The idea of CIA and general US covert involvement in the Dismissal is something “easy for people in the arts to believe”, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston argue in their recent tome on the event, The Dismissal. The suggestion of such involvement occupies little of the book, but it’s fair to say that one of the principal purposes of the work is to dispel such suggestions. In this, the authors are assisted by a process of forgetting in Australia, which has complex roots. They’re also assisted by a process of “considering the evidence” that leaves out most of the evidence that would contradict their case.

The case is easily enough stated: the Dismissal occurred because a governor-general with a history of right-wing affiliations used a parliamentary stand-off on supply to terminate a government that had, over the course of 1975, become far more critical and distancing from the US alliance than most observers would have thought possible (given Whitlam’s pro-US stance). This distancing included the possible termination of US spy bases in Australia and the taming of spy agencies ASIO and ASIS, with outside heads not beholden to the trans-Pacific brotherhood.

Together with those motives, Kerr had become far closer to the Liberal Party than Whitlam perceived when he appointed him; Kerr genuinely believed the loans crisis to show a government incapable of governing; Kerr was also worried that it would come out that he had signed off, in Executive Council in December 1974, on the initial $4 billion loans search, even though it might have been unconstitutional; Kerr was beholden to John Atwill, a Fraser ally, for reviving his (Kerr’s) career; and Kerr was worried that Whitlam would sack him first, depriving him of what was, quite literally, a princely lifestyle (Jenny Hocking’s exposition of this, in her two-volume Whitlam biography, is the most comprehensive of such accounts).

Kelly and Bramston emphasise Kerr as an unconstitutional actor, and they follow Hocking, and add a little, in documenting just how much Kerr was meeting with Fraser, High Court chief justice Garfield Barwick and judge Anthony Mason in the lead-up to the Dismissal — and in a flagrantly undemocratic fashion. No one can deny that the Dismissal was driven by conspiracy, on the basis of this evidence — the question is simply whether security issues were involved.

Kelly and Bramston try to silo this clear conspiracy from wider events involving security and the US alliance. They do so simply by separating out the security crisis from wider events, even though, at the time, it was clearly not separated. On November 2, two weeks into the supply crisis, Whitlam had announced, outside of Parliament, that leader of the National Country Party (NCP) Doug Anthony was friends with a CIA agent and the NCP was receiving US covert funding for future election campaigns. From then until Parliament sat — on November 11 — the media was filled with exposure of that agent (Richard Stallings, who established the Pine Gap spy base in Australia) and others. The corridors of power echoed with panic, as Arthur Tange, head of defence, tried to head off Whitlam’s threat to name Stallings officially in Parliament.

On November 8 the CIA east-Asia chief sent a cable to his ASIO liaison threatening the discontinuation of intelligence-sharing; Tange (a former department head to Barwick at Foreign Affairs [then External Affairs], and an admirer of Fraser as a defence minister) had Defence chief scientist John Farrands call Kerr and tell him the contents of the cable. Farrands, the Australian with the greatest knowledge of Pine Gap’s precise functions (total surveillance and missile warning capabilities the Soviets didn’t possess) had met with Kerr twice since the supply crisis commenced.

All this, except the November 8 Farrands call, is a matter of recorded history. Whitlam had moved the ASIO head and sacked the ASIS head within the previous two months; the accusation against Stallings and Doug Anthony was primarily political in intent — to make the opposition look as sleazy as the loans affair was making the government look, and to thus neutralise the idea of legitimacy to the blocking of supply. It was working, too. A CIA agent, marvellously named Dunning Idle IV, had been planted by the CIA in the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO), yet another of our spy agencies. His communique, sent as part of CIA director William Colby’s daily intelligence briefing, stated that Whitlam was widely seen as having prevailed by the first part of November, that Fraser was losing support publicly, and that some Coalition senators might defect and vote for supply.

So even if you deny a “strong” interpretation to US involvement, it’s simply history that Whitlam had thrown the CIA into the centre of the mix. To hive it off into a separate chapter is pure distortion of events. Kelly and Bramston need to do this to give the impression that the government and public service were occupied only by the supply crisis, when it is clear from the memoirs of Tange and John Menadue that the security crisis was occupying time, energy and angst.

