By David Robie
When I first encountered Owen Wilkes it was at a range of 17,000 kilometres — the distance between Auckland, Aotearoa, and Stockholm, Sweden. He was already something of an extraordinary and increasingly well-known, although humble, celebrity in the final decade of the Cold War. As a researcher for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Owen had taken on the Scandinavian security establishment and challenged and embarrassed it in a quiet and unassuming way for a second time (after an earlier skirmish in Norway), and the powers that be were not going to let him get away with it.
My attention was drawn to Owen Wilkes while I was back in Auckland freelancing after working for three years in Paris with the French news agency Agence France-Presse as an editor and correspondent. Before that I had spent several years editing newspapers and reporting on the African continent, mainly in Kenya and South Africa. In that time I had stumbled across an edition of the Fredstidningen PAX, a Swedish magazine featuring sustainable peace and disarmament, in February 1982, which carried the intriguing headline ‘Spionutrustningen’ — ‘Spy gear’.(1)
It was a cover story devoted to the trials of Owen Wilkes. The cover illustration depicted the alleged ‘spy equipment’ belonging to Owen — a trusty bicycle, kitbag, small camera and pocket binoculars.
I contacted Owen to find out more about the back story and these enquiries led to an article and years of correspondence and debate, plus collaboration on two books — Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific (1989)(2) and Tu Galala: Social Change in the Pacific (1992)(3). We formed a long friendship that stretched to his final years in Kāwhia and his ‘retirement’ from the peace movement and ‘rebirth’ as an archaeologist and occasional community coastal tour guide.
My 1982 New Zealand Times account of the Swedish witch hunt against Owen opened with him questioning the supposed Swedish neutrality of the Cold War era:(4)
Bicycle Snoop Riles the Baltic
Is Sweden breaching its long tradition of neutrality and secretly cooperating with Nato countries? Yes, believes controversial peace researcher Owen Wilkes.
If true, disclosure that the Swedish military really is cooperating with Western nations would be politically disastrous in Sweden. And Wilkes may have touched a panic button by his ‘snooping’ on the Swedish defence communications system.
‘The reason why I got into trouble on this case is simply that Sweden doesn’t want the public discussing the details of military policy the way it is happening in other countries, like Britain and West Germany,’ he says.
Wilkes, 41, a research worker with the highly reputable Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and an acknowledged expert on defence communications systems, is now out on bail awaiting the 27 April 1982 verdict on his appeal against a six-month prison sentence for allegedly endangering Swedish security by gathering information.
An important new witness for the defence will be Professor Gunnar Myrdal, winner of the 1974 Nobel Economics Prize, and Wilkes has completed his SIPRI duties to concentrate on gathering additional evidence. Both Wilkes and his lawyer, civil rights campaigner Hans-Goran Franck, are confident he will be acquitted in the traumatic affair which has been branded by Sweden’s peace fraternity and leading newspapers as a witchhunt.
‘A witchhunt and a legal disgrace,’ says the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, Sweden’s umbrella peace movement. It has called for a parliamentary inquiry.
In a stinging editorial headlined ‘Witchhunt’, the daily newspaper Aftonbladet declared the case had become out of all proportion and suggested Sweden’s defence was ‘run by fools’.
‘It is an over-exaggeration to assume a person on a routine cycle holiday in one of Sweden’s most visited areas, using for the most part only his eyes, can create an equal amount of damage as a renowned spy who sells military secrets,’ the paper said.
New Zealand peace movement campaigners have also reacted strongly. Wilkes has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Canterbury University sociology professor W E Wilmott in recognition of his 18 years of ‘selfless research on issues related to peace and war.’ And a national petition challenging the Swedish authorities on their handling of the case has been widely circulated.
Christchurch campaigner Larry Ross, chairman of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, has lambasted the case as a ‘total nonsense verdict’ and he is among many Australians, Americans and New Zealanders who have protested to Stockholm. ‘The Swedish government is covering itself in embarrassment,’ he says. ‘Owen Wilkes is not a spy.’
Petition organiser Christine Dann, Wellington researcher for the Clerical Workers Association and a member of the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA), says she has strong feelings for a fellow researcher in trouble. ‘Owen is a model of how effective you can be as a thorough researcher,’ she says. Dann believes Wilkes has been made a scapegoat amid crucial changes in Swedish politics.
Controversy has long been a fact of life for Wilkes. He believes the activities of the military in any country must be open to scrutiny. But his experiences in Scandinavia — two breach of security convictions in less than a year — have been sobering, and he plans to return to New Zealand as soon as possible…
Until 1981, he was unknown to most Scandinavians. But by the end of the year his bearded face was as familiar to Swedes as tennis ace Björn Borg. In May 1981, Wilkes travelled from Sweden to Oslo for the so-called ‘rabbit trial’, named after the book Onkel Sams kaniner (Uncle Sam’s Rabbits: Technical Intelligence in Norway) about US-funded technical intelligence stations in Norway.(5) Both Wilkes and Norwegian peace researcher Nils Petter Gleditsch, authors of the book, were convicted, given a six-month suspended sentence and fined 10,000 crowns ($2200) each for compiling and publishing information that Norwegian military authorities wanted kept secret.
They maintained that their work was based entirely on open sources, but the court held that the combination of open sources could be detrimental to national security.
They appealed but the Norwegian Supreme Court upheld the verdict in March 1982. Supporters began raising funds to pay the fines. Since 1978, Wilkes has been working with SIPRI, probably the most reputable peace research institute in the world. Its publications are regarded as impartial and accurate, and its research is carried out from ‘open’ sources — that is, information available to the public.
His job at SIPRI? ‘My work concerns a project on foreign military bases — for example, United States bases on foreign territory, which includes New Zealand, Soviet bases abroad, French bases in Africa, and so on. Sweden, a militarily non-aligned country, has no foreign bases on its territory.’ But it wasn’t this work that got Wilkes into hot water with the Swedish security authorities. In the northern summer, in June 1981, he went on a ten-day cycling tour of Gotland and Öland, historic Swedish islands off the southeast coast in the Baltic.
‘Everybody had been telling me that Gotland was extraordinarily beautiful and that I must go and see it. So I did,’ he recalls.
While planning for the trip, he and his companion noted that the northern part of Gotland was a defence area, closed to all foreigners.
When they cycled onto Gotland, Wilkes observed antennae belonging to the Swedish defence system outside the closed area. Wilkes made notes, drew sketches and took four poor photographs — from public roads where there were no signs banning photography and with a cheap, short focal length camera.
The photographs showed no detail and he used pocket binoculars for making his notes. But Wilkes broke a cardinal SIPRI rule: No field work. Six weeks after his cycling holiday, on 17 August 1981, he was arrested. Wilkes believes SÄPO, Sweden’s security police had tapped his telephone and heard him discuss ‘secret’ documents from Denmark with a Washington colleague. (The documents had actually been declassified and released to the public.)
One August weekend, while Wilkes was spending a brief holiday in Finland, SÄPO broke into his office at SIPRI. On the Monday, August 17, security police seized him.
‘I had just come off the ferry from Finland that morning and came into town on a bus,’ he says. ‘A couple of minutes after I got off the bus this very ordinary car drove up beside me, stopped and a couple of guys jumped out. ‘It was a bit melodramatic — in the best Hollywood style. But it’s okay when you’ve got a clear conscience.’
At SÄPO headquarters, Wilkes was stripped, searched and interrogated on and off for four days. SÄPO and Sweden’s chief prosecutor, K G Svensson, publicly branded Wilkes as a ‘spy’, claiming he had been seen in suspicious circumstances close to Swedish defence installations.
Many newspapers similarly branded Wilkes. Yet when the charge of suspected espionage was later dropped and substituted by ‘gross unauthorised access to secret information’, some papers hardly bothered to print the news.
Aftonbladet was one newspaper that did, rebuking SÄPO for ‘another mistake’
following a case in which a man was jailed for six months before all charges
Wilkes was sentenced on 22 January 1982 to six months’ jail after a trial partially conducted in secret. His lawyer, Hans-Göran Franck, says the case raises several important civil rights issues.
‘It’s mainly a question of how far can a peace researcher go and how much is he/she permitted to make field research,’ he says.
‘But another problem is the secrecy. There is too much secrecy throughout the world on the problem of military questions as well as armaments.’
Swedish authorities have been reluctant to be drawn on the significance of the case.
One aspect of the so-called ‘Wilkes affair’ which has particularly bothered Wilkes himself is the apparent undermining of the reputation of SIPRI. In fact, some of his supporters believe SÄPO was tipped off that Wilkes allegedly worked for an East German power by someone who wanted to ruin SIPRI’s reputation, or damage Wilkes’ SIPRI project.
Wilkes admits he could have happily done without the controversy. As soon as Wilkes is cleared — or serves his sentence — it will be back to a quiet life in New Zealand, probably on the West Coast doing a spot of part-time peace research again.
And what about the Nobel Peace Prize nomination — does he think he has a chance?
‘The Swedish papers made quite a thing of it. And while it hasn’t been taken too seriously, it certainly hasn’t been treated as any kind of joke.’
Research for this article, written from a distance, put me in touch with Owen and on track for a long friendship and several publication collaborations. However, it wasn’t until long after I had actually met Owen and had later conversations with him at his Kāwhia bach in the 2000s, when he seemed to have given up on the peace movement, that the full depth of this farcical witchhunt by the Scandinavian intelligence establishments became so much
clearer. Thanks to his Uncle Sam’s Rabbits co-author and friend, Nils Petter Gleditsch, I was able to reference Owen’s detailed notes and timeline in the aftermath. In an 11-page typescript by Owen entitled ‘Sweden’s roadside secrets’, dated March 1982,(6) which was an ‘account of the events and circumstances surrounding my arrest and trial’, he began with characteristic meticulous attention to detail:
In August 1981, I was arrested on a charge of espionage by the Swedish Security Police. This charge was quickly dropped but five months later I was convicted on a charge of ‘gross unauthorised dealing in secret information’ and sentenced to six months in jail. The allegedly secret information had been casually collected during the course of a 10-day cycle tour, and consisted of five small pages of notes about radar and other antennas, all observed from public roads.(7)
The statement continued from the moment of his arrest on 17 August 1981:
I was arrested by SÄPO, the Swedish Security Police, and held in solitary confinement for four and a half days while under interrogation. The charge was espionage, that is, collecting information on behalf of a foreign power. In the course of my interrogation I was questioned about all my travels in Sweden, my contacts with foreign embassies, and my research project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Meanwhile, SÄPO spent three days ransacking my research files and interrogating several of my friends and colleagues. It soon became obvious that I was not a spy and I was released. A charge of ‘gross unauthorised dealing in secret information’ was substituted for that of espionage.(8)
What had he really done that caused all the fuss?
