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American secrets

Sep 4, 2019 • 14m53s

As Brian Toohey releases his major book on national security in Australia, he reveals that American spies have been working here without detection.

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American secrets

72 • Sep 4, 2019

American secrets

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

As longtime reporter Brian Toohey releases his major book on national security in Australia, he reveals that American spies have been working here without detection. Karen Middleton on secrecy and the state of the US alliance.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So Karen, Brian Toohey is a reporter, he's covered national security for more than four decades in Australia. You've seen an advanced copy of this new book he’s put out, it’s called Secret: the making of Australia's security state and one part of his reporting is the presence of CIA operatives working undetected in Australia.

KAREN:

Yes that's right. He makes the point that there have been undercover CIA operatives working in Australia for some decades and Australia hasn't really acknowledged this very much.

ELIZABETH:

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

KAREN:

And another piece of evidence that he presents as possibly linked to that is the story of a woman who was, he says, an undeclared CIA operative in Australia in the early 1970s. He says she was married to an American official but she was working for an Australian university and that she had an affair with a senior Whitlam government minister who he describes as being “of interest” to the United States. Now he makes the point that he doesn't know whether the affair was recreational or part of her work, although it would be in the pattern of these things for it to be part of her work. But he says that he confirmed with the minister involved that the affair took place but he separately confirmed that this woman was in fact a quite senior undercover operative for the CIA and that he doesn't believe the minister was actually aware of that. And of course he says he didn't tell him.

ELIZABETH:

And that minister is now deceased.

KAREN:

That minister is now deceased and he doesn't want to name the minister involved. He raises questions about whether or not ASIO has really gone looking for these people at all or tried to push back.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm. And the Australian Government and sort of Australia's security architecture don't seem to have been aware of this at the time?

KAREN:

Well he raises questions about the three volume official history of ASIO that's been published here in Australia that has downplayed the suggestion that covert CIA agents have been active in Australia. He explains that an ASIO officer that he knew became friends with the American couple and that this officer knew of the woman's clandestine role in the CIA but didn't notify ASIO’s director general about it, didn't tell the director general that she was the secret agent of a foreign power. He says this is making that bigger point that the fact that the agent didn't pass this information on, raises questions about whether or not ASIO is really willing to investigate agencies that it considers as friendly agencies even when they might be engaged in nefarious activity that might not be in Australia's interests.

ELIZABETH:

So he's saying Australia's not sufficiently critical of the United States and that we need to maintain that despite the alliance that we've historically held?

KAREN:

That's right. He thinks the relationship can be a bit too cozy sometimes between the intelligence agencies here in Australia and the CIA and he generally thinks that there's too little scrutiny from Australia's side about the pros and cons of the alliance with the United States. He’s suggesting that it's an unequal diplomatic and security relationship and that we're a bit too willing to accept the US's assurances about what it's been doing in Australia and abroad.

[Music starts]

KAREN:

Brian Toohey has long believed, based on the research he did back in the 1970s and since, that the CIA was involved in putting pressure on to have the Whitlam Government removed in 1975.

There was a sequence of events in close proximity to November 11, 1975. There were things going on in relation to Gough Whitlam, the then prime minister's relationship with the CIA and with the US government that were happening at the same time as the blocking of supply.

Archival tape — Unidentified Male interviewer #1:

“...so must Sir John Kerr accept your advice, whatever your advice is—”

Archival tape — Unidentified Male interviewee #1:

“—unquestionably. The Governor-General takes his advice from his Prime Minister and from no-one else.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Male interviewer #1:

“And must act on that advice?

Archival tape — Unidentified Male interviewee #1:

“Unquestionably. The Governor-General must act on the advice from his Prime Minister.”

KAREN:

And the concern in Britain about the way the Australian government was behaving. These things all preceded the dismissal by the Governor-General of Gough Whitlam and his government.

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader #1:

“...then came Remembrance day, Nov 11, 1975. After meetings with both leaders the Governor-General announced that he was dismissing Mr Whitlam and appointing Mr. Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister until a general election decided the issue.”

KAREN:

In fact Gough Whitlam was due, Bryan Toohey says, to get up in Parliament on November 11 and make the point that he had discovered that the Pine Gap US base in Central Australia was not in fact being operated by the US Defence Department as he had been assured but by the CIA. Now he never made that declaration in the Parliament because he was dismissed that day.

Archival tape — Unidentified male #1:

“Well may we say, God save the Queen....[cheers]...because nothing will save the Governor-general…..[cheers]”

[Music ends]

KAREN:

But Brian Toohey says that the events leading up to that point and some of the back and forth between him and the US government indicate very clearly, the US was unhappy with Gough Whitlam as prime minister, was much more favorably disposed towards Malcolm Fraser and the coalition. And Brian Toohey is of the view that this was a factor, he doesn't say it was the only factor, but he believes it was a factor in the dismissal.

[Music starts]

There are others in the political realm who dispute this theory think it's a conspiracy and think it's laughable. But he does present interesting evidence in terms of a timeline of these events and documentation that shows that certainly the American government were uneasy about Gough Whitlam and his general direction of government. And he makes the point then that this was a, he believes, a factor.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Karen, after 40 years of reporting in this area Brian Toohey’s released this, essentially his magnum opus on national security in Australia. What does he make of our present situation?

KAREN:

Well he raises concerns about the extent of secrecy in Australia. He lays out evidence of the increase of secrecy in recent decades and particularly since September 11, 2001 when there were the terrorist attacks on the United States.

