The Costs of Being a Double Agent
Review by ROSS FITZGERALD
SPIES and SPARROWS:
ASIO AND THE COLD WAR
Melbourne University Press
2022, pp 270, pb $34.99
How do you recognize a spy? We’ve all watched so many spy thrillers that we probably think we know. And the point that sometimes comes across in espionage fiction on the page and the screen is that it’s sometimes hard to tell who a spook is and who isn’t.
A case in point in Professor Philip Deery’s compelling book Spies and Sparrows is a white-haired, softly spoken, suburban Adelaide housewife, Anne Neill.
In the 1950s most people who knew her, regarded her as “a fluttery old lady”, according to Deery. But, at the time, Neill was working as a secret agent for Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which had been established in March 1949 by Labor prime minister Ben Chifley. A demure double-agent, no less.
“This inconspicuous, middle-aged widow was an ideal recruit, whose self-sacrifice and dedication almost knew no bounds,” Deery writes.
From 1950 to 1958 Neill was one of ASIO’s most effective penetration agents, or ‘sparrows’. When her career in espionage began, she was already in her mid-fifties. Her motivation? For years, she had regarded communism in Australia and abroad as a threat to the Christian faith, British Empire and monarchy, all of which she held in high esteem.
The intriguing tale of Neill’s dedicated undercover work is one of eight extremely revealing biographical studies of agents, informants, and those who were targeted by ASIO.
Neill’s story is one of the most fascinating. Her husband Roy had been gassed in World War I, contributing to his premature death. This sparked in her a concern to avoid warfare and international violence. So in 1949, Neill joined a peace organisation in Adelaide. But when she received material that she regarded as mere Soviet propaganda, she contacted South Australia’s Attorney-General, asking what she could do about the scourge of communism.
When an ASIO officer promptly arrived at Neill’s home and asked if she would attend a local peace conference, “just to test the water”, she readily accepted the offer.
From then on, Neil joined – and spied on – numerous communist front organisations. Apart from the Peace Council of which she became a prominent member, these included the New Theatre, the Eureka Youth League, and the Union of Australian Women. In 1951, she had officially joined the Communist Party of Australia and thereafter regularly attended CPA meetings.
According to Deery, her primary ASIO handler was “extremely impressed with both the volume and the value” of the intelligence that she gathered .
Although Neill was paid five pounds 10 shillings a week, plus two pounds each week for out-of-pocket expenses, money was not particularly important. “Her dedication, her commitment, her assiduousness made her calling almost a moral one … that impelled her to sacrifice nearly a decade of life to a higher cause,” Deery writes.
Neill certainly made herself very valuable to the CPA in South Australia, whose comrades reportedly found her to be charming and dedicated.
A leading long-time party member on whom Neill spied was Beryl Miller, who recently confided to Deery, “She was very motherly. She spoke very softly. Never raised her voice like me. And a lot of people … held her in good regard.”
While Neill worked diligently as a CPA member, she also penned hundreds of security reports about her comrades and their activities. She was such a dedicated spy that, after she suffered several illnesses, her ASIO handlers suggested that she take a holiday. But Neill responded, “No. Communists don’t take holidays!”
In 1952, as a CPA delegate she attended the World Peace Congress in Vienna. She then visited Moscow. This was the first time that an ASIO agent had entered enemy territory. So having an operative, as Derry unforgettably puts it, “inside the belly of the beast”, was a considerable coup.
Neill’s visit to the Soviet Union also impressed her Australian comrades, especially when on her return to Adelaide she spoke enthusiastically about the many virtues of the Soviet experiment.
In November 1953, Neill attended Soviet National Day celebrations at the Russian embassy in Canberra. There she had private meetings with Vladimir Petrov, who a few months later defected with his wife Evdokia in May 1954.
The timing raised suspicion within the CPA, whose senior party members interrogated Neill at length. She steadfastly held her nerve and for four more years continued work as a seemingly loyal comrade and a devoted ASIO agent. But in 1958, after the mother of a committee member expressed her suspicions that Neill was working undercover, her handlers pulled the plug. As it happens, the confidant was a secret ASIO agent herself!
