By Troy Bramston
A new study of US government files concludes there is no evidence to support persistent claims the CIA was involved in the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government in November 1975, but US president Richard Nixon did contemplate authorising covert surveillance in Australia.
Concerned about Labor’s support for agreements to maintain US intelligence facilities at Pine Gap and Narrungar, and infuriated by Whitlam’s often cavalier attitude, the US was considering ways to influence domestic politics.
In June 1974, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was informed that the CIA had been leading “a useful effort” assessing deputy prime minister Jim Cairns, a radical Labor Left figure and former leader of the Vietnam moratorium movement.
While this precise activity is unclear, it appears to have been an intelligence assessment of the threat Cairns posed to Whitlam’s leadership and if he became prime minister, the future of the alliance and US intelligence facilities in Australia. Cairns’s elevation to the deputy leadership caused alarm in the US intelligence community.
The disclosures are contained in James Curran’s book, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War (MUP), which was launched in Sydney last night by former NSW premier and foreign minister Bob Carr. Dr Curran is a historian at the US Studies Centre at Sydney University.
“US officials had to recognise the limits of their ability to directly influence Australian politics,” Dr Curran writes in the book. “There was to be no intervention from the White House on the question of whether Cairns was to be given a security briefing on the nature of US installations in Australia.
“The decision on whether Cairns was to be given clearance was left to Whitlam.
“And the reasons for doing so showed clearly enough that covert action in Australia had at the very least been contemplated.”
In a discussion about Cairns, undersecretary of state Joseph Sisco said the US did not want to “get caught” engaging in “spooky fiddling with the situation”.
“It is the clearest evidence to emerge yet that while the CIA were planning specific operations in Australia, there was simply no appetite at the highest levels in Washington to give those plans any kind of green light,” Dr Curran concludes.
The book also reveals that Malcolm Fraser secretly briefed US ambassador Marshall Green to portray Whitlam as anti-American.
“Whitlam and others may be trying to cause the US to take the lead in abandoning ANZUS,” Fraser told Marshall in July 1974.
Cold War suspicions did not abate during the 1980s. The US feared that Labor foreign minister Bill Hayden also threatened the alliance. The Reagan administration saw him as an “enigma” who “manoeuvres to distance himself from US policy”.
Dr Curran, however, dismisses these concerns.
“Despite the tensions and the acrimony, the Whitlam era ushered in a new maturity for the alliance,” Dr Curran told The Weekend Australian. “Ultimately, the US had to respect the wishes and the interests of Australia in a way that it had not done before.
“Today, in an extraordinary period of bipartisan faith in the alliance, where the rhetoric around the relationship is akin to a liturgy, we seem to have forgotten how to have a disagreement with the US.”
This article was originally published at The Australian