Australian government feared KGB spy scandal, documents show

Declassified papers from a 1983 Australian Cabinet meeting reveal that the Labor government of the day feared it could be brought down by revelations of spying by a Soviet diplomat in Canberra. The spy was Valeriy Nikolayevich Ivanov, First Secretary at the Soviet embassy in the Australian capital. Suspecting the Soviet diplomat of espionage activities, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had bugged his home, and by 1982 had concluded that he was “a professional KGB intelligence officer”. Moreover, ASIO counterintelligence officials believed that Ivanov had been actively cultivating a relationship with an Australian citizen with a possible view to recruitment. Their concern apparently intensified after the Australian citizen began meeting Ivanov at his diplomatic residence, at the Soviet official’s request. On April 20, 1983, ASIO Director General Harvey Barnett met newly installed Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and informed him that the Australian citizen in question was no other than David Combe. A former National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) from 1973 to 1981, Combe was also the Prime Minster’s personal friend and close associate. A member of the Australia-USSR Friendship Society, Combe had come to know Ivanov in 1982, when he asked the Soviet embassy in Canberra for assistance in preparing for a business trip to the Soviet Union. Combe had exited politics before the 1983 national election, which had resulted in a landslide victory for the ALP, and he had entered a career as a business consultant and lobbyist. But his close relationship with Hawke alerted senior ALP officials. Meeting minutes of the government’s National and International Security Committee, released last week by the National Archives of Australia, show that Hawke chose to take Director General Barnett and other ASIO officers with him to brief senior cabinet members on April 21, the day after he himself had been briefed about the Ivanov affair. The declassified documents also show that, despite the ALP’s large electoral victory only six weeks earlier, some of the Party’s senior Cabinet members feared that the affair could bring down the government. This was over the strong objection by some ALP members, who thought that “Combe had done nothing overt or covert which was spying”, and saw the whole affair as “case of ASIO going mad”. The Party leadership opted for a “tough, decisive and immediate” reaction, fearing that “any pussyfooting around on this issue […] would have been an absolutely incalculably valuable weapon to the opposition [and] could have seen the early demise of the government”. The following day, Australian Foreign Minister Bill Hayden urgently summoned the Soviet Ambassador to Australia and informed him that Ivanov had seven days to leave the country. On the same day, Labor Party senior officials were instructed to refrain from associating with Combe, and the ASIO was given a green light to “conduct immediate surveillance by all appropriate means” (presumably of Combe). Ivanov left the country, and Combe was never charged with espionage. Eventually he was appointed Australian trade commissioner to western Canada and then to Hong Kong. In the 1990s he retired from his government post and worked in the wine industry.

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