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Australian Spies Aided and Abetted CIA in Chile
By Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive,10//9/21
Sep 13, 2021 - 12:56:44 PM

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Washington D.C., September 10, 2021 – At the behest of the CIA, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) established a “station” in Santiago in 1971 and conducted clandestine spy operations to directly support U.S. intervention in Chile, according to declassified Australian records made public for the first time today by the National Security Archive. Released fifty years after ASIS secretly initiated its covert action in Chile, the documentation sheds further light on the multinational effort to destabilize the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende who was overthrown in a military coup 48 years ago on September 11, 1973.

Following a CIA request for support in the fall of 1970, the declassified memos and reports indicate, ASIS officials obtained approval from Liberal Party Foreign Minister William McMahon in December 1970 to secretly open a station in the Chilean capital.  In the spring and summer of 1971, ASIS officials sent agents and equipment to Chile to organize the station. “[Deleted] advises that our Station safe and typewriter will arrive in Valparaiso approximately 11th September, and be delivered to the [deleted] within a week,” noted one secret progress report in mid-1971.

But, after more than 18 months of operations that appear to have involved handling several CIA-recruited Chilean assets in Santiago and filing intelligence reports directly to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in the spring of 1973 the new Labor Party Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, ordered the director of ASIS to close down the Chile operations. Whitlam was “uneasy” about Australia’s involvement because if it were to “receive any publicity as a result of these matters, then he would find it extremely difficult to justify our presence there,” according to one declassified memorandum of conversation written by then ASIS Director-General William Robertson. “The Prime Minister said,” according to another declassified memcon, “he was very aware of the importance of this [operation] to the Americans and he was most concerned that they should not interpret his decision as being anti-American …. He said he was most concerned that the Americans should not believe that he personally necessarily disapproved of what they were doing in Chile nor did he support Allende [redacted].” The Prime Minister “was most concerned that CIA should not interpret this decision as being an unfriendly gesture towards the U.S. in general or towards CIA in particular,” according to another report on their conversation.

The Australian ASIS station appears to have been closed down as of July 1973, although one ASIS agent reportedly stayed in Santiago until after the September 11, 1973, military coup. “All remaining station records etc. have been destroyed,” a Santiago cable advised headquarters on shuttering its spy operations. “… Station has been closed as planned.”

The rare declassification comes as the result of a series of freedom of information petitions filed by Dr. Clinton Fernandes, a former Australian Army intelligence analyst and professor of international and political studies at the University of New South Wales in Canberra who has pressed the government to declassify historical national security files on secret ASIS operations in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Chile. “Many Australians would be entitled to express legitimate concern if ASIS … were exposed as having cooperated with the CIA in toppling the democratically elected government of Chile led by President Salvador Allende,” Professor Fernandes argued in a legal brief presented to Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal in May 2021.

In his challenge to the government’s contention that, a half century later, any release of documents would still “harm” Australia’s ability to conduct international relations, Fernandes cited the declassification of thousands of top secret CIA documents in the United States during the Clinton administration, and even submitted copies of the National Security Archive book, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, as evidence that transparency would strengthen, rather than damage, Australian democracy.

At a closed hearing of the Tribunal in June, government officials provided Fernandes with several hundred heavily redacted records--ASIS is referred to by the codename MO9 in the documents--relating to the opening, administration, and closing of the ASIS station in Santiago between 1970 and 1973. As a result of Fernandes' declassification efforts, the Tribunal is currently deliberating whether to compel the government to re-release those heavily censored historical records on Chile – with fewer redactions.

The Australian government is renowned for its culture of secrecy. Australia May Well Be the World’s Most Secretive Democracy, the New York Times declared in a headline two years ago. “No other developed democracy holds as tight to its secrets,” the article reported.

Indeed, the documents turned over to Fernandes contain few revelations of actual covert operations, intelligence gathering or liaison relations with the CIA in Chile; those sections of the records are completely censored. The majority of the cables, memos and reports focus on the banal nuts-and-bolts of establishing, staffing, supplying, and administering an intelligence station: among other issues, they record monthly expense reports, housing arrangements, communications methods, security inspections, and numerous authorization requests to acquire equipment such as safes, cameras, stationery, and vehicles for the ASIS agents to use in Santiago. “We recommend [deleted] place order for German, repeat German made Volkswagen “Beetle … light grey or fawn in colour,” with an estimated cost of $1800, one cable stated as the station was being established. “You should be aware this vehicle took a sad beating,” the station reported to ASIS headquarters on a second car – a Fiat 600 – as it disposed of its assets two years later before closing down. “The windscreen was broken and body work damaged in the course of a rock fight between opposing factions during the riots in Santiago.” Despite being damaged, the report concluded, “the vehicle was sold at a higher price than we originally paid for it.”

