News National Cabinet papers detail Russian spying concerns for Keating

Cabinet papers detail Russian spying concerns for Keating

Keating papers
Keating was warned of a significant security threat. Photo: ABC
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Paranoia over the Russian “threat to Australian Government communications” dominated discussions at a 1993 meeting of Cabinet’s national security committee, according to newly-released government documents which remain heavily censored more than two decades on.

The previously secret “cabinet-in-confidence” records reveal Paul Keating’s government was briefed about “foreign signals intelligence activity against Australia” including the activity of “personnel from the Russian foreign intelligence service — the SVR”, which replaced the Soviet-era KGB.

At the time of the Cabinet discussions Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO was still reeling from widespread suspicions that it had been penetrated by Soviet moles during the dying stages of the Cold War, which officially ended two years earlier in 1991.

David Coombe
Former ALP general secretary David Combe (centre) was being cultivated by KGB agent Valery Ivanov. Photo: ASIO

The heavily-redacted Cabinet minutes released publicly today reviews the threat to Australian government communications and the state of communications security in 1993, drawing on material prepared by ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) over the previous year.

It includes an ASIO assessment of the Russian embassy in Canberra as well as “several other Asia-Pacific countries” whose names have been blacked out by the National Archives.

According to the seven-page document dated 13 December 1993, Cabinet was warned the DSD was “unable to determine to what extent Australian communications may be targeted by these countries”.

Ministers were also briefed that DSD “continues to assess that there is a high level of threat to the government’s communications when they are not properly enciphered”.

DSD also concluded that “there is a continuing threat from hackers to government information processing systems of all types, and DSD assesses that this threat will continue to grow”.

Warning about entry of gay people into military

Newly released Cabinet documents also reveal The Keating Government was warned that allowing homosexuals into the military could destroy group cohesion and affect the ability of the Defence Force to attract young recruits.

Previously top secret Cabinet papers from 1992 and 1993 detail how Mr Keating’s cabinet grappled over whether to lift a ban on gays and lesbians entering the military.

The “cabinet-in-confidence” documents outline how then attorney-general Michael Duffy pushed to overturn the restrictions, as well as the case against made by then defence minister Robert Ray, who was apparently reflecting the view of Defence.

At the time, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) maintained and enforced a homosexual ban, but in 1992 it had also just adopted a new policy declaring it had no concern with the sexual activity of members so long as they did not interfere with military requirements.

Gay people in military
There were fears that allowing gay people into military could harm recruitment. Photo: ABC

According to the 1986 Defence direction, which banned homosexual behaviour, the practice was considered “prejudicial to effective command relationships and to the maintenance of the high levels of morale and discipline necessary for the efficient functioning of the ADF”.

In a submission to Cabinet in November 1992, Mr Duffy highlighted the contradiction.

“The problem is that the 1986 and 1992 policies are mutually inconsistent,” he observed.

At the same time, the Attorney-General’s colleague, Defence Minister Robert Ray, also made a last unsuccessful bid to keep the ban, until a comprehensive survey of attitudes among defence leaders and members was carried out.

“Homosexual behaviour or tendencies destroy the intimate bonding of the group because of the fear that the physical and psychological elements of military cohesion may be misrepresented and mistrusted as sexual in nature and, therefore, intrusive and threatening,” the defence minister argued in a Cabinet submission.

Mr Ray also warned his Cabinet colleagues that allowing homosexuals to serve could hamper military recruitment.

“It is likely that a change in homosexual policy would influence the readiness of parents to permit their children to join the ADF and adversely affect its ability to recruit from the very important under-18 age bracket,” his submission argued.

Cabinet was unconvinced and decided to immediately lift the ban in 1992, putting Australia ahead of many comparable militaries, including the UK and US, which only lifted restrictions a decade later.