ASIO has released its secret file on a Federal MP exposed as a KGB informant, revealing he was wined and dined by Russian spies for two decades as a Soviet ‘‘agent of influence’’ in the Labor Party.
The former Labor member for the Hunter, Albert ‘‘Bert’’ James, was listed as a Soviet intelligence source in the papers of KGB archivist and defector Vasili Mitrokhin, which were released in the United Kingdom in July, however no details of the MP’s dealings with Soviet intelligence were disclosed.
James’ newly declassified ASIO file, held by the National Archives, now reveals the left-wing Labor MP met regularly with KGB officers throughout his parliamentary career from 1960 to 1980.
ASIO believed the KGB used James to secure introductions to other Labor MPs that Soviet intelligence wished to study, for ‘‘talent spotting’’ other informants, to spread ‘‘disinformation’’, and as a channel for "putting questions to the House [of Representatives] in the Soviet interest."
James’ Russian contacts included successive KGB "residents", senior intelligence officers at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, Ivan Skripov, Victor Cherkashin, Ivan Stenin and Geronty Lazovik, and other suspected Soviet spies including Igor Saprykin. Cherkashin went on to become one of the KGB’s top spies while Lazovik was awarded a medal for his intelligence work in Australia. Saprykin is described by former Australian defence intelligence official, Professor Paul Dibb as "very competent and among the "most impressive Soviet representatives to serve in Australia."
The son of a Labor MP, James witnessed bitter industrial conflict on NSW coalfields in his youth and appears to have come into contact with the Australian Communist Party members "at an early age." A top secret ASIO assessment in April 1969 concluded James’s "pro-Communist sympathies" made him "an attractive target for cultivation by the RIS [Russian Intelligence Service]."
As an MP, James was well known as a "bucket dropper", using parliamentary privilege to defame opponents. He criticised Australia’s alliance with the United States, opposed Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and claimed the US Central Intelligence Agency funded Labor’s political opponents. James repeatedly attacked ASIO as "a political police force" that used "scurrilous informers." Secretly he asked the Communist Party to campaign against him in elections so he would "lose some of his ’red tinge’."
ASIO’s file focuses on James’s "links with identified RIS officers." In 1977 ASIO Director-General Justice Edward Woodward agreed "there is material of current security interest to warrant retention of the file."
After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1978, James effusively observed there was "no inflation in Russia, no unemployment" but "plenty of liquor." In retirement he described himself as "a man of world peace" when "the greatest threat to world peace is US imperialism."
James died in 2006, aged 92. The present Labor member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon, paid him a tribute, telling parliament James was "a frank, fearless and uncompromising representative … his commitment to his beliefs and to his constituents could never be questioned or challenged."