"It's not a pleasant story about ASIO. There's lots of warts," John Blaxland.  Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

"It's not a pleasant story about ASIO. There's lots of warts," John Blaxland. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Lunch with John Blaxland, or how to write a history of ASIO

8 September 2017

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Acting Head of Centre

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Since John Blaxland co-authored The Official History of ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation), the final volume of which was published late last year, he has been attacked by right-wing reviewers for producing a narrative that was either too official or not nearly official enough.

In Quadrant magazine, Harold Callaghan, whom Blaxland believes to be “a former ASIO officer with a chip on both shoulders”, denounced the entire official history project as an ASIO influence operation, designed in part to conceal the organisation’s failures and the incompetence of some of its former leaders.

Meanwhile, veteran commentator Gerard Henderson accused Blaxland of giving too much weight to left-wing critiques of ASIO. At the same time, says Blaxland, several old-time ASIO agents have thanked him for helping to clarify exactly what they had been doing all those years.

I meet Blaxland for lunch at Boffins Restaurant at the Australian National University, where the former Australian Army officer is professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, director of the Southeast Asia Institute and head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Boffins is crowded with boffins, who sit together in leather-upholstered boffin booths and boff on about things.

Blaxland tells me he was born in Chile, where his father was serving as the vicar of Valparaiso. When his family returned to Australia, when Blaxland was nine years old, his Spanish was better than his English. He attended Barker College in Hornsby, then went on to the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

“I didn’t really enjoy Duntroon,” he says. “But I was too proud to not complete, so I completed it. I found it a little a little bit superficial. I was a little bit different. I was really interested in the study. A lot of my classmates were there for the sport, and the study kind of got in the way.”

He completed his degree with an honours year in history at the Australian Defence Force Academy, then graduated into the Australian Intelligence Corps. He spent a year learning Thai at the ADF School of Languages and later attended an 18-month course, taught entirely in Thai, at the Thai military staff college. He was brigade intelligence officer in East Timor in 1999 – “a pinnacle experience personally and professionally”, he says – and undertook repeated operational study tours of Iraq and Afghanistan as Director Intelligence Operations at HQ Joint Operations Command, Sydney. He completed an MA under David Horner at ANU and a PhD in Canada, and from 2008 to 2010, he served as defence attache to the Australian embassy in Thailand.

Read the entire article by Mark Dapin on the Canberra Times website.

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