But after years of secrecy, in 1962 she outed herself. Neill wanted people to know that she had joined the CPA only to help protect Australia and the free world from the menace of communism.
Before she died in 1986 Neill published a series of revealing articles in the Adelaide ‘Sunday Mail’, the Melbourne ‘Herald’, and the Sydney ’Sun-Herald’. One widely read piece trumpeted the headline ‘SECRET SERVICE HOUSEWIFE’. According to Ms Miller: “It was confirmation for what we had thought for a very long time.” But even this lifelong communist had a grudging respect for the person who spied on her: “She worked very hard and was a woman who did a job for her cause. That you can’t deny.”
Phillip Deery’s meticulously researched and lucidly written study details the sometimes deleterious and damaging consequences of spying in early ASIO operations. This applied to the targets of intelligence and citizens branded subversive, who were often unaware of the reasons why they were targeted. But it also applied to those persuaded to inform or spy on behalf of our security agencies. To some, the personal costs of being involved with ASIO were extremely damaging.
In Chapter Five of this fine book, Deery highlights the story of Evdokia Petrov. She is best remembered for the 1954 news photo when at Sydney airport, and missing a red shoe, she was surrounded by two menacingly large Russian security agents, and forced to board a plane to return to Russia. However, when the plane stopped at Darwin to refuel, she was met by Commonwealth officials who rescued her from her captors.
Until post-defection debriefings occurred from September 1955 to December 1956, Evdokia was regarded as incidental to the defection of Vladimir Petrov. However, Deery convincingly argues that Evdokia was a far more effective and accomplished spy than her husband. Evdokia’s expertise in ‘sigint’ (signals intelligence) was at least as important as the information Vladimir had gleaned from his unrestricted access to safes at the Russian embassy. Evdokia was “a highly trained and deeply enculturated intelligence officer” who stated in an interview with Robert Manne in July 1996: “I was a very devoted Russian KBG person.” She added, she was “still very, very sorry that I made a decision against my family in Moscow.” Indeed, she yearned for Russia “because it is our motherland…I love Russia. Russia is a good country, good people.”
In Spies and Sparrows Deery documents that she more than he suffered the loneliness of exile and worried more for the safety of her friends and family back in the Soviet Union. Moreover, while her husband numbed his anxieties with the excessive use of alcohol, Evdokia was constantly fearful of being taken out of Australia, or assassinated, as had happened most notably to Leon Trotsky. She acutely understood “the long reach and long memory of the Ministry of State Security (now known as the KGB) which never forgave defectors.”
Although Evdokia remained unhappy about the paltry 5000 pounds compensation given at the time of defection, Deery explains that “ASIO believed in her and continued to provide ongoing support until her death (in 2002).” Although her adjustment to life under assumed names in a nondescript house in the quiet Melbourne suburb of Bentleigh East was often difficult, ASIO eventually secured her paid employment.
While this gave Evdokia a modicum of self-respect and financial independence, she constantly expressed a wish to return to Russia. This was because she believed that “things couldn’t be worse for her (there) than they are here.” Deery explains that, in this context, prime minister Robert Gordon Menzies’ claim that his government had been “successful in establishing the Petrov’s in their civilian lives” was not entirely true.
Evdokia reported to ASIO that her husband, who was continuing his alcoholic drinking bouts, was “impossible to live with.” However, stripped by her handlers of the choice to move elsewhere, she continued living with him until 1974 when Vladimir suffered a series of strokes and was admitted to the Mount Royal Geriatric Hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Parkville. There he remained until his death in 1991. Because of massive media attention at that time, Evdokia was unable to attend his funeral. Describing their life together, she unambiguously told a researcher that “we had a very, very, very, very hard lonely life.”
When Evdokia died aged 88, Deery explains it was ASIO who arranged her funeral. Those whose attended, included its Director-General Charles Spry, along with a number of the agency’s officers, as well as her sister, who some time earlier had come from Russia, and her next-door neighbours. Evdokia was cremated at Springvale crematorium, which contains a plaque for ‘Maria Anna Allyson’, a name given to her by ASIO.
