There’s more to l’affaire Clark
Burtchett meeting misconstrued…
From an undiplomatic correspondent, NATION REVIEW, July 12-18, 1974
JEWISH STORIES are not part of the asemitic subculture of the upper reaches of foreign affairs. A pity, because the tale of Levi catching up with Cohen on a platform of the prewar Budapest railway station might help the department face the upcoming embarrassment of l’affaire Clark with a little oldworld detachment and insight.
The way they tell the Budapest story is that Levi, dismounting from the Bucharest train, caught sight of Cohen, ditto dismounted, ran after him, caught him by the furry scruff of his overcoat, shook him and exclaimed: “Cohen, you liar! You filthy liar! You told me you were going to Budapest, and here you are, in Budapest!”
This, in brief, is what happened in l’affaire Clark, on which the former diplomat and present foreign correspondent Gregory Clark lifted the edge of the curtain in an article on his encounters with the spooks, published in the Australian on July 6.
The part of l’affaire Clark so far disclosed relates to an attempt by the spooks to set up Clark and knock him down as a Soviet contact, after he had resigned from the department but before he had left it in the mid ’60s. The other part of the story. which covers Clark bringing off the intelligence coup of the decade but failing to convince the Australian government that he had the goods, still remains to be filled in by him.
In a version circulating in Canberra for some time, the setup story runs like this. One night, Clark, living in a Canberra apartment at the time, gets a phone call from s Russian speaker who wants to meet him that very night to give him important information. A fluent speaker of Russian himself, who had been stationed in our Moscow embassy and interpreted for visiting ministers, Clark let the man talk on, till he confirmed an impression of something odd afoot. The man’s vocabulary indicated that he hadn’t resided in the USSR for quite some time. Whatever else he was, he wasnt an envoy from the USSR embassy as he had hinted. Clark smelt a rat, told the Russian to phone again later and set about putting the rat’s owners on the spot.
His first move, seemingly innocent, was to call his own department’s “security officer” (the ASlO secondment) and asked him for instructions. The security officer agreed to get instructions. Hours went, and no instructions came. The Russian apparently didn’t call again either. No meeting took place.
By the next morning, Clark was convinced that somebody had tried to set him up. One can imagine the late night or early morning scene on the outskirts of Canberra: young diplomat meets mysterious foreigner. Cameras flash while a bundle of papers or a sizable parcel gets handed from one to the other. That proves what Clark was all along. The proof goes into the Clark file, for future use.
With this evidence in hand, Clark marched in on the departmental head and demanded an inquiry and apology. The inquiry was promised, but if it took place, Clark heard no result and received no apologies.
Why should anyone set up Colin Clark’s son as a communist agent? For one thing, Gregory Clark had become disenchanted with Australia’s anti China policy, said so and resigned over it. For another, there was the matter of Wilfred Burchett’s documents on South Vietnam – the diplomatic equivalent of the encounter of the two jews on the Budapest railway. Clark is apparently still reluctant to tell it how it was, but undiplomatic people remember it
somewhat like this:
While stationed at our Moscow embassy, Clark read in a Moscow newspaper that the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett had just arrived from a long tour of South Vietnam. This sounded a trifle odd, because the pro-American South Vietnamese government wasnt likely to admit a communist sympathiser whom the Australian government had refused a passport. Clark found out where Burchett was staying, arranged to meet him and got into a long conversation with him. Burchett had been in South Vietnam all right, courtesy of the National Liberation Front – and a long way down into South Vietnam what’s more, for the NLF had practical control of substantial parts of the countryside.
Clark told Burchett that he would of course write a report of his conversation for his government and Burchett intimated that as an Australian, he had no objection. In fact, Burchett proposed to write articles and a book on his journey in due course. But if Clark proposed to write a report, he might like to make it as full as possible. Burchett took the mildly incredulous young diplomat to his hotel, supplied him with exhaustive documentation of NLF power, and expressed the hope that having seen it all, the Australian government might think twice before getting entrapped in a lengthy war.
So off to Canberra went a package of red hot material on the NLF in the South Vietnamese countryside, verifiable by Australia’s own embassy staff and intelligence.
