Untold story of Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 10

The Prime Minister and I both become ASIO targets

MURWILLUMBAH, 4 December 2007

Postal workers in the Tweed Valley, a sugar cane and banana-growing shire just south of the Queensland border, deliver mail to outlying rural properties on a motorbike. The intrepid couriers are mainly retirees earning a few extra bob on contracts with Australia Post. The large registered parcel addressed to me from Canberra was too big to fit in my mailbox. Because it was a rainy day with storms forecast, it was risky to leave it under the gum tree at the bottom of my long driveway.

Heritage-listed Condong Post Office built in 1901

The postie left a card asking me to collect the parcel from the Post Office at Condong, population 298, right opposite the sugar mill and managed by Eileen and Grahame. The old timber building is heritage listed. It was opened in 1901, the year Australia became an all-white independent Commonwealth nation like New Zealand and Canada. No one told Australians at the time that we would remain bound hand and foot to London for most of the 20th century. Today things have changed: Canberra shuffles behind Washington.

The parcel awaiting collection was my security file, compiled in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the domestic spy agency modelled on Britain’s MI5. The documents weighed as much as a large telephone directory (about 1½ kgms) and consisted of several hundred pages of reports and observations of my early career as a journalist in Townsville, Mount Isa, Sydney, Canberra and London. The documents were filed in an impressive folder carrying the message, “Your story, our history”, above the logos of the Australian Government and the National Archives of Australia.

My excitement was manifest. Embarrassingly so. I rummaged through pages of information compiled by anonymous people about an abstract person whom I did not immediately recognise. There were observations about public meetings, demonstrations, rallies, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and coffee bars; they stirred dim memories from a distant past. I had been pursuing my political and social interests – sometimes my focus was no higher than having a few beers or wooing a new girlfriend – while my observers were earnestly taking notes and photographs to build a security profile. They were at work and being paid by the Federal Government. It was bizarre to think that my taxes had been spent on a clandestine spying operation and the target was me.

ASIO chief Brigadier Charles Spry

On 12 September 1969 ASIO director-general Sir Charles Spry wrote to the Senior (ASIO) Liaison Officer at Australia House answering three requests made on March 11, May 5 and August 5 for information on Alex Mitchell. Brigadier Spry, a man described as “fond of alcohol”, wrote: “Alex Mitchell has previously come to notice in 1965 and 1966 in contact with representatives of the Soviet Embassy. At that time MITCHELL was apparently employed as a journalist by the Sydney Daily Mirror”.

Spry’s note was accompanied by two telephone intercepts when I called the Soviet Embassy with legitimate media questions. Headed, “Contact with Australian Press”, the “SECRET” report concluded the USSR envoy “explained that he could not answer Mitchell’s questions as he just arrived in Australia and was not familiar with these problems. MITCHELL thanked him.” The ASIO records provided proof that ASIO kept surveillance on all incoming calls to the Soviet Embassy and probably outgoing as well.

Another cable, dated 10 March 1970, between ASIO headquarters in Melbourne and Australia House showed the spy agency was having trouble finding information on the target “ALEX MITCHELL.” It read: “Could you please advise whether you have checked: (A) Alexander Robert Mitchell, journalist, aged about 28, formerly of Queensland and NSW, and (B) Alexander Douglas Mitchell, born 10 April 1921, Warwick, Queensland.” Brisbane-born Sir Charles asked: “Your assistance in resolving the identification of Alex Mitchell would be appreciated.” Yet another communication mentioned an Alexander G Mitchell.

A firm identification was made by KG Turbayne, Senior Intelligence Liaison officer at Australia House, who cabled Sir Charles on 11 March 1969 saying: “Alex Mitchell, formerly of Townsville, Queensland, was recently named in the Australian press as a committee member of the ‘Get Gorton Ad Hoc Committee’ which organised the demonstration in London on the arrival of the Prime Minister and later on the 11th January, 1969, at Australia House. Advice would be appreciated as to whether ALEX MITCHELL has previously come to notice in Australia. He is no trace in this office.”

