ASIO and the Communist Party: New Light on an Old Tradition (Phillip Deery, 2007)

[The second episode of the documentary Persons of Interest screens tonight (January 14, 2014) on SBS at 8.30. It’s prompted me to publish the following …]

Phillip Deery (2007), ‘ASIO and the Communist Party: New Light on an Old Tradition’, in Julie Kimber, Peter Love and Phillip Deery (eds) (2007), Labour Traditions: Proceedings of the 10th National Labour History Conference, Melbourne: Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, pp. 67-74.

Archival records concerning ASIO undercover operations are rare. Consequently the literature on ASIO’s infiltration of the Left is almost non-existent. This paper uses, for the first time, recently released ASIO files on one of its own agents. It thereby attempts to contribute to our understanding of undercover operations by the security services within the Australian labour movement. It will concentrate only on this agent’s infiltration of his first ‘target’, the Communist Party of Australia. The paper will also provide an insight into the manner in which intelligence was collected and into the largely unknown operational culture of ASIO in the early 1970s.

At one point in Melissa Reeves’ play, ‘The Spook’, performed at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in 2007, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) controller, Alex, commented on the work of his organisation: ‘It’s so fucking necessary it’s frightening. We could tip either way’.[1] This was in 1965 when the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was a shrunken shadow of its former self. However, Alex’s comment to his young operative illuminates ASIO’s continuing concerns about the threat of communism to national security. It also points to its readiness to employ agents to infiltrate organisations on the Left.

The fictional ‘spook’ in this play, Martin Porter, was drawn from the actual experiences of Phil Geri, a Bendigo hospital orderly who was recruited by ASIO at the age of nineteen. He was a Catholic, a member of the Citizens Military Force and highly patriotic. ‘I didn’t know what ASIO was. I was keen on the CMF and thought it was another arm of the army’.[2] In 1963 he joined the Bendigo branch of the CPA, which was ‘very small, mainly elderly people who met in private homes and talked about the workers’ cause’. He soon became a delegate to the state conference of the CPA. This enabled him to memorise faces and match them to the hundreds of photographs taken surreptitiously by ASIO: ‘Everyone in the vicinity was photographed. Car licence plates were taken; they did the job well. But it was a hard time for me because the debriefing went on for hours, sometimes days, and I would just get sick of it’. Yet Geri’s distaste was temporary, since he remained an agent for twenty-three years. After the membership of the Bendigo branch dwindled to three, ASIO re-deployed him to infiltrate the apparently more dangerous and certainly more secretive Maoist-aligned Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). His coup was procuring and passing on inner-party documents circulated at the CPA (M-L) national conference. But such ‘successes’ carried a personal price:

It was a very lonely time. My whole life changed. I had played a lot of sport and enjoyed the army, but now I was regarded as a radical left-winger. Bendigo people just didn’t know what had happened to me. It was extremely difficult to live with, and still is. Sometimes I thought of giving it away.

Finally, it was ASIO, not Geri himself, who terminated his services. His seventh case officer, ‘Pat’, met him in Bendigo’s Shamrock Hotel, produced a letter of thanks from ASIO’s director-general, and drove away, along with ‘a bit of my past’.

The subject of this paper, another ASIO undercover agent, underwent similar experiences. He was also young, zealous, naïve, successful — in terms of relatively high-level penetration — and was redeployed, like Geri, from the CPA to a seemingly more insidious communist organisation. However, his disillusionment was quicker: he worked for ASIO for two years not two decades. The profound strength of will it took to maintain a double life, with all its dissembling and mendacity, proved too much for this less resilient other ‘spook’. The reason he gave to his case officer for his resignation was ‘nervousness and deteriorating health arising from his role’.[3] Notwithstanding Geri coming in from the cold, the literature on ASIO’s infiltration of the Left is, apart from McKnight,[4] non-existent. Indeed, the most illuminating study emanates from New Zealand where George Fraser was recruited by the Special Branch and worked undercover within the Communist Party of New Zealand for nine years.[5] This paper, therefore, attempts to contribute to our understanding of the murky world that is a long-standing tradition: undercover operations by the security services within the Australian labour movement.

On 31 December 1974, an ASIO field officer sent the following intelligence to his Assistant Director-General: ‘Jamie DOUGHNEY to travel to New Zealand for 10 days for Young Socialist Conference. He will depart on 8.1.75’.[6] Normally, such an operational report would be unremarkable: there are thousands of them in the hundreds of individual case files on left wing activists compiled by ASIO during the Cold War. To protect its sources, the names of ASIO agents are removed from files released to the public. What makes this report distinctive, if not unique, is that the identity of the agent who transmitted this intelligence to the ASIO field officer can now be revealed. Even more remarkable, given ASIO does not make available files on its own agents, was the following unprecedented action. In the second half of 2006 ten files, requested by the writer, on one of its paid agents — Maxmilian Wechsler — were released. This paper uses, for the first time, those files to reconstruct the modus operandi of both ASIO and its agent. It will focus only on the first ‘target’, the Communist Party of Australia; his longer and more successful penetration of the Socialist Workers’ League (SWL) is beyond the limited scope of this paper.[7] The paper also seeks to provide an insight into the manner in which intelligence was collected and into the largely unknown operational culture of ASIO in the early 1970s. It will suggest its readiness to accept a ‘walk-in’ represented a failure in case management by the organisation.