And what did we do? We asked the police force of the South Vietnamese government whether a certain village was under the control of the NLF. Of course not, the answer came back, the South Vietnamese government controlled it. If Burchett said anything he was most likely lying – and now we knew that he was. As for Clark even forwarding that stuff, he was obviously a fool, and since he by his own confession had asked to meet Burchett, quite likely one of “them” as well…
The fact that the US government, by late 1964, had a rather similar assessment of the extent of NLF control somehow got lost in subsequent events. And that visiting US envoys were pressing our government to prop up the domino didn’t have any bearing on the matter either. If anyone like Burchett said he was going to Budapest, he was a liar just because he finally showed up there. You couldn’t possibly believe him, and if you saw him on the platform, that was because he had lied twice over: he surely expected you to disbelieve him when he told you what he was doing.
So, l’affaire Clark had to continue after the Whitlam government came into office, to maintain the department’s infallibility. Clark by now speaks, reads and writes fluent Japanese as well as Chinese and Russian – while we have a hard time finding ambassadors with a command of one of these languages. Clark, moreover, had gone back to the ANU to do research on Japanese overseas investment – while Australia has difficulty in finding anyone who studied the subject at all. He isn’t, alas, our type and there is no job for him. His ultimate offence came after he left the foreign service: he became active in the Canberra branch of the ALP.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS, OR HOW AUSTRALIA’S SPIES ONCE MANAGED TO ENTRAP THEMSELVES.
The above story is a garbled account of what for me was a very curious, and ultimately career-changing, event. I have no idea who wrote it, and it is only partly accurate. The full account is as follows:
In April 1965, I returned to Canberra from Moscow and told the External Affairs Department people that I wanted to resign, partly for personal reasons but mainly because of disagreement with current Vietnam and China policies. The Department placed me on a form of in-house leave, allowing me to finish up a few personal tasks (preparing for and passing the exam for full Foreign Office qualifications in Russian was one). I had said I would be leaving in September to take up a promised ANU scholarship in post-graduate economics.
Sometime in July I received a telephone call from a Russian speaker claiming to be calling on behalf of a certain senior Soviet Embassy official. The caller said the official wanted to meet me urgently, that night, at 9pm. The Soviet embassy person would be waiting for me on the corner of such-and-such a street in the Canberra suburb of Campbell, I was told.
Why would a Soviet Embassy spy would want to try to contact me so soon after my return to Canberra? And why the urgency? I had met the named official only once briefly before, at a courtesy call in Moscow just before he left for his Canberra posting. I was no longer involved in Canberra-Soviet affairs. Did he really hope he could recruit me for some purpose?
Far more significantly, why did he use a White Russian refugee to call me? For in identifying the suburb of Campbell for the proposed meeting, the caller had used the pre-1917 revolution word ‘uezd’ (district), rather than the word, raiyon, used by every Russian-speaker educated in post-revolution USSR. In short, while the call might just possibly have been genuine, it was much more likely that the caller was one of the many White Russians used by Australian secret service, ASIO, in their never-ending efforts to subvert the Soviet Embassy. ASIO would have received my record of conversation when the official met me in Moscow, and knew that I knew the man.
But realising that I was probably at the sorry end of a typical spook stunt did not end my problems. My initial reaction had been to ignore the call. But I also had every reason to believe that ASIO was bugging my phone (the machine was behaving strangely; it is not every day that a mid-ranking, Russian-speaking diplomat arrives back from Moscow and says he is resigning in protest against Canberra’s anti-communist hysteria). Since I was still in the employment of the Australian government, I was deep in Catch 22 land.
Namely: If the call was genuine and I did not report it I could be nailed for breaking Canberra’s rules about reporting all contacts from the Soviet enemy. If I ignored the call because I had realised it was probably an ASIO stunt, I would still be in trouble since there was no way the phone buggers would know the reasons why I had already realised the call was fake and should be ignored. But if I reported the call, and it was genuine, then the spooks would have me in their black books forever, as someone whom the Soviets had at some time felt they had good reason to deal with.