In the course of my tour of Gotland I began to notice that there were also a number of radar and other military electronic installations. Such installations were a subject of some interest to me because I had earlier written an article about the NATO air defence radar system called NADGE. [This] consists of a relatively limited number of large powerful radars often prominently located on mountain tops, in a chain stretching through the NATO lands from northern Norway to eastern Turkey. I had criticised this system because the radars were so powerful that some of them penetrated far into Warsaw Pact airspace and hence were useful for aggressive purposes; because the radars were so few and so prominent they were very vulnerable and hence not reliable for defence purposes. On the basis of what I had read I suggested that the equivalent Swedish system, called STRIL, was much better, consisting of numerous small radars of limited range. It was useless for aggression but well suited to defence. My description of STRIL had been criticised by a Swedish researcher, who claimed that STRIL had just the same disadvantages as NADGE.
What I began to notice in the course of my holiday confirmed my thesis: I could see with my own eyes that STRIL did include small and closely spaced radars. After covering a distance of some 70 km I had seen three such radars. Had this been NATO territory there would have been only one radar for the whole island. On the first day of my holiday I began to take notes. Since I was unsure what was and what was not part of STRIL, I made notes about every antenna I could remember having seen, and I continued making notes for the remainder of the trip. The notes filled five small notebook pages (A5) and totalled 363 words, describing 13 objects which I was later to be prosecuted for looking at (i.e. 28 words per object). I observed only such antennas as happened to be visible along our route, chosen on the basis of the tourist attractions described in the guidebook. We never left the public roads to go closer to any of these installations, although it would not have been illegal to have done so. Towards the end of the holiday I took four photographs of three of the installations with a small, cheap camera. The photographs showed no technical details, but merely the general appearance of the installations and how relatively inconspicuous they were in the landscape.(9)
About the trial, which began on 8 December 1981 in the Stockholm City Court (Tingsrätt), continuing from Owen’s notes:
[It] began in open session with the Prosecutor describing at some length how I had exposed military installations in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Norway and Denmark. He omitted to mention that what I had exposed in all these countries were foreign military installations. These were not related to the defence of the host countries mentioned; rather they served the military objectives of the USA. He then described at length my investigation of a Swedish electronic spying installation at Lövön, although according to the Prosecutor this was not secret and I was not being prosecuted for looking at it.
All the proceedings which dealt with the objects I was being prosecuted for looking at were held in closed, secret court sessions. All details about the 15 locations were kept secret. This served to give journalists and the general public the impression that the observations for which I was being prosecuted must have been more detailed than those I had made at Lövön, whereas in fact the reverse was true.
Two military witnesses were heard in closed session. An army major showed my field notes and the four photographs and described the 15 places I was alleged to have observed. The notes and photographs constituted the only evidence of my activities. Apparently SÄPO had not followed us on our holiday.
Evidence about the potential harm I had caused Swedish security was given by Admiral Schuback, second-in-command in the Swedish military hierarchy. He described how the sites I had looked at were involved in the ‘total defence’ of Sweden. He described how the kind of information which I collected, should it come into the hands of a foreign power, could be used to attack Sweden. If there had been any evidence that a foreign power had received this information, then the Defence Command would have to spend many million Swedish crowns (the actual figure is secret) on total replacement of the radars concerned.(10)
Owen’s defence case rested on the simplicity and low-key basis of his bicycle trip, whose route was planned in advance from a six-day ‘Cycle Package No 3’ of the Swedish Touring Association. He also denied that he had ‘formed a penetrating picture’. Since his arrest, he had discovered that a much more ‘penetrating’ picture could be obtained by reading the official and non-secret publications Flygvapennytt (Air Force News) and Marinnytt (Navy News).
I was quite ready to admit that I had observed 13 of the 15 sites. However, I denied having observed a particular depot, the location of which was not even revealed to the court. My field notes included only the general observation that there were many military depots on Gotland. I also denied having observed an important and secret site. My field notes had been misinterpreted to make it seem like I had seen this place, and the major gave false information about the antennas located at another site to make it seem that my field notes referred to the secret place. Because of the secrecy of the trial I cannot explain this more specifically…
All the other 12 sites could in no way be thought of as secret. All were easily visible from main roads or tourist routes, and some were so high that they could be seen from a distance of 10 kilometres. While preparing for the trial I found that eight of the 13 installations were marked on publicly available maps, usually as ‘telemasts’. At six sites the masts were so high that they are marked on aeronautical charts as navigation hazards, with their heights marked accurate to within one foot. This information is of far greater precision that I could have gathered on my trip. (These maps are published on behalf of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, of which the Soviet Union is a member). At least five of the sites have masts which are so prominent that they are shown in nautical charts as bearing red lights which can be used as landmarks by ships at sea. They are even marked on Soviet nautical charts.(11)
Owen wrote that they were obviously not ‘secret’ installations and he ridiculed the military view that they were.