Maxmilian Wechsler was born in Plzeň (Pilsen), Czechoslovakia, on 15 May 1950. He left school at the age of fifteen, when he trained as a fitter at the Skoda machine works at the V.I. Lenin plant in Plzeň. According to his own testimony in a subsequent interview, Wechsler participated in the Czech resistance to the Soviet invasion in 1968.[8] The following year he informed his parents (Herman, a purchaser of car parts at Skoda, and Reine, a crane driver) that he intended to defect. On 15 May 1969 he travelled by train with a youth group under the auspices of the Czechoslovakian Tourist Bureau from Prague to Vienna, ostensibly to visit the city and return three days later. On 18 May he sought political asylum at the Vienna police station and, soon after, applied through the Migration Office in the Australian embassy in Vienna to emigrate to Australia.[9] It was then that Wechsler’s first contact with ASIO was made. In several Australian embassies in Western Europe, ASIO liased closely with the Migration Office to screen applicants and it was, in fact, an ASIO officer who interviewed Wechsler.[10] He commented that Wechsler was ‘[a] clear, straightforward young man. Average intelligence. Quite good in general’.[11] This, plus his previous membership of the Czechoslovakian Young Communist League (from 1965 to 1969) and the fact that he was single, passed his medical examination, had an aunt who lived in Australia (in Inkerman Street, St Kilda), and that he would seek employment in ‘a similar trade’, meant that on 29 May 1969 his application was approved.

He departed from Austria on 4 July and arrived in Australia on 7 July. He gained employment as a fitter in various Melbourne factories before shifting to Brisbane, in March 1970, where he worked intermittently for eighteen months. On 22 December 1971, he was granted citizenship and on Australia Day, 26 January 1972, he was naturalised. ASIO later learnt that for six weeks in September-October 1971 he was an inmate of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Hospital in Taringa, Queensland, suffering from ‘an anxiety complex’ and ‘neurosis’.[12] There, he met and married on 1 November 1971 a nurse, Mary Alexander (who throughout 1972 was to be convicted on thirteen charges of forgery, uttering and stealing, apparently linked to her penchant for unsuccessful betting on horses.[13]) Wechsler and his wife moved from Brisbane to Melbourne in October 1972.

In November 1972 Wechsler contacted ASIO and offered his services. The interviewing case officer reported favourably: Wechsler ‘impresses as a sincere and dedicated young man with an intense desire to do something about combating communism’. He assessed Wechsler as ‘excellent “Q” potential’ and recommended penetration of the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).[14] The other contender, the CPA (M-L), was — notwithstanding Geri’s subsequent success — virtually impervious to penetration: there were no membership lists, formal meetings were rarely held, it was conspiratorially-organised with a highly-developed cell structure, and the intensely secretive Hill was obsessive about security.[15] According to its leader, E.F. Hill, prospective members were ‘thoroughly scrutinised. And I mean thoroughly scrutinised’.[16] As we shall see, such thorough scrutiny was not practised by the CPA. The Victorian Regional Director believed it unwise for Wechsler to attempt penetration of the SPA given its support for the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Instead, he considered Wechsler was more suited to a role within the CPA, which publicly opposed Soviet actions, and could be ‘conned’ into believing that Wechsler was a ‘youthful Dubcek supporter’ in 1968 who dissented against the Soviet occupation of his country and fled from the ‘harsh Stalinist regime’ in 1969.[17] Approval was sought ‘to proceed with this recruitment’.[18] However, the Director-General, Peter Barbour, was opposed: he maintained that ‘a walk-in such as this should be treated with the greatest reserve [and] we know virtually nothing about him’. He was also concerned that Wechsler’s personal history may colour his judgements; that his background would be ‘unattractive to CPA as well as SPA’; and that ‘to join the CPA just 3 years after having fled the Communist regime is incongruous to say the least’. He recommended that recruitment of agent Wechsler be not approved.[19] Whether due to Barbour’s position or because of ASIO’s preoccupation throughout December with the usurping of past custom and practice by the new Attorney-General, Lionel Murphy — including the issue of security clearances for incoming Labor Ministers[20] — Wechsler received no response from ASIO. On 17 January, he phoned again and on the following evening a case officer visited him at his Brunswick home to assess his suitability for a covert role. He reported: ‘I was most impressed with WECHSLER and have no doubt that he could successfully carry out a role to penetrate the C.P. A.’ He felt Wechsler would ‘be amenable to control’ and that having met him was convinced that he could become a ‘useful Agent’ for ASIO.[21] On the basis of this assessment, the Regional Director then contacted HQ, which responded with ‘O.K. to proceed in view of case submitted’.[22] Wechsler signed ASIO’s Declaration of Secrecy, stamped ‘top secret’, on 21 February 1973.[23] His role as an undercover agent was about to begin.

