Secrets and spies

The cover of the Department of Immigration passport file for Jessie Street, 1945–56. (NAA: A6980, S202852, p. 1)

Gathering intelligence

Four different intelligence agencies were involved in compiling a substantial secret dossier on Jessie Street over 30 years. These were the Investigation Branch, the wartime Security Service, the postwar Commonwealth Investigation Service and, from 1949, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

As well as these agencies, departments with international functions such as immigration and foreign policy collect sensitive and secret information. Other documents classified 'Secret' included here are from Jessie Street's Department of Immigration passport file and the files of the Information and Intelligence Division of the Department of External Affairs.

Malcontents and dissidents

The cover of a greeting from a Soviet organisation to the United Associations of Women, included in Jessie Street's ASIO dossier. (NAA: A6119, 360, p. 142)

The Investigation Branch had been formed in 1919 when the wartime Special Intelligence Bureau and the first Commonwealth Police Force were merged. The central office of the agency was in Melbourne until 1927 when it moved to the new East Block building in Canberra. A copy of a 1938 letter of introduction from the German consulate in Sydney to the head of the Reich Women's Administration in Berlin is the first document filed in the security dossier on Jessie Street.

In Sydney in June 1939, Jessie Street gave a series of four lectures on the impressions she formed of the Soviet Union during her visit there the previous year. The lectures were arranged by the United Associations of Women and the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR. DRB Mitchell, the Inspector in the Investigation Branch's Sydney office, sent reports of two of the lectures, based on transcripts of shorthand notes taken at the meetings, to head office in Canberra. A note on the report of the first lecture gives credit to the temporary typist in Mitchell's office who obligingly assumed the added duty of intelligence gathering.

Two months after Jessie Street's lectures on her trip to the Soviet Union, Germany and the USSR signed an alliance. Germany became an enemy of Australia when war was declared in September 1939 and suspicion of the Soviet Union increased sharply. Increased surveillance of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR meant letters were intercepted, including one with New Year greetings to Jessie Street from the Society's equivalent body in Moscow.

In 1941 intelligence gathering expanded. An additional agency, the Security Service, was set up to deal with the special requirements of wartime. It operated until 1946.

After the USSR joined the Allied powers in June 1941, Jessie Street asked for Australia's ban on Soviet newspapers to be lifted. Her correspondence with the wartime Censorship Office was forwarded to the Security Service director by Army Intelligence.

Despite the high level of popular support for the work of the Russian Medical Aid Committee, and its influential members, activities were closely monitored by the Security Service. Jessie Street frequently travelled interstate to organise the selection and purchase of sheepskins for dispatch to the Soviet Union. Wartime travel restrictions meant close surveillance of such travel and prompted questions about Jessie Street's use of her official travel as a member of the Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee, for unofficial purposes.

Jessie Street's membership of the NSW Peace Council meant that her other activities were also flagged as of potential security interest, including the Women's Forum for Social Reconstruction. The 14 women's organisations participating in this forum as a means of lobbying and providing advice to the Curtin government were named in the report.

Throughout the war, Jessie Street's activities continued to be subject to surveillance by both the Investigation Branch and the military Security Service. Proceedings of meetings she addressed were taken in shorthand, supplied as summaries, or simply extracted from newspaper reports.

Wartime Security Service records of Jessie Street's personal life ranged from a copy of her January 1943 petrol bill to an extract copied from an intercepted letter to her son Roger, serving with the Royal Australian Navy in New Guinea in 1944.

Peace offensive

Cover of a file on the Soviet Union and the peace movement. (NAA: A1838, 69/1/1/16/1 PART 2, p. 1)

Australia's first diplomatic posts were set up in the early years of World War II, with the appointments of RG Casey to Washington and John Latham to Tokyo in 1940, and Frederic Eggleston to China in 1941. Between 1940 and 1945, Australia appointed official representatives to Canada, New Caledonia, Singapore, New Zealand, India, France and the USSR.

In 1947 the Investigation Branch became the Commonwealth Investigation Service with separate sections for investigation and security matters. Another agency, the Information and Intelligence Division of the Department of External Affairs, also collected and analysed covert intelligence. After the war, the Department of External Affairs was increasingly active in gathering information about the international peace movement, which was seen as an instrument for the spread of communism.

With so many countries ravaged by war, peace and disarmament campaigns forged a powerful international people's movement. Information filed under the heading 'Peace Offensive' accumulated in government offices as the peace movement grew.

Reports were gathered on the first 'world congress of the partisans of peace' held in Paris 20–26 April 1949 that featured prominent delegates such as scientist Pierre Joliot-Curie, artist Pablo Picasso and singer Paul Robeson.

The External Affairs Department also gathered examples of passport and visa restrictions by the United States, Canada, France and the United Kingdom designed to prevent citizens leaving, and visitors arriving, to attend international peace activities. When the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, attended a peace conference in Melbourne in 1950, he was refused the visa necessary for him to return to England via the United States.

Two weeks later, in the first parliamentary session of the new Menzies government, Minister for Immigration Harold Holt denounced the Melbourne Peace conference. He argued that the international peace movement was driven by the Soviet Union in order to spread the influence of communism.

After the success of the 1949 Paris congress in sponsoring an international peace petition signed by 273 million people – including 50,000 Australians – the British government was determined to disrupt plans to hold the second world peace congress in Sheffield, England.

Australia had already acted. Minister for Immigration Harold Holt declared all passports issued from 1 September 1950 were invalid for travel to communist countries, saying these restrictions were 'in the national interest' and would apply for 12 months.

When the planned Sheffield peace congress was moved from England to Poland, Minister for Immigration Harold Holt said passports would not be issued to Australians and the government would 'deal severely' with any Australian who attended.

Holt cabled the Australian High Commissioner in London that only two of the 19 Australians reported as being en route to Poland had passports issued before the ban – one of these was Jessie Street, leader of the Australian delegation to the Warsaw peace congress. The following day he directed that a warning be issued to each of the 19 delegates that their passports would be cancelled if they entered Poland.

An Australian delegation of 25 defied the ban and assembled in Warsaw for the opening of the second world peace congress on 16 November 1950. Jessie Street, Pablo Picasso, Hewlitt Johnson and Paul Robeson were among those selected to form a praesidium.

The British Embassy in Moscow provided Australia with reports of the congress appearing in the Soviet newspaper Isvestiya.

Harold Holt immediately advised the press that all Australian diplomatic posts, and all shipping companies and airlines had been informed that the passports of Australians attending the Warsaw congress were to be impounded on presentation at any port.

Holt told reporters that Jessie Street would also be required to surrender her passport for endorsement as a result of her attendance at the Warsaw congress.

The Minister's order was cabled to 24 overseas posts on 20 November 1950, four days after Holt's announcement to the press. The departmental cable, unlike the press reports, noted that Jessie Street's Australian passport had been issued before the ban on travel to communist countries and was therefore valid for all countries.

Jessie Street, however, had actually travelled to Warsaw on a British passport. As her father was British, the passport was routinely issued, to the consternation of Australian officials. The incident highlighted problems for Australians entitled to dual citizenship after the Nationality and Citizenship Act came into operation. From January 1949, the Act banned Australian citizens from holding passports issued by other countries.

Cold War

Melbourne Herald, 10 February 1951. (NAA: A1838, 69/1/1/16/1 PART 3, p. 268)

In 1947 the Investigation Branch had become the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS), with separate sections for investigation and security matters. The covert surveillance of Jessie Street, begun by the Investigation Branch 10 years before, continued. The new CIS reported on her official work as Australia's representative on the United Nations Status of Women Commission as well as her work in national and international non-government organisations.

After the first session of the Status of Women Commission in New York in February 1947, Jessie Street spent several months overseas. On her return she also visited every Australian state to encourage people to form branches of the United Nations Association and to set up coordinating committees for the work of the Status of Women Commission in Australia. Her visit to Tasmania in June was reported to the Director of the CIS on 13 June 1947. The report focused on her remarks about the Soviet Union, China, and the peace movement, at each of the well-attended meetings she addressed in Launceston and Hobart.

Following her visit to Tasmania, in June 1947 Jessie Street addressed a large crowd at Melbourne's Princess Theatre on the United Nations and the Soviet Union. An extract of the surveillance report summarised her speech and detailed the pro-Soviet film and Russian music on the program. The operative reporting also incorrectly identified Jessie Street as an ex-Member of Parliament. She had been the unsuccessful Labor candidate for the Wentworth electorate in the federal elections the year before.

As deputy chair of the Status of Women Commission, Jessie Street expected to take part in the conference to establish the Human Rights Commission in Geneva in December 1947, but in November the Chifley government decided not to approve her participation.

In 1948, after the US government decided Australia was a security risk and banned the sharing of classified information, Britain's Security Service (MI5) assisted in planning a new Australian security intelligence service. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), was established by the Chifley government on 16 March 1949. It took over the security functions of the Commonwealth Investigation Service and was concerned with any threats of espionage and sabotage, and with subversive actions by people or organisations.

The new organisation was headed by a Director-General who was responsible to the Attorney-General, but with access also to the Prime Minister. The Attorney-General in Ben Chifley's Labor government was HV Evatt, who was also Minister for External Affairs. When the Labor government lost office in the elections in December 1949, RG Menzies became Prime Minister. Senator John Spicer, as the Attorney-General, became responsible for ASIO and Percy Spender took Evatt's place as Minister for External Affairs.

In 1950 Kenneth Street was appointed Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, an appointment that also made him Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales. Jessie Street thus became the state's 'second lady' after the wife of the Governor. Her choice to continue her own work and the controversy developing with the Cold War prompted her decision to move overseas. She left Australia in June that year and established a flat in London as her base for the next six years. But she continued to be a target for both ASIO and the Australian press.

In April 1951 RG Casey succeeded Percy Spender as Minister for External Affairs. His diplomatic role in Washington in 1940–42 and his experience in the Australian High Commission in London in the 1920s meant ties with both countries were strengthened.

In the escalation of the Cold War, Australia stood firmly alongside the United States and the United Kingdom in opposition to the USSR and to communism. In June 1951 the US government banned Jessie Street from entering the United States for the World Peace Council, although the United Nations Security Council had agreed to receive the delegation.

Australian Embassy officials were kept advised by the US State Department the following year when her entry to the United States was again barred despite the United Nations recognition of her credentials to attend the General Assembly.

Harold Holt, the Minister for Immigration, played a key role in demonstrating the willingness of the Menzies government to be a staunch Cold War ally of the United States. A year after Jessie Street had sidestepped the ban on travel to Soviet countries by obtaining a British passport, the Menzies government held a referendum to outlaw the Communist Party in Australia. A month later, Harold Holt resurrected the passport matter with an allegation in the House of Representatives that the passport had been obtained by deceit. Jessie Street defended herself in a letter published in English and Australian newspapers.

When the French government refused to allow Jessie Street to enter France for the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, they cited Holt's allegations against her in the Australian parliament as the reason.

Among journalists who expressed their concern at these events was John Fisher, son of Andrew Fisher, Australia's second Labor Prime Minister.

Holt's allegations against Jessie Street demonstrated Australia's Cold War loyalties to its allies.

In the extensive publicity given Holt's allegations in overseas newspapers, Australia's hard line in the Cold War seemed even to exceed Britain's. Although the story of Jessie Street's British passport was by then a year old, it made front page headlines in Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express in London.

By December 1951 as a newscutting from Harold Holt's scrapbook shows, even a Labor newspaper was keen to distance itself from Jessie Street and the peace movement. For the next 10 years she remained, in the press and in the secret intelligence records, a figure of suspicion.

Jessie Street remained a target of ASIO surveillance until she was in her seventies. Press photographs were also included in Jessie Street's ASIO dossier such as those taken at Australian celebrations of the Soviet national day at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra in the 1960s. A surveillance photograph taken at Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney shows her with Ivan Lupashna-Stalski, during a tour of the zoo for a visiting farming delegation from the Soviet Union in October 1959.


Cain, Frank, The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation: An Unofficial History, Spectrum Publications, Richmond, Victoria, 1994

Radi, Heather (ed.), Jessie Street: Documents and Essays, Women's Redress Press, Sydney, 1990

Street, Jessie, Truth or Repose, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1966

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018