This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?.
To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.
In June 2019, the Australian Federal Police executed search warrants on the Sydney office of the ABC and the Canberra home of a NewsCorp journalist, creating headlines across Australia and around the world. The ensuing coverage has created a national debate about security and the media, including press freedom; initiatives such as Australia’s Right to Know coalition; and a parliamentary inquiry into the “impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press”. The “raids” related to two separate police investigations from 2017 and 2018 into the unauthorised leaking and publishing of national security material.
In the midst of this intense focus on the nature of security in Australia and the role of the press comes veteran journalist Brian Toohey’s Secret.
Toohey is no newcomer to issues around press leaks and national security. He is arguably best known for his work in the 1970s, reporting on and publishing leaked classified information about the role of the joint Australian–US defence facilities at North West Cape and Pine Gap. He is also known for co-authoring Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (1989), which was subject to legal action over the alleged unauthorised disclosure of information related to national security.
Revelations around the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap and Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt at North West Cape continue to compel Toohey. They also provide the two key arguments of his book.
The first is that Australia is a willing and naive pawn in the US “military-industrial-intelligence complex”, and that this willingness has been nurtured by a small group of conservative politicians, military officials and bureaucrats. Special mention is made of Sir Arthur Tange, secretary of the Department of External Affairs and the Department of Defence in the 1960s, and Sir Charles Spry, the longtime head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Toohey describes both as “addicted to secrecy”. He suggests that others in more recent times have become unwittingly enamoured of secrecy in the relationship with the United States while remaining blind to Washington’s motivations. In relation to Kim Beazley, the governor of Western Australia and a former defence minister and ambassador to the United States, Toohey comments that “secrets can be seductive – and deceptive”.
The book’s second argument is that these secrecy-obsessed individuals and their organisations have hidden vital information from the Australian people and even from the government. Toohey claims there is no need to withhold information about matters of national security, as history has shown that the perceived threats often prove unfounded, and that classified documents can be released without harm. To support his thesis, he lists a range of examples – for one, that the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Communist Party of Australia means that communism and its state sponsors, particularly the Soviet Union, never posed a serious threat.
Yet Toohey’s arguments are weakened by his reluctance to give serious consideration to countervailing evidence, including recent revelations from archives. For instance, John Blaxland’s official history of ASIO examines Toohey’s assertions about US interference in Australian politics in the 1970s and concludes that nothing in ASIO’s records – to which Blaxland had unimpeded access – supports the claims. Toohey dismisses this by stating that it must mean ASIO had not been told either, as Defence was in charge of the facility – despite Blaxland’s findings being drawn from inquiries looking across government.
Contemporary security issues are treated with similar disdain. Toohey states that the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings could have been prevented if Australian agencies had shared relevant information with their New Zealand counterparts – but there is no evidence that authorities had credible information about an impending terrorist attack. Russia is exonerated of any responsibility for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom, despite charges being laid against Russian officials; Toohey states that the chemicals could have come from elsewhere, and that if Putin wanted to murder Skripal, “it would have been cheaper and safer to shoot him with an untraceable gun”. The rhetoric of national security, according to Toohey, is a convenient way to control information in the interests of power and politics, and to cover up the “shoddy” work of politicians and some senior officials. This politicised perspective is understandable from someone who spent his career in the press gallery, but it fails to account for the confidentiality and security requirements of modern militaries and governments.
It is in the discussion of the Whitlam era that Secret shines. Toohey homes in on the Whitlam government’s attempts to fulfil its election promise to find out about, and make public, the role of the joint Australian–US facilities. Whitlam emerges as a champion of free speech and responsible government, dogged and undermined by Tange and others, who were deeply suspicious of the new, left-leaning government and concerned that it could undermine Australia’s alliance with the United States (which at the time was led by Richard Nixon). Recounting a closed-door meeting in 1972 between a US congressman and the soon-to-be Whitlam government defence minister Lance Barnard, Toohey presents a contrast between Barnard saying “whatever the Americans wanted to hear” on Pine Gap, and himself stepping up – in his position then as a Labor staffer – to clarify the nuances of the new Whitlam government’s views. In a chapter titled “Dangerous Advice from Ignorant Officials”, Toohey blames Tange for convincing Whitlam to break his election commitment. The dark hand of the United States looms in the background, with a suggestion – no direct accusation – that it may have had a role in the dismissal of the Whitlam government. “Kerr was our man”, a shady former CIA Canberra station chief later confided to Toohey over lunch in Washington.
