Flat White

Who knows all there is to know about the spying game?

6 March 2020

2:31 PM

6 March 2020

2:31 PM

It should come as no surprise ASIO revealed last week it had uncovered a “sleeper agent” running a spy ring.

Director-general Mike Burgess revealed the “sleeper” had been providing logistical and financial support for foreign agents engaged in intelligence-gathering missions and harassing dissidents in Australia.

Countering terrorism was ASIO’s number one mission.

Sleepers are far from the fictional representation of spies such as James Bond, licenced to kill while pursuing hedonistic pleasures.

Sleepers require patience and longevity as they work to infiltrate their target – sometimes at the highest level – and developing a network of trusted agents.

Burgess did not reveal the sleeper’s identity nor the country that sponsors him – or her – and to whom they report.

It’s a dangerous world to operate in, ideally anonymous and without obvious reward.

Egyptian-born Jew Eli Cohen infiltrated Syria’s Mukharabat secret service via Argentina, sending valuable material on Syria’s defences to Israel from 1961 until 1965 when he was discovered using a clandestine radio.

He was publicly executed.

Infiltrating to the highest levels of the Syrian government, he deployed a range of communication methods before being discovered.


Perhaps the most effective network was Britain’s Cambridge four, comprising, among others, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess.

The ideologically driven group’s infiltration of Britain’s military, diplomatic and civilian intelligence agencies was as masterful as it was treacherous.

Even now Britain is unsure it knows the identity of all those involved.

Their allegiance was to Russia and they betrayed many key Russian double-agents as well as British agents who were operating undercover in Russia.

During World War II, Philby betrayed allied agents operating undercover in Germany.

Some were executed.

How was their work relevant to the defence of both Israel and Australia?

Cohen spied extensively on the Golan Heights and interfered directly in defences there.

Philby forewarned Russia about Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s otherwise unforeseen June 1941 invasion, from information gained in his British role.

Both men undoubtedly cost lives, Philby going so far as to identify British agents by name and role.

Julian Assange, fighting extradition to the US, was exposed as a person of interest by Britain and Australia and has described himself variously as a “journalist”, a cover story used by Philby, who at least possessed some journalistic skills and worked openly as such in Beirut and elsewhere under the apparent cover of the British government.

Assange and his US military accomplice Chelsea Manning stole classified material and simply released it without regard to its potential harm.

Whether it can be proved or not, he has been accused through his actions of exposing undercover agents to danger, possibly death.

ASIO’s Burgess did not reveal which country the sleeper was serving, despite plenty of open speculation who it might be, nor their country of origin.

Before World War II, a Japanese sleeper operated in Darwin under the cover of a photographer when transmission of material was by slow post or primitive radio.

One of the yellowing photos on the wall of the Canberra Press Gallery showing its members year by year from the late 1930s is conspicuous by the presence of a representative of the Nikkei news agency. He appears in no other pictures.

With today’s communications, a sleeper can send vast amounts of detailed material.

He is also likely to be simply the tip of a large iceberg.

Ross Eastgate OAM Ross Eastgate is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and military historian who writes a weekly column on defence issues and blogs at Targets Down. This piece is reproduced with permission of The Townsville Bulletin.

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