Chapter Eight of Spies and Sparrows, focuses on the life and activities of another ‘sparrow’, the Czechoslovakian-born Maximilian Wechsler.
According to Deery, when Wechsler became an undercover agent, “he was young, zealous and naive.” His experiences consequently differed substantially from those of fellow agent, Anne Neill, who was much more resilient. For a start, Wechsler’s relatively successful undercover career only lasted two years. This was because, as Deery explains, “the profound strength of will it took to maintain a double life, with all its dissembling and mendacity, proved too much for (him).”
The reason for his resignation Wechsler gave to his case officer was “nervousness and deteriorating health arising from his role.” But as Deery makes clear, what lay at the heart of Wechsler’s story is “a case of trust, placed by ASIO in its operative, and betrayal of that trust by its agent.” As Deery argues, it is the exact opposite of Neill’s relationship with ASIO “in which trust, and loyalty, were long-standing and reciprocal.” This chapter further deepens our understanding of the ways in which intelligence was collected and the operational culture of ASIO in the early 1970s. However, as Deery puts it, Wechsler’s case “is the story of one individual and how he illuminates the murky world of undercover operations by the security services in Australia.”
In a key section titled ‘FROM CZECH DEFECTOR TO ASIO AGENT’, Deery explains that Wechsler, who was born in May 1950 and left school at 15, participated in the resistance to the Soviet invasion in 1968. In particular, he celebrated the ‘Prague Spring’ in glowing terms. When he decided to defect, and emigrate to Australia in 1969, he was interviewed by an undercover ASIO officer who reported that he was a ‘clear, straightforward single young man’, whose membership of the Czechoslovakian Young Communist League from 1965 to 1969 meant that he could be useful to counter-intelligence agencies in Australia. But it was only much later that ASIO learnt that Wechsler had been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, which may have caused his “unusual psychological behaviour” which occurred after he was granted Australian citizenship.
It was only after he had settled in Brisbane that in November 1972, shortly before the election of Gough Whitlam’s reformist Labor government, that Wechsler offered his services to ASIO. As Deery puts it, “The interviewing case officer reported that he “impresses as a sincere and dedicated young man with an intense desire to do something about combatting communism.” He recommended that Wechsler’s infiltrate the Moscow-aligned Socialist Party of Australia.
However, it wasn’t until February 1973 that Wechsler’s began work as an ASIO penetration agent, but his counter-intelligence target was the Communist Party of Australia and not the SPA. After swiftly joining the CPA, Wechsler immersed himself in many of its activities, but in its Victorian branch. CPA leader, Bernie Taft, publicly commended Wechsler for his efforts and dedication. Other reports referred to his ‘wonderful job’, his ‘accelerated success’, and his ‘meteoric rise’ within the CPA. Indeed, so rapid was his progress that concerns were raised by senior intelligence and CPA officers, both of whom suggested that Wechsler might be a plant.
In 1974, his ASIO handlers decided that two emerging Trotskyist groups required attention. These were the strongly anti-Stalinist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) and the Socialist Workers League (SWL). Wechsler soon became active in both organisations. He provided detailed evidence that both groups were attempting, sometimes successfully, to infiltrate the ALP and the Young Labor Association.
Wechsler’s last undercover activity occurred four days before he severed ties with the agency. This was when he attended a Socialist Workers League executive meeting. As it happens, his presence and leading role was recorded by another ASIO agent, who was presumably unaware of Wechsler’s status.
Deery confirms that by the time Wechsler resigned from ASIO in mid-February 1975, he had provided the agency with over 700 detailed reports. But there was a tiger in Wechsler’s tail. He negotiated a $2000 fee for selling his story to the ‘Sunday Observer’, which then boasted the highest weekly newspaper readership in Victoria. A mere three days after his resignation in a seven-page scoop (followed a week later by two more pages) Wechsler revealed intimate details of his undercover activities.