Since all these installations were all easily visible and obviously not secret I could hardly ‘know’ they were secret when I observed them, as the prosecution alleged. They certainly did not look secret. Some were painted in distinctly military colours, one was painted in alternating red and white to make it more visible. None were located in such a way as to reduce their visibility or hide their function. My interpretation of the word ‘secret’ is along
the lines of the definition in the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘kept private, not made known or exposed to view.’ However, the military view, as expressed in the court, is that anything they wish to be secret is secret by definition even if it is visible to passers-by, to reconnaissance satellites, to people who use topographic maps, and so on. At only one place did I come close enough to read a sign which said: ‘Photography, etc … is forbidden’, and here I took no photographs, although I did make notes and a sketch later.
According to the prosecution evidence seven of the sites had no such signs, and six of them were not enclosed by any kind of fence. If the military authorities build antennas on hilltops along public roads, can they really expect me to ride past without looking at them? It is especially hard to ignore something which might help to confirm a theory which has been under criticism.
Neither the technology nor the function of these installations were secret. All the equipment I saw is either illustrated and described in publications such as
Flygvapennytt and Jane’s Weapons Systems or is of an easily recognised common type – such as microwave dishes for radio relay. Flygvapennytt pictures show more detail about the radars than I could observe in the field, and give far more detail than any photograph which I took.(12)
Owen wrote these notes when he was preparing for an appeal after being convicted on 22 January 1982 with a 17-page verdict and a three-page ‘secret appendix’ that largely accepted the prosecution ‘evidence’ and ignored all evidence showing that the information gathered was not secret. He was sentenced to six months’ jail followed by permanent deportation. Only the ‘jail sentence was significant to me’ as he was returning to New Zealand anyway and his SIPRI contract had expired at the end of 1981. The appeal case was scheduled to begin on 27 April 1982 — to be ‘reheard in its entirety’ in the
Stockholm Court of Appeal (Svea Hovrätt).
He noted that at the time he was being held in Sweden against his will and without income, residence permit or work permit. ‘The police hold my passport, I can travel outside Stockholm only with the permission of the prosecutor, and I must report to the police once a week. Although I have no income, I am expected to pay all the costs of my defence apart from those of my lawyer who is paid by the state. If I cannot pay the travel expenses of my witnesses, for example, then I must do without them.’(13)
At the conclusion of the appeal hearing, Owen’s original six-month jail sentence was suspended and he was ordered to leave Sweden and not return for 10 years. Although pleased about not actually being jailed, Owen was still unhappy with the ‘guilty’ verdict and initially wanted to take the appeal to the Swedish Supreme Court. ‘It’s very rarely that appeals are accepted by the Supreme Court but, according to my lawyer, there are strong grounds for this case. It’s very unusual to deport someone for 10 years,’ he explained to the New Zealand Press Association correspondent in London.(14)
One of the Appeal Court senior judges said in a dissenting opinion that Owen should not be deported, but fined instead. ‘I’m pleased with the decision insofar as it’s moving in the right direction, but I’m dissatisfied with it in that they’re still saying the information I gathered was secret and a danger to Swedish security, which I deny.’(15) According to Owen, a Swedish magazine had sent a reporter over the same route he had cycled with his Swedish girlfriend in June 1981 and published pictures and information about the installations, but had not been prosecuted. Not long before the appeal hearing, about 70 people had travelled around the route taking pictures of the installations and police had told them
they were not doing anything wrong.
So why was there so much hysteria at the time in Sweden over the false allegations against Owen? In his case notes, Owen refers to trial by media and the ‘atrocious’ newspaper coverage of the entire affair. ‘On the first day after my arrest newspapers carried headlines such as “New Spy Seized”. There were no sub judice courtesies such as use of the words “accused” and “alleged”.
‘Newspapers reported, wrongly, that I had already been convicted for espionage in Norway, and they continued to call me a spy long after the espionage charge had officially been dropped. It was reported that I had been spying at several places that I have been to, in a car which was later traced to my ownership. I have no car, no driving licence, and do not drive.’(16)
Out of all the Swedish news media coverage, Owen wrote off the Stockholm conservative morning daily Svenska Dagbladet as ‘the worst’.(17) He admits that initially the newspaper concentrated its attacks on him personally, but that it ‘became apparent that this was just a build-up for a more general offensive against SIPRI.’ The daily had been ‘hostile to SIPRI’ long before it took an interest in Owen and his case. At first, Svenska Dagbladet ‘characterised me as wildly pro-Soviet, now it finds that SIPRI as a whole is pro-Soviet, and suggests that SIPRI is actually being controlled from Moscow.’ Owen concluded:
Basically, I believe that this whole affair is a product of the need of the prosecutor and the military to have a spy. This has been backed up by the desire of Svenska Dagbladet and the people it represents to destroy SIPRI, or at least tilt it decisively toward the West and destroy whatever objectivity there has been until now in its publications.(18)
In September 1982 Owen put the Swedish saga behind him and arrived back in New Zealand. Three weeks later he gave a public lecture at Auckland University, declaring a nuclear-free Pacific would help lower global tensions and slow the nuclear arms race. He told the Auckland Star that ‘most people are only aware of the French tests in the Pacific and do not realise that America and Russia carried out extensive nuclear missile testing there. It is these more accurate missiles that increase the threat of nuclear war.’(19)
Referring to the ‘arrest in Sweden for spying’, the Star’s reporter described
