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Australia probes intelligence agency

Australia's new Labor government is investigating its own intelligence agencies - the second such investigation in 10 years - following a series of embarrassing incidents.

The investigation by a royal commission concerns the government's decision to expel a Soviet diplomat as a spy in late April. Later it was alleged there was a potentially damaging relationship between that Soviet diplomat and David Combe, a former national secretary of the Australian Labor Party.

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Prime Minister Robert Hawke responded by banning any professional contact between his ministers and Mr. Combe.

These events are an embarrassment to Mr. Hawke both within his party and in the country at large because of the implication that he endorsed allegations that left-wing members of his party might be too close to the Soviet Union. The party's left wing has sometimes accused Australian intelligence agencies of spying on them out of political prejudice. Thus Hawke is seen to have ordered the investigation, partly to balance his action against Combe and to limit any dissatisfaction among Labor's left wing.

Combe was Labor's national secretary during most of the 1970s. He retired from that office to begin a public relations and lobbying office. His activities in question involve his role as a lobbyist in connection with the Soviet diplomat, Valeri Ivanov.

''Combe's relationship with Ivanov had developed to the point that it gave rise to serious security concern,'' Hawke told Parliament, following an Australian Security Intelligence Agency report.

The true reason for the ban was reported in mid-May in newspaper articles and in Parliament, and the government gave a detailed explanation of it.

Hawke told Parliament May 19 that Combe either had been or appeared to have been compromised by Ivanov in late 1982 or early 1983 - to the extent that it was no longer appropriate for ministers to deal with him.

He emphasized that Combe had not committed any criminal offense and there are no grounds for thinking Combe was a spy.

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The allegations concerning Combe coincided with the publication in a newspaper of allegedly secret documents showing the Australian Security Intelligence Agency had passed on to the US Central Intelligence Agency information that was damaging to Australian politicians.

The government attempted to gain a high court ban on any future publications based on secret documents by the newspaper. But it withdrew that legal action last week.

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