle their stunts.

5. ASIO: The Bumblers

ASIO’s inferiority complexes towards External Affairs were well-known. Many of its staff were people who had failed to get into EA. And while we EA types traveled the world, most of the ASIO people had to hang out for most of their careers in boring Melbourne.

Their job required them also to be rabid hawks; there was no room in their ranks for softie pacifists. As the would-be guardians of Australian security, they liked to see us EA people as cosmopolitan, pinko softies vulnerable to communist wiles. 

Now, thanks to my willingness to tell them about Podolsk, they had had one of these types delivered directly into their incompetent hands. A rare pleasure for them, no doubt, since normally ASIO people were kept on a tight leash when it came to moving against EA people.

In those days ASIO’s eccentricities were well-known. No one wanted to have them interfering in foreign policy making. 

But if someone even talked about experiences the other side of the iron curtain, that was different. They could climb in, like hungry dogs.

Soon after I was able to finesse Elliot a second time, this time by suggesting to him that I followup with ‘Petrov’ about the failed Campbell rendezvous when I met the real Petrov at a Soviet Embassy reception to which I had been invited in the following week.

If Elliot said yes, then it was possible the call had been genuine and Petrov had backed out at the last moment. 

If he said no, then it was clear it was a ASIO stunt from the beginning which he did not want to be revealed. 

Elliot’s negative reaction told me all I wanted to know.

(Years later, the organizer of an investigation into ASIO by the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, told me the UK-born Elliot had been convinced that with me he had discovered an Australian Philby in the EA ranks.But he had died soon after. 

May he rest in peace. I had always liked him; his UK background gave him a sophistication rarely seen in ASIO people. Sad to see him so mangled by the employment he chose.)

6. Final Decision: Out of E.A.

But there was still one loose end. For in reporting the call to Brennan, I would automatically have incriminated myself with EA. 

Being out of the ASIO loop, EA would have to assume that it was possible the call was genuine even though I had done what I could to prove it was not genuine. 

None of that would look very nice on my CV if I decided ‘after the Vietnam thing was over’ to resume a diplomatic career.

I wrote to Plimsoll asking for the Department to contact ASIO, to check whether I had indeed been the target of an ASIO exercise.

I said EA did not need to tell me the result of the enquiry. But they did need to get the true story for their own records. 

Otherwise there would always be a notation on my file saying that at some stage the Soviet embassy might have regarded me as a potential asset, even if I had not cooperated.

Plimsoll’s point blank refusal to do anything was the last straw I needed to make me decide to get out of the system. 

A week later I lodged my formal resignation from External Affairs. There would be no waiting for the ‘ Vietnam thing’ to end. 

I would be fully committed to the Vietnam debate just beginning to unfold.