Terrorism and the Cold War

BEFORE THE WAR on terror, there was the Cold War. When the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was formed in 1949, it was frequently described as Australia’s ‘fourth arm of defence’ after the army, air force and navy. Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley created ASIO because the United States refused to share defence and technology information with Australia. The US said that Australia had been penetrated by Soviet intelligence and defence secrets would not be safe until it had created a professional agency for internal security. Chifley did this just before Labor was swept from office in 1949. ASIO bore the hallmarks of World War II as it prepared for the dangers of a third world war. Robert Menzies, the incoming prime minister, appointed the former head of military intelligence, Charles Spry, to run ASIO, entrenching a military ethos in the new body. In 1951, Menzies said he aimed to put Australia on a ‘semi-war footing’ and that democracies had no more than three years to prepare for a new war.

Preparations for the outbreak of a third world war saw ASIO officers spend thousand of hours preparing legal briefs that ensured over a thousand leaders and activists of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) would be marched into internment camps were war to eventuate. At several points during the Cold War, police and security carried out raids on the homes and offices of communists. For several decades, national politics pivoted on a fear of communism. The Liberal–Country Party coalition won election after election by smearing the Labor Party as having communist influences.

There are lessons from the Cold War that are relevant today, but they are not necessarily the lessons that some might imagine. Today, many people see the Cold War as the persecution of a small minority over their views by a secret security agency whose actions were largely dictated by the political need for an internal enemy around whom all kinds of exaggerated fears could be stoked. Many people see the current issue of terrorism in a similar way: a small religious community is being persecuted by a powerful and secret agency that uses raids and arrests to stoke exaggerated fears of terrorism, which is politically convenient to the current conservative government. This comparison between the Cold War and the conflict over terrorism is both misleading and superficial. To understand why, it’s necessary to look concretely at the nature of the fears and threats.

DURING THE COLD War, the communist threat to national security was grossly inflated: the Communist Party of Australia never had the capacity to launch a revolution. True, at times it was able to make life difficult for governments and employers through its strength in the trade union movement, but this was far from a realistic threat to overthrow the government in a style akin to the Russian Revolution. Moreover, from the start of the Cold War through the 1960s and 1970s, the CPA’s capacity to exercise political influence shrank continuously. (Paradoxically, while this was occurring ASIO was gaining strength and prominence.) Nor was the CPA a violent organisation that might present some form of threat to the civil order. The fundamental reason for the heavy surveillance of the CPA was its links with the Soviet Union; in turn, this led a small number of party members to commit espionage by leaking a series of secret British documents to the Soviet intelligence service.

What of the nature of ASIO during the Cold War? It was a largely unaccountable body whose operations and actions were totally secret. From 1949 until 1972, Liberal prime ministers and attorneys-general frequently used ASIO for unofficial political vetting, as well as encouraging it to target political movements that were opposed to conservative views. The author of ASIO’s recent official history, David Horner, said that this approach ‘had a corrosive effect within ASIO whose officers came to believe that leftist dissent – and the advocacy of what would become relatively mainstream views about feminism, social welfare and indigenous Australians – indicated potential disloyalty’.

Little of this bears any resemblance to the contemporary issue of terrorism and security. The Cold War communists bear no resemblance to the modern religious terrorist groups, nor does the ASIO of the Cold War resemble the ASIO of today. The CPA of the Cold War was a radical political group embedded in the labour movement. Although it was allied to the Soviet Union and doggedly followed its political direction (until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968), the CPA also represented a local radical tradition that stretched back well before the 1917 Russian Revolution. Whatever illusions it held about the revolutionary potential of Australia, it was a secular, progressive force whose Marxist ideology constituted a continuation of the radical wing of the Enlightenment. This is a long way from the various organisations that represent the violent aspect of Islamist fundamentalism. These groups form a new global force in the post-Cold War world. Apart from Syria and Iraq, Islamist terrorism is a major force in Kenya, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines. Among other things, they bomb schools that educate young women, as well as kill those they perceive as critical of their violent version of Islam.

The nature of ASIO, too, has changed markedly since the Cold War. Today, complaints about its actions are regularly investigated by the inspector-general of intelligence and security. It reports to a parliamentary committee, is obliged to produce a public annual report to government and advertises for potential employees openly. Its requests for additional powers are vigorously and freely debated. None of this is perfect, but none of this existed during the Cold War. Perhaps the greatest difference is this: during the Cold War, ASIO spied on the nebulous political force of ‘subversion’. Today, it spies on criminal offences defined by law (such as terrorism and related offences). When ASIO information leads to raids and the arrest of individuals, these actions are tested by the court system. This is light years from the Cold War, where progressive individuals were denied jobs or discriminated against on the basis of unknown information and untested claims.

IT IS TRUE that fear of terrorism within Australia is politically useful to conservative leaders, who are more than happy to pose as the protector of ordinary people against terrorism. But this does not mean that terrorism is a contrived threat exaggerated largely for political purposes. If people on the left oppose point-blank any changes to anti-terrorism laws, then they play into the hands of such conservatives.

After the events in Martin Place on 15–16 December 2014, we cannot imagine (if we ever could) that the threat of terrorism in Australia is negligible. Over a hundred Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks in Indonesia since September 2001. Within Australia, two major terrorist attacks were prevented in 2005, largely through the actions of ASIO and the federal police. The planners of these attacks were brought to trial, found guilty and jailed. Most are still in jail, but one of those with a shorter term was released in 2009, and last year went to Syria to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Around seventy Australians are participating in the Syria–Iraq conflict, mainly with the terrorist organisations Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL. In 2013, an Australian man drove a truck bomb into a Syrian checkpoint. In July 2014, an eighteen-year-old man from Melbourne killed himself and others in a suicide attack near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad. In September 2014, a Melbourne man was shot dead by counterterrorism police after attacking them with a knife, following a call to do this by an Australian jihadist overseas. Also in 2014, the government cancelled the passports of more than seventy people whom ASIO suspected of leaving to join terrorist groups in the Middle East, fearing most that participants in these groups would return to Australia with enhanced skills and a determination to carry out terrorist acts.

Critics of stepped-up action against domestic terrorism sometimes point out that the number of Australians who have been killed in terrorist events is miniscule compared to those who die in road accidents or in bushfires, or from excessive tobacco and alcohol consumption. But such comparisons are facile: unlike bushfires or car accidents, terrorist actions are political and involve planning and purpose. By committing terrorist acts, perpetrators aim to attack governments, ferment suspicion and split societies – often on ethnic or religious fault lines. Sometimes they seek to goad governments into repression, to take revenge or achieve massive publicity for their cause. Comparing such calculated political acts to road accidents and bushfires is misleading, and trivialises a serious matter.

If more terrorist attacks occur in Australia, it could precipitate an upheaval that would change the face of modern Australia by shattering our achievement of multicultural acceptance. Already, terrorism here and overseas has stoked a rise in racist attacks on Australian Muslims. Fear and paranoia is in the air and many Muslims feel unfairly targeted. In this context, it is possible that ASIO and the police might act unjustly, hastily or with prejudice at some point in exercising their wide powers. But none of this justifies a kneejerk dismissal of the threat of terrorism and the measures needed to prevent it. The lessons of the Cold War are not necessarily straightforward.

4 February 2015


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