Broinowski, Alison: State of insecurity: how government secrecy preserves power and conceals stuff-ups

Alison Broinowski*

‘State of insecurity: how government secrecy preserves power and conceals stuff-ups’, Honest History, 3 September 2019

Alison Broinowski reviews Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey 

If you’re old enough to remember the National Times and The Eye, you’ll know that Brian Toohey was a prime receptacle for political leaks before Julian Assange and Edward Snowden were born. Now he reveals how Jim Killen, Defence Minister in the Fraser government, and Arthur Tange, head of the Defence Department, frenetically pursued leaks of which only they could have been the source.

SecretToohey’s historical survey brings the investigative journalist up against practised, dedicated liars in many fields. Since 2001, Australia has established a ‘security state’, something we used to associate with dictatorships. It is awash with funds, and still we’re told Australia is under increasing threat. Who is lying?

Secret’s sixty short chapters are packed into ten parts, dealing first with the establishment and growth of the Australian intelligence agencies. Toohey moves on to the contest between Whitlam and the United States, which Australia lost, and provides a retrospective on our long series of wars, the latest four of which we have lost, too. His concluding chapters point to the inevitable rise of China, India, and Indonesia and the relative decline of Australia, and warn that unless we change our ‘craven and servile’ adulation of US policy (the expression is Bill Hayden’s), nuclear cataclysm and environmental devastation are inevitable too.

Among the lies Toohey reveals is the long-perpetuated claim – dismissed by MI5’s Roger Hollis – that John Burton, head of External Affairs under Evatt, was in a ‘KGB spy ring’. Toohey recalls that Professor Des Ball revived the accusation in 2011, a year after Burton’s death, getting a key date and source wrong. Two Canberra lawyers, Ernst Willheim and Burton’s daughter, Pamela, pointed this out. Other Honest Historians cited by Toohey are Paul Daley and David Stephens.

That ASIO has taken advantage of its lying powers to the detriment of numerous Australians, Toohey shows, citing the case of Izhar ul-Haque, wrongly charged on ASIO evidence as a terrorist. The AFP case against another young doctor, Mohamed Haneef, against the advice of their British counterparts (and ASIO), also failed. Mamdouh Habib in 2001 was rendered and tortured by the CIA, with the knowledge of ASIO officers, and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay until 2005, when the US released him without charge. The Australian government paid him an undisclosed sum in 2010.

ASIS, on the other hand, Toohey reminds us, covertly conducted ‘Special Political Operations’ against President Sukarno in the early 1960s. It had agents working with the CIA in Chile before the overthrow and assassination of President Allende; Whitlam had them withdrawn. But in 1983 Attorney-General Gareth Evans told Parliament there was ‘no foundation whatsoever’ for any suggestion that Australian intelligence was in Chile ‘at or around the time of the coup’.

In the 1950s and 60s ASIS tried to ‘buy’ elections in Asia, and to recruit Colombo Plan students to spy on their governments after they returned home, a senior diplomat told Toohey’s colleague Bill Pinwill. Later, ASIS officers were given cover by the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) in Iraq, which paid almost $300 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein. That John Howard and some of his ministers didn’t know this beggars belief. There’s no doubt, however, that Foreign Minister Alexander Downer authorised ASIS (under David Irvine) with AusAID cover, to bug government offices in Dili in 2004 during negotiations with Australia about petroleum leases in the Timor Sea. Downer and others were rewarded for that by Woodside Petroleum.

Stylised image of people working in an officeASIO website

ASIO then got onto it (under its new head, David Irvine). In 2013 they seized documents and a passport from the solicitor for the ASIS officer who had led the operation, preventing him travelling to The Hague to give evidence in the Timor case against the Australian government. Both were prosecuted for breaching the Intelligence Services Act, even though the ASIS man, ‘Witness K’, had received permission from the Inspector-General of Intelligence to brief a recommended lawyer, Bernard Collaery. The case is under way now, in secret.

The development and use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) was illegal from 1925, although several countries persisted. Less widely known is Australia’s experimentation with mustard gas on volunteer soldiers during World War II. Toohey recalls that Nobel laureate, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, recommended in 1947 using chemical and biological weapons to spread disease and destroy crops in tropical but not Australian conditions. This would provide ‘the most effective counter-offensive’, Burnet wrote, against ‘invasion by over-populated Asian countries’. In 1950 he recommended introducing ‘an exotic intestinal pathogen’ into water supplies to achieve ‘widespread dissemination’.

Burnet’s successor in the late 1950s, Professor Sydney Sunderland, recommended CBW tests in Australia, with CIA finance. Australia’s interest in CBW research was not revealed until 1967, when Prime Minister Harold Holt claimed it was for ‘defence against chemical warfare’. In fact, the US proposal was for offence, and included trials of the nerve agent VX, to be sprayed from aircraft over a wide area of north Queensland. Menzies rejected that in 1965, but didn’t prevent Australia’s collaboration in using Agent Orange in Vietnam, which was covered up for years, as was its effect on Vietnamese and Australians.

On the British nuclear tests in Australia (1952-63) Toohey cites a lie from Menzies: ‘No conceivable injury to life, men, or property could emerge from the tests’. What were they testing for, then: the scenic effect? So why not in Scotland? D-notices prevented the Australian media asking these and other questions. The story, revealed by scientists and the McClelland Royal Commission, is replete with lies about fallout, injury to soldiers and Indigenous inhabitants, lack of security, spread of radiation, and incomplete remediation of the sites. Even the tests done on dead children’s remains from 1957 to 1978 were concealed from their parents until 2001. We have no figures for death or disablement resulting from the tests.

When the ALP achieved government in 1972, it was committed to renegotiate the agreements on three US bases in Australia, Northwest Cape, Pine Gap and Nurrungar. The deadline in December 1975 contributed to a build-up of tension between Canberra and in Washington, over and above what President Nixon and Prime Minister Whitlam thought of each other. Australian officials, unaccustomed to a Labor government, were more secretive than ever about the bases’ activities – communications with US hunter-killer submarines, space-warfare, and surveillance of other nations’ satellites. Australian ministers were not told by Tange that his department and the CIA ran Pine Gap. Not until much later did ministers know that, together with Menwith Hall in the UK, the base collects for the American NSA private data from almost every human and corporation on the planet. Under an American ‘chief of facility’ it supports US wars, and produces targeting data for US drone strikes which kill many civilians.

Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australia's overseas secret intelligence collection agency

Toohey cannot add much to what he and others have written about the dismissal of Whitlam. How it was done is a secret that died with Gough. But the book reveals many more lies. Toohey’s consistent message is that secrecy is predominantly used to preserve the power of the few, and to conceal embarrassing facts and government stuff-ups from us, the people who pay for it. Some official secrecy is necessary, he concedes, but it more often does harm than good.

©2019 Alison Broinowski

* Alison Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat. She was vice president of the Honest History association and is vice president of Australians for War Powers Reform. She has written many articles for Honest History (use our Search engine).

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