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Declassified: Australia's Role in 1973 Chile Coup
September 11th marks 50 years since the violent overthrow of Chile’s elected leftist President, Salvador Allende. Washington’s central role in that coup is notorious, while the part played by Australian intelligence has long-been secret. Declassified documents shed some light, but raise more questions.
Since the mid-1970s, it’s been known the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Canberra’s foreign intelligence agency, was involved in the wide-ranging White House-directed mission to undermine the government of Allende in the lead up to his blood-spattered, CIA-sponsored ouster. Details remained elusive ever after though, with officials in Washington and Canberra refusing to disclose relevant documents on the basis of national security.
That was until Dr. Clinton Fernandes won a legal challenge against the Australian National Archives, resulting in Canberra turning over hundreds of files. Now stored at the US National Security Archives, explicit details of the agency’s covert operations, gathered intelligence, and contact with the CIA are all redacted. Still, what remains remains rife with scintillating, never-before-seen nuggets.
The file trail begins in December 1970, three months after Allende narrowly won the Chilean presidency, when ASIS was given permission from then-Australian Foreign Minister William McMahon to open a spy station in Santiago, to support US covert operations. With CIA activities in the country closely monitored, Langley was compelled to seek the assistance of allies. Other declassified documents show Brazil’s military dictatorship was also enlisted for this purpose.
Nonetheless, by June the next year, the ASIS station hadn’t yet been inaugurated. There were also doubts internally as to whether doing so was a necessary, or even sensible move.
“Today is not our day,” a contemporary memo laments, before noting an official – name redacted – was now questioning the need to go ahead with the “Santiago Project”. They felt the situation hadn’t “deteriorated to the extent that was feared,” as Allende “had so far been more moderate than expected.” Reference is also made to a recent “tightening up by the security services,” which presumably made operating in the country without detection even more difficult.
‘Embarrass the CIA’
Six months later though, the station was clearly fully operational. A heavily censored progress report details various “administrative problems” the mission has faced since launch, including a lack of “effective translation service,” and failure by ASIS operatives to meet Spanish language requirements. The “attitude” of a certain redacted individual or organization “to the question of basic security” of the station was also said to be “appalling”.
In December 1972, another document set out “problems and misunderstandings” between “[redacted] and the station”. The blacked-out text is so brief, it could well refer to the CIA. Chief among the issues still legible in the file are “several instances” in which “detailed and timely feedback of information” had been lacking. Tantalizingly, the two most recent incidents of this phenomenon reportedly “pertained to biographical details”, and caused “embarrassment” – “such incidents do little for [ASIS’] reputation.”
It’s unknown if these “problems and misunderstandings” were resolved subsequently, although it may well not have mattered. In April the next year, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam met with ASIS chief William T. Robertson. He was “uneasy” about the agency’s operations in Chile, as if “any publicity” were to arise from “these matters”, it would “extremely difficult” to justify their presence in Santiago. Consequently, he demanded all clandestine activity there cease as soon as possible.
Suggestions for winding down the station are then outlined. This included all ASIS equipment and records in Chile being “destroyed or returned to Australia,” after which all agency staff “would perform no clandestine activity.”
Five days later, in an internal station memo, Robertson recorded Whitlam’s “considerable amount of worry” about the closure given “the importance” of the mission to Langley, and his hope “they would not interpret his decision as anti-American.” The Prime Minister added, “the last thing he wanted to do was to take precipitate action…that would embarrass the CIA.”
Plans were set in motion almost immediately, a set of instructions circulated to ASIS station staff. Whitlam’s decision is described as an “agonising” one, taken only because it was “impossible for him to present an [ASIS] presence in Santiago as being in the direct Australian national interest.”
Similar sentiments are expressed in a memo the next month. Robertson indicates a proposal to continue the ASIS station’s activities was rejected by the Prime Minister. Whitlam was “most concerned that [the] CIA should not interpret this decision as being an unfriendly gesture to the US in general or CIA in particular.” The ASIS chief reassures recipients agency headquarters was “very disappointed” about “the way in which this decision has come about.”
‘Working as Proxies’
In July 1973, the ASIS station in Santiago was closed. A final report notes all its records were destroyed, and equipment shipped back to Canberra, a nameless staffer even tasked with returning a Pentax camera personally. That same month too, Whitlam met with US President Richard Nixon, reassuring him he sought “good relations” with Washington, and posed no threat to the White House’s interests in Australia or the Asia Pacific. The charm offensive was utterly futile, for unbeknownst to him, he’d long-been earmarked for removal from office by US intelligence.
A maverick social democrat, within months of his 1972 election victory, Whitlam abolished royal patronage, recognised the People’s Republic of China, drew up plans for Aboriginal land rights, and withdrew all Australian troops from Vietnam, his ministers referring to the ongoing US war there as “corrupt and barbaric.” In response, CIA operatives in Saigon were told Australians “might as well be regarded as North Vietnamese collaborators.”
Even more egregiously from Washington’s perspective, in March 1973 Whitlam ordered raids on the offices of domestic intelligence agency ASIO. This uncovered Canberra’s involvement in the NSA and GCHQ-led ‘Five Eyes’ global spying network for the first time, 17 years after Australia became a signatory to that mephitic arrangement.
Resultantly, Whitlam threatened to close Pine Gap, Washington’s Australian listening post, a key component of the Five Eyes nexus. This “caused apoplexy in the White House,” CIA whistleblower Victor Marchetti has revealed, and “a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion” to remove the Prime Minister from office thereafter.
First, notorious CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton – who considered Whitlam a “serious threat” – unsuccessfully attempted to persuade ASIO’s chief to falsely state the Prime Minister had lied about the raid in parliament. Australia’s upstart premier was finally brought down in November 1975. Queen Elizabeth II’s representative, Governor General John Kerr, dismissed him at the behest of Langley and MI6.
It may not be clear from the files what cloak-and-dagger activities ASIS got up to in Santiago. But in 1977, Whitlam told Australia’s parliament intelligence personnel had been “working as proxies of the CIA in destabilizing the government of Chile.” Given Langley’s machinations there ushered in two decades of dictatorship, during which untold numbers were tortured, murdered and disappeared by General Pinochet’s ruling junta, Canberra’s role could’ve been significant.