The ease with which Wechsler joined the CPA is underscored by its speed. On 21 February he contacted a communist state organiser in the Australian Metal Workers’ Union (AMWU), Alan Ritter.[24] Ritter and J.A. Brown interviewed Wechsler for ‘some hours’ regarding his escape from Czechoslovakia and his communist sympathies. He persuaded them of his bona fides since he was taken to the CPA headquarters where he was introduced to Bernie Taft, the Victorian State Secretary, whom he also convinced. Taft proposed that Wechsler could assist with the translation of Russian documents (Wechsler spoke Russian, Hungarian and Polish), lecture on Marxist theory, sell Tribune on weekends, and join the Communist Party’s AMWU fraction. He then nominated Wechsler (seconded by Ritter) for membership of the Party; Wechsler paid a joining fee and was shown through the Party offices with the invitation to visit at any time.[25] All this occurred on the same day. In this instance, at least, the Socialist Labor League’s judgement that ‘it is easy to pick a police spy’ since all agents were ‘druggos, drunks or criminals’ was not applicable.[26]

Wechsler’s principal ‘Agent Master’, to use ASIO vernacular, was ‘John’ — possibly John Mace, known to the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police to be ‘involved in the more open type of legwork’.[27] He was delighted by his agent’s ‘amazing progress’. He believed that Wechsler had the potential ‘to go exceedingly far’ and that his goal of the ‘deepest possible penetration’ of the CPA would be realised. Although the Victorian Regional Director wondered whether the Communist Party was pushing Wechsler to test him and ‘establish his bona fides‘,[28] the previously circumspect Assistant Director-General acknowledged that Wechsler made ‘a very good beginning’.[29] ASIO approved initial payment of $10 per month and $16 for special expenses; this would later increase to $45 per month in June 1973 and finally to the significant weekly sum of $90 plus expenses in November 1974. Money was deposited directly into a State Savings Bank account, No. 105453; ASIO retained the passbook.[30] Wechsler also received abundant non-monetary assistance from ASIO. This ranged from driving him to various appointments, visiting him in hospital, expediting delayed payments of sickness benefits (including direct intervention on Wechsler’s behalf to the Department of Social Security), expressing constant praise, gratitude and reassurance, finding him accommodation when evicted and arranging the storage of his furniture.[31] While altruism might explain such munificence, it far more likely pointed to the extent to which ASIO controlled, or at least managed, the everyday, prosaic aspects of an agent’s life when that agent’s ‘intelligence dividend’ was high.[32] On average, Wechsler met his case officer three times per week, although in early 1975 under a new case officer this increased to every week day.[33] The dependence of agent upon controller is suggested by Wechsler at one point expressing ‘his sincere appreciation for the guidance and assistance given to him by Case Officer’ and on another occasion thanking his case officer for their ‘teamwork’ which he claimed contributed significantly to his success as an agent.[34]

Wechsler quickly immersed himself in a range of activities on behalf of the CPA. He attended AMWU branch and CP fraction meetings, a reception for the leader of the Italian Communist Party, a 50th Anniversary Tribune dinner at Collingwood Town Hall (at which, during his speech, Bernie Taft publicly complimented Wechsler for his efforts and dedication[35]), an ALP meeting at St Kilda Town Hall (where he sold the Australian Left Review), and visited the homes of Ida Walker and Max Ogden. He was also given two cameras by Taft with a view to Wechsler becoming a photographer for Tribune. ASIO hastily arranged a photographic training course for Wechsler who then used the Russian-made camera to photograph communist delegates to a AMWU study session at Mt Macedon. The film was processed by ASIO two days later. Because of a work-related back injury, Wechsler obtained a full-time cleaning job at the Communist Party headquarters that provided him, as his case officer noted, with ‘an excellent position for further penetration’.[36] ASIO continued to be pleased with ‘Bosch’ (Wechsler’s cover name) and his credibility rating was upgraded to B.2, or high-grade intelligence. Reports referred to his ‘wonderful job’, his ‘accelerated success’, and his ‘meteoric rise’ within the CPA.[37]

Indeed, so rapid was his progress that concerns were raised. His case officer reported that Wechsler had ‘moved too fast to control in normal terms’,[38] while the Assistant Director-General raised the possibility that Wechsler was a ‘push-in’ to ASIO — in other words, a plant — for adverse publicity purposes. This was rejected by the Victorian Office, which reiterated its positive judgement of Wechsler as ‘a likeable little fellow who is proud of his Australian citizenship and simply wishes to assist the A.S.I.O.’.[39] Especially appealing was the fact that Wechsler had gained the confidence of both Taft and John Sendy (Victorian Branch president, whose phone Wechsler regularly answered); they ‘value his work’ and ‘seem to trust him without question’.[40] Consequently, he was fast becoming an invaluable insider: Taft, Sendy, Davies and Walker were all ‘taking a keen interest’ in his career with the Party (with Taft in particular ‘pushing Agent as fast as he can into the industrial side of the C.P. A.'[41]) and all attended a party in his Brunswick home to celebrate the birth of his daughter.[42]

In April 1973, the status of Wechsler as both an agent and a communist was further enhanced after he appeared on national television in prime time. He spoke on ‘A Current Affair’ about the difficulties faced by Czechs who migrated to Australia after the events of 1968-69, demonstrated by the recent tragic case of a Czech woman who threw her two children from the sixth floor of her Collingwood Housing Commission flat and who then followed them to her own death. Taft, Sendy and the editor of Tribune, Dave Davies, were apparently ‘most enthusiastic’ with Wechsler’s initiative, the latter commissioning him to write an article for the paper.[43] His dedication as a Tribune seller similarly attracted attention. As the Party’s Victorian Branch Newsletter commented: ‘A new member, Max, a migrant to this country, has energetically taken up selling on the city streets and at public meetings. In about six weeks he has sold some 260 papers. How about more comrades joining the sales drive?'[44] While Wechsler was being applauded as a role model by his ‘target’, he was at the same time providing abundant intelligence to his case officer. It ranged from briefings on AMWU fraction meetings, the protest movement against US bases in Australia (especially the Omega station in Gippsland) and the planned demonstration against the Signals Intelligence Unit at Albert Park barracks, travel arrangements of a visiting Italian communist, Guiliano Pajetta, reports on the CPA State Committee Conference (to which Wechsler was admitted as an observer[45]), the names and addresses of donors to the CPA’s ‘fighting fund’ and subscribers to Australian Left Review, the identities of all secretaries of CPA branches in the metropolitan area, a list of financial members of the Victorian Branch of the CPA and much of its financial and banking arrangements, details of the electoral campaign of a CPA candidate, George Zangalis, and additional profiles of Party leaders. He also, according Bernie Taft (whose telephone conversation was taped and transcribed), helped recruit a new member, Peter Noonan.[46] It was not surprising that, with Easter approaching, ‘Agent said he was looking forward to a bit of a rest’.[47]