He points to that as a moment in time that has seen a steep increase in national security legislation, 75 separate pieces of legislation in Australia since that time. And although most of it is dressed up as being about fighting terrorism a lot of it isn't and he says that civil liberties have been dispensed with and that Australians should be concerned about the erosion of some of our own democratic institutions and values and the rise of both the power of our security agencies, and including intelligence agencies, and the extent to which they can operate with impunity and in secret. And he says that this is damaging to our traditional democratic values and that we should be more vigilant about it.

ELIZABETH:

Where does he see our relationship with the US at present?

KAREN:

Well he raises questions about the alliance and the benefits of it. He suggests that Australia should stand up to the US more frequently. Any any queries Australia's willingness to join the US in in conflicts overseas. And he makes the point that we have a treaty with the US, ANZUS treaty, that's the security treaty, and that most Australians tend to think that that would guarantee that the US would come to Australia's aid in times of trouble. But in fact he points out that there's nothing really in the text of that agreement to guarantee that. And in fact when Australia has asked the US to back it in conflict situations it hasn't always said yes. He points back to 20 years ago in East Timor and he says that Australia under John Howard asked for the United States to help when there was an outbreak of violence post the independence vote in East Timor and the US declined. And he says that will often be the case that there will be differing interests and we shouldn't always jump when the US asks us to because they won't always jump when we need them in return.

ELIZABETH:

And is this more critical view of our alliance with the US widely shared?

KAREN:

Successive Australian governments have argued, and will argue, that it's in Australia's interests to go when the US wants us to go that we are a smaller power and that we have a greater chance of getting a positive response from the US when we need one, if we're willing to help out. So in some respects, they would argue that are looking at a bigger picture and saying well Australia needs to be willing to help and be a good ally to the US, but there are others who are in the Brian Toohey camp who say well what does it guarantee us, is it a good idea and are we actually undercutting our interests by damaging our relations with other countries; if you were to look at the example of the Middle East and the Strait of Hormuz it's Iran that the US is really focused on there.

Australia has diplomatic ties with Iran, it has an embassy in Iran that's very important and there are questions being asked about whether or not we're actually undermining that important relationship with Iran by being willing to take provocative action in the Strait of Hormuz.

ELIZABETH:

And does he offer in his book any kind of, I suppose, suggestions for how we might reset that relationship with the United States?

KAREN:

Well he he talks about the way we manage our diplomatic relationships generally and certainly in relation to our willingness to go to war. He seems to be in the camp of those who believe that there should be broader consideration of the factors at play before Australia decides to go to war. Brian Toohey points to Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty which talks about trying to solve diplomatic concerns by peaceful means.

He suggests that we've kind of ignored that both Australia and the United States and that we're all too ready to leap into conflict rather than looking for a peaceful or diplomatic solution and he says, for a start, he thinks it would be good if both countries paid more heed to Article 1 and it says that you really should look for peaceful means first up and then if you end up with other means they should be in line with the UN Charter.

ELIZABETH:

And back to his larger point Karen about about a culture of secrecy in Australia. What does Toohey mean by that and what is it that he's particularly critical of in pointing out that we haven't checked closely enough the culture of secrecy rising in this country?

KAREN:

Well interestingly he does say that there's a place for espionage, for example, because he says that can actually be helpful if other countries have got spies in your country, sometimes because it can help to de-escalate a conflict and avoid misunderstandings so if people can report back that things are not as they may appear on the outside you can actually avoid things leaping to the conflict stage.

But he does also point out the dangers of a culture of secrecy. And he says that it's potentially distorting our knowledge of our own history because we're not allowed to know what really happened. Things are kept secret and protected much more than they used to be, that risks allowing kind of populism or nationalist sentiment to flourish because politicians can affect what people know, how much they know and it allows for more political spin than we might have seen in the past. And it can see the genuine subjugation of our interests for the interests of other powers in other countries and he says that that is what he's concerned about when we're not allowed to know precisely what's going on that. There's a case for protecting some things but with the blanket of secrecy has been thrown far too widely as is brought in to his argument.

[Music starts]

I suppose one of the great ironies in Australia's culture of secrecy how and how it relates to our relationship with the United States is that the US actually has far more openness in terms of the public's right to know and freedom of speech than Australia does. They've got it protected by constitutional amendments, by a Bill of Rights and there is a sense in the US that people are entitled to know certain things whereas here in Australia we don't have that same culture. And I think it's been getting worse not better. And so in some respects in pursuing that relationship with the US, the land of the free so-called, we're becoming more secretive than ever.

ELIZABETH:

Karen thank you so much.

KAREN:

Thanks Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

In finance, the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday reported that retail sales fell by 0.1% in July despite the predictions of some analysts, who had expected to see a rise in retail spending after the government's tax cuts began to reach consumers from mid-July onwards. This fall is likely to be reflected in lower GDP figures than expected, which will be released today. The Australian dollar also fell below 67 US cents yesterday, a ten year low, before rebounding.

And on Tuesday afternoon, the Reserve Bank voted to hold the cash rate at 1%. The RBA governor Phillip Lowe said that uncertainty generated by international trade disputes had seen businesses scale back their spending, and he signalled an extended period of low interest rates in order to reduce unemployment numbers and meet the inflation target — the former held steady at 5.2% and the latter is predicted to be just under 2% in 2020.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

[Theme music ends]

As Brian Toohey releases his major book on national security in Australia, he reveals that American spies have been working here without detection. Karen Middleton on secrecy and the state of the alliance.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading:

CIA agents in Australia in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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natsec nationalsecurity auspol whitlam us cia




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72: American secrets