Tony Jones on Lionel Murphy, ASIO & Croatian fascism

Paul Lynch

The Twentieth Man is the first novel by Tony Jones of ABC fame. It’s a pretty good yarn. It’s a thriller based on the sensational true events surrounding the presence and activities of the Ustasha, a fascist racist ultra-nationalist Croatian group in Australia. It’s a ‘work of fiction based on real events’.

The best known political event featured in the novel is the ‘raid’ by Attorney General Lionel Murphy on ASIO in 1973. The book also features the arguably more sensational invasion of Yugoslavia by the Ustasha in 1972, and the threats to murder the prime minister of Yugoslavia during his visit to Australia the next year.

The novel features a large range of real figures—obviously Murphy (‘call me Lionel’), but also colleagues Arthur Gietzelt, John Wheeldon and Jim McClelland, and ASIO chiefs Peter Barbour and Jack Behm. The novel’s skewering of Billy McMahon is delightful. George Negus and Kerry Milte as Murphy’s staffers get significant roles. Paul Hogan makes an appearance, as do Simon Wiesenthal, Michelle Grattan, Richard Carlton and Mungo McCallum. Mentioned in passing is Wally Clayton (also known as Klod), a member of the Communist Party of Australia who was described by Mark Aarons in The Family File as ‘Australian spymaster for the Soviets’.

The novel starts with the bombing of two Yugoslav travel agencies in Sydney’s George Street in 1972, a story covered by (fictional) ABC reporter Anna Rosen, an anti-Vietnam war activist and university student newspaper editor. The then Liberal-National coalition government and its Attorney General, Ivor Greenwood, had been resolutely denying the existence of Ustasha anti-communist terrorists in Australia. They maintain this position, which is resolutely supported by the anti-communist zealots in ASIO. This was of course nonsense and is consistently attacked in the novel (as it was at the time) by Murphy and the Labor opposition.

The leader of the Ustasha network is Ivo Katich, a figure seemingly based on the actual fascist war criminal, Srecko Rover, who—like Katich—was from Sarajevo, was involved in mobile court martials (summary executions), and was indicted at Nuremberg. The story of Rover is best told in another book by Aarons entitled Sanctuary.

In Jones’s novel, 20 people (including 11 Australians) are part of a military incursion from Austria into Yugoslavia (Bosnia). The history is that, in June 1972, 19 and perhaps 20 were part of the incursion, which gives you a hint about the book’s title. The incursion seems to have been based on a distorted Guevarist guerrilla foci strategy to inspire Croats to rebellion. It was a catastrophic failure (more Bolivia than the Sierra Maestra). In Jones’s story, after Labor wins power in 1972, ASIO still refuses to take the Ustasha and its activities seriously. This becomes critical with the prospective Australian visit of Yugoslav Prime Minister Bejedic, who is the target of an attempted assassination—as it turns out, by Marin Katich. The visit had been organised by the conservative government, and the failure of ASIO to provide advice and information about the Ustasha and the planned assassination provoke the famed raid by Murphy and Commonwealth police on ASIO’s headquarters. The way the raid played out was politically adverse for Labor, but this obscures the very real issues that provoked it. The Yugoslavs don’t emerge as pristine either, with spies in the UDBa (the former Yugoslavia’s state security service) active on Australian soil being responsible for murder.

There are of course the fictional elements of a novel, including what one character describes as the Romeo and Juliet relationship between Anna Rosen, a daughter of an (anti-Stalinist) CPA member and a mother whose Jewish relatives were lost in the Holocaust, and Marin Katich, the Ustasha terrorist and son of a leader of the fascist diaspora. There are other fictional twists: terrorists reading Tolstoy and police casually quoting Thomas Jefferson and Shakespeare. The Rosen/Katich relationship is always challenging. As Rosen says to Katich, ‘my mother’s whole family was murdered, and your own father was on the side of the murderers’.