My one let-out was to report the call and in the process confirm that the call was in fact false.
My first move was immediately to contact the resident ASIO representative in Canberra, John Elliot, a former ASIO official I had known in Hongkong who had been sent there to check White Russian emigrants to Australia. I also rang the then head of administration in External Affairs, Keith Brennan, a former colleague. I told both of them about the call (omitting the White Russian suspicion) and said that in the interests of Australia’s determination to catch Soviet spies I should go to the proposed rendezvous to meet the man and find out what he was up to. ASIO was welcome to cover the event clandestinely, if it wanted to.
What I did not tell them was that in the process of doing all this, I would also have the chance to get to the bottom of the uezd/raiyon mystery.
Both gentlemen readily agreed (which told me that if the affair was a spook stunt, then Eliott clearly had not been briefed by ASIO in advance). I headed off to the Campbell site, as directed. Sure enough, no Soviet official emerged. Nor was there any ASIO surveillance, as far as I could gather. In short, it was almost certain that the telephone call had been fake.
Now it was my turn to put ASIO into Catch 22 land. I had earlier been invited to a routine Soviet Embassy reception. So I decided to contact Elliot again and tell him I planned to go. I also asked for permission at the reception to approach the official in question and tell him how sorry I was that he had missed the rendezvous. If Eliott came back saying yes, I could embarrass ASIO by confirming almost for certain that all along the official had not wanted to contact me and that the original call had been a ASIO stunt. If Eliott said no, then this was even clearer proof that ASIO had been playing funny games and did not want to be exposed. When Elliot came back saying no, I had the final proof I needed that the whole event was indeed an ASIO stunt.
But this left me in a nasty position via-a-vis External Affairs. As their employee I had been obliged to report the incident. But I had to assume they had had no way of knowing whether or not I had in fact been a target of an ASIO stunt,. This meant I had been forced by their rules effectively to incriminate myself. For if, as seemed quite likely at the time, I would want in the future to resume some involvement with the Department (otherwise they and I would lose the investment in my Chinese and Russian) it would remain on their books that for some reason the Soviet Embassy had had at one time probably held some interest in me, even though it was not followed up. I would permanently have to be regarded with some suspicion, making any future career or even serious dealings with the Department very difficult.
I contacted Brennan and told him my reasons for believing that I was the victim of an ASIO stunt. I then said the Department was morally obliged to check with ASIO to find out what really had been going on. They did not have to tell me the result. But they had to have some record for themselves, to clear the books so to speak.
This they refused to do, bluntly. At that point I decided, equally bluntly, that my die was cast. The Department head, James Plimsoll, had earlier suggested I could return to the Department ‘once the Vietnam thing is over’. At the time this had left me in quandary since if after leaving the Department I then came out openly criticising Canberra’s policies over Vietnam and China, as I wanted to do, I would be closing off the option of accepting Plimsoll’s offer in the future. But the Department’s reaction to the uezd affair made it clear to me that this option was now out of the question.
Three months later, shortly after taking up my ANU scholarship, I did come out, with a prophetic (if I say so myself) anti-Vietnam War article in The Australian entitled ‘Australia and the Lost War.’ It was the start of a career of anti-war protest that was to bring me ultimately to Japan. And to think it all began with one misplaced Russian word — uezd rather than raiyon.
Postscript: For me this was not the only example of ASIO incompetence when it came to Soviet affairs.
A few months earlier, immediately after returning from Moscow, I had gone to Melbourne for the routine ASIO debriefing given to all returnees from the communist bloc. ASIO already knew I planned to resign over Vietnam/China policies. So from the start the atmosphere was hostile. Worse was to come.
I was discussing with ASIO’s alleged top Soviet expert a report I had made of a trip to Odessa in 1964. In it, I had noted that the local KGB headquarters were close to the hotel we were staying in. Said Soviet expert suddenly turned interrogator: “How did you know where the KGB headquarters were in Odessa,” he asked aggressively. I had to explain to said expert that the KGB operated as a public organisation in the Soviet Union, with a big brass plate saying Komitet Gosudarstvenniy Bezopastnostii outside the front door of its buildings.