To sideline the security crisis is a distortion of history. To omit John Kerr’s security background, as Kelly and Bramston do, is worse. Kerr, a leftist, anti-Stalinist lawyer in the ’30s, had, in WWII, joined the Directorate, a group of the Sydney Uni in-crowd assembled to do intelligence and propaganda work. On its behalf, he negotiated with the US Office of Strategic Services (the CIA forerunner) and other groups to enact a complex plan to transfer British Borneo to Australian control at the end of the war. In 1946 he was on Doc Evatt’s staff, basically running the UN in its initial weeks. By 1949 his anti-Stalinism had become anti-communism. He joined CIA front group the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom (AACF) that year, the same time he ran the case for Laurie Short, an ironworkers’ union leadership candidate who had challenged a union election victory in court. Short’s challenge marked the beginning of an influx of US money into the right wing of Australian unions.

Short toured the US to acclaim as part of one of the many “study” programs by which such money was supplied. Kerr himself, now a leading Sydney barrister, got money from the Asia Foundation, another CIA front, taking some of it even after the CIA’s involvement had been revealed in the 1960s. He ran unsuccessfully for head of the AACF in the early ’60s, after which his career fell into the doldrums and was rescued by John Atwill, a mentor of Malcolm Fraser’s, who got him made chief justice of NSW — in which role he was the last judge to jail a trade unionist (the Maoist Communist Clarrie O’Shea) for defying the arbitration courts.

None of this appears in Kelly and Bramston’s book. None of it. Kerr’s membership of the AACF alone is mentioned — but not that it was a CIA front, and that Kerr ran for the leadership of it (and thus knew its CIA connections years before they were made public in the late 1960s). Indeed, Kelly has even censored himself — in his 1976 book The Unmaking of Gough he noted Kerr’s involvement in the bizarre British Borneo venture (the purpose of transferring British Borneo to Australian control was to build a forward defence empire for Australia; in 1972, Whitlam would disconcert Tange and others by withdrawing 800 Australian troops from Singapore — thus discovering yet another spy agency that had been concealed from politicians, the Defence Signals Directorate, which had a listening post there).

Omitting Kerr’s background is absurd, and its effect is obvious — it doesn’t allow the reader of the book to put together the two halves of the story: Kerr’s anti-communism, his acceptance of the idea of a permanent clandestine security establishment and his willingness to work with US front groups, combined with the actual security crisis that raged through late October and November 1975. Any reasonable reader would see the strong likelihood that Kerr sacked a PM and dissolved Parliament to ensure a certain foreign policy result, in whole or in part. That cannot be allowed, because that represents the event as a political coup determined by Cold War politics — and without the skullduggerous ideas of Kerr getting a phone call from Langley on November 10 with full instructions or any such nonsense straw men.

In pursuit of this Kelly and Bramston’s chapter on the events is filled with errors. Let’s go through a few such:

Claim: “In his memoirs, Kerr repudiated one of the pivotal claims of the conspiracy theorists — that he had been associated with the intelligence community. He said of the World War Two organisation the Directorate that ‘it never did intelligence work, nor did I’.” (p.258)

Truth: Factually incorrect. Kerr may have made such claim, but the Directorate was transferred to the Division of Military Intelligence in 1942, a fact recorded in the official Commonwealth History of WWII, and easily checkable. Kerr’s membership of a sub-group of the Directorate, the British Borneo Control Authority, is equally a matter of record — in which capacity he travelled to London and the US on behalf of the Directorate. According to Richard Hall’s The Real John Kerr, based in part on interviews with Kerr’s Directorate colleagues, he met with the OSS and with British authorities, while at the same time giving a false account of his negotiations to the Australian high commissioner in the UK, former PM Stanley Bruce.

Claim: “The central problem with the conspiracy theory has been the absence of any link between the 1975 security/intelligence crisis and the 1975 political/constitutional crisis. They exist as parallel yet unrelated events.” (p.258-9)

Truth: Factually incorrect. Supply was denied on October 16, 1975, with Fraser citing as “reprehensible acts” the misleading of Parliament by Rex Connor concerning his knowledge of the continued activities of loans agent Tirath Khemlani “on behalf of” the Australian government. A week later, Whitlam sacked William Robertson, head of ASIS, because the organisation had been running a political agent in newly independent East Timor, contrary to Whitlam’s instructions. Fraser then cited the sacking of Robertson as an additional reprehensible circumstance justifying removal of the government. Whitlam then used the CIA accusations against Anthony on November 2 to create a new political front. Publicly, therefore the crises were linked from the start. Behind the scenes they were, too.