The documents do, however, confirm details of Australia’s covert operations in Chile that have leaked to the press, and appeared in accounts of former officials over the years. Following the episode on Chile, Prime Minister Whitlam requested an investigation of all Australian intelligence activities by the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security. An 8-volume secret report, written by Justice Robert Hope, included a detailed account of the Chile operations, parts of which leaked to the press. As early as October 1974, the Sydney Morning Herald published a short story titled “Aust spies helped CIA plan to topple Allende.” In 1977, Whitlam (then opposition leader) briefly acknowledged the Chile operations in Parliament. “It has been written – I cannot deny it – that when my Government took office Australian intelligence personnel were still working as proxies and nominees of the CIA in destabilizing the Government of Chile,” he conceded. An investigative history published in 1990, Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, by Brian Toohey and William Pinwell, drew on the information in the Hope report; but the Australian government subjected the book to pre-publication censorship and managed to keep most of the details on ASIS’s CIA-Chile operations secret.

“The Australian government insists on secrecy to avoid having to admit to the Australian public that it helped destroy Chilean democracy,” according to Fernandes who continues to await a decision by the Tribunal for further declassification of the historical record on Australia’s covert role in Chile.  “The primary beneficiary of this secrecy is the Australian government, which enjoys security from democratic accountability, and security from robust, evidence-based debate as to how the intelligence services should be used. But,” he concludes, “this is not national security in any meaningful sense.”


Read the documents


Document 1

ASIS, memorandum, [Approval to Open Station], ca. December 1970, Secret

Dec  1970

Source: National Archives of Australia

After specific CIA “representations” in November 1970 for Australian intelligence operational support in Chile, ASIS officials receive approval from Foreign Minister William McMahon to open a station in Santiago to support U.S. covert operations. In the documents, ASIS is referred to by a codename, “MO9.”


Document 2

ASIS, Memorandum, [Concerns about Opening Station], ca. 15 June 1971, Secret

Jun 15, 1971

Source: National Archives of Australia

After months of preparations, and only a few weeks before the station is set to become operational, a high Australian official (whose name is redacted in the document) questions whether the opening should be deferred because “the situation in Chile has not deteriorated to the extent that was feared.” This memorandum records that ASIS officials plan to present arguments as to why the opening should proceed according to arrangements made with CIA, which appear to include reviewing Australia’s role in Chile twelve months after the station opens.


Document 3

ASIS, Report, “1971 Progress Report,” December 1971, Secret

Dec 1971

Source: National Archives of Australia

Completing its first 6 months of operations, the ASIS station sends a year-end progress report to the “main office”—ASIS headquarters. The censored report covers administrative “settling in” problems, as well as the station’s interaction with Australian Embassy personnel and the CIA—although that section of the report remains completely redacted.


Document 4

ASIS, Memorandum, “[Deleted] Relations with [Deleted],” December 1972, Secret

Dec 1972

Source: National Archives of Australia

The Santiago station files a report on various problems it is experiencing, including in its collaboration with the CIA. Those appear to involve lack of timely communications on policies and operations with the Americans. Several episodes relating to Australia’s spying operations have been cause for embarrassment, the head of the station reports. “Apart from embarrassment, such incidents do little for our Service reputation.” Other operational problems identified in the memorandum involve communication with ASIS headquarters—referenced as the “main office” in the memo. Apparently, the restricted budget of the station does not permit the frequent use of telegraphic communications. But use of the secure diplomatic “bag” to send reports takes longer to get back to Australia than the unclassified bag, which the station has started to use—apparently because the Australians are using the British Embassy’s secure pouch to transmit secret documentation to camouflage the fact that they are conducting clandestine operations in Chile.


