Somewhat isolated geographically and politically, Australia made no significant contribution to the international intelligence community until World War II, when Combined Intelligence Far East (CIFE), evacuated from Singapore and Hong Kong, was accommodated in Melbourne and provided bases from which to prosecute hostilities against the Japanese in the Pacific. Australians provided many of the personnel deployed on coast-watching duties and engaged in clandestine operations for the Secret Intelligence Service, through the Inter-Services Liaison Department and Special Operations Executive. In 1942 the North West Mobile Force was raised to provide a stay-behind capability in the Northern Territory in the event of a Japanese invasion of Australia.
Australia did not create an independent security or intelligence apparatus until March 1949, when information derived from VENONA proved the existence of a large espionage network run from the Soviet embassy in Canberra, and the government established the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Leads supplied by VENONA’s Canberra traffic assisted ASIO in identifying several Soviet spies, among them Communist activist Walter Clayton and his sources, Sergeant Alfred Hughes and Frances Burnie, journalist Jim Hill, and Dr. Ian Milner and Ric Throssell, both diplomats in the Department of External Affairs.
Upon the defection of the NKVD’s Canberra rezident, Vladimir Petrov, in April 1954, a royal commission investigated his evidence of Soviet espionage in Australia and pursued some of those identified in the VENONA traffic, but following Milner’s defection to Prague, none was prosecuted.
Ironically, some of the VENONA messages had been recovered from Soviet embassy wireless traffic intercepted at Darwin, which had established Radio Direction Finding Station 31 at Shoal Bay, on the coast northeast of the city. In 1975, following the devastating Cyclone Tracy the previous December, the antenna field was moved to Berrimah, close to the airport.