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Australia’s Covert Action Approaches: Auxiliary and Economic Dimensions
By Dr. Binoy Kampmark

Project: National Approaches to Covert Action (2021)

Mindful of the remit of this project in identifying specific national approaches to covert action and its various methodologies, this chapter will focus on Australia’s contribution. The proposal will investigate the modus operandi of Australian covert action. This promises to be challenging in some respects, given the limited range of open source material. But available case studies suggest a few promising angles.

The proposed contribution will focus on three aspects of Australian covert operations and their singular character. The first is performing auxiliary roles for their dominant security partner, the United States, a critical aspect of the US-Australia security alliance. An examination of this aspect of the relationship is proposed by considering the role played by Australian intelligence officers in destabilising the regime of Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s. Australia’s Foreign Minister William McMahon approved of the collaboration, permitting the stationing of ASIS officers in Santiago at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency. “It has been written,” former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told Parliament in 1977, “– and I cannot deny it – that when my Government took office, Australian intelligence personnel were working as proxies in destabilizing the government in Chile.”

This role was openly and gratefully acknowledged by CIA director William Colby and cannot be dismissed as a pure intelligence gathering exercise, which is what the Hope Report subsequently did in its subsequent inquiry into ASIS operations. The process of seeking relevant documents on this contribution is ongoing, but the release of recent material from the National Archives of Australia and continuing efforts to secure the material with redactions removed, promises much in the way of shaping understandings of Australian covert action in a specific context.

This contribution also intends to look at Australian’s involvement in specific covert operations through specific military-security deployments. While these have been framed as being in the Australian interest, they have not lacked an auxiliary nature, being prompted by the initiative of a larger power. Cold War operations (for instance, the secret war in Indonesia (1965-6) during Konfrontasi) and post-September 11, 2001 engagements notably during the War on Terror, much of which has taken place through third party recruitment channels, will be considered. In 2010, for instance, it was revealed that elite Australian forces were deployed in US-directed actions through the Paris-based Alliance Base, which featured targeting, interrogation and assassination of targets in Afghanistan. Agents of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service have also been rumoured to be involved in such missions (service personnel can carry weapons to be used, if only in self-defence) and can be granted immunity in the course of conducting Special Intelligence Operations (SIOs).

When Australia has adopted strictly independent covert actions, these have been characterised by economic goals, often closely allied to the interests of resource companies. (Again examples of this will be gathered accordingly.) While such actions can be designated as strictly intelligence gathering exercises, I propose a broader interpretation of such conduct as part of the spectrum of covert action adopted to disadvantage opposing parties while gaining special access to financial and economic interests. What may look like routine intelligence gathering constitutes a covert act of disruption in advantaging Australia, and its companies, at the negotiating table. Such action takes place “on the margin” and provides a “push” for Canberra’s agenda.

The prime example of this was the surveillance of the Easter Timorese negotiating team in 2004 ahead of negotiating the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, which favoured Australia by placing a 50-year moratorium on the negotiation of maritime boundaries. This left both Australia and Timor-Leste to conduct what was intended to be joint exploitation of the Greater Sunrise fields, while leaving 79.9% of the area within Australian jurisdiction and open to exploitation by Australian resource companies. The bugging of the Timor-Leste office by officers of ASIS, the Australian foreign intelligence services, was revealed by an intelligence officer, known as Witness K, who has been convicted. The treaty was ultimately challenged in the International Court of Justice and through arbitration at The Hague. This part of the project sheds light on the nexus between Australia’s covert, clandestine disruptions and the advancement of the country’s corporate interests.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is an Associate Faculty Member of the Human Securities Program at the Royal Roads University. Email: [email protected]
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Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point