Document 5

ASIS, Memorandum of Conversation between Prime Minister Whitlam and ASIS Director William T. Robertson, “Review of the MO9 Station in Santiago,” April 1973, Top Secret

Apr 1973

Source: National Archives of Australia

In a status meeting on the Santiago station with ASIS chief William T. Robertson, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam rejects an ASIS proposal to continue clandestine operations in Chile. Instead, he orders Robertson to close down the station in a way that will not offend the CIA. According to the memcon, Whitlam agrees to a series of Robertson’s suggestions for phasing out operations, which involves returning management of the CIA’s Chilean informants to the CIA, disposing of station equipment, and repatriating the Australian agents in Chile, at which point clandestine activity would cease.


Document 6

ASIS, Note to File, “[Redacted] Station,” 6 April 1973, Top Secret

Apr 6, 1973

Source: National Archives of Australia

Following his meeting with Prime Minister Whitlam, ASIS Director-General William T. Robertson writes a “note to file” recording the discussion on closing down the spy station in Santiago. The memcon underscores Whitlam’s concerns that the CIA will be offended by Australia’s pullout, and will interpret his decision as “anti-American.” According to the memcon, “The Prime Minister said that the last thing he wanted to do was to take precipitate action that would embarrass the CIA.”


Document 7

ASIS, Telegram, [Director-General Robertson’s Report to the Santiago Station officers on Prime Minister Whitlam’s Decision to Close Down their Operations], May 1973

May 1973

Source: National Archives of Australia

Following his meeting with Prime Minister Whitlam, ASIS chief William T. Robertson sends a telegram to station officers in Santiago advising them of the decision to close down their operations. According to Robertson, Whitlam ordered that they cease “our clandestine activity” “as soon as possible.” At the same time, Whitlam “was most concerned that CIA should not interpret this decision as being an unfriendly gesture towards the U.S. in general or towards CIA in particular.”


Document 8

ASIS, Memorandum, [Instructions to Coordinate Closing of ASIS Station in Santiago], circa April 1973

Apr 1973

Source: National Archives of Australia

A memo on the pending closure of the ASIS station is distributed to a number of high Australian national security officials. It provides the clearest explanation of Prime Minister Whitlam’s decision to shutter the operation: if Australia’s role in Chile at the behest of the CIA became public, “he would find himself in an extremely difficult political situation as, quite clearly, it would be impossible for him to present the MO9 presence in Santiago as being in the direct Australian national interest.”


Document 9

ASIS, Memorandum to Whitlam, “Progress Note on Closure of MO9 Station in Santiago,” 1973, Top Secret


Source: National Archives of Australia

“With regards to your decision to close the MO9 station in Santiago,” ASIS director William Robertson writes to Prime Minister Whitlam in a Top Secret, two-page memo, “I wish to report that the closure has been completed.” The details of closing the station remain censored; even the date of the document is blacked out, making it unclear exactly when the document was transmitted. Only four copies of the document are made: one for Whitlam and the rest for ASIS files.


Document 10

ASIS Station, Santiago, Telex Cable, [Station Closing Status Report], July 1973

Jul 1973

Source: National Archives of Australia

The Santiago station reports that it has completed final requirements to close down, including sending final expense reports and receipts to headquarters, and disposing of equipment—with the exception of the safe, which will be shipped back to Australia later in the year. “All remaining station records etc. have been destroyed,” the cable advises.


Document 11

Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Security Division, “STATEMENT OF FACTS, ISSUES AND CONTENTIONS OF THE APPLICANT IN REPLY,” [Legal Filing by Clinton Fernandes] 25 May 2021

May 25, 2021

Source: Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal

Professor Clinton Fernandes, represented by legal counsel, files a 16-page set of arguments for the declassification of ASIS records on Chile, and the right of Australians to know the full history of their government’s foreign policies and operations. “Many Australians would be entitled to express legitimate concern if ASIS … were exposed as having cooperated with the CIA in toppling the democratically elected government of Chile led by President Salvador Allende,” the brief states. To refute the government’s position that secrecy is needed to protect Australia’s national security, the Fernandes brief provides a lengthy review of the declassification of intelligence records in the United States and England on the covert operations in Chile. He points out that transparency and freedom of information in those countries do not appear to have damaged their ability to conduct foreign relations and advance their national security interests.

Source:Ocnus.net 2021

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