Toting a knapsack bulging with books and papers, he has travelled from Dunedin, stopping to give talks on his ‘legal adventures’ in Sweden, his work with the Swedish International Peace Research Institute and the nuclear arms race. One of his main topics will be the implications of the new nuclear missiles and what New Zealanders can do to stop their development. New Zealanders must oppose the Black Birch astronomical telescope the United States Navy wants to install in the hills behind Blenheim.(20)
Owen himself explained: ‘It would be manned by civilians measuring the positions of the stars, which does not seem sinister, but the important thing is that the United States wants this data to improve the accuracy of the new nuclear missiles.’ Missiles such as the Trident and new laser weapons which vaporise enemy missiles would be even more accurate if guided by the stars. ‘That is why we must oppose Black Birch, not because it is a nuclear target, but because it is contributing to the accuracy and perfection of nuclear missiles.’(21)
Reporting for NZ Geographic magazine about the revival of the observatory at the turn of the century, after the Americans had handed over the installation, which had passed its use-by date, to Operation Deep Freeze in Christchurch during 1996, Louise Thomas wrote: ‘The observatory made detailed sky photographs and also collected very precise positional information on stars. Speculation was rife that the survey provided data for targeting tactical nuclear weapons — in short, that the observatory’s purpose was to set up a guidance system for Tomahawk missiles, thus tying New Zealand to the nuclear arms
Owen revealed in that Auckland Star interview that he wouldn’t return to Sweden for the appeal against the questionable conviction for ‘endangering Sweden’s security’ and his sentence. ‘Basically, I have achieved what I wanted to in Sweden,’ he admitted. ‘Swedes can now cycle around the countryside with their eyes open.’(23)
The next time that I wrote about Owen for the New Zealand Times (by then it was titled the Dominion Sunday Times, which even later became the Sunday Star-Times) was when I wrote about his claims that a mystery submarine sighted in Cook Islands waters during February 1986 was ‘on an American covert operation aimed at scuttling New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy — but it misfired’.(24) Owen had alerted me to his forthcoming publication in NZ Monthly Review about his accusations that the Cook Islands and NZ governments and the military were covering up the real identity of the submarine.(25) His account said the facts pointed to a special operations submarine deployed by the US Navy: ‘The entire submarine affair has all the hallmarks of a United States covert action. A covert action that went wrong.’
My article continued:
Among the spotters of the submarine’s conning tower was a Tahitian policeman who had done military service. He was out fishing with a Tahitian colleague about five kilometres offshore near Ngatangiia, southwest of Rarotonga, and they reported to the Cook Islands police [that] the submarine came to within 30 metres of them, almost bumping into their boat. They sketched a silhouette of the conning tower and gave a detailed description. Two RNZ Air Force Orions searched the area and identified the submarine with sonar buoys, but the identity was not made public. American and Soviet officials denied that the submarine belonged to either country more than a month after the sightings.
However, Wilkes cites a Cook Islands government source as saying Prime Minister Sir Thomas Davis’s office was advised by New Zealand the submarine was ‘probably American’. Opposition Leader Geoffrey Henry and rebel Democrat leader Vincent Ingram were both told the submarine was American.
Wilkes claimed Cook Islanders were supposed to sight the submarine, presume it to be Soviet and trigger off a Russian scare in New Zealand which could have dramatically influenced public submissions for New Zealand’s Defence Review.(26)
Owen wrote in his Monthly Review article:
The submarine had shown itself on February 17 and though it was reported in the Cook Islands News, nothing more happened and so the submarine showed itself again on February 21. What the United States did not allow for was that this time there was a New Zealand Orion in the islands. The Orion not only detected the submarine, which would have been fine from the United States viewpoint, and may have even been in the script, but also identified it correctly, which was definitely not in the script.(27)
In another article about the submarine affair, in the Canadian Ploughshares Monitor, headed ‘Russian Submarine: a scare in the South Pacific seems to backfire’, Owen detailed how the whole affair appeared to have ‘come unstuck’:
Whatever the New Zealand air force found, it was obviously embarrassing for them. The search was immediately called off and no further press statements were made … A ‘Soviet submarine’ scare just now in the South Pacific would have been useful from a US viewpoint. It would help panic New Zealanders into welcoming US nuclear warships back into their ports, and to undermine the establishment of a South Pacific nuclear-free zone under the treaty signed last August in Rarotonga.(28)
Over the next few years Owen and I collaborated a lot, with his expertise contributing to my books on nationalist struggles and environmental campaigns in the Pacific and a collection of essays on social and political change in the region. While preparing my book Blood on their Banner(29) on nationalist struggles, which incidentally was translated and published in Sweden (Wiken Books)(30) in advance of the English edition (Zed Books), Owen had lots of pithy background, reflections and insights. I am sure the Swedish edition of my book was published thanks to Owen’s connection and also through Bengt Danielsson, the Tahiti-based Swedish adventurer and researcher of Kon Tiki raft voyage fame(31) and longtime nuclear-free campaigner.(32)
Among Owen’s letters to me in our correspondence exchange was his assessment on why France wanted to retain its hold in the Pacific:
1. To preserve access to their nuclear test centre [in French Polynesia].
2. To keep New Caledonia as one of their biggest remaining colonies (in the sense of a settlement of French people) — as a kind of jewel in the French imperial crown. (And for the nickel? But probably they know they will have little problem keeping control of the nickel even after independence — compare their access to uranium in Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso, where another coup took place in January 2022], phosphate in Mauritania etc.