The journalist who interviewed him, Chris Forsyth, who was soon to become the paper’s editor, regarded Wechsler as a ‘complicated, confusing man’, but a ‘true-life double-agent (who) stopped at nothing’ and who had now ‘come in from the cold’.
Unsurprisingly, Wechsler’s story was trumpeted by the newspaper as ‘a startling expose’ of ‘the twilight world’ of spooks and undercover agents in twentieth century Australia. While, at the time, those groups on which he spied made no official response, ASIO’s Director-General said, with considerable understatement, that it was “undesirable for Wechsler’s former role for ASIO to be publicly confirmed.”
Wechsler’s resignation letter of 20 February 1975 given to his original case officer, who was accompanied by his superior, stated unequivocally that his undercover activities “were rendered useless due to the attitudes of the present Labor Government towards internal and external national security.”
The agent’s detailed expose caused a political storm which especially involved Liberal Party Senator Ivor Greenwood QC, who soon became Wechsler’s close confidant.
Greenwood tabled the agent’s incendiary resignation letter in federal parliament. In response, Labor’s prominent minister, ‘Diamond Jim’ McClelland, who represented the Attorney-General in the Senate, falsely asserted that Wechsler was never a paid ASIO employee: “My information is – and this comes from ASIO – that Mr Wechsler was a casual informant, paid casually and not taken seriously.” Moreover, according to McClelland, “ASIO regarded him as an unbalanced character” and stated that the intelligence he supplied was “treated warily.”
McClelland later claimed, again citing ASIO ‘information’, that Wechsler was currently incarcerated in a mental institution in Brisbane. In fact, although he had previously experienced some psychiatric disorders, at that moment, as Deery proves, citing travel documents, Wechsler was actually on a train to Bangkok.
The other main victim of Wechsler’s double-dealing, the CPA, also dismissed and disparaged this ’strange and bizarre individual’ whom as Deery writes “it had so assiduously cultivated.” In late 1975, CPA leader Bernie Taft “disingenuously denied Wechsler ever received a wage from the Party.” He stated that he thought Wechsler was ’too silly’ to be an ASIO agent, but “I suspected (him)…yes’.
Deery makes the pertinent point that ASIO’s recruitment of Wechsler “constituted a serious error in judgement.” As he puts it, “Its vetting procedures and its organisational culture were clearly at odds with (the) caution that ‘walk-ins’ should be treated with ‘the greatest reserve’”.
This advice was clearly not heeded. In a report submitted to its Director-General, ASIO’s Operational Security Officer wrote in 1975, “there was a failure to interview (Wechsler) in depth and to carry out comprehensive checks. …With the full information available there would have been strong reasons not to recruit (Wechsler) as an agent.”
When Deery was writing this fascinating book, Wechsler was a regular contributor to the Bangkok-based online expatriate magazine ‘Big Chilli’, which described him as a ‘veteran correspondent’. To an Australian Federal Police officer’s suggestion that he write an autobiography, Wechsler responded: “What I went through and the work I have done …caused me more harm than good. Frankly, I prefer to live (a) quiet life.”
Spies and Sparrows usefully explores the nature and impact of our nation’s surveillance of its citizens.
Deery draws attention to a deep concern about terrorism in recent decades. This, he writes, “has driven a massive expansion in authority and resources for the intelligence community.” He argues that this goes far beyond the powers that long-serving Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies failed to achieve in his attempt, via a referendum in 1951, to ban the Communist Party of Australia, which was at the height of its membership and influence at the end of the Second World War.
The passage in 2020 of the ‘Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Amendment Act 2020’ has further increased the powers of ASIO. As a result, concludes Deery, “It becomes even more challenging to get right the balance between liberty and security – a challenge as important to our future as it was in the Cold War.”
And with another Cold, if not Hot War in the offing, the stories in this book are more relevant than ever.
Ross Fitzgerald is AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are a memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored political satires, The Dizzying Heights and The Lowest Depths, all published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
Quadrant, July-August 2022, pp 99-103.