Apart from being a good thriller, the book reminds us of the ingrained sexism and casual xenophobia of the 1970s (and I wondered how many people will remember the TV series Callan). It also raises significant political issues. One of these is about Australia’s security services and the relationship of the ‘secret state’ to democratic politics.

How were people like Katich/Rover allowed into the country? He and others were significant figures in the Ustasha that ran the independent fascist state of Croatia, which was formed in April 1941. They were remarkably vicious, engaging in ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass killings. Even their Nazi SS advisors were appalled at their horror. Their leader was Ante Pavelic, who was called ‘Poglavnik’ (the equivalent of ‘Fuhrer’). Particular individuals were sufficiently notorious to be indicted at Nuremberg. In the novel, Commonwealth policeman Al Sharp explains it this way: ‘our immigration authorities never looked too closely at good anti-communists’. Even the recently published second volume of The Official History of ASIO by John Blaxland records ASIO head Charles Spry seeing Croats generally as good anti-communists (p. 125). Certainly the history of Rover’s arrival in Australia in 1950 shows western intelligence effectively declared an amnesty for Ustasha figures as part of their anti-communist crusade.

Having arrived in Australia, Ustasha terrorists were anything but idle. In the 1960s and 70s there were 16 bomb attacks and a host of other incidents directed against Yugoslav interests, including the consulate. Apart from the 1972 incursion featured in the novel, there was also a group of nine who invaded Yugoslavia in 1963 to attempt to provoke an uprising. Two were Australian residents and the group was partly trained in Australia. So, here was a group of Nazi collaborators committing criminal offences in Australia recruiting and training foreign fighters and sending them overseas to fight. What was the official response? Precious little, as it turned out. In retrospect, it’s extraordinary. Compare and contrast the iron-fisted response of the Australian state in interning members of the Irish National Association in 1918 in the wake of the Irish War of Independence. And consider the contemporary response to Jihadists wanting to fight in Syria or Iraq.

ASIO was gathering some limited evidence about Ustasha terrorists, but not doing anything with it. The Official History says that Croatian extremism was a ‘low ASIO priority’. Their political masters were no better. Rover’s phone was subject to a warrant for a wiretap in 1964, but not again until 1973. Ivor Greenwood refused to approve a wiretap for Rover’s phone after the bombings in 1972.

The Ustasha was a low priority because ASIO focused on the left of politics and didn’t see the right as a threat. Its mindset was focused on the ‘threat of communism’. There are none so blind as those who don’t want to see. Bizarrely, ASIO almost seemed more interested in left-wing pro-Yugoslav government organisations than the Ustasha. Some argued that the Ustasha didn’t present a subversive threat to Australia, only to foreign governments. They therefore weren’t an issue for ASIO but for the ordinary police. This argument reminds one of the debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It was an argument swiftly and justly dismissed by Murphy when he became Attorney.

ASIO’s political masters didn’t want to pursue these Nazi collaborators. Jones’s novel points to the connection between the Ustasha figures and conservative politicians. Certainly conservative politicians were frequent attendees at extremist events. The role of Urbancic (Slovene Domobrans rather than Croatian Ustasha, admittedly) within the Liberal party is notorious.  The current federal Liberal MP for Hughes got himself into some trouble in 2014 for conveying the then prime minister’s best wishes at an event celebrating the 1941 establishment of the independent fascist state of Croatia.

Even more sinister is the claim that the Ustasha worked with ASIO in furthering their anti-communist goals and were being protected and assisted by Australian security services. Such alliances would not be unique. The involvement of the CIA with heroin trafficking and drug running in South East Asia is well-known (written about by Alfred McCoy), as is the collusion between loyalist paramilitaries such as the UDA, UVF and LVF and the British army in English-occupied Ireland. And there’s the CIA’s use of Jihadis in Afghanistan. ASIO could get assistance from the Ustasha in identifying ‘communists’ in the Yugoslav community in Australia. Jones’s Anna Rosen puts it this way: ‘The Ustasha are a protected species of terrorists able to plot and plan unhindered, while our security services look the other way’.  In the novel, Kerry Milte also sets out the case that ASIO ran Croatian fascists as agents—and protected them.