Tange worked to try and get Doug Anthony to withdraw his challenge to Whitlam to declare Stallings a CIA agent (Stallings was a CIA agent, but Anthony didn’t know that), and to get Whitlam to withdraw his threat. He failed. When the US State Department declared that Stallings was a Defence Department employee, Tange urged Whitlam to “not contradict” the story — in other words, to mislead Parliament for security purposes. Defence scientist Farrands’ direct communication with Kerr on October 28, November 3 and November 8 (the latter two disputed by some) also makes a clear connection. Kelly and Bramston include much of the detail of the security crisis, but they omit the citing of Robertson’s sacking — a clear link — and they also omit a statement from Brian Toohey (in a 1977 article that they cite for other purposes) that Whitlam had told him that Kerr had questioned him more closely about the sacking of William Robertson than on any other matter.

Claim: “Farrands issued a comprehensive denial, in particular saying he had never discussed with Kerr any American activities in Australia. Farrands and Tange … launched legal action against Fairfax over the article [by Toohey] … The newspaper backtracked in part on the allegations.” (p.267)

Truth: Toohey reported that Farrands had told him, at a parliamentary garden party (at which, he says, Kelly saw Farrands talking to him) that he had phoned Kerr on November 8 on Tange’s behalf to alert him to the contents of the CIA cable. But neither Toohey nor The Australian Financial Review ever backtracked on the claims. They simply issued a statement of clarification, making clear that they were not accusing Farrands of acting disloyally. Farrands discontinued the action, and never legally challenged the assertion he had met with Kerr. One reason why? Toohey. Leaving, he ran into Gough Whitlam arriving at the garden party. He reported the conversation to Whitlam, and such a time-proximate report would have undermined a libel action. The Toohey-Whitlam conversation goes unmentioned by Bramston and Kelly.

Claim: “Tange’s biographer, the historian Peter Edwards, had unfettered access to Tange’s papers and concludes he is ‘innocent’ of any impropriety. ‘It was utterly foreign to his character and credo as a public servant to be involved in a conspiracy against his elected government,’ Edwards writes.” (p.267)

Truth: This is demonstrably untrue about Tange. It’s a matter of recorded fact that he advised Whitlam to not contradict the US State Department’s assertion that Stallings was a Defence employee, rather than the CIA agent he was. Tange wanted to protect the Australian Defence Department’s list of CIA agents working in Australia, which had names on it that were not on the Foreign Affairs Department’s list of same — the most prominent of which was Stallings. How much propriety and public service credo did Tange show there?

Claim: “Kerr disputed reports he was briefed by security officials on Pine Gap or other intelligence installations by any Australian intelligence agency in the weeks prior to the dismissal. ‘I was getting ready to deal with the biggest constitutional crisis Australia had ever faced,’ Kerr told Henderson.” (p.268-9)

Truth: Untruth and legal hairsplitting. The Vice-Regal record of the time shows that Kerr was engaged in multiple activities over the period. The idea that he was working on the supply crisis is absurd.

One of those activities was his meeting with John Farrands on October 28, also in the Vice-Regal record. This was allegedly part of Kerr’s program of meeting senior public servants to “find out what they did”. Farrands wasn’t an “intelligence officer” per se, but he was head of the all Defence research and communications, and of Australia’s access to knowledge about the workings of Pine Gap and the other bases. He knew more about what Pine Gap did than any other Australian.

Another activity that Kerr managed to find time for was the Melbourne Cup, which he attended on November 4. Andrew Clark reported that on that day, Kerr had met with Farrands at the Watsonia spy base in the north of Melbourne — a spy base run by the Defence Signals Directorate, the Australian equivalent of the NSA (and in a distant way, the distant ancestor of the Directorate Kerr worked for, housed in the same place, Victoria Barracks). Tange, in his memoirs, Defence Policy-Making (which Kelly and Bramston don’t cite — the memoirs were published posthumously in 2008) possibly gave the game away about the meeting when he notes that Farrands met with Kerr in November.