3. To keep access to the world’s second-largest aggregate 200 mile economic zone (EEZ). This is a unique part of French foreign policy — no other nation so jealously guards its EEZ. Note the French Foreign Legion garrison on Matthew Island [the disputed Matthew and Hunter islands near Vanuatu]; Kerguelen, with its garrison, the biggest in the subantarctic (despite all the Latin American squabbling in their sector; the sinking of the Southern
Raider; their illegal occupation of islands in the Madagascar channel; and the Mayotte secession [it voted to remain a French department in 2011 in defiance of the rest of the Comoros that opted for independence].
4. As part of a grand imperial design — keeping their girdle of French possessions intact right around the globe for reasons or pride, prestige, vainglory etc. Also, of practical military significance — as I keep pointing out France is number two in distribution of military bases globally after the US. They are stretched like military stepping stones around the globe — from France to Djibouti to Mayotte to Reunion to New Caledonia to Tahiti to
Martinique (Caribbean) to Senegal and back to France. Plus oddities like Saint Pierre and Miquelon [off the Newfoundland coast, Canada].
5. The difference between France and the US is that the US is much more ideological — they really see themselves as a kind of ideological police force. They are determined to hold onto any bit of dirt they can possibly get to allow for a total military control of the globe, while France is more fine-tuned, more practical, more into defending their own more clearly defined self-interest.(33)
Before I left for the Pacific in 1993, living for a decade in Papua New Guinea and then Fiji, Owen, Fijian academic professor Steven Ratuva, now director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at Canterbury University, and I collaborated with a group of 18 authors, journalists and activists to produce Tu Galala: Social Change in the Pacific.(34) It was an activists’ take on contemporary upheaval in the Pacific — ‘growing poverty, nuclear testing, independence struggles, militarisation and massive social dislocation’ — and was ironically funded by the Pacific Development and Conservation Trust, a fund set up in New Zealand with compensation money from the French government for the bombing of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour on 10 July 1985. As we reflected in the introduction to the book, although in global terms the Pacific is relatively peaceful, it is also highly militarised. Owen and Steve examined this militarisation in their chapter from two perspectives — Owen regionally and globally, and Steve through the then-emerging ‘coup culture’ in Fiji.(35)
Owen outlined an overall picture of military activity and military infrastructure in the Pacific. In general it fitted into four categories. Some of the military activity, at time of publication, was concerned with the global standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, which collapsed on 25 December 1991 with the end of the Gorbachev presidency. These were the installations and activities that served for global nuclear war. Much of it was military activity that was ‘too dangerous, too secret or too unpopular to do in North America or Europe — with French nuclear testing as a prime example’.(36) As Owen explained, ‘Johnston Atoll is a microcosm of the backside-of-the-earth syndrome. Here to an extreme degree the US military does anything which is too secret to do elsewhere in the Pacific.’(37)
Then there was the military activity located in the Pacific because the Pacific was the ocean separating North America from East Asia — if North America wanted to wage war against Asia, or vice versa, then such bases as those in the Philippines and Northern Marianas would be central to such a war. The fourth and final category of militarisation was the multitude of local, ‘parochial’ or indigenous reasons for military presence and warfare — exemplified by the counter-insurgency forces of France in Kanaky New Caledonia, by indigenous forces such as the Tongan Defence Force, and by the armed components of Pacific liberation movements. Of the four categories, only the last can be seen as possibly relevant to defending Pacific interests. Discussing the Pacific as a ‘war theatre’, Owen outlined the case against the enormous military bases in the Philippines (Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Field).
The Subic Bay base, at 680 square kilometres about the size of Singapore, was, after the closure of Clark Air Field in 1991, the largest US military installation overseas. When the vast naval base was finally shut by the US the following year, the Philippine government turned it into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. The sheer scale of the US military operations in the Pacific were demonstrated by Owen’s description in the chapter:
The Pacific is the location of the world’s largest military empire, that of the US Commander-in-Chief (CINCPAC) in Hawai’i, covering half of the earth’s surface and 60 percent of the world’s population. It includes most of the Pacific basin and Pacific rim, together with about two-thirds of the Indian Ocean. CINCPAC, who is always a US Navy admiral, may also be the most powerful man on the earth: certainly, as far as nuclear megatonnage is concerned, in peacetime he has more power at his fingertips than does the president of the United States. It is like comparing the power of the old British Raj with that of the British monarch.(38)
At the other end of the scale, Owen noted the contrast with what was ‘probably the world’s smallest self-contained military force — the Tonga Defence Force, numbering about 200’ which seemed to ‘have little role other than discharging a big gun on occasion as a salute’ to the King of Tonga…
As Michael Szabo noted in his 1991 history Making Waves: The Greenpeace New Zealand Story, it seemed initially that the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior would set back the Pacific campaign by several years, but in fact ironically ‘the French saboteurs had massively boosted the organisation’s international reputation.’(39) Owen, who had carried out research project reports with Greenpeace, observed, ‘The New Zealand government is beginning to treat Greenpeace almost like another government’. However, that wasn’t quite the experience of the Greenpeace Aotearoa staff . I also recall Owen saying, ‘Everybody thinks we have this brilliant Labour government which is dedicated to pacifism. But it isn’t,
the government simply responded to public opinion, whereas in other countries where there have been similar big percentages against nuclear weapons, governments haven’t reacted.’(30)
