The Spy Catchers

Title:                      The Spy Catchers

Author:                  David Horner

Horner, David Murray (2014). The Spy Catchers. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin

LCCN:    2015375078

JQ4029.I6 H67 2014



  • The official history of ASIO, 1949-1963.

Date Posted:      September 24, 2015

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

The Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIO) is today a well-known and respected security service with a web page[2] that emphasizes its current mission and functions. Now, following precedents established by the CIA[3] and Britain’s intelligence services,[4] David Horner, professor of defense history at Australian National University, has written the official history of ASIO that tells the story of its often turbulent formative years.

Founded 16 March 1949, ASIO was not Australia’s first security organization and Professor Horner begins with a review of its predecessors and their limitations in early the postwar era; later, he shows how ASIO’s creation became an operational necessity in the early Cold War era as old threats of communist subversion intensified and new ones, as seen in the VENONA decrypts, emerged.

Recognizing the necessity of a solution and implementing it required dealing with political and social opposition, legal and vetting issues, bureaucratic disputes, organizational responsibilities, and most important, ongoing operational matters. Horner treats all of these in great detail, showing how the critical operational situation was complicated in myriad ways. Even before 1949, British and American intelligence services were expressing concern over the lack of Australian security and they excluded Australia from access to signals intelligence. The Australians knew they had leaks but had no evidence of Soviet penetration; furthermore, they were not given access to VENONA. The British, at least, sent members of MI5 to assist in the creation of ASIO and, once that was accomplished, the situation improved. At first, MI5 provided excerpts from the VENONA decrypts without identifying the source and ASIO began investigations of what they termed “the case.” (pp. 122ff) Eventually, ASIO was briefed on VENONA and their investigations continued as long as the VENONA material produced results. Horner describes many of these cases and the countersubversion actions that ensued.

But the most significant operation ASIO conducted during this period was the defection of MGB officers Vladimir and Evdolda Petrov. He was the MGB rezident and she was the embassy code clerk. Unlike most defectors, they were not walk-ins; instead, they were enlisted as the result of the ASIO policy of observing Soviet embassy personnel, identifying likely candidates for defection, establishing relationships, and ultimately securing their defection. A Royal Commission on Espionage[5] was created to make public the activities of Soviet intelligence in Australia. The Petrovs and the officers and agents involved in their defection testified, though not all of what Petrov reported to ASIO and supported with documents was revealed to the Commission. One example is his knowledge that two of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, were Soviet agents and were in Moscow. Because of British concerns, this information was made public by the British 10 months later. (p. 368)

In his analysis of the Petrov defections, Horner reviews the literature and, where necessary, corrects previous accounts of the case. He also discusses the considerable domestic political turmoil within the government that surrounded the timing of the defection. This watershed case established ASIO’s credentials with the Australian public and its sister services.

After the Petrovs’s defection, the Soviets withdrew their embassy, not to return until 1959. Horner discusses a number of operations that followed, to demonstrate ASIO’s competence as a major security service. The Spy Catchers concludes with a lengthy, tradecraft-heavy description of an operation run against KGB officer and first secretary Ivan Skripov that resulted in his expulsion. This is a fine book that demonstrates the many commonalities experienced by new intelligence services and what can be achieved by a dedicated staff. A major contribution to the literature.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 126-127)Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

[2] See ASIO is Australia’s National Security Service, downloaded September 24, 2015

[3] Darling, Arthur (1990). The Central Intelligence Agency: An Instrument of Government to 1950. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press

[4] Andrew, Christopher (2010). Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5. New York: Vintage Books

[5] Royal Commission (Australia) on Espionage (1956). Report of the Australian Royal Commission on Espionage. W Sydney, Australia: A. H. Pettifer

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