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'Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State'

By Warren Reed - posted Friday, 20 September 2019

Here's a book that couldn't be timelier.

Why? Because the anchors that keep free speech firmly fixed at the centre of our liberal democracy are inexorably drifting, or more correctly, being subjected to undue tug and pull.

For anyone who has worked in the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC), the motivation behind new legislation that limits free speech, some of it draconian, is readily understandable. It is not difficult to see why certain agencies seek new or extended powers, often to be locked into place to guard against contingencies. The driving force is there for all to see: a determination to avoid a repeat of the horrors of 9/11 in the United States, of the depravities of Islamic State, of home-grown terrorism, and of foreign espionage activity in, or aimed at Australia. The AIC's track record in protecting us from home-grown attacks in particular, is impressive, and we are all grateful for that.


But those who have worked in the AIC are also acquainted with another dimension of intelligence work. Not only can they assess these developments from both inside and out; they are also keenly aware of how human foibles sometimes run amok in the protected and rarefied atmosphere of our country's secret intelligence apparatus. It's like a huge hothouse where most plants from the tropics thrive, where the odd cactus flourishes, and other species either wither or turn into monstrosities. You have to have been in it to know how bad it can get. And, of course, it's a glasshouse that few people ever get close enough to, to throw a stone.

Why Toohey's new book is not only timely, but important, is because he holds a unique position in Australian journalism; he's been studying our intelligence community and the ways in which it interrelates to other agencies overseas, especially to our Five Eyes partners, for near on a half century. He's often had extraordinary access, by whatever means, to some of our most closely guarded secrets, including those shared with Australia. Over a decade ago, this writer was privileged to spend time with Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker in his Washington office, stacked high with a cornucopia of files and documents. When asked roughly what percentage of the material he came by, or that was leaked to him, saw publication, an expected answer was roughly twenty to thirty per cent. Just one- to one-and-a-half, he replied. Most of what comes my way, he explained, is to keep me in the picture so I know what to run with and what not. It's not so much to avoid me going off half-cocked. In our smaller Australian context, Toohey has taken on a status something like that. And, as with Hersh, not only does he know how to keep a secret, his judgement of whatever does come his way is informed by a healthy streak of cynicism.

Toohey is one of a bevy of top investigative journalists that Australia is lucky to have – names like Chris Masters, Hamish McDonald (ex-Sydney Morning Herald) and Ross Coulthart readily come to mind. They can sense something awry in our intelligence system like a well trained dog sniffs out truffles.

Why SECRET: The Making of Australia's Security State is important is because it's a creatively structured compendium of everything a reader needs to know to get a solid overview of where we've been with intelligence in Australia, where we are now, and the dangers that lurk up ahead. It comes in bite-sized chunks, some bigger and some smaller but all easy to read. There's enough history and back story to place everything in context. It's a mosaic that anyone can look at, whether aficionado or newcomer to this field, and pick out what's going on.

It strikes just the right balance. Few books on intelligence do that. Most are either turgid or simplistic. Many are didactic and heavily laced with the author's own political beliefs. Toohey, who's left-of-centre, let's you know what he