Mr Turbayne sent a coded message to “Scorpion” (ASIO’s teleprinter code) following publication of my London Sunday Times article on the background planning to “Get Gorton” during his London visit in January 1969. “We have been informed by (REDACTED) that the idea for the Sunday Times article probably emanated from Alex Mitchell, member of the Get Gorton Committee, employed as a journalist by Sunday Times. Please advise any trace Mitchell.”

Australian journalists on  Sunday Times  ‘Insight’ team in 1969 : Bruce Page, Phillip Knightley, Alex Mitchell, Nelson Mews (Tony Clifton absent on assignment)

Turbayne’s secret informants were hopelessly incompetent. A report dated 5 August 1969 said: “A usually reliable and long standing contact in Canberra and this office [Australia House] describes him as follows:

“Alex MITCHELL about 48 [I was 27] believed to be born in Townsville [I was born in Toowoomba]. He definitely lived there for some years. He has taken part in strikes at Mount Isa and possibly Wave Hill [never] but of the latter I am not sure. My informant thought so. MITCHELL is a professed Trotskyite; he believes in what he calls social justice. He will take part in any strike he believes will help his cause – social justice for everyone. He has taken part in demonstrations against Australians at Australia House, the airport and The Savoy. He is a member of the Features staff [news staff] of the Sunday Times and is acknowledged to be a very good writer. So far as I am aware he is not married [I was divorced], but I cannot say for certain.”

Anti-war demonstration at Australia House, London

With investigation costs mounting ASIO sent one of its intrepid field officers to Queensland to track down Mitchell’s background. He uncovered Alexander Douglas Mitchell, born in 1921, but realised he was older than the maverick journalist in London. His report concluded: “Alexander Mitchell was on the staff of the Mt Isa Mail at the time of the Mt Isa strikes. MITCHELL was known for his left-wing sentiments and articles written by him were considered to be based on this direction. Approximately 4-5 years ago MITCHELL left Mt Isa and joined the staff of the Sydney Daily Mirror newspaper.”

On 9 February 1970, the bloodhound Spry, a former student of Brisbane Grammar School and Royal Military College, Duntroon, was still on my case: “CONFIDENTIAL – Alex Mitchell – It would be appreciated if the results of your enquiries would be forwarded to Headquarters by the 26th February 1970.” It was followed by a “hurry-up” message on 4 March 1970: “The request for information concerning MITCHELL was initiated in September 1969. Your assistance in finalising this inquiry would be appreciated.” A flustered and apologetic ACT regional director CH Brown replied on March 10, 1970: “A thorough check has been made but there is no record of a person answering the description provided by the Senior Liaison Officer, London. The delay in reply resulted from an oversight and the inconvenience arising out of this delay is regretted.”

ASIO Sydney office provided a breakthrough on 17 December 1969 with the help of an unnamed source at the headquarters of my union, the Australian Journalists Association (AJA). It read: “A reliable journalist contact stated on 15.12.1969 that the only Mitchell who is recorded as being a member of the AJA is an Alexander Robert “Alex” MITCHELL, approximately 28 years old, 5’ 10”/11” [in fact 5’ 6”], well built and of pleasant disposition and well spoken of in the journalistic profession.

“MITCHELL commenced his journalist cadetship in Queensland in 1960 [1959] and was employed by the Townsville Bulletin before transferring to the Mt Isa newspaper. In 1963 A.R. Mitchell commenced employment with the Sydney Daily Mirror newspaper as a ‘D’ Grade journalist and left the Daily Mirror as a ‘C’ Grade journalist in 1966 to take up employment (unknown) in Canberra, ACT. No further information available.” It was signed by Jack Clowes, ASIO’s NSW deputy director-general.

It took until 18 October 1971 for ASIO’s top sleuths to track me down. All the basic details of my birth, addresses and occupation were listed plus details of my departure for London on board the P&O passenger line Oronsay from Circular Quay and my farewell to Australia at Freemantle on my 25th birthday, 9 March 1967. ASIO’s cache of documents included a copy of my 1965 application for a passport and my “Outgoing Passenger Card” signed and dated at Fremantle. A document dated 7 September 1973 mentioned that a spy photograph taken in 1965 had been forwarded to ASIO headquarters to be filed. I requested a copy but it was refused.

