It was a secret war waged in Canberra's bars, parks and streets that makes today's spy thrillers look "pale by comparison".
The third and final volume of the explosive history on ASIO, The Secret Cold War has revealed the extent of the espionage in the nation's capital in the late 1970s to mid-1980s in many places Canberrans will recognise.
Australian National University academic John Blaxland co-wrote the official history of the spy agency from 1975 to 1989 with Australian War Memorial historian Rhys Crawley.
In a period punctuated by the Sydney Hilton Hotel bombing and the Combe-Ivanov affair, Dr Blaxland said there was enough espionage and counter espionage around the suburbs of Canberra "to make recent TV shows pale by comparison".
"People don't quite appreciate how much was going on in Canberra; in the restaurants, in the cafes, in the bars, in Manuka, in Kingston, in Deakin, in Yarralumla and Red Hill, in parks around near the Soviet Embassy, around the Chinese Embassy," Dr Blaxland said.
"Russian spies waiting for a meet, a pre-arranged contact to turn up to drop something off or have a brush-past – this was the kind of thing that was happening in the Manuka shops, around the embassies and it was happening in front of our very eyes without us realising what was going on."
Dr Blaxland said Canberrans flicking through the book might recognise their own house as a "den of espionage" once surveilled by ASIO.
"Just the other day I was taking my son to a sporting event and we drove past one of the houses and I said, 'Mate! See that! That's one of the houses that's in the book!'," he said.
Dr Blaxland said the book, which will make for "uncomfortable" reading for many insiders, chronicled the period of so-called "detente", when relations were supposed to be thawing between the NATO allies and the Eastern Bloc.
It is also the first time the spy agency has publicly acknowledged it was penetrated by Soviet spies.
"While the rhetoric was all about the better relations, the practice was espionage at full-pelt on a far grander scale than was the case in the '50s when Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia defected in the mid 1950s," Dr Blaxland said.
"By the mid 1980s it was on for young and old, and ASIO struggled to keep up because it was not resourced to deal with the rapid growth in espionage that was taking place. It really struggled with that and that in fact was a significant contributor to the fact that ASIO was penetrated."
As early as the 1980s, Dr Blaxland said there were indicators pointing to a mole within ASIO but it was difficult to prove.
"In early 1980s evidence came to light that pointed pretty categorically to ASIO being penetrated but even then that was not enough to really nail down who the culprit might have been," Dr Blaxland said.
"It wasn't until after the end of the Cold War in the early '90s that information came out that compellingly indicated that ASIO was indeed penetrated and that penetration was extensive and long-standing and that was very demoralising to the organisation."
The ASIO trilogy was six years in the making and every line was scrutinised but ultimately approved by ASIO's top brass.
"It is a no-punches-pulled account of things not going right, of people stuffing up, of missions being aborted, of people's lives being wrecked and yet through this trauma significant reform takes place, significant initiatives are implemented and ASIO, the modern ASIO that we know as part of the established arm of government today in Canberra, is the product of this transformation that takes place during these years," Dr Blaxland said.
The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, 1975-1989 will be launched at the Manning Clark Centre, ANU Campus at 6.30pm on Thursday
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.