The inevitable question is why allow the existence of a state agency that protects Nazi collaborators. Lionel Murphy asks rhetorically why ASIO devoted so many resources to chase peaceful anti-war protesters while allowing dangerous terrorists to run free. The logical conclusion comes from Arthur Gietzelt (whose meeting with Laurie Aarons to obtain documents about Croatian extremism in March 1973 was monitored by ASIO): ‘ASIO is run by our ideological enemies. It is literally riddled with them. They operate a branch of conservative politics, they collect information on us for our political beliefs—on everyone who’s against the war for God’s sake. Even the mothers in Save Our Sons! We can’t leave them be. Heads must roll. Why should they even continue to exist?’ Murphy correctly points out that Labor’s most recent national conference had resolved not to abolish ASIO, with Murphy voting with the majority.

If ASIO continues to exist, can it be subject to democratic control? Some think there are more important things than democracy. Kissinger’s comments about Allende’s Chile springs to mind: why should a country be allowed to ‘go Marxist’ in a democratic election merely because ‘its people are irresponsible’? It’s clear both in the novel and in the history that ASIO paid precious little attention to Ustasha terrorism or to the threat to the Yugoslav prime minister’s life. No-one can argue that the incoming government shouldn’t have got ASIO to do its job. Some of this book’s most blistering passages feature Murphy explaining to ASIO operatives that there’d been an election and a new government was in power. After the raid, there was certainly more ASIO scrutiny of the Ustasha. That iteration of terrorism seems to have finally been shut down in Eden in 1978, with 19 arrests of extremists engaged in military training with a large amount of military hardware, and further arrests in 1979 of people alleged to be planning the bombing of buildings and a pipeline. (Considerable controversy attached to these latter arrests and a campaign developed to exonerate the ‘Lithgow six’ with support from George Petersen, MP). The Ustasha had enjoyed immunity under Liberal governments. Labor’s demand to change this was entirely correct. ASIO’s resistance was anti-democratic.

One of the other issues that arises is the connection between Australia and the United States’ security services—between ASIO and the CIA and the role the US can play in domestic Australian politics. Murphy’s raid horrified James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s chief of counter-intelligence. In the novel, the CIA is portrayed as going ballistic. Angleton regards Australian’s new socialist ministers led by Murphy and Whitlam as dangerous cowboys and wants to cut off all CIA contact with ASIO. The CIA didn’t seem to think ASIO should be accountable to an elected government or should pursue anti-communist terrorists. ASIO was more interested in complaining to its spook allies than responding to the government.

The Twentieth Man is a good read with stimulating themes. The 1972-3 history has ongoing significance, and not just because of the 1990s and the Balkan wars. The contemporary resonance of Ustasha fascism and Balkan politics can never be lost on an MP who represents part of south-west Sydney. There are still places in the area that display pictures of Pavelic. There are still local celebrations of the formation of the fascist puppet state of Croatia in 194. I have an official in one of my branches whose father was a partisan and who as a child played chess with Milovan Djilas, a noted communist who was later imprisoned by Tito, and defended by Nye Bevan and Jennie Lee and the UK’s Bevanite Labour Left, and who wrote The New Class among many other things. Only a couple of years ago, he gave me a copy of Fiery Mary of Livno, a story of Ustasha genocide and ethnic cleansing during the Second World War. And I have a recollection of scrutineering against Lyenko Urbancic in a Liverpool Council by-election at Cartwright Public School. One is reminded of William Faulkner’s great line: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’.


The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones is published by Allen & Unwin (August 2017, 480 pp, $32,99). Paul Lynch is the NSW Shadow Attorney General and the Labor Member for Liverpool.


See also:

Suggested citation
Lynch, Paul, 'Tony Jones on Lionel Murphy, ASIO & Croatian fascism', Evatt Journal, Vol.17, No. 1, May 2018.<https://evatt.org.au/papers/tony-jones-lionel-murphy-asio-croatian-fascism.html>