"More Cloak than Dagger: One Woman's Career in Secret Intelligence", by Molly J. Sasson. Published by Connor Court, Brisbane. Paperback: 328 pages. Price: AUD$29.95. Available from bookshops and Amazon. Reviewed by John Morrissey.
When last year I encountered in Roland Perry's latest excursion into the world of espionage, sex and crime, a little old lady "spook" named Polly, with a penchant for cat-breeding and exhibiting, I found the character improbable outside the world of the "M" figure in recent James Bond movies. Imagine my surprise to pick up Molly Sasson's autobiography and find her there, larger in real life than in fiction. And her evaluation of our best-known security organisation, ASIO, pulls no punches.
Her story tells of an idyllic English childhood between two world wars, with numerous pets from which developed her life-long involvement with cats, a litany of daring misdeeds, and opportunities to travel on the Continent. Her secondary schooling, with an emphasis on music and languages, was at an International Ladies College located near the Hague and conducted by nuns, although with a good spread of male and female tutors. Tidbits of information include narrowly escaping expulsion after setting off the fire alarm during Sunday Mass.
The outbreak of war in 1939 saw her intended musical career put on hold and her joining the RAF, where her proficiency in European languages resulted in a posting to the Air Intelligence Unit. After D-Day she was on active service in Europe, interviewing and interpreting under quite dangerous conditions just behind the advancing Allied front. Colleagues were murdered by fugitive Nazis and she came close to death herself on one occasion. As part of the Occupation forces she continued in this important role, but found time to marry Robert, a handsome RAF officer.
On loan to Britain's security services, Molly began a new career, minding a Soviet scientist who had defected with his family and was lodged in a "safe" house in Chelsea, while the KGB and GRU sought him. This leads us into the Cold War, and she provides a lengthy and valuable chapter on the British moles and defections to the USSR, with short sketches of the work of a number of lesser-known traitors, as well as that of the notorious Cambridge Five. We learn how in 1945 Kim Philby tragically thwarted Volkov's defection and how slowly MI5 and MI6 took action when faced with indications of treachery within their ranks.
After an assignment with the RAF's photographic intelligence section, she left England in 1954 to accompany her husband to the Netherlands where he worked with Fokker. There she was employed by ASIO in screening intending migrants to Australia, and began her association with its Director-General, Brigadier (later Sir) Charles Spry. Her life also involved her cat-show judging and numerous social engagements where she encountered Soviet agents trawling for contacts in sensitive Western departments. She provides a number of anecdotes revealing not only how she managed to foil some of these, but also the discretion which she had to exercise on occasions.
Molly recounts Spry's belief that, after the dramatic Petrov defection of 1954, Soviet intelligence must have penetrated ASIO and been responsible for the decline in the organisation's effectiveness. Spry invited Molly to work for the organisation in Australia as a research officer, after her husband's retirement in 1967. She passionately defends Spry, whose reputation has since been trashed mercilessly by the ABC and others, as has been the fate of so many great Australians not of the Left.
Her initial impressions of the Canberra office were not favourable: it was "disorganised from the top down or the bottom up", with "valuable intelligence stored away in drawers" and originally "hot-off-the press items" often six months old and not attended to. During Spry's illness, his deputy did not inspire confidence, and bright but frustrated young recruits rarely stayed. From her arrival, Molly studied all incoming information, circulating her "Canberra Oracle" by telex on a daily basis. She describes a number of bizarre individuals distinguished only for their sloth and incompetence, whatever their supposed wartime or police records of service. Promotion depended on not upsetting anyone!
Spry's successor, Peter Barbour, is not spared either. A number of glaring cases follow, of moles in sensitive departments, who had not even had security checks. Meanwhile, KGB and GRU agents acting under the cover of a swarm of Eastern European diplomatic missions in Canberra went about their business also unchecked. Operations launched against them failed so regularly that tip-offs were the only explanation - and she suspected ASIO's deputy regional director, John Elliott, as the culprit, only to be told "not to rock the boat". These suspicions and her evidence against a number of MPs associating with Soviet agents were never acted upon, for fear of opening "a can of worms", as the regional director for Canberra put it. Finally, she discloses that the infamous 1973 Lionel Murphy raid on ASIO was to secure his own file, duly handed over by Peter Barbour.
The writer records some improvement in ASIO after the Hope Royal Commission in 1977, with vetting under Director- General Edward Woodward, when she moved to the organisation's then national headquarters in Melbourne. With Cold War tensions rising, her work was in screening Eastern European migrants, but ASIO had neither the resources nor the trained staff for this role. However, there too she noted the lack of commitment among staff, resentment towards her as a woman, and injustices in salary and grading suffered by herself and other conscientious staff. Citing the hesitation of other Western nations concerning sharing intelligence with Australia, Molly presents a rogue's gallery of politicians, bureaucrats and journalists who have lived out their lives unpunished, even after abundant proof of their treachery had come to light. They include Dr Ian Milner, Jim Hill and Katharine Susannah Prichard, along with agents of influence in politics, such as Dr Jim Cairns, who was active in Soviet front organisations, and a prominent Greens senator today. She also details Moscow's funding payments and supplies a list of important Soviet agents identified in Australia, adding that, in her 14 years of service, not one KGB or GRU operative was expelled, nor have these shameful failures ever been exposed.
The sensational findings of the AFP's 1992-93 Operation Liver and the 1994 Cook Report have never been made public, and both sides of politics have been involved in the coverup. The questions go back to the birth of ASIO in 1948, when MI5's Roger Hollis accompanied his Director-General Percy Sillitoe to Australia and played a prominent role in its foundation. Works by Chapman Pincher (Their Trade is Treachery) and Peter Wright (Spycatcher) have implicated Hollis as a long-term mole in British Intelligence, and the author advances a compelling mass of circumstantial evidence to suggest that their accusations are well founded.
Molly Sasson concludes her story with some delightful recollections of family and travels, not the least being her visits to Eastern Europe to judge pedigree cat shows, where before 1989, her previous career in secret intelligence brought her to the attention of the authorities there. She also tells of the death of her husband and later happy remarriage to Albert, a widower friend from the past. These personal details come as a welcome relief after the gloomy revelations concerning Australia's [in]security provisions in the decades preceding her retirement decades ago.
"More Cloak than Dagger" is a fascinating story of a life lived to the full during the most eventful century in human history, along with some valuable notes on all of the characters and episodes with which it is packed. However, it has an authentic personal voice and is very readable and accessible to those whose knowledge or memories do not extend to those events of yesteryear. Fortunately, Molly is far more positive about the capacity of our security services today. Nevertheless, she leaves us with a warning concerning current Muslim extremism, comparing the barbarism reported daily with that of the totalitarian regimes of yesterday, and hoping that we can "look forward to a respected ASIO with renewed energy and a confronted past".
(John Morrissey is a retired school teacher. He says he is not a cat person but lives with his dog named Wreck in Hawthorn, Victoria.)
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