In June 1986, to revive the Pacific Peace Voyage that had been cruelly interrupted by the 1985 bombing, the yacht Vega was deployed on a nuclear-free and environmental educational voyage to the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu to meet a wide range of Pacific people, including peace, trade union, women’s, church and political groups. On board, for the Cook Islands leg, was Owen Wilkes. Greenpeace coordinator Elaine Shaw flew ahead to Rarotonga with Māori activist Augie Riini to take Owen’s place for the rest of
the Vega voyage. Augie ‘was a good diplomat — always out until late with the locals and more adept at making friends than we Pākehā,’ Owen reflected.(41) Owen’s research work on the Philippine bases Subic Bay and Clark Air Field in particular, and other Asia-Pacific bases generally, along with his general knowledge, wisdom and humility, made him very popular in activist circles in the Philippines. As the national chair of the Nuclear-Free-Philippines Coalition (NFPC), Roland Simbulan, a former vice-chancellor and professor
in development studies at the University of the Philippines, put it, Owen’s work, both published and unpublished, on foreign military bases and facilities, especially when he was with SIPRI, had been of vital importance to peace advocates and organisers of the peace movement all over the world. In that sense, he had ‘an important role in ending the Cold War’. Added Simbulan, ‘In the Philippines, Owen’s work inspired me and others to do more serious peace research in support of peace advocacy and organising.’(42)
Simbulan, detained and tortured for peace advocacy while a student by the Marcos dictatorship, recalled how he had first met Owen in 1981 at an international peace conference in Tokyo, Japan. They were both speakers at that large conference of about 800 participants, and Owen at the time was a senior researcher at SIPRI:
Owen immediately impressed me as SIPRI’s highly knowledgeable technical expert on foreign military bases and facilities, specifically as a specialist on communications and signals intelligence (SIGINT). He could look at photographs of any kind of logistics/communications facilities and interpret what they were used for. He knew by just looking at the set-up of foreign military bases and facilities, or the configuration of naval and air force vessels and determine whether they were nuclear-armed and nuclear-capable.(43)
The professor admitted, ‘I was glad he was on our side, a veritable walking think tank for the international peace movement.’ However, Simbulan also stressed how Owen ‘was so modest, so full of humility and had a good sense of humour — a humour that was in itself so sharp.’
Simbulan recalled how on one occasion Owen had remarked to him that he was unsure of the ‘shooting effectiveness’ of the élite US Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) because ‘they too, as human beings, would be suffering from jet lag after an eight-to-ten hour trip through different time zones.’ And when Simbulan once asked Owen why he always wore shorts and sandals, even in the very formal international peace conferences in Japan, ‘he just smiled and said, “this is me.’”
The professor saw Owen ‘so vigorously full of zest and fulfilment during the Beyond ANZUS Conference in New Zealand in 1984, on the eve of the Labour Party’s election victory that [brought David Lange to power as Prime Minister] and eventually made New Zealand nuclear free’.(45) Owen had returned from Europe to work full-time for the peace movement. During Simbulan’s lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand, where he also addressed the Beyond ANZUS Conference at Wellington, he invited Owen to visit the Philippines. In the late 1980s Owen finally did visit the Philippines, and checked out the vast and then still active US military bases and facilities, especially at Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base. Owen’s technical expertise helped the Filipino peace movement interpret the bases’ role in the context of the American global nuclear infrastructure.
‘I had my disagreements with him though, especially on the particular nature and placement of the facilities, their counter-insurgency role,’ admits Simbulan, ‘but our discussions were very productive, constructive as well as instructive.’ He said that the technical information about the US bases and facilities that Owen had shared with them — especially in the light of the nuclear weapons-free 1987 Philippine Constitution — ‘helped in no small way in the Philippine Senate’s decision to reject the proposed bases treaty of renewal, thus ending 470 years of foreign military bases in the Philippines.’(46)
At Owen’s funeral I, too, reflected on his life and achievements and what it
meant for us:(47)
For me, Owen Wilkes was a truly brilliant researcher and original critical thinker. He was a down-to-earth Kiwi and no-nonsense innovator who had no time for the rampant political correctness engulfing us today. But he was also a very warm-hearted, amusing and generous friend. I personally found him an inspiration and he was a vital source of encouragement, especially when working in the tough environment of freelance journalism in the 1980s. He was enormously respected throughout the peace and progressive movements and in the media. This respect continued even when he eventually spurned peace activism and moved to Hamilton to share his life with dedicated former Peacelink editor May Bass away from the political limelight.
I sometimes felt the respect was even greater abroad. In the Philippines, activists and journalists described him in awe as the ‘walking encyclopaedia.’ In the Pacific, his word on military and strategic issues was gospel. While most activists and the media focused on conventional military bases, Owen was busy exposing the worldwide network of American surveillance and communication bases. His exposés of Tangimoana and Waihopai are well known, but in 1989 he also exposed a little known Bukidnon spy base in the Philippines, more significant in realpolitik terms than the Subic Bay and Clark military bases. His work inspired me to join the post-Marcos International Peace Brigade and carry out an investigation into a New Zealand aid project in Mindanao with a series of media articles, such as in the Listener.(48)
In our last encounter together, about a year before he took his life, we shared some drinks and reflections one evening while he stayed with Del and me at our home in Grey Lynn. He revealed some of his cynical mood amid the laughs when he turned to me and said, ‘David, we’re just two old farts.’ Owen was referring to defensive responses from some quarters about our unpopular criticisms of aspects of the Nuclear Free and Independent (NFIP) movement in the Pacific, and the waning progressive struggle in the Philippines [which he partially blamed on ‘over-population’ and the conservatism of the Catholic church in a
country of 107 million that in May 2022 elected ‘Bongbong’, the only son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as president].