In the 1970s, ASIO began to track my career in Britain’s Workers Revolutionary Party as editor of its daily newspaper, Workers Press, later renamed News Line.

Keith and Kenneth Littlejohn – on the run when they met  Tory Army Minister

Australia House forwarded a copy of my pamphlet, The Littlejohn Affair, describing how leading English Tories, including Defence Secretary Lord Carrington, a former British High Commissioner in Canberra and chair of the ANZ Bank, Prime Minister Ted Heath, Army Minister Geoffrey Johnson-Smith and Lady Pamela Onslow conspired to blame the IRA for a spate of bank robberies, kidnappings and assassinations during “The Troubles”. One of Lady Pamela’s daughters, Lady Teresa Onslow, married my colleague Auberon Waugh, son of novelist Evelyn Waugh and contributor to Private Eye, The Spectator and the New Statesman.

Lady Pamela Onslow in a 1939 portrait by JP Barraclough

My Littlejohn revelations were first published as a series of articles in Workers Press on 15, 16 and 17 August 1973 and then republished as a booklet, The Littlejohn Affair, price 20p. It sold amazingly well at public meetings, in pubs and at market stalls. My dossier named the main plotters who included self-confessed British intelligence operatives, Keith Littlejohn and his older brother Kenneth, a former member of the Parachute Regiment; Lady Pamela, a prison reformer who met Keith Littlejohn in 1968 when he was serving time for robbery in a young offenders’ prison and stayed in “regular contact”; and Army Minister Geoffrey Johnson-Smith who attended a secret meeting with the Littlejohn brothers at Lady Pamela’s posh mansion in Kensington, west London.

UK Army Minister Geoffrey Johnson-Smith

A reviewer wrote: “As a narrative of the affair, the pamphlet written by chief reporter Alex Mitchell serves as a useful round-up for anyone who found the Fleet Street analysis and reporting cheap and sensational.” (Time Out magazine, October 1973). ASIO’s interest was understandable; perhaps it was seen as another example of my dangerous interest in “social justice for everyone”. A copy of my booklet The Littlejohn Affair is kept in the National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

“Congratulations” you might say, but wait. The author is listed as “Mitchell, A.G. (Alexander George), 1911–“ It is a repetition of an earlier ASIO error when sleuths were searching Queensland for me.

The most recent news of the Littlejohn brothers is that film producers are trying to raise money and choose the cast for a movie on their careers. Provided the film keeps to the truth, and is not nobbled by the intelligence services, it should be a smash hit.

My ASIO file also contained a copy of an advertisement from Workers News, the weekly newspaper of the Australian branch of the Trotskyist movement, “PUBLIC MEETING” as well as a notice of my 1975 visit to Australia: “Alex Mitchell is a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party [actually Workers Revolutionary Party] in the United Kingdom. He is on the editorial board of their publication. He is currently visiting Australia speaking to Socialist Labour League members and providing training for the League leadership. MITCHELL is an Australian. His parents live in Townsville, Queensland, and he recently visited them for a few days, returning to Sydney on Sunday, 12 January 1975.”

An SLL summer camp held at the Mount Evelyn national fitness camp in Victoria from 28 to 31 December, 1975, was attended by 100 party members. ASIO was out in force videotaping, photographing and tape recording lecture sessions. Spies were among the budding Trotskyists taking notes of speeches and identifying leading personnel from the group’s central committee. In 2014 I applied to ASIO for copies of the 40-year-old film and photographs but my request was denied.

According to ASIO’s official historian John Blaxland: “Spry saw Croats generally as good anti-communists” and they had “not displayed any hostility towards the democratic form of government”. As a migrant group they had “settled down well in this country”. But some didn’t. On 24 November 1963 the windows were smashed of the Yugoslav Consulate in Sydney. ASIO chiefs passed it off as a matter for the police. When nine Croat terrorists were arrested in Yugoslavia, Commonwealth Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod briefed ASIO staff that the detainees were “recruited and partly trained in Australia”. Spry’s response was to tell his personnel to “take care not to engage in matters not of security interest”. Predictably Menzies assured Parliament that “the Commonwealth’s own investigations so far have not produced any evidence which would warrant legal proceedings”.