Because Wechsler was receiving a generous regular income plus expenses from ASIO,[48] there was concern that his small ‘official’ weekly wage of $18 from his cleaning job at the Party offices (that freed up far more time for undercover work than as a fitter and turner) could, through unexplained finance, raise issues of security. Thus, he was ‘strictly instructed’ by his case officer to inform Taft and Sendy that his wife had complained about the lack of money being received and ‘insist’ that he needed extra income. Sendy promised to increase his weekly wage subject to ratification by the next State Committee meeting and gave Wechsler $10 from his own pocket. Wechsler was briefed to ‘Keep at SENDY re lack of finances’.[49] Later, when Wechsler had infiltrated the SWL, the same concern was raised: ‘[Wechsler] must not only behave in the accepted [SWL] manner, but his finances must also be able to withstand their scrutiny’.[50] Avoiding suspicion, fear of exposure or the danger of being compromised constantly punctuated ASIO briefings. The following remarks were indicative of the difficulties of running agents: ‘we must stress the need for security — it is out of character for an agent operating in this type of organisation to use a taxi’; ‘Security of this agent is of paramount importance’; ‘Be careful with notes. Don’t become involved in discussion about yourself’; ‘Agent was again briefed on the need for continued security in meetings, telephone calls and taking of documents’; ‘the need to be ever alert and security conscious was emphasised’; and ‘providing [Wechsler’s] answers are the same as he had previously given, we should be safe’.[51]

But ASIO was not ‘safe’. Not only did Wechsler resign, he also went public, and publicity was ASIO’s bête noir.[52] His final undercover activity was at a SWL executive meeting on 16 February 1975. Ironically, his presence was recorded by another ASIO agent unaware, presumably of Wechsler’s role.[53] By then, the prolific Wechsler had supplied ASIO with an astonishing number of reports – 702 in total.[54] On 19 February, he met a journalist from the Sunday Observer, which had the largest newspaper weekly circulation in Victoria. The journalist, Chris Forsyth, verified Wechsler’s credentials by personally telephoning ASIO on its silent number (not the usual recognised agent number) and then listened to Wechsler’s conversation on an extension line.[55] Wechsler identified himself using his cover name, ‘Bosch’, and was connected to ‘John’, his original ASIO contact; the transcript of their conversation was reproduced in the Sunday Observer on 23 February. Wechsler then negotiated to sell his story for $2000.[56] The next day, 20 February, Wechsler rendezvoused with his original case officer accompanied by his superior (Supervisor Agent Operations), whom Wechsler was reluctant to meet, and handed over his letter of resignation. [57] The three spent two hours talking in a Southern Cross Hotel room, specially rented by ASIO for briefings. He was twice reminded of the secrecy document he had signed. Whereas the case officer felt ‘Wechsler genuinely had had enough’ and ‘will not expose A.S.I.O.’, the more senior supervisor found Wechsler ‘mentally unstable and demonstrated signs of megalomania’.[58] His subsequent activities and behaviour (which are not within the purview of this paper) confirmed the second assessment. There had been innumerable prior warning signals, ranging from the Assistant Director-General’s note in 1973 that ‘Agent appears irresponsible and my immediate reaction is to doubt his reliability. Consider stopping further involvement’,[59] to the Brunswick Criminal Investigation Branch considering him a ‘nut’,[60] to an informant’s assessment in 1974 that he was ‘psychologically disturbed’.[61] However, with the steady flow of high quality intelligence, such ominous signs were ignored by the Victorian office. According to a former senior ASIO officer, who requested anonymity, when Wechsler’s story hit the press ASIO immediately ‘went into damage control’. He was sent from Sydney to ‘sort out’ the ‘mess’ from the Wechsler case. He stated that there was ‘a bit of a witch-hunt’ but those who sat in judgement had also been involved in the Wechsler operation from the outset.[62]

ASIO’s ‘damage control’ involved the Director-General telexing all ASIO branches to take ‘special precautions’ when contacting and briefing its agents and to counteract all attempts by target organisations to ‘identify our agents as a result of the [Wechsler] exposure’.[63] It also involved dissociation from Wechsler. The federal Attorney-General’s representative in the Senate, Jim McClelland, asserted that Wechsler was ‘never’ a paid ASIO employee. ‘My information is — and this comes from ASIO, if Senator Greenwood wants to know — 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 reiterated that the intelligence he supplied was treated warily.[64] If ASIO were McClelland’s source (via the Attorney-General’s Department) every assertion he made was wrong.[65] Also false was McClelland’s statement, again using ASIO ‘information’, that Wechsler was then incarcerated in ‘a mental institution’ in Queensland.[66] In fact, at that moment, as his travel documents later proved, Wechsler was on a train travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok.[67] The other victim of Wechsler’s mendacity, the Communist Party, also distanced itself and disparaged this ‘strange’ and ‘bizarre’ individual whom it had so assiduously cultivated.[68] In 1975, Taft disingenuously denied Wechsler ever received a weekly wage from the Party, thought Wechsler was ‘too silly’ to be an ASIO agent, but ‘I suspected [him]. yes’.[69] However, the central point remains that, due to its obsessive fear of communism, ASIO’s recruitment of Wechsler constituted a serious error in judgement. Its vetting procedures and its organisational culture were clearly at odds with Barbour’s caution that ‘walk-ins’ should be treated with ‘the greatest reserve'[70] was not heeded. ASIO itself admitted as much. In a report submitted to the Director-
General, the Operational Security Officer wrote:

