Our deadline came and went and we emerged, knowing it was too late for ASIO, the US National Security Agency, the Australian and US governments or anyone else to stop the awkward facts from emerging.
The ABC ran with it on that evening’s news, and the paper for which I was working at the time – The Sydney Morning Herald – was set to splash it on the front page in the morning.
“How we spied on China” declared the headline. “Joint operation with US to bug embassy.”
It was May 1995.
The story, by the Herald’s well-connected and Mandarin-speaking defence and foreign affairs correspondent David Lague, laid out how the ostentatious new Chinese embassy just down the hill from Parliament House in Canberra was riddled with listening devices.
Australian and US spies, Lague’s story revealed, had managed to insert a network of fibre-optic bugs throughout the huge embassy as it was being built in the 1980s.
“The Australian and United States governments joined forces to mount a massive spying operation against the Chinese Embassy building in Canberra,” Lague’s story began.
“At the height of the operation, about 30 US National Security Agency (NSA) operatives were in Canberra to help Australian technicians install fibre-optic listening devices while the $18 million embassy in the suburb of Yarralumla was still under construction.”
The Herald and the ABC had stitched the facts together months previously, partly thanks to a nasty rift that had formed between Australia’s spies and those of the US as a direct result of the bugging.
The Australians and the Americans had been listening to the Chinese for all sorts of reasons, not least of which was to gain trade intelligence.
They were not terribly subtle, setting up right next door to the embassy in a building left vacant by the Malaysians when they moved to a new site of their own. Anyone who knew anything about surveillance chuckled at the idea of the “Attorney-General’s Department” establishing an office in such a convenient location.
But as the listening operation wore on, the Australians felt they were getting screwed. Australia and the US were in trade competition with each other, particularly when it came to selling agricultural produce to China.
The Americans, it seems, were grabbing most of the intelligence, siphoning it to Washington and using it to get the jump on Australia.
The espionage community, when riled by competition between agencies and nations, has always been prepared to leak like a surfboat rammed by a whale.
An alarmed and embarrassed Keating government embarked on a full-blown legal effort to keep the details from the public. Foreign minister Gareth Evans got a Supreme Court injunction, blocking publication of any detail. The Australian government, it turned out, had authorised the operation in the first place.
The Herald‘s lawyers fought the suppression order for five weeks. Eventually the ABC ran the story while Lague, the Herald’s Canberra bureau chief Geoff Kitney and I (then the paper’s political correspondent) were holed up in the darkroom, lest the Commonwealth attempt to hit us with a new injunction.
Our lawyers went to the NSW Supreme Court 90 minutes after the ABC story was aired, it agreed to lift parts of the suppression order and no one, mercifully, hammered down our door.
These days, you’d expect a squad of Australian Federal Police to barge in, searching everything, including one’s underwear drawers if they could be found, before charging everyone with crimes of sedition.
God knows what Australia’s greatest and most eccentric China-watching journalist, Richard Hughes – who held court for decades in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club – would have made of it all.
Hughes – who inspired one of John Le Carre’s most memorable characters, William Craw in The Honourable Schoolboy, and Ian Fleming’s Dikko Henderson in his book You Only Live Twice – knew a bit about the business of spying.
His role as a journalist in the Far East during the Cold War was perfect cover. Allegedly, he was an agent for Britain’s MI6, though wilder claims he also worked for the Soviet KGB are absurd: he was a committed anti-Communist.
Whatever he was, Hughes could predict unpleasant international events well before anyone else.
In 1940 he wrote that Japan was preparing to go to war. As another great Australian journalist, Harry Gordon, wrote much later, if governments had taken him seriously, Pearl Harbour, the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin might not have taken everyone by such awful surprise.
A shrewd cynic like Hughes, had he lived long enough, might have prophesied that the embassy bugging of the 1990s would have consequences.
But long after the scandal, Australian governments, infected by the promise of ever-increasing riches, tried to persuade themselves that China was, in fact, a good and reliable friend and trading partner, worthy of purchasing everything from Australian sheep stations to gas plants and mining resources.
Why, at the height of the lovefest, the Northern Territory government sold a 99-year lease on the port of Darwin to interests linked to the Chinese Communist Party while prime minister Tony Abbott and the defence establishment were apparently looking the other way.
The US military, which used Darwin’s port in its shadow-boxing with China over its colonising of the South China Sea, was furious. An ill-judged China deal had once again placed Australia in a tricky spot between its major ally and its major trading partner.
Meanwhile, China had made it clear it hadn’t forgotten being bugged.
In 2013, the ABC’s Four Corners revealed that Chinese cyber hackers had slid through Canberra’s most secret back door and snared the floor plans and the locations of communications cabling, servers and security systems in ASIO’s massive new Canberra headquarters, then being built for $630 million.
It cost ASIO around $170 million to reconfigure their internal plans before the shiny new headquarters could be used.
This time, you might imagine Australia’s spooks took extreme measures to protect their secrets, just as, years before, the Chinese imported their own workers to build a large new and secure extension to their compromised embassy.
Chinese hackers have ever since been the prime suspects for cyber attacks on Australian governmental, military, academic and commercial operators in attempts to steal valuable intelligence.
And now, as China puts the squeeze on an ever-widening selection of unfortunate Australian exporters, we barely need to listen in on secret talk to figure what is happening. It is out in the open.
China is using its immense wealth and fearsome trading power to deliver a brutal message to any nation that cares to watch.
This is what can happen, Beijing is declaring, if you are bold enough to poke the tiger, as Scott Morrison did when, apparently, he tried to impress Donald Trump’s administration by rushing out ahead of the world and demanding an investigation into the genesis of COVID-19 in China.
Australia, in short, is finding itself screwed in a three-way, just as it did when it agreed to host US spies in the business of bugging the Chinese embassy in Canberra.
Where is Le Carre, the greatest spy novelist of our time, when we need him?
He died this week, having taught us that espionage exists in a relentlessly ambiguous world of grey, the results of which are rarely predictable or satisfactory.
“That’s the problem, George,” Le Carre has one of his characters, Connie Sachs, tell George Smiley in Smiley’s People. “Half-angels fighting half-devils. No one knows where the lines are.”
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.