While the SLL’s Christmas camp at Mount Evelyn was attracting maximum surveillance from ASIO, members of the Croatian fascist Ustashe had been caught training with guns and tanks loaned to them by the Australian army at nearby Wodonga. The media had exposed the army’s links to the Ustashe’s secret militia and not ASIO. How come? In point of fact, ASIO’s top brass sanctioned assistance for the Ustashe whose mission was to commit terrorist operations in Yugoslavia and terrorise leaders of the Serbian community in Australia, including diplomats.

Croatian fascist leader Ante Pavelic with Hitler

ASIO’s one-sided political bias was irrefutable: my lectures on “the political and economic crisis in overseas countries, specifically the situation in England and the recent change of Portugal’s Government” were considered dangerously subversive while the Hitler-loving Ustashe, founded by Ante Pavelic, were committed to terrorism and assassination against Australia’s Balkan ally. ASIO aided by Canberra’s “deep state” were targeting the miniscule SLL while giving a generous helping hand to the very Nazis that Australians fought in World War 2.

There was an air of relief about the next ASIO report on my file: “ALEX MITCHELL leaving Sydney today for UK. No further details known.”

I was disappointed to learn that hundreds of pages that had been redacted would not be available until 2050 or beyond. That will be long after I’m gone. Why had the ASIO censors decided to exclude their publication? They hadn’t. It was done by sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of ASIO case officers who had followed me around. These relatives have the right to ban the release of ASIO documents to protect their own privacy. In most cases, however, they want to hide the soiled reputation of their forebears as state-employed informers. This is understandable but it is frustrating for people like me who would dearly love to know the identity of those in Spry’s conga-line of treachery.

When I finished reading my ASIO file, I found myself asking: if ASIO can compile such a detailed dossier in the Menzies era, how much more could be generated in today’s world when ASIO’s budget and personnel are at least 100 times larger? The stumblebum incompetence would be magnified 100 times as well. Will someone tell the modern media? Incredibly some sections of today’s media appear to be preoccupied with hunting down Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and other heroic whistleblowers. Talk about making a rod for journalism’s own back!

I had been pursued up hill and down dale for holding left-wing views and supporting social justice. I had not broken the law and I was no threat to anyone. My self-indulgent fury was brought to an abrupt end when a fellow ASIO target informed me that his dossier accused him of being “anti-war, anti-apartheid and in favour of Aboriginal rights”. Sounds to me like most of the population, except hardened Liberals and Nationals, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I turned to the boxes of material I had collected over the years on former Prime Minister John Gorton. While ASIO was targeting me in the 1960s, the spy agency was also targeting the elected Prime Minister who had been reported as a “security risk”, “womaniser” and “drunkard”. Those sins covered a large number of politicians and journalists I knew during my early years as a young reporter. Maybe I wasn’t living in the Lucky Country at all; perhaps it was Slightly Paranoid Country or Bizarre Country.

Three people had made private reports to ASIO’s Sir Charles Spry traducing Gorton’s character: US ambassador William Crook who was acting under orders from Washington, Commonwealth Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod who admitted his evidence was based on “rumours and gossip” and the unsolicited testimony of  an anonymous  “trusted” agent who had an axe to grind. In the 1960s they wanted to “Get Gorton” and I wanted to “Get Gorton” also. Their motives were vastly different from mine. How had we ended up like this?

Next week: A bastard is born to be PM

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook is suspended temporarily while my revelations about Prime Minister John Gorton become my No 1 priority. Coverage of the NSW and Federal Elections, Brexit and Trump will resume shortly. AM




  1. “I had been pursued up hill and down dale for holding left-wing views and supporting social justice. I had not broken the law and I was no threat to anyone.” You were considered a threat in those days. I remember speaking to you in the seventies

    “Alex Mitchell is a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party [actually Workers Revolutionary Party] in the United Kingdom. He is on the editorial board of their publication. He is currently visiting Australia speaking to Socialist Labour League members and providing training for the League leadership.”

    That, in itself, was enough to stir those Tories. Gough had 3 years of hell which ultimately lead to Kerr sacking him. Those were the years that made Australia. I could have a file at ASIO though I don’t think so.

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