there was a failure to interview [Wechsler] in depth and to carry out comprehensive checks. In a case such as this it would have been desirable for the initial interviews to have probed deeply into background matters in order to compile a life history for cross checking and record purposes. A full check of the official records available to A.S.I.O. would have brought to attention the medical history of WECHSLER and the police record of his wife in Queensland [two lines blacked out]. With the full information available there would have been strong reasons not to recruit WECHSLER as an agent.[71]

Wechsler was not the last double agent to go public. As we have seen, Phil Geri revealed his role in 1991 — but that was fifteen years after he and ASIO parted company and when the CPA was dissolving itself. By then, ASIO undercover agents were recruited more carefully and the targets for infiltration had changed.[72]

The Wechsler case continued to have repercussions. From mid-1975 until 1980, a member of both the Victorian State Committee and National Committee of the SWL, Jamie Doughney, was engaged in legal action arising from the Sunday Observer articles in which he was named. In 1975, he issued a lawsuit against the proprietor, Maxwell Newton, for defamation. Clive Evatt, QC, well-versed in defamation cases, acted — without payment — for the appellant, while David Bennett, QC, and future Commonwealth Solicitor-General, represented the Crown. When, after three years, the case wound its way into the Supreme Court of NSW for a full jury trial, the judge (Mr Justice David Yeldham) decided in favour of the Crown by refusing Evatt’s request to subpoena ASIO documents concerning Wechsler on the grounds that the SWL constituted a ‘security risk’. However the jury unanimously upheld defamation against the Sunday Observer and awarded Doughney $15,000. By this stage Newton was bankrupt and living in the United States and the journalist responsible for the Wechsler story, Chris Forsyth, was ordered to pay the $15,000 owing.[73]

This unusual tale of ASIO and its agent contained another twist: a sequel of further manipulation and mendacity. In 1976 Senator Reg Withers, now on the Government benches and representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated that Wechsler was given consular assistance in March 1976 in Bangkok.[74] For Wechsler, Bangkok was more congenial than Brunswick, for it became his place of residence. In the late 1970s he worked for the Australian Commonwealth police and the narcotics section of the Thai police as an informant.[75] According to an intelligence officer, who knew Wechsler at that time and saw him at the Australian Embassy, he was also an agent provocateur. He established a connection with the Ananda Marga sect and was responsible for the arrest in Bangkok in 1978 of Ananda Marga members who were sold explosives by Wechsler. The three Ananda Marga — two Australians and one American — were charged with conspiring to blow up the Indian Embassy. They were enticed to implicate Australian sect members (Tim Anderson, Paul Alister and Ross Dunn) in the deadly explosion outside Sydney’s Hilton hotel in February 1978. In return, their charges would be dropped. They maintained their innocence, claimed the explosives were planted on them, but had their passports confiscated by Australian immigration officials in Bangkok, and spent the next six months in a Thai prison. When the case came to court it became clear they were ‘set-up’ and after a face-saving guilty plea, they were freed.[76] Wechsler continued living in Bangkok in relative obscurity until 2002. That year, on 22 August, Wechsler reported the theft of four million baht in cash and three Rolex watches from his home near Sukhumvit road, Bangkok. He was described by the Bangkok Post as a ‘businessman’. A smiling, chubby and almost avuncular looking Wechsler was pictured sitting with a senior police officer during a press conference in front of the recovered cash.[77]

Then, as before, Wechsler’s pockets had large holes. According to ASIO after Wechsler’s resignation, ‘he was constantly in financial difficulties and money he obtained was irresponsibly squandered. Immediately following his expose in the Melbourne newspaper, he was staying at the Casino in Hobart as the guest of the newspaper. He attracted a great deal of attention through his lavish entertainment and gambling’.[78] Yet unlike many other double agents, such as Aldrich Ames, financial remuneration was not his main motive for undercover work. Whilst he certainly had ‘delusions of grandeur’,[79] from all accounts he was also a lonely individual, lacking in self-esteem, unsure of himself and ‘always trying to impress’.[80] Working for two masters, ASIO and the Communist Party, gave him a psychological sense of self-importance and self-fulfilment as well as enabling him to compartmentalise his life and partition truth from lies. Imposture may have given him purpose. Deception certainly energised him. Perhaps he was also motivated, as his case officer believed, by a genuine distaste for communism after his experiences in Czechoslovakia. At his final meeting with ASIO, on 21 February 1975, and after he had formally resigned, he stated: ‘I am going to destroy the SWL’. Excessive hubris aside, his actions in subsequent months confirmed the seriousness of this desire.[81]

