Jacinta Carroll’s review of my book Secret is marred by surprising errors. Carroll, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s National Security College, asserts that a former CIA station chief confided to me over lunch in Canberra that “Kerr was our man”. The chief was John Walker, but he said no such thing. I wrote that Christopher Boyce, a former employee of a CIA subcontractor involved with Pine Gap, said this to journalists.
What Walker told me is that, in 1973, a senior CIA official – the virulently anti-Labor James Angleton – instructed him to get the then head of ASIO, Peter Barbour, to state that Whitlam had lied to parliament, a sackable offence. Walker said Barbour refused – a point I confirmed with Barbour. Yet Carroll claims there was no US interference in Australian politics in the 1970s. I say in Secret it’s not known if the United States attempted to overthrow Whitlam in 1975, though there are strong pointers that they may have. However, a former US consul-general in Melbourne in the mid-1960s, Lincoln White, gave me other details of US interference. He said the then CIA station chief in Australia, Bill Caldwell, funded attempts to discredit local opponents of the Vietnam War.
According to Carroll, my book is weakened by evidence from her colleague John Blaxland, an official ASIO historian. His evidence in this regard is weak. In one instance, he wrote that, in 1975, Whitlam hadn’t sought official confirmation before declaring that Pine Gap was a CIA installation. As widely documented, Whitlam had obtained official confirmation.
Carroll states that Secret supports anti-US conspiracy theories. Not so. It gives authoritative lists of covert US foreign interference. Carroll, apart from incorrectly stating that I was a Labor press secretary, alleges I claim there is no need to classify national security information. I write in the preface that I support a role for government secrecy, where justified.
Carroll says that, in referring to Kim Beazley, I state that “secrets can be seductive – and deceptive”. This comment of mine relates unambiguously not to Beazley, but to the late Australian National University academic Des Ball’s apparent access to secret briefings about Pine Gap.
Reviewers are entitled to choose what they see as the central themes of a book. In my view, Carroll misses its core messages. She doesn’t mention the book’s critique that secrecy often has malign consequences. Leaking secret intelligence to the media has not killed anyone in Australia. But keeping Australian-generated signals intelligence secret has often facilitated the killing of innocent people in operations such as drone attacks.
Conclusions reached in secret often suffer from a lack of outside scrutiny. A deputy head of ASIO, Gerard Walsh, stated in 1995 that intelligence leaks had led to murders in Australia. Within days, his claim was officially dismissed as false by the then attorney-general, Michael Lavarch. Propaganda masquerading as secret intelligence has been used to justify disasters such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If the phony nature of the intelligence had been leaked earlier, the invasion may have been avoided.
Secret US briefings deceived some of the best and brightest Australian officials and academics, who wrongly advised governments that Pine Gap played a crucial role in monitoring strategic arms-control agreements. Secret explains why this was untrue.
The book also shows that, in some circumstances, catching spies could be calamitous. Although details are contested, a Soviet spy in NATO reportedly warned Moscow not to retaliate to a seemingly imminent nuclear attack, as it was only a secretive, but extremely dangerous, Western exercise.
Despite Carroll’s focus on the risks of leaking classified information, President John F. Kennedy was rare among politicians for acknowledging the risks of maintaining secrecy. He told New York Times executives that if he hadn’t stopped them from revealing secret planning before the bungled 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, “You would’ve saved us from a colossal mistake.”
Brian Toohey is a journalist who has written extensively about national security issues since 1973.
I offer the following response to Brian Toohey’s letter on my review of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.
I did not comment on whether the US government interfered in Australian politics but noted that the book’s arguments in support of US interference are weakened by not providing serious consideration of other research.
This includes volume two of The Official History of ASIO, published in 2015, in which historian Professor John Blaxland addresses, in some detail, allegations of US interference raised by Toohey and others. Blaxland notes that Justice Robert Hope inquired into some of the claims, and Blaxland viewed Hope’s classified supplement to the Fourth Report of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, which includes advice that the United States didn’t conduct intelligence collection on Australia. The historian concluded that, while there was deep concern in some parts of the US administration regarding the Whitlam government, there is no evidence of US interference in Australian politics.
On the ASIO history’s assertion that Australia was exempt from US intelligence collection and interference, Toohey states, “This is demonstrable nonsense,” citing as supporting evidence that a CIA officer at the US Embassy in 1975 wrote regular reports on Australian politics. This is, however, routine political reporting as undertaken in all embassies, not intelligence collection, and is not foreign interference.
In regard to Secret presenting anti-US conspiracy theories, the US “military-industrial-intelligence complex” is mentioned as a key driver behind many of the matters discussed. The book also alludes to possible CIA involvement in the 1975 Whitlam dismissal, although this theory is generally dismissed by historians and political scientists.
While supporting evidence is provided for some assertions in the book, not presenting other views or including more recent research – or simply discounting other views as wrong – “risks putting some readers off”, as I wrote in the review.
The quote on Sir John Kerr is from Boyce, not Walker – my apologies for the error. My apologies, too, if I misunderstood Toohey’s role on ALP Minister Lance Barnard’s staff – this was inadvertent, and drew upon other published work on this period.
On the excerpt that “Secrets can be seductive – and deceptive”, the sentence does indeed come at the end of a paragraph on Des Ball. But in a four-and-a-half-page chapter entitled “The Men Seduced By Secrets”, devoted to Kim Beazley and Des Ball, the term neatly encapsulates sentiments expressed about both.
While Toohey states in the preface that “few deny there can be a legitimate role for government secrecy”, there is little in the book supporting this view. The two examples in the preface are names of informants and plans for “lawful wartime operations, such as the Normandy invasion”. This belies the complexity of potentially classified military, security and diplomatic matters, particularly in the contemporary environment. Military research and development, investigative tactics and techniques, coverage of communications and financial transactions between terrorists, classified information shared by another country, and closed-door discussions to urge conflict resolution and to uphold human rights are just some of the matters that may, at times, require sensitive handling.
In Secret, Toohey has achieved his stated intent of providing a “counter-narrative to the official accounts” on the remarkable and perennially interesting topic of Australia’s defence and security. For those who seek a broader understanding of the many issues it addresses, however, this should be read in conjunction with other research and perspectives.
Jacinta Carroll is a senior research fellow at the National Security College at the Australian National University.
Read Jacinta Carroll’s original review of Secret here.