Claim: “[Christopher] Boyce acknowledged he could not ‘prove’ the CIA had any direct involvement in the dismissal.” (p.267)

Truth: Boyce was a junior worker for TRW, a subcontractor for the CIA, processing communications from Pine Gap, among other places. Working in an underground vault, the young staff had no supervision, and read their way through cables. Boyce and a friend then tried to sell some to the Soviets, were caught and jailed for decades (Boyce denied the Soviet sale was his idea). At his trial, Boyce testified that cables from Pine Gap made clear that information about it and from it wasn’t being passed on to Australians, and that it contained extensive reports of US infiltration and corruption of the right wing of the Australian union movement and the designation of John Kerr as “our man”. Boyce gained nothing but extra jail time from such testimony; had he kept quiet, he would have spent fewer years in prison.

Boyce used the phrase “our man Kerr” in his testimony. The phrase was used by both CIA whistleblower Victor Marchetti and former agent Joseph Trento in their interviews with John Pilger. Put together with the fact that, as a matter of record, Kerr took money from CIA fronts after they were exposed as such, the evidence all points in the same direction, and strengthens each other (unless Bramston and Kelly are alleging — gasp — a conspiracy!). The idea that Boyce or others couldn’t “prove” involvement means they have no signed confession from Kerr, James Jesus Angleton and Gerald Ford saying “We did it! We toppled the Whitlam government!”. They deny all evidence, even when it corroborates, by accepting nothing less than that. It’s an absurd standard,  and it’s the opposite of what they apply in the rest of the book, to the conspiracy they do want to highlight — between Kerr, Fraser, Barwick and Mason.

Claim: “Even Margaret Whitlam thought the CIA was involved in the dismissal. She told journalist Candace Sutton in April 1991: ‘I do. He [Gough] doesn’t. As an old thriller reader I’m prepared to believe it’.” (p.270)

Truth: Misconstruction by omission. This is Whitlam rejecting the “call from Langley” scenario. But it’s a matter of record that, in 1975, Gough Whitlam accused the CIA of funding opposition parties on a systemic basis. (Both parties were cash-depleted by two elections; both were gearing up for another epic struggle. Cash was crucial.) It’s a matter of record that in 1976 and 1977, he read into Hansard the November 8, 1975, cable from the CIA to ASIO (the so-called “Shackleygram”), and called for a royal commission into CIA activities in Australian politics. To leave this out is just bad history, and a traducement of Whitlam.

Claim: “[Historian, James] Curran shows, from the documents, that Australia came close to losing the alliance due to a dramatic shift in foreign policy initiated in the early days of the Whitlam government that upset the Nixon administration.” (p.269-70)

Truth: Misleading omission and misconstruction of the facts, and, to a degree, of Curran’s rendering of them. Whatever relation there was between Nixon and Whitlam soured when he and Labor criticised the US bombings of Hanoi over Christmas 1972. But it was not attitude that nearly lost the alliance. It was a combination of foreign policy shifts together with intelligence shifts that put the US on emergency footing. Here’s then-CIA counter-intelligence head James Jesus Angleton, interviewed by Ray Martin in 1978 (the interview was arranged by the ABC in response to criticism from the Fraser government that two ABC radio programs had given a biased view of the US involvement in the Dismissal. Angleton’s remarks were perhaps not what they had in mind):

“[Whitlam’s election] did not affect our relationship until his attorney-general Murphy barged in and tried to destroy the delicate mechanism of internal security, which had been built on patiently since the end of WW II … You don’t see the jewels of counter-intelligence being placed in jeopardy by a party that has extensive historical contacts in Eastern Europe, that was seeking a new way for Australia … seeking roads to Peking …”

This concern clearly matches those expressed in the Shackley cable, and they would have been amplified by Whitlam’s appointment of a non-spy interim head of ASIO. At some point, for would-be historians to leave out stuff like this is just tiresome, absurd, a disservice to us all. Do they think in the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden that anyone is now innocent of the power structures of the post-war Western world? Do they think no one will notice?

Were Kelly and Bramston confident of the lack of evidence for external involvement in the Dismissal, they’d put it all in, and debunk it. Readers will have to make up their own minds as to why they’ve got so much wrong, misconstructed or omitted. People in the arts? Kelly and Bramston appear to have enrolled in a creative writing degree.

Coming soon. The Dismissal: B-sides and rarities.

This article draws on research and writing by: Andrew Clark, Phil Frazer, Jenny Hocking, John Pilger, Brian Toohey, Marian Wilkinson and others.

*This is part of a series on the Dismissal. Read part onepart two and part three here.

Peter Fray

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