Finally, we may find a clue to Wechsler’s behaviour in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland where characters from the ‘real’ world pass between it and a secret world inhabited by characters who are different from what they seem. According to a recent study of Alger Hiss that borrows this idea, undercover agents engage in looking-glass wars. In passing back and forth between the ‘overt “ordinary” world and the covert secret world’ they need illusions or ‘images in the glass’ as they make the passage and attempt to understand their adversary. It is a looking-glass war because a secret portion of the agent’s life — the portion concealed behind the looking glass, which ‘reflects the likeness; but that likeness is partially an illusion’ — is constantly threatened with exposure.[82] For Wechsler the looking glass refracted and distorted the image of both himself and of his ‘targets’ in the secret world. Yet this is not always the case. For the more self-aware Phil Geri, who choked back tears during his interview, there was no looking glass. Instead, ‘I would look at the CPA members in their 60s and 70s, and think: “What are you doing here, Phil, talking a load of crap? There is no real security information coming out”‘.[83] The blunt comment of Geri’s theatrically reconstructed case officer, Alex, cited at the beginning of this paper, was therefore quixotic, an imagined threat — another misshapen image in the glass.

[1] Melissa Reeves, The Spook (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005), p. 11. See also ‘Cold War Confidential’, The Age, 17 February 2007.

[2] Peter Ellingsen, ‘The Agony and the Loneliness of an ASIO Spy’, The Age, 29 April 1991. The quotes that immediately follow are taken from this source. An application for access to Geri’s ASIO files is currently under consideration by ASIO.

[3] Memo, Regional Director, Victoria, to Headquarters, 24 February 1975, p. 2, National Archives of Australia [henceforth NAA], A6119, 3882; ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 22, NAA, A6119, 3883.

[4] David McKnight, Australia’s Spies and their Secrets (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994) chs. 16-19.

[5] George Fraser, Seeing Red. Undercover in 1950s New Zealand (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1995). We must also rely on New Zealand for an insight into the equivalent of ASIO, the Security Intelligence Service; see C.H. Bennetts, Spy. A former SIS officer unmasks New Zealand’s sensational Cold War spy affair (Auckland: Random House, 2006). My thanks to Kerry Taylor for this reference.

[6] ‘MaxmilianWechsler Special File Volume 4’, NAA A6119, 881, folio 180.

[7] Wechsler became a full-time activist for the SWL, was elected to its State Executive and became its Minute Secretary, Forum Director and Melbourne representative for Pathfinder Press. The quantity of intelligence he provided was voluminous. His penetration of the SWL is, in part, the subject of my ‘Double Agent Down Under: Australian Security and the Infiltration of the Left’, Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 22, No. 3, June 2007, pp. 346-66. This article was written prior to the release of the ASIO files on which this paper is based.

[8] Direct Action, 68, 19 August 1974, p. 14.

[9] In April 1973 Wechsler was informed, via a letter from his parents, that he had been sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment for leaving Czechoslovakia illegally.

[10] Interview with a retired senior ASIO officer, 10 June 2005. He requested that his identity remain confidential. Every reference in several files to this interview has been blacked out. See, for example, ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 2, NAA A6119, 3883. This document, stamped ‘secret’, was a twenty three page report requested by ‘Scorpion’, the Director-General, and written by a Mr Wiggins over a seven week period in April-May 1975.

[11] The above details are drawn from Wechsler’s immigration file, NAA A2559, 1969/154/13.

[12] ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 3, NAA A6119, 3883.

[13] Telex, police report, Brisbane, to ASIO, 13 September 1973, NAA A6119, 3879. See also footnote 30.

[14] ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 3, NAA A6119, 3883.

[15] Information supplied by a former CPA(M-L) member from 1974 to 1980, John Herouvim (deceased). See also Harvey Barnett, Tale of the Scorpion (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1989), p. 76.

[16] E.F. Hill, cited in Herouvim’s unpublished history of the CPA (M-L), ch. 3, p. 81 (in author’s possession). However one chink in the security-conscious CPA (M-L) was revealed in a heavily censored file containing an interview with an ‘overtly co-operative’ member or former member of the CPA (M-L) at ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters on 26 June 1974. See five page ‘restricted’ report sent by Regional Director, Victoria, to Headquarters, 2 July 1974, NAA A6119, 3877. The interviewee was ‘most anxious that his name would not be recorded as a supplier of information to A.S.I.O.’ out of fear of CPA (M-L) retaliation.

[17] Minute Paper, 5 December 1972, NAA A6119, 3877.

[18] Regional Director to Assistant Director-General, 28 November 1972, NAA A6119, 3877.

[19] Memo, Director-General to Regional Director, Victoria, 15 December 1972, NAA A6119, 3877.

[20] See McKnight, Australia’s Spies, pp. 259-61.

[21] Memo to Regional Director, Victoria, 22 January 1973, NAA A6119, 3877.

[22] Memo to ASIO Headquarters, 31 January 1973; marginal note, 6 February 1973, NAA A6119, 3877.

[23] ‘Declaration of Secrecy’, 21 February 1973, NAA, A6119, 3882.

[24] As a fitter at Wormald Bros. in Port Melbourne, Wechsler had joined the AMWU.

[25] Operational Record Sheet [henceforth ORS] No. 2/73, NAA A6119, 3877. See also Tribune, 4 March 1975, p. 12.

[26] ORS No. 1822/75, 31 May 1975. This document, reporting a ‘closed’ meeting on ‘Internal Security’ within the Socialist Labor League, indicates that even this tiny Trotskyist sect had been penetrated.

[27] ‘Indecent Exposure’, Labor 75, 14 March 1975; Scope, 27 March 1975, p. 9, reprinted in Joan Coxsedge, Ken Coldicutt and Gerry Harrant, Rooted in Secrecy: the Clandestine Element in Australian Politics (Melbourne: Committee for the Abolition of Political Police, 1982) p. 132.

[28] Regional Director, Victoria, to Headquarters, 28 March 1973, NAA A6119, 3876.

[29] ORS No. 2/73, 28 February 1973; handwritten note, correspondence, Regional Director to Assistant Director-General, 23 February 1973, NAA A6119, 3877.

[30] Telex, Headquarters to Victorian Office, 17 April 1973, NAA A6119, 3876; ‘Agent Finance Statement’ [undated], NAA A6119, 3882; Minute Paper, Operational Security Officer to Director-General, p. 6, 6 May 1975, NAA, A6119, 3884. He was also loaned $300 by ASIO to purchase a motorbike in June 1973 (‘to improve his agent role’ but which he sold for $200 ‘in a fit of desperation’ due to his wife’s frequent visits to the TAB) and given a ‘holiday bonus’ of $100 to cover living expenses in Tasmania during Christmas 1973. A copy of Wechsler’s passbook, commencing with a deposit of $440 on 25 March 1974 and ending with a withdrawal of $1460 on 22 January 1975, can be found in NAA A6119, 3883.

[31] There was also defacto counselling, especially after Wechsler’s wife left him. This parallels Geri’s comment that his case officers ‘were like priests, and speaking to them was like attending a confession’, The Age, 29 April 1991.

[32] Phrase used by Assistant Director-General, 16 September 1974, NAA A6119, 3881. However, patience was occasionally stretched. Wechsler’s constant requests for reimbursement of expenses caused the Assistant Director-General to remark: ‘This file is becoming cluttered up with the financial dealings with [Wechsler]. I thought that when the last request was made, this would be the end’. Handwritten note on Inward Message to Headquarters, 3 May 1974, NAA A6119, 3880.

[33] Outward Message, Headquarters to Victoria, 23 January 1975, NAA A6119, 3878.

[34] ORS Nos. 90/74, 13 May 1974; 122/74, 11 July 1974, NAA A6119, 3881.

[35] ORS Nos. 44/73, 29 June 1973, NAA A6119, 3878; 45/73, 3 July 1973, NAA A6119, 3879.

[36] ORS No. 5/73, 26 March 1973, NAA A6119, 3876.

[37] His case officer gave even more glowing assessments of the quality of Wechsler’s intelligence reports throughout 1974 when deep penetration of the SWL was achieved. See, for example, the recommendation to employ Wechsler on a full time basis: Supervisor Agent Operations to Regional Director, Victoria, 5 July 1974, NAA A6119, 3881.

[38] ORS No. 4/73, 15 March 1973, NAA A6119, 3876.

[39] Telex, Headquarters to Victorian Office, 29 March 1973; Regional Director, Victoria, to Headquarters, 2 April 1973, NAA A6119, 3876.

[40] Not surprisingly, there is no reference to Wechsler in Sendy or Taft’s published memoirs.

[41] ORS No. 3/73, 2 March 1973; Regional Director to Headquarters, 28 March 1973, NAA A6119, 3876.

[42] ORS No. 35/73, 24 April 1973; No. 38/73, 12 June 1973, NAA A6119, 3878. Wechsler’s daughter was born on 12 June 1973; two weeks later his wife temporarily left him; three months later she left permanently returning with baby to her parents’ home in Tasmania. His case officer was instructed to ‘be careful not to ignore his family.’. ORS No. 47/73, 10 July 1973, NAA A6119, 3879. On the other hand, ASIO was pleased with this development: ‘Certainly, agent without a wife is in a much better position to work for A.S.I.O.’ ORS No. 7/74, 6 January 1974, p. 3, NAA A6119, 3880.

[43] ORS No. 10/73, 3 April 1973, NAA A6119, 3876. See also Tribune, 24-30 April 1973 (‘Death fall tragedy’).Davies now remembers Wechsler as someone ‘over-eager’ to prove himself. He also thought him ‘eccentric’. Conversation with Dave Davies, 8 June 2005.

[44] Copy of Newsletter (undated) in ASIO file, NAA A6119, 3876. Previously he had sold the paper alongside Taft (‘who appears to be taking a special interest in Agent’) and sold fifteen copies in ninety minutes, which, according to Taft, was ‘something of a record’. ORS No. 4/73, 3 March 1973, NAA A6119, 3876.

[45] According to Wechsler, Taft ‘strongly supported’ his attendance at State Committee meetings. ORS No. 16/73, 16 April 1973, NAA A6119, 3878.

[46] Report No. 993/73 of 19 June 1973, NAA A6119, 3878.

[47] ORS No. 19/73, 18 April 1973, NAA A6119, 3878.

[48] Interestingly, an ASIO officer noted, when ‘strongly’ recommending an expense claim by the ‘extremely hard working’ Wechsler, that ‘Agents in other States who are SWL members receive far in excess of what this agent receives’. Inward message, Victoria to Headquarters, 15 February 1974, NAA A6119, 3880. Emphasis added.

[49] ORS No. 8-9/73, 30 March 1973, NAA A6119, 3878.

[50] ORS No. 107/74, 12 June 1974, p. 2, NAA A6119, 3881.

[51] Memo, ‘DIB’, 10 June 1974; ORS Nos. 114/74, 24 June 1974; 25 January 1974; 107/74, 12 June 1974, 22/74, 25 January 1974; 187/74, 11 November 1974; 193/74, 25 November 1974; Handwritten comment on Memo, Regional Director, Victoria, to Headquarters, 21 August 1974, NAA A6119, 3881.

