THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD / VIA GEORGE BURCHETT
These are some of the more tantalising secrets, told for the first time, or re-told in unprecedented detail, in Australian journalist Brian Toohey’s forthcoming book Secret, which serves as a sharp rejoinder to the current trend of government crackdowns on the media and whistle-blowers.
Toohey has been a thorn in the side of Australian governments and security agencies since he first came to prominence as a Canberra correspondent for The Australian Financial Review in the early 1970s.
Over the decades he has been responsible for an astounding array of revelations about the hard-to-penetrate world of intelligence and national security, first in Canberra, later as AFR Washington correspondent, then as editor of ground-breaking weekly The National Times and as publisher of political magazine The Eye.
He was taken to the High Court and the Federal Court by the Hawke government over leaked top-secret papers. On at least two occasions (most likely more), ASIO bugged his home. Malcolm Fraser wanted to bug his office phone in Parliament House but was talked out of it by senior officials who (in those days) considered the parliamentary precinct sacrosanct. At one stage the then head of the Defence department, Sir Arthur Tange, who had a particular obsession with Toohey, amassed 350 files pursuing leaks to the man he considered his journalistic bete noire.
They included, Toohey writes, “lengthy studies of my modus operandi and motives”.
In 1978 the Fraser government’s defence minister, Jim Killen, was so outraged over Toohey’s reports that he told his department to stop answering any questions not just from the AFR, but from all papers in the then-Fairfax stable. The journalists’ union hit back, threatening to boycott material from the department and its minister. Killen had to back down.
What had driven the minister into such a rage was Toohey’s disclosures of expanded capabilities at the top-secret naval communications and satellite ground station at North West Cape in Western Australia, a key link in Washington’s ability to communicate with its global nuclear submarine fleet. Though supposedly run as a joint Australian-US facility, the impending expansion had not been flagged to ministers - and Killen was embarrassed.
Despite the threats, bugging, run-ins with ministers and court actions, the government never succeeded in extracting or identifying Toohey’s many sources. He has, however, revealed in this book a handful of sensitive conversations with figures who have since died.
It was then Hawke government minister, Peter Walsh, who rang Toohey from a public phone box in 1983 to tip him off that ASIO was bugging his phone. (A furious Hawke later upbraided Walsh for this.)
And it was John Walker, the CIA station chief in Canberra in the early to mid-'70s who some years later told Toohey over lunch in New York that his counterpart, ASIO’s then most senior officer in Canberra Colin Brown, had been conducting a clandestine affair with Walker’s wife, Diana.
Walker told Toohey of his anger when he discovered the affair, just before his posting was due to come to an end. Based on that conversation, Toohey believes the relationship had the potential to do more harm to ASIO-CIA relations than the stories he was running.
Brown’s then-wife Rosemary shared this assessment. In June 1981 she wrote to Toohey, saying she’d threatened to tell Walker about the affair, but Brown warned her she “would destroy ASIO’s relationship with the CIA if she did”. “ASIO wives are very thoroughly brainwashed,” she told Toohey. “So in the name of the ASIO-CIA cause, a 34-year marriage was dissolved, a family broken.”
Toohey also identifies Walker as his source for information that the CIA’s onetime head of counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, tried to precipitate the removal of then prime minister Gough Whitlam more than a year before the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975.
Angleton considered Whitlam a “serious threat” to the US, and was alarmed after Whitlam’s attorney-general Lionel Murphy mounted a controversial police raid on ASIO headquarters in Melbourne in 1973. Angleton instructed Walker to persuade then head of ASIO, Peter Barbour, to state (falsely) that Whitlam had lied about the raid in Parliament. But Barbour refused.
“None of those involved in pressuring Barbour seemed concerned that it would be a serious espionage offence for CIA and ASIO officials to interfere in Australian politics in this manner,” Toohey writes.
Toohey had worked for Labor’s then shadow minister for defence Lance Barnard in opposition, and for Barnard briefly in government, before joining the AFR bureau. But he says the leaks he received over the years rarely reflected ideological agendas. His sources’ primary motivation, he writes, was “to reveal information they considered the public should know. As far as I could tell, their political sympathies, if any, ranged across the spectrum."
In May 1983, the Hawke government rushed into the High Court to stop Toohey and The National Times publishing a three-part series which the newspaper dubbed the “AUSTEO” papers (AUSTEO is a top secret classification meaning “Australian Eyes Only”). A late-night injunction was granted against him but he refused to hand over the classified documents on the basis that “I’d destroyed them in the interests of good housekeeping”.
Soon afterwards he reached a settlement with the authorities, permitting publication with what Toohey describes as “relatively minor changes”.
In 1988 there was another legal skirmish – this time in the Federal Court – when the government wanted to suppress parts of a book, Oyster, that Toohey had co-written on the history of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).
Again, a settlement was reached and minor deletions made. Afterwards an ASIS officer told Toohey he thought the book was “fair” even though it gave a “detailed account of his service’s secretive activities and blunders”.Toohey’s defiance of court orders is something he’d be far less likely to get away with today. The last few years have seen a raft of legislative changes cracking down on leaks and whistleblowers. It is now an offence just to possess - let alone publish - the kind of information he was once in receipt of.
Secret is a deep dive through the murky deeds, misjudgments, behind-the-scenes battles and ups and downs of the intelligence world that Toohey uncovered over his years of reporting.
It is sobering to be reminded that in the early 1960s, our defence scientists and senior ministers were seriously considering giving the Americans permission to test the deadly nerve agent VX in northern Queensland, in trials which would have allowed low-flying jets to disperse the chemicals at night. Scant regard was given to the potential impact on the environment, waterways and a nearby Aboriginal township.
Ultimately the Menzies government rejected the plan, though the defence minister was all for it. The plan’s existence was not known until Toohey revealed it in May 1988.
In 2002 The Sunday Age reported that the head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Macfarlane Burnet, had also privately advocated the use of chemical and biological weapons, despite later winning the 1960 Nobel prize for medicine.
“The most effective counter-offensive to threatened invasion by overpopulated Asiatic countries would be directed towards the destruction by biological or chemical means of tropical food crops and the dissemination of infectious disease capable of spreading in tropical, but not under Australian conditions,” Burnet wrote for a top secret Defence committee in 1947. In effect, says Toohey, Burnet was “advocating repugnant war crimes”.
Toohey also revisits the scandal of British nuclear testing in the deserts of South Australia at Maralinga in the 1950s. Then prime minister Robert Menzies had assured Parliament that “no conceivable injury to life, men or property could emerge from the tests”.In May 1984, 30 years later, Toohey got his hands on still secret sections of a report by British physicist Noah Pearce, which revealed plutonium contamination at the site 100 times higher than benchmarks Pearce considered acceptable. In October that year, Toohey revealed a top-secret cabinet submission on the risks posed by the thousands of highly contaminated fragments left behind.
The sacking of the Whitlam government by then governor-general Sir John Kerr is also revisited extensively in the book, with Toohey giving particular scrutiny to rising angst within the CIA about Labor’s plans for the so-called communications and satellite bases or “joint facilities” at Nurrungar and North West Cape, and prize asset Pine Gap.
Tange, Australia’ s defence department head, was getting worried about what Whitlam or his ministers might reveal in Parliament about the bases.
For most of the Labor government’s term, Tange had not told Whitlam that the CIA, rather than the Pentagon, was running Pine Gap. Whitlam was angry when he discovered the truth.
In early November 1975 Toohey reported that Richard Stallings, the first head of Pine Gap, was a CIA officer. Whitlam was preparing a reply to Parliament confirming this (against advice from Tange and the US) when the issue was overtaken by the Dismissal.
Toohey also notes that under the joint agreement between Australia and the US, Canberra could in theory have given notice to terminate activities at Pine Gap from December 10, adding to the agitation of US intelligence partners.Toohey stops short of saying that these behind-the-scenes dramas were a factor in the Dismissal but he leaves the question hanging.
“I never at any stage say that the CIA overthrew the Whitlam government, what I’m trying to say is we don’t know, basically,” he tells the Herald and The Age. “There are lots of indications and lots of things that are suggestive but that’s not the same thing as being able to demonstrate it.”
Yet he is adamant that the regular assurances given to the Australian public about Pine Gap’s role - that it is a key tool for verifying arms control agreements - are incorrect.
“Claims ... that Pine Gap doesn’t intercept Australians’ phone calls, emails, faxes and so on have all been false,” he writes. “The technology dictates that these messages automatically include information about Australians”, though that does not mean, he says, that locals are the target.
“I am not saying the Australian government is lying,” he tells the Herald and The Age. “I am saying they have been totally misled by the briefings they got from the American intelligence officials.”
As well as canvassing what successive federal governments and their agencies have been keen to hide over the years, Toohey mounts a withering examination of Australia’s involvement in US-led combat missions in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq.
He is critical of the long-standing Australian government policy of striving for ever greater inter-operability with US military forces. Provocatively, he argues that the republican movement is “irrelevant” because the US “military-industrial-intelligence complex” has a “huge say” in whether Australian governments to go war, host bases, and what weapons they buy.
“The upshot is that Australia has surrendered much of its sovereignty to the US,” he claims. “The national security juggernaut has reached the point where Australia is now chained to the chariot wheels of the Pentagon.”
Many will think this pushes the argument too far. Toohey responds that he is not opposed to ANZUS but does not want Australia getting into “wars of aggression”. The book, he writes, is intended as a “modest counter-narrative to the official accounts of Australia at war and the role of the intelligence services and the foreign-run bases”.
There are lighter revelations here among the weighty matters of state. Perhaps the most entertaining is the wayward ASIS recruit who later delighted in revealing that she’d enjoyed the chance to “practise offensive driving, board a submarine from a Zodiac, learn unarmed combat and strap her personal weapon, a Browning .22 pistol, to her leg”. Her instructors told her to buy imported underwear because an interrogator would have trouble working out her origins from “French bras, Italian panties and British socks”.
Toohey’s manuscript was completed before the recent much-publicised police raids on the ABC and News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst. Those raids give even more power to his claim that “step by step, a succession of new laws and politics have provided the building blocks for Australia to become a country in which secretive officials and ministers wield unprecedented levels of peacetime power”.
Earlier this month, Australia’s media chiefs appeared before a parliamentary committee to make the case that “we are living in a state of secrecy”, to quote News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller. Secret is a further reminder that journalists must be ever ready to test what they’re being told by those charged with guarding the nation’s most fundamental interests.
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