Owen Wilkes was an extraordinary peace researcher without peer, and a defiant liberal nationalist. He stubbornly defended his intellectual and moral integrity, and enriched all who crossed paths with him.
Thanks to Nils Petter Gleditsch, who read an early draft of this chapter and provided a copy
of Owen’s 1982 unpublished ‘roadside secrets’ paper; Del Abcede, for her reflections, amusing anecdotes and advice; Mark Derby, for Owen’s copies of our correspondence; and May Bass for her vision to turn this book into reality and our shared good times with Owen.
1 Fredstidningen PAX. No 1, February, 1982. https://www.svenskafreds.se/om-oss/pax/
2 David Robie, (1989), Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific, London, United Kingdom: Zed Books.
3 David Robie (Ed.) (1992), Tu Galala: Social Change in the Pacific. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.
4 David Robie (21 March 1982), ‘Bicycle snoop riles the Baltic’, New Zealand Times.
5 Nils Petter Gleditsch & Owen Wilkes (1981). Onkel Sams kaniner. Teknisk etterretning i Norge [Uncle Sam’s Rabbits. Technical Intelligence in Norway]. Oslo, Norway: PAX.
6 Owen Wilkes (March 1982). Sweden’s road-side secrets. Unpublished paper.
7 Wilkes (1982), p. 1.
8 Wilkes (1982). p. 1.
9 Wilkes (1982). p. 2
10 Wilkes (1982). p. 2
11 Wilkes (1982). p. 4
12 Wilkes (1982). p. 4
13 Wilkes (1982). p. 4
14 NZPA. NZ man ordered to leave, Auckland Star, 8 June 1982.
16 Wilkes (1982). p. 9.
17 Wilkes (1982). p. 10.
18 Wilkes (1982), p. 10.
19 N-free Pacific ‘way to peace’, Auckland Star, 24 September 1982.
22 Louise Thomas, Black Birch resurrected. New Zealand Geographic, April-June 1999. https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/black-birchresurrected/
23 N-free Pacific ‘way to peace’, Auckland Star, 24 September 1982.
24 David Robie, Submarine from US, says Wilkes. Dominion Sunday Times, 19 October 1986.
25 Owen Wilkes, Owen Wilkes investigates the Cook Islands submarine affair, NZ Monthly Review, October 1986, pp. 7-16.
26 David Robie, Submarine from US, says Wilkes. Dominion Sunday Times, 19 October 1986.
27 Owen Wilkes, NZ Monthly Review, op. cit., pp. 7-16.
28 Owen Wilkes, ‘Russian Submarine: A Scare in the South Pacific seems to backfire’, Ploughshares Monitor, June 1986.
29 David Robie, Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific, London,
United Kingdom: Zed Books, 1989.
30 David Robie (1989). Och Världen Blundar … (And The World Closed its Eyes …). Wiken Books, Höganäs, Sweden, 1989.
31 Bengt Emmerik Danielsson was a Swedish anthropologist, writer and crew member on the Kon Tiki raft expedition from South America to Tahiti in 1947. He made ‘French’ Polynesia his home, married Marie-Thérèse and was a staunch environmental and anti-nuclear campaigner until he died in 1997.
32 Bengt Danielsson and Marie-Thérèse Danielsson, Moruroa, Mon Amour: The French
nuclear tests in the Pacific. Penguin Books, Melbourne, VIC., 1977.
33 Owen Wilkes, personal letter to David Robie, 29 March 1988.
34 David Robie (ed.), Tu Galala: Social Change in the Pacific. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1992, pp. 53-69.
35 Owen Wilkes and Sitiveni Ratuva, ‘Militarism in the Pacific and the Case of Fiji’, in
David Robie (ed.), Tu Galala: Social Change in the Pacific, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, pp. 53-69.
36 David Robie, Tu Galala, op. cit., p. 17.
37 Owen Wilkes and Sitiveni Ratuva, op. cit., p. 54.
38 Ibid., p. 53.
39 Michael Szabo, Making Waves: The Greenpeace New Zealand Story. Reed, Auckland, 1991,p. 149.
40 David Robie, ‘Challenging Goliath’ in New Internationalist, September 1986, Retrieved https://asiapacificreport.nz/2017/06/11/flashback-to-nzs-nuclear-free-law-1987-challenging-goliath/
41 Szabo, op. cit., p. 150.
42 Roland Simbulan, Tributes to Owen Wilkes: In memory of Owen. Roland
G. Simbulan, Philippines. 12 May 2005. http://www.apc.org.nz/pma/owentr.htm
47 David Robie, Tribute for Owen Wilkes, Hamilton, 17 May 2005. https://bit.ly/3uMyHPY
48 David Robie, A cloud over Bukidnon, in Robie, Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face: Media,
Mayhem and Human Rights in the Pacific, Little Island Press, Auckland, pp. 174-183.
- Published originally as Chapter 8 in May Bass and Mark Derby (eds.), Peacemonger: Owen Wilkes: International Peace Researcher, Raekaihau Press, Wellington, 2022. ISBN 9781991153869.