The account of the Whitlam and Fraser years also provides revealing insights into the political players of the time. In the 1970s and 1980s, in the cramped and bustling halls of Old Parliament House, journalists worked cheek-by-jowl with their political colleagues, and did the morning rounds by visiting ministers in their offices to share a cigarette and perhaps a drink. Toohey mentions Minister for Defence James Killen, seen by many journalists as a “wit and a bon vivant”. These chapters are full of references to many leaks of information that had been circulated to “small numbers of ministers”, with officials reportedly often “unfazed” by the leaks. Today, the federal parliamentary press gallery is in a wing on the Senate side of the vast Parliament House complex. If a politician wants to meet with journalists, there’s a long walk involved; more often, media advisers stroll the gallery and use press conferences and media releases to get the message out. Toohey’s anecdotes – both his own remembrances and those he relates from others – speak to a bygone intimacy between politicians and members of the fourth estate. When Justice Robert Hope was appointed to investigate a leak involving then defence minister Bill Hayden, Toohey observes drily that Hope “looked a little surprised to see me coming in Hayden’s door as he was leaving”, and that Hayden had immediately told him what Hope had said. What shines through is a deep familiarity with the personalities and issues of the day (Toohey was also briefly an opposition ministerial press secretary), making Secret a valuable addition to our understanding of the politics of the time.
This focus gives context to the leaks Toohey was involved with – and highlights starkly the contrast with leaks from today. Toohey’s recollections of the relative ease of picking up and handing on papers, and the almost unimpeded access to ministers and their offices, is a world away from contemporary allegations that officials with security clearances downloaded documents illegally from classified IT systems and removed them clandestinely from secure premises.
Secret is a curious book. Part memoir and part extended op-ed, it explores a wide range of themes and events. In sixty chapters over 330 pages, Toohey gives his views on Australian politics, security and defence; the two world wars and the Vietnam War; the West’s approach to Putin’s Russia (the United States is blamed for tensions with Russia); the rise of China, India and Indonesia; and nuclear testing and biological weapons. Yet despite its title, it is not a researched history of Australia’s security apparatus, or even focused primarily on press freedom and security.
This is a pity, as it means Toohey misses two important opportunities. The first is to educate readers about the important relationship between the national security and defence community, and the media. The second is to promote his views about the limitations on press freedom to those in a position to bring about change. There is an appetite in Australia, particularly at the moment, for addressing and discussing public access to official information. But the book risks putting some readers off due to its oversimplification of complex matters, its anti-US conspiracy theories and its tendency to represent police, security and defence personnel as Keystone Cops.
However, for those actively engaged in the debate about press freedom, Secret is worth reading for one important reason: it provides insight into the way national security is perceived by the media and some of the public. The book highlights the importance for liberal democracies such as Australia to not only enhance public and legal accountability, and engage in a constructive dialogue with the populace, but to emphatically be seen to be doing so.
The current inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has borne this out: submissions from media organisations indicate a widespread belief that security classifications are applied to documents randomly, and that there is no effective form of accountability other than the media and whistleblowers. The inquiry has also shown that there is limited public understanding of the risks in releasing classified information.
Information on Australia’s national security agencies and how they work is often lacking or oversimplified. Public understanding could be enhanced by explaining, for example, the long-established protocols around classification and handling of materials, and the reasons for these measures, along with how Australia’s security laws work, and how and why they have been reviewed and amended over the years. Good information is publicly available, but it is often buried in Hansard, in annual reports or on departmental websites, where few would seek it out.
It is incumbent on security and defence officials to provide more accessible information on these topics. As we are currently seeing, a failure to do so leads to misapprehension of what the government and the security and defence establishments are doing, and why.
Secret is a reminder of the importance of informed debate, and the role of frank and fearless journalism – and opinion – in helping it along. While the book is not a comprehensive reference on the history of security in Australia, there is utility of a different kind in hearing directly from someone who witnessed so many key events in Australia’s history up close, in proximity to political leaders, at a time when it was still possible to do so. One can almost smell the worn leather armchairs of the parliamentary offices and hear the clacking typewriters of the old press gallery. Keeping secrets – and leaking them – was different back then.