Brian Toohey begins his new book Secret with a deliciously revealing quote from Harold Thorby, Australian Minister for Defence in 1938: ‘We the Government have vital information which we cannot disclose. It is upon this knowledge that we make decisions. You, who are merely private citizens, have no access to this information. Any criticism you make of our policy, any controversy about it which you may indulge, will therefore be uninformed and valueless. If, in spite of your ignorance, you persist in questioning our policy, we can only conclude that you are disloyal.’
Secret: the Making of Australia’s Security State is a very timely reminder of how Australia has long since lost its capacity to think independently about defence and foreign policy issues. Toohey’s 60 article-length chapters are packaged into ten themes. They include the competence of our intelligence agencies, the secrecy of atomic tests, delusions about ANZUS, US fear and hatred of Whitlam, the emptiness of many of Australia’s sovereignty claims, the web of deceit surrounding most of the wars we fought and are still fighting, nuclear risks, and the rise of China, India and Indonesia.
Toohey is scathing about ASIO, ASIS, and the Australian Security Directorate. He dismisses the privileged access Australia is said to get from its membership of the Five-Eyes group of Anglo states, pointing out that the United States has equally secretive intelligence arrangements with dozens of other countries in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. He lists some of the major failures of our spy network, including failure to reveal the cohesion and determination of the Vietcong in South Vietnam, and the truth behind the ‘yellow rain’ fiasco in Laos and Cambodia (bee pollen not chemical weapons). He gives instances where the intelligence was accurate but politically unacceptable to Australian leaders. Most notorious in his view was John Howard’s refusal to accept intelligence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to Australia’s participation in the disastrous United States invasion in 2003.
Toohey exposes the fact that despite having signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing chemical and biological weapons, Australia, led by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Macfarlane Burnet, was a secret participant in the development of chemical and germ warfare agents.
On nuclear matters, Toohey recounts the secrecy surrounding Britain’s nuclear weapons tests at Emu Field and Maralinga, how among others, our two ‘nuclear knights’, Philip Baxter and Ernest Titterton lied about their radio-toxicity, and how ineffective were subsequent attempts to remove plutonium from the proving grounds where indigenous people lived.
Toohey puts Australia’s so-called assurance of protection under an American nuclear umbrella in the moral context of US nuclear war-fighting plans. He calls the US Single Integration Operational Plan (SIOP) an ‘exercise in depravity’. It envisaged a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union, with Moscow targeted by 400 nuclear warheads and Chinese cities by hundreds more, even if China was not involved as a Soviet ally.
Toohey recounts the duplicity and cover-up surrounding United States acquisition of bases in Australia. Beating his anti-Communist drum, Menzies agreed to the establishment of North West Cape to gain electoral advantage over Arthur Calwell in the December 1961 general elections. The Cape’s role to communicate with US hunter-killer submarines was later broadened to include space warfare. These activities were never spelt out to the Australian public, whose Parliamentary representatives remained incurious or ill-informed.
As they were about Pine Gap in Central Australia. Said to monitor the performance of Russian missiles, Pine Gap is fully integrated into the US military’s ‘kill chain’. It directs drones and missiles onto targets in the Middle East and elsewhere. As a CIA base, it can also invigilate all Australian telephone calls. It would be a prime target for Russian or Chinese nuclear missiles in the event of a nuclear war.
Toohey bluntly dispels the myths about ANZUS, which Australian politicians of both major parties regard as a guarantee of protection if we are attacked, providing we pay our dues by joining in America’s wars. During the Treaty’s negotiation in the early 1950s, Washington refused to add a security guarantee. Article 1 calls on the signatories to settle disputes by peaceful means according to the UN Charter, which outlaws the threat or use of force. If either party is attacked, their only obligation is to consult. Toohey’s take is that our willingness to host American bases is more important to Washington than the small contributions Australia repeatedly makes to its military adventures.
To many Australians, the Whitlam era was a bracing wind that dispelled timid and stale conservative thinking about Australia’s place in the world. Whitlam rejected apartheid, granted independence to PNG, helped scrap SEATO, abolished the remnants of White Australia, ended military conscription, abandoned forward defence and cut trade barriers. He wasn’t thanked by Washington. According to Toohey, President Nixon told his ambassador to Canberra Marshall Green, that he ‘couldn’t stand the cunt’. Green’s three main objectives in Canberra were to maintain US bases in Australia, keep Australia open to US investment, and get Australia to back the US position in international forums. Even with Whitlam, and despite Nixon’s opinion, he achieved all three. Toohey hints at US connivance in the untimely end to the Whitlam ministry, but makes no explicit assertions.
In several short chapters, Toohey describes areas in which he sees the erosion of Australian sovereignty. These include our tenuous claims to offshore islands and parts of Antarctica, constraints on the use of military equipment we buy from the United States, and in our judicial sovereignty. Far from getting the best military hardware in the world from America at cheap prices – a constant refrain from Canberra’s military commentators – Toohey asserts that we often pay top dollar and face inordinate delays for equipment, especially aircraft, the sensitive components of which must be sent back to America for servicing. They include Super Hornets, Growler cyber warfare planes, Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Wedgetail early-warning and control aircraft and Triton drones. The same will apply to Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightnings. Furthermore, US companies could refuse to service such aircraft if Washington disapproves of how Australia deploys them.
Toohey traces the history of Australian involvement in wars. Of thirteen to which we sent expeditionary forces, invariably under foreign commanders, only one, he claims, was fought in self-defence. That was in 1942 against Japan along the Kokoda Track and at Milne Bay. His accounts of how we became entangled in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are accurate.
Secret is especially relevant today, as Trump and his associates seem intent on dragging Australia yet again into a war, this time with Iran, a country that poses no threat to Australia and with which we have until now had good relations. It may be already be too late to recommend it as required reading to Ministers.
Richard Broinowski AO is a former diplomat and immediate past president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW