The Whitlam Institute mightn’t seem an obvious place to have an exhibition about spies. But I think it is. Not that it’s a spy agency (if it were, it would have a budget many multiples greater than it has), but because of the driving idea in what it does: democracy, in our society and our history. And spies have a lot to do with democracy – defending it, sometimes perverting it. And there’s more, connected with the Whitlam story. Whitlam wasn’t a spy, either. He was in fact a man more spied against than spying. But, more than any other Australian Prime Minister, he took on the spy agencies, ours and the Americans’, in the service of democracy and good governance.
In Australia, we have no national standing museum, as some countries do, to educate people about the role of espionage and intelligence agencies, their triumphs and their transgressions. So this exhibition, if not permanent, fills a national gap. We must thank the National Archives for mounting it and the Whitlam Institute for hosting it.
And the exhibition does our democracy a great service. Because once we get past our fascination with the tradecraft, and the mystery and allure of the spy game in the retrospective fact or the romanticised fiction by which we mostly know it, there are questions to be asked and judgments to be made about the intelligence profession, in our history and in today’s Australia. In a democratic society, it’s important that the public know who their spy agencies are, and what they do, and how they justify that, and that these agencies be open to scrutiny, rigorous oversight, and challenge. This exhibition invites reflection about those matters, and encouragement to public discussion.
Espionage and the role of spy agencies is of course a contested subject. I am one who believes in an honourable role for spy agencies in a democratic society, as did Whitlam, notwithstanding his famous confrontations with and sensational sacking of the head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, or ASIS. I also believe that the great majority of people working in our intelligence agencies do so with real commitment to serving the public and the national interest, some of them at great risk to their own lives. There is moral justification in what these agencies are asked to do, in the interests of national security, and above all in the challenge of preventing or curtailing war – witness the many occasions on which spies have done so since the beginning of recorded history.
I’m reminded of this in the 1980s case recently exhumed by Ben McIntyre in his book, The Spy and the Traitor.” For those who haven’t read it yet, it narrates in graphic and at times heart-stopping, not-put-down-able, non-fiction the work of Soviet double agent Anton Gordievsky, and includes at one point his crucial part in preventing nuclear war between the paranoid Soviet leader and fantasist Yuri Andropov, and the America of Ronald Reagan.
You might say being a double agent doesn’t sound so honourable, and that is more often than not the case. But for Gordievsky, he did it not for money or prostitutes or a nice life in the Caribbean. He did it because, from what he saw of the Soviet system from the inside and its oppression in Eastern Europe, he came to reject it, utterly. He was in his terms honourable, and acknowledged as such by his British handlers. It reminds me of those lines from Tennyson about the love-conflicted knight Sir Lancelot, lines I was taught in English grammar lessons at school to illustrate the figure of speech known as oxymoron.
“His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”
Tennyson, Lancelot and Elaine
That captures the paradox of the idealistic double agent.
But here’s another angle. There have been spies in our own history who might have savoured that paradox as applicable to themselves, in a rather different way; who have thought it proper and even honourable to place loyalty to their secrets and to themselves, and their service and their intelligence colleagues at home and abroad, above loyalty to their government and the Australian people. That’s not an idea we should countenance. Not in a democratic society.
This issue actually confronted Whitlam as Prime Minister, and it’s a pretty amazing story in the history of Australian espionage. In 1972, before Whitlam’s election, his Liberal Party predecessor Billie McMahon had agreed to an ASIS request to put two special operatives into Chile at the behest of the American CIA, working to undermine the government of Salvador Allende. But ASIS, it seems, was unimpressed by the election of a Labor government in December 1972, to which one would have thought they might believe they were responsible. For nearly four months, the Head of ASIS, Bill Robertson, concealed from Whitlam that he had agents in Chile. It was only because the authorisation for this operation from McMahon was about to expire that Robertson disclosed it to Whitlam. But not with the intent of fronting up and saying this is what we’ve been up to and it’s over. He actually asked for an extension, for these agents to continue working for the overthrow of a democratically elected, democratic socialist and for Labor fraternal, government! I had dinner with Whitlam at this time, and his rage was volcanic. But in response to Whitlam’s refusal of his request, Robertson went on to defy his orders to close the operation down, and left the agents in place for another two months and the Head of the ASIS station in Chile for another six.
Two years later, at the time of the crisis in Portuguese Timor and the murder there of five Australian journalists, Whitlam learnt that ASIS had misled Foreign Minister Willesee into believing it had no agents in Timor when it had, causing Willesee in turn to mislead the Senate, and also endangering Australian negotiations and personnel. At this point Whitlam summarily dismissed Robertson, in voice, according to his biographer Jenny Hocking, “so thunderous that those present still recalled it with trepidation years later”.
Wherever Robertson believed ASIS’s loyalty lay, he seems not to have thought it was with the elected government of the day, or perhaps even with any elected Australian government. I don’t know how he reconciled this with the duty and the obligation to ethical behaviour of a public servant.
We may wonder why Whitlam didn’t sack him immediately after the Chile episode. Well, he did act, but with something different and far more consequential. In August 1974, he established the Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security. The trigger for this was the objection by US and Australian security agencies to the appointment of Jim Cairns as Deputy Prime Minister, and the attempt to de-rail the appointment by the leaking, in this case by ASIO, to a favoured journalist, The Bulletin’s Peter Samuel, of a dossier claiming Cairns’ socialism “bears a striking resemblance to that promoted by the Communist Party of Australia.”