[52] As ASIO Headquarters noted, it was ‘undesirable for Wechsler’s former role for ASIO to be publicly confirmed’. ‘Secret Priority’ outward cable [3 November 1975], NAA A6119, 3884.

[53] ORS No 137/75, 18 February 1975, NAA A6119, 3876. This second agent who had infiltrated the SWL, reported that SWL leaders ‘strongly suspect that there is another agent in the Melbourne branch. Their suspicions, of course, were correct. ORS No 166/75, 26 February 1975, NAA A6119, 3876. It is also obvious from ORS No 255/75, 25 March 1975, NAA A6119, 3876 that an inner-Party CPA meeting in March 1975 was attended by an ASIO agent.

[54] Minute Paper, Operational Security Officer to Director-General, p. 7, 6 May 1975, NAA, A6119, 3884.

[55] According to ‘John’, Wechsler ‘sounded disturbed. I sensed reluctance and tension in his voice’. ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 22, NAA, A6119, 3883.

[56] The paper’s ‘scoop’ was published over two issues on 23 February and 2 March. The first covered a full seven pages; the second over two pages. Wechsler was described as a ‘complicated, confusing man’ but a ‘true-life double-agent [who] stopped at nothing’ and who had now ‘come in from the cold’. His story was trumpeted as a ‘startling expose of the twilight world of espionage in Australia’. Sunday Observer, 23 February 1975, pp. 2-3.

[57] For his resignation statement see attachment to Memo, from Regional Director to Assistant Director-General, 24 February 1975, NAA A6119, 3882. The former believed, probably correctly, that for extra ‘copy’ the paper briefed Wechsler to write a formal resignation letter.

[58] ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 22, NAA, A6119, 3883.

[59] Handwritten note, 9 November 1973, NAA, A6119, 3879.

[60] ORS No. 55/73, 8 October 1973, p. 2, NAA, A6119, 3879.

[61] Report sent by Regional Director, Victoria, to Headquarters, 2 July 1974, NAA A6119, 3877.

[62] Interview with retired ASIO officer, Melbourne, 9 June 2005.

[63] Outward Message from Headquarters, 27 February 1975, NAA, A6119, 3882.

[64] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. S. 63, 21 April 1975, pp. 1177-8.

[65] Less than one month before Wechsler ‘defected’ from ASIO, for example, a contacting officer reported that Wechsler ‘does not exhibit any odd characteristics’ and ‘in fact, seems to have a magnetic personality’. ORS No. 18/75, 23 January 1975, NAA, A6119, 3878.

[66] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. S. 63, 21 April 1975, pp. 1178. Senator Ivor Greenwood, former Attorney-General in the McMahon Government and then technically in charge of ASIO, commented: ‘I have the gravest suspicions that someone within ASIO is setting out to denigrate Wechsler by feeding this information to Senator McClelland’. The Bulletin, 22 November 1975, p. 29. Greenwood’s association with Wechsler and his attempts to exploit Wechsler’s exposé to attack the Whitlam Government are outlined in Deery, ‘Double Agent Down Under: Australian Security and the Infiltration of the Left’.

[67] Sunday Observer, 26 October 1975, p. 10.

[68] Tribune, 4 March 1975, p. 12.

[69] The Bulletin, 22 November 1975, p. 29.

[70] Memo, Director-General to Regional Director, Victoria, 15 December 1972, NAA A6119, 3877.

[71] Minute Paper, Operational Security Officer to Director-General, p. 7, 6 May 1975, NAA, A6119, 3884. For example, it was not until 5 March 1975 that ASIO’s Queensland office reported that Wechsler’s Queensland Immigration file contained a minute from the Superintendent of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Hospital, Dr Paul Hopkins, was being treated at the hospital, which dealt with psychiatric conditions. ‘Checking: Maxmilian Wechsler, Appendix “B”‘, p. 2, NAA, A6119, 3883.

[72] See Harvey Barnett, Tale of the Scorpion (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 11-12, 23 and ch.7 for some of the changes to recruitment and targets after 1976.

[73] Interview with Jamie Doughney 10 June 2005. ASIO also discovered that, on 21 October 1968 (prior to leaving Czechoslovakia), Wechsler had been diagnosed as suffering from Menier’s disease, which can cause ‘unusual psychological behaviour’. Encrypted Outward Cable [July 1975; precise date blacked out], NAA A6119, 3884.

[74] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol. S. 68, 27 April 1976, p. 1319.

[75] Interview with retired ASIO officer, Melbourne, 9 June 2005.

[76] Documents on the Cameron Conspiracy Case and the Hilton Bombing (Brisbane: C.A.D.A. [Campaign for the Acquittal of Alister, Dunn and Anderson], 1985) np.

[77] Bangkok Post, 29 August 2002, p. 8.

[78] Encrypted Outward Cable [July 1975], p. 2, NAA A6119, 3884.

[79] Interview with retired ASIO officer, Melbourne, 9 June 2005.

[80] Interview with Mary Merkenich (former SWL State Executive member), 6 June 2005; Nation Review, 21 March-27 March 1975, p. 593.

[81] ‘Case History: MaxmilianWechsler’, Appendix “A”, p. 23, NAA, A6119, 3883.

[82] G. Edward White, Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. xix.

[83] The Age, 29 April 1991.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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