Liaison with the Spooks - 1966

Signals Intelligence (Sigint)

What goes Up ... Comes down; what is rough on one side, is smooth on the other; what is Yin in one sense is Yang on the other. Those who Make cyphers ... Break them.

Shortly after the attempted coup in Indonesia episode (see Cypher Clerk job), I was standing around Mac McLaren's desk when I cast my eye down on a document.

This one was different because it had a classification that I had never seen before.

It was in Caps TOP SECRET XXXXXX - six letters.

I said "What does this XXXXXX mean Mac?"

"You dont have a need to know" was the reply.

A few days later the Head of Security, John Stone, called me down to his office.
He explained that a position had become vacant in the Defence Liaison & Intelligence Coordination (DLIC) Section of the Department and because it coincided with the fact that it had been reported that I had seen a document relating to the activities of this Section, I was being given Higher Duties to act "upstairs".

The Five Eyes

John ordered a Commonwealth Car (a chauffeur facility that takes public servants as directed).

He instructed the driver to take us to the Department of Defence in the Canberra suburb of Russell Hill.

We went deep inside this building through several control access points seeing signs such as Joint Intelligence Bureau; Joint Intelligence Organisation and others I cannot remember until I came to an inner sanctum where I met a stern and taciturn Briefing Officer.
Within a few minutes I was officially "
Indoctrinated" into the world of Sigint (Signals Intelligence) the The Five Eyes.
Indoctrination was the actual word they used. If I was to repeat anything that was revealed to me, I was breaching the Official Secrets Act and liable for up to several years in goal.

It is now public sector knowledge that Australia was a member of a five nation consortium (The Five Eyes) that combined its signals intelligence (Sigint) resources to listen into secrets of other governments.

Each country USA; UK; Australia; Canada and New Zealand were allocated an area of responsibility for breaking the code of a targeted sovereign nation and sharing the information. In Australia's case the Army's Defence Signals Division DSD was, inter alia, intercepting Indonesian military and political signals and putting it into a shared pool.

Back in the Commonwealth Car I said to myself "I now understand the meaning of Defence Liaison - but what is Intelligence Co-ordination?"

John then took me up to a secure area of the department I had rarely traversed.

Off the corridor was an ante room. Off this room was a B Class security door with two Chubb tumble combination locks.

He knocked and we entered. It was a very large room with extra security bars on high windows.

In the room was Colin S. the person I was replacing as well as Charles W. and Wally H. and a typist Penny H.

I recognised Charles and Wally as staff who would come down to the Diplomatic Mail Section and hand over prepackaged and sealed Safe Hand material for dispatch to overseas missions.

John left me with them to brief me on my new job.


There was a secure leased line from the Department of Defence to a teleprinter in an "A" class walk-in Vault on the far side of the room (see sketch - vault 2). This was to be my work station for the next nine months.

The teleprinter spewed out wads and wads of "cracked (decoded)"messages marked Top Secret XYYYYYY.

My job was to read hundreds of intercepted messages each day, collate them into geographic areas that reflected the interests of various Divisions of the Department and take each folder around for about 10 Divisional Heads; the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary to read.

There was a lot of inconsequential messages and a lot of signals that had obvious "meat" on them.

My task was to make a value judgment as to the content of a particular signal and include it in a batch of twenty or so select messages for these people to read.

The system was not infallible as an intelligence method.
It was simply a means of backing up information gleaned from regular communications from the political sections in overseas post and communicated through the standard
External Communications network as described earlier.

Given the sensitive nature of the material there was a protocol. I would knock on the door of the Division Head (Normally a First Assistant Secretary).
If he had a visitor he had to tell him to go away - take a hike.
I would go in and hand him my dossier from a brief case and then return to the door with my back against it - in case someone might barge in. I would then return the dossier to my briefcase and proceed on to the next avid reader.

My duties also involved escorting staff officers to the Department of Defence for indoctrination of "... those with a need to know".

One such person was Alan Renouf. He was being posted as Ambassador to Washington and up until this point in his career even he had not been security cleared to this level.
Our paths met up in Paris years later.

The Americans had the biggest budget. Most of the correspondence was about the war raging in Vietnam and the activities of the CIA and other spooks.

It was captivating reading. Little did I realise that within nine months I would be in Vietnam.

Such inside knowledge made my posting so interesting.

Human Intelligence (HUMINT) - Being Listed

There was no protocol about being Listed - Officially informed of Australia's overseas espionage network.

In the same room, adjacent to my vault was an identical strong room.

It was the depository for the files on the operations of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) .

At this time ASIS was not part of External Affairs and had its HQ in Melbourne but the files were for the purpose of Intelligence Co-ordination.

Wally H. managed these files which were designated Top Secret XXXXXX ("ah hah! that’s what I saw on Mac's desk")

We shared the task of filing documents.

Rather than being "Indoctrinated" the euphemism for this security classification was being "Listed".

Many overseas staff knew of the existence of the "Spooks". But it was another thing to read the files.

I began to wonder how many more classified levels did I have to reach until I got to the Nirvana of Espionage!

A Joke:

A pastor was a golf fanatic.

One Sunday he just could not resist. Instead of attending to the congregation, he claimed sick and had a game of golf. He scored a Hole in One.

"Goodness!" said St Peter to God overlooking "Why do you reward him".

"I haven't rewarded him" said God "He can't tell anyone"

I had just turned 21. It was such a unique experience.

Two memorable incidents:

The first one involved Penny H. She was petite, happy go lucky and newly married but a bit of a flirt.

She came into the vault and as a joke she closed the strong room door. She had no other intention but to shock me. As it happened, the back aperture cover plate of the steel door was missing. She said "what would happen if I did this" - clunk! .

I don't know what she touched, but I added to the problem by touching something else in an effort to reset.

We were now both locked inside the vault.

Wally and Charles were in stitches. But when they tried the dual combination locks they did not work. So they had to call in John Stone the departmental security officer who told me what to do so that we could get out.

He just did not see the funny side - and for a while never did I.


Another time on a Friday, the Branch Head asked me to show a highly sensitive document to an operative somewhere outside the confines of the department.

This was common practice. I cannot remember the circumstances but the exercise involved me putting the document in the inside pocket of my suit jacket; taking it to this person; allowing him to read it; putting it back in my pocket and returning to the Department.

Well I forgot all about it and went to the pub until the normal closing time; rolled out dishelvelled and disorderly waking up the next morning with a jolt as I realised I still had the document on my person.

My problem was that I could not bowl up on a Saturday and put it back in the vault as I had no business being there on a weekend.

The ensuing Saturday afternoon; Saturday evening; all day Sunday and Sunday night was an eternity staying in my room with this offending shitty little bit of paper - so petrified in case I would mislay it. If I lost it and it was compromised. Seven years in goal.

With a great sense of relief I put it back with no one the wiser.

Later in Saigon, as I was both "listed" and 'indoctrinated", I carried highly sensitive documents beyond Top Secret to operatives in allied embassies and to the commander of the Australian troops at Armed forces HQ Saigon - for their eyes only.

It was surreal - but in those days there almost every non-combatant was a spook.