Saturday, 4 July 2009

John Symonds during his Australia trip

This is an article published in Time magazine of 3 March 2005 in connection with John's business trip to Australia.

On this occasion John won the affection of the marsupial but not of the Sheila

Outed Soon: Australia's Soviet Spy?

Last month the Australian government asked Israel to recall a diplomat who, if the stories about him are true, was quite the ladies' man. The reason for the request is secret, but the episode has the capital twittering with gossip about espionage and sex. It's also a reminder of the Cold-War days when John Symonds, the KGB's so-called "Romeo agent," visited the country. "I did a lot of damage down there in Australia," says the former Scotland Yard detective, contacted by Time at his home in England.

Symonds' claims of stealing secrets by seducing female embassy and government employees - he says he later tried to confess to authorities but was ignored - were corroborated in a trove of copied KGB documents, some of which found their way into the 1999 book The Mitrokhin Archive: The kgb in Europe and the West. A further instalment of the documents, dealing with espionage operations outside Europe and America, is the basis for an upcoming sequel.

Some former intelligence officers believe the sequel will shed light on one of Australia's greatest spy mysteries - the identity of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) officer widely thought to have worked for the Soviets in the 1980s. "I thought it would never be released because it was too hot," says a former ASIO officer of the information.

In 1992, disgruntled KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin walked into the British Embassy in Latvia and handed over a sample of what the FBI would later call "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source." The files revealed the details of many Soviet espionage operations and unmasked KGB agents around the world. Wide-ranging counter-espionage operations were mounted, including a lengthy hunt for the alleged ASIO spy. "This wasn't just another piece of information from a defector," says Canberra-based intelligence expert Des Ball. "This happened to be the first categoric information that the KGB had in fact penetrated ASIO," he says. An ASIO translator, George Sadil, was charged in 1993 with offenses relating to espionage and the exposure of official secrets. He pleaded guilty only to removing ASIO documents; the more serious charges were later dropped.

Mitrokhin, who died last year, and his book collaborator Christopher Andrew, always promised a second volume. Andrew and Penguin, the publisher, have told Time the book will be published in September, but are tight-lipped about its contents. Perhaps they will include a fuller account of the activities of Symonds, who sometimes posed as a sports fan on his jaunts to Africa, India, South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Symonds, who served jail time for corruption but has never been charged with espionage, told Time his missions included obtaining false identities and acting as a "frightener" or standover man who would brutalize agents working deep undercover who had tried to defect to the West. In Australia, the interest was in "people who were working there as illegals (Soviet spies) and who had been set up in a small hotel or business and had done a runner." Symonds also says he specialized in providing background stories for spies. Mention the alleged mole inside asio and Symonds becomes cryptic. "It could have been one of mine," he says, referring to the agents for whom he created false identities. "I like to wonder, Where are all my boys now? Are they in high-up positions in the government?"

Rory Callinan

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