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In a new book, veteran journalist Brian Toohey argues that covert CIA operatives have worked in Australia for decades, something the government has long denied. By Karen Middleton.

CIA agents in Australia

A covert operative of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency conducted a secret affair with a senior Whitlam government minister who was of interest to America in the lead-up to the 1975 dismissal, according to a new book on the use and abuse of secrecy in Australia.

Journalist Brian Toohey writes that the woman was the spouse of a US official and worked at an Australian university while she was also undercover for the CIA.

Toohey reveals the alleged affair in his new book, Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, to be published next week by Melbourne University Press, to illustrate what he sees as a too-cosy relationship between Australian intelligence agencies and the CIA and too little Australian scrutiny of the pros and cons of the US alliance.

He writes that he confirmed the woman’s relationship with the then minister and, separately, her status as an undisclosed CIA officer, something he believes the minister did not know.

Toohey says it is unclear if her liaison with the now-deceased minister, whom he does not name, “related to her CIA job or was strictly recreational”; however, the minister was “of interest to the US”.

Toohey, one of Australia’s most credentialled journalists on national security and intelligence, has been writing in the field since 1972, when he left the office of then Labor defence minister Lance Barnard to become a journalist.

Toohey’s revelations about the clandestine affair form part of his book’s portrait – based on decades of interviews, archival material and leaked documents – of a country engaged in an unequal diplomatic and security relationship, too willing to accept US assurances about its activities both on Australian shores and abroad.

He writes that an officer of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), who became friends with the American couple, knew of the woman’s clandestine CIA role but did not notify ASIO’s director-general that she was a secret agent of a foreign power.

“His failure to do so illustrates the difficulties of relying on ASIO to conduct an effective counterintelligence operation against its dominant partner,” Toohey writes. “It also demonstrates why there is no reason to believe ASIO assurances that there are no undeclared CIA officers in Australia.”

Toohey takes issue with similar assurances contained in the three-volume official history of ASIO, which suggests there is little evidence that covert CIA agents have been active in Australia.

He alleges that while governments – and the media – have focused on the dangers of agents from countries such as Russia and China, US agents have had more influence.

His book arrives in the shadow of hearings at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption into allegations that the NSW Labor Party received potentially illegal cash donations from billionaire Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo.

Toohey alleges that, historically, the CIA engaged in funding both the Liberal and National parties, whose policies they favoured.

Toohey has long raised questions about the CIA’s covert influence in Australia, publishing correspondence revealing the agency’s uneasiness with Gough Whitlam as prime minister and suggesting it played a role in his dismissal.

He believes CIA involvement was a factor – although not the only one – in governor-general Sir John Kerr’s decision to terminate Whitlam’s commission and spark a constitutional crisis.

Toohey’s book, which traverses the years of his own national security reporting, also examines the erosion of civil liberties in Australia – especially since the US terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – and the increasing use of secrecy as a weapon.

He says the book aims to provide a counter-narrative to the official accounts of Australia’s war fighting and the role of its intelligence services and foreign bases. It devotes considerable attention to the role of those US bases, at Nurrungar in South Australia, now closed; North-West Cape in Western Australia; and Pine Gap in the central desert.

Toohey lays out details of Whitlam’s displeasure at discovering, contrary to US assurances, that Pine Gap was being run by the CIA, not the US Defense Department.

He revisits and elaborates on a time line featuring the US’s 1975 concerns that Whitlam might be planning to terminate the agreement governing the Pine Gap base. The agreement had been signed in 1966 and a decision to either renew or terminate with a year’s notice was due by December 10, 1975.

Toohey writes that Whitlam had planned to stand up in parliament and formally reveal the CIA’s role at Pine Gap on November 11, 1975 – something overtaken by his dismissal.

He argues that, for all the sentiment around the Australia–US alliance, America’s primary interest in Australia has been as a base for covert CIA activities, using its monitoring facilities, and for its increasingly overt regional military presence, in recent years via US Marine rotations in Darwin.

In a position long dismissed by the security establishment, he questions why Australia persistently goes to war at the behest of or in support of the US when it is not always in Australia’s direct interests.

His intervention comes just a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia would join the US, Britain and Bahrain in a maritime protection force in the Middle East’s Strait of Hormuz, seen as part of a US strategy to put pressure on Iran.