That may have been the trigger, but Whitlam was after something more fundamental, a reconstruction of the entire intelligence system. Hope’s report, although adopted by Malcolm Fraser, with Whitlam’s support, was an extraordinary milestone in the history of Australian government. Allan Gyngell, former head of the Office of National Assessments, has said of it: “When we talk about Whitlam’s legacy, this has always seemed to me to be one of his overlooked achievements.” Gyngell says: “No other action by an Australian government has had such an important and lasting impact on the principles and structure of the Australian intelligence agencies. …. The principles for how intelligence agencies should operate in a democracy were created by Hope from scratch. There was (still is),” he wrote in 2019, “nothing else like it in other parts of the world.”
Whitlam’s clashes with these agencies are of course history, but there’s a cautionary tale in them for the business of espionage today – the intelligence and security agencies, the people who oversee them, the ministers who direct them, and the public. Why? Because the agencies’ powers have been constantly expanding, the division between them and policy makers in some other government agencies and in ministerial national security meetings is blurring, the relationship between the regulator and the regulated is perceived as insufficiently arms-length, security legislation is becoming more protective and more punitive in intent, and in the political debate about China’s influence in Australia, dark tales of the alleged existence of unnamed hundreds, or thousands, of PRC spies and agents of influence are being fed to willing journalists and propagandists, with almost no evidence adduced. We have not known anything like this since the heights of the Cold War and the Vietnam Hot War. In 1973, in ASIS Whitlam confronted not just Cold War thinking, but the idea of service in the cause of the US imperial design. Imperial?, some might ask. Salvador Allende was hardly a threat to the United States and like Jim Cairns he wasn’t even a communist.
Then there’s the question of trust, and the honouring or dishonouring of it. Virtually all government agencies have a proprietary attitude to their information. It’s why we introduced freedom of information laws. But secret agencies are accorded an exceptional degree of trust, because we’re not meant to know their secrets and even ministers are supposed to be informed only on a ‘need to know’ basis. That’s fine, but it carries with it an exceptional obligation for ethical behaviour on their part. Both in what they tell ministers, and in refraining from using the mystery of their secrets for political purposes. But we have evidence of such use in recent times, in explicit statements by agency heads seeking to persuade senior business people to a particular political view of China, without information or elaboration, with the words “if you knew what we know, you wouldn’t be saying what you are”. And evidence also in the more opaque selective briefings by some agencies and some ministers to their own ‘agents of influence’, to promote public airing of stories with clear political intent. Whether it’s agencies or ministers, for a healthy democracy such practice ought to be unacceptable.
Then there’s the question of oversight. As Richard McGregor, an America- and China-watcher at the Lowy Institute has recently written: in the US, “With special courts to oversee wiretap warrants and powerful congressional committees which can grill spy chiefs, in public as well as in private, the US system is subject to multiple forms of oversight. In Australia, the system has expanded, but meaningful oversight has not, a recipe for disaster when public trust is at stake.”
There’s also a caution about whether the agencies might act at the behest or at least in the interests of a foreign power. It is widely understood that the dynamic of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance has created a culture of loyalty to its own, in which the United States is predominant. Now, China, for example, presents huge problems for us all, as I elaborated here in this Institute in the Whitlam Oration in 2017. But, while denying China regional influence and thwarting its technological advance may be seen in Washington as in America’s interest, it is not in ours. The Five Eyes, however, appear to be in harmony with Washington on this intent.
But the most important cautionary tale is that of ministerial authority, and responsibility. Even someone of Whitlam’s deep knowledge of government, and his willingness to assail the allegedly unassailable, for example in his famous dictum ‘crash through or crash’, did not immediately call Robertson out, dismiss him, and assert his prime ministerial authority and the principle that policy is the minister’s to determine, not public servants’ – for spies are no more than public servants, we must remember, and so must they.
We know too well the ‘Sir Humphrey’ phenomenon, in which a departmental head will ‘spin’ information, or conceal or massage it to play to a minister’s foibles but serve their own purposes. This is potentially a lot more tempting, and a lot more easy, when you deal in secrets and the principle of ‘need to know’. In the contemporary Canberra scene, intelligence agencies, or the whole apparatus that is sometimes known as the security community, is pushing into areas of government, policy and politics that we might not have expected and might not think right if we knew more about it. It is responsible and proper for us to be sceptics. But it is difficult for the public to call out because the public knows so little about it and may even take the whole apparatus on trust. The lesson of Whitlam and ASIS is that ministers should not.
Eisenhower warned famously of the military-industrial complex. But we know from other times and places what happens when a security complex gains primacy in the influencing of government institutions and policy directions and decisions. In todays’ Australia, however, we have seen ministers who appear to revel in their access to intelligence and use and abuse it, even raw, untested intelligence, for blatant political purposes.
This is more dangerous for our democracy than any infraction by a particular intelligence agency or individual.
Ministers in this or whatever government follows the forthcoming election, must be urged to marshal their scepticism and summon their fortitude – for it takes tough-mindedness – and interrogate the intelligence presented to them, forgo the temptation to unethical use of it for personal or political advantage, and push back any inclination to the securitisation of Australian government and policy.
I say all this not in denial of intelligence agencies but in defence of them, in a proper, rigorously oversighted, ethical, and honourable role, for a secure democratic Australia, a role I welcome and support. In the expectation that most who visit this exhibition will also have or come to a similar view, I am very pleased to declare it launched.
Professor Fitzgerald was Australia’s first Ambassador to the Peoples Republic of China.