Based on archival documents reaching back to Korea, Vietnam, the world wars and earlier, Toohey lays out what he argues is a pattern of Australian acquiescence to US and other interests – sometimes with its leaders conceding as much. He notes the US has refused previous Australian requests for support, including from then prime minister John Howard when violence broke out in post-independence East Timor in 1999.

He also notes that the ANZUS treaty that underpins the alliance does not actually bind either country to assist the other, contrary to popular belief.

“I can see the arguments for getting out of it, the arguments [the late former prime minister] Malcolm Fraser made in his book,” Toohey told The Saturday Paper this week. “New Zealand hasn’t suffered by being out of it.”

But he said, primarily, Australia and the US would be better served by adhering properly to article 1 of the treaty. Article 1 says the parties must undertake to settle any international disputes “by peaceful means” and refrain from threatening the use of force in any way inconsistent with the United Nations charter.“I’d like people to go back – both countries – to obeying article 1,” Toohey says.

He accuses Australia and its allies of double standards in opposing other countries’ activities – such as electronic espionage – while undertaking similar activities themselves.

An example is in the prosecution currently under way in secret hearings of a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agent turned whistleblower, Witness K, and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, over the disclosure that Australia bugged the Timorese cabinet room during Timor Gap negotiations.

Toohey says the growing Australian culture of secrecy is distorting knowledge of its history, allowing nationalist sentiment to flourish and causing the subjugation of Australia’s genuine interests to those of its bigger allies.

“Secrecy often hides incompetence and rewards conformity,” Toohey writes.

He argues that while it has a legitimate place, secrecy is increasingly used to dismantle civil liberties and entrench government power, reaching far beyond the usual justification of fighting terrorism.

“State-enforced secrecy in the name of national security increasingly covers up war crimes, phoney intelligence, abuses of power, incompetence, folly and hugely wasteful spending,” he writes.

“Too often new laws make it legal for governments to take actions that would be illegal if done by corporations or individuals, including breaking and entering, assault, electronic eavesdropping and stealing computer hard drives.”

A slew of new national security laws – 75 since September 11, 2001 – have expanded Australian agencies’ remit, allowed them to bypass traditional restrictions or undermined civilian protections by permitting the passing of information to other countries’ agencies, including the CIA, which are not similarly restricted.

Toohey is not against espionage. He argues it can help avoid accidental escalation and prevent wars by providing information that “convinces each side that the other has no aggressive intentions”.

But he warns that agencies – and successive governments – are overreaching with increasingly draconian security legislation and policing practices that undermine democratic values and criminalise public-interest journalism.

“No major political party is offering to restore the values of the earlier era, when habeas corpus prevailed, the onus of proof was on the prosecution, the accused was allowed to see the evidence relied on by the Crown and ASIO officials could not legally kidnap people, or raid a lawyer’s offices and seize documents in a commercial case in which the government was part of the opposing side,” Toohey writes.

Fostering public support for the work of intelligence and law enforcement agencies featured at the yearly conference of Australia’s spy association, the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers, in Sydney last week.

Made under Chatham House rules, contributions are not attributable to individual speakers, who included the head of the Office of National Intelligence, Nick Warner, and the chairman of the Foreign Investment Review Board, former head of ASIO and ASIS David Irvine.

Summary notes provided to The Saturday Paper show speakers emphasised the continuing value in agencies collaborating and sharing information securely but also the need for greater transparency and accountability in relation to sources of information.

They also discussed the need to ensure artificial intelligence enhanced – but did not replace – the work of human agents and analysts and that technology ensured compliance with legal and privacy obligations.

Brian Toohey’s book emphasises the dangers in uncontested intelligence and the risk that it can be manipulated, confected or retrofitted to match the policy position of a government that wants, for example, to go to war.

Toohey says that to “keep Australians safe” – regularly cited as a primary objective of every prime minister – governments should “avoid participating in wars that pose no specific threat to Australia”. He adds a caveat: helping out a country invaded by another.

Toohey points to both history and the rising tensions between China and the US as evidence Australia should not assume the US will offer its protection and backing in circumstances where the two countries’ interests may not coincide.

His bottom line on Australia–US relations is that the junior partner should prostrate itself less often.“Instead of fumbling for a non-existent security blanket,” he writes, “a little dignity wouldn’t go astray.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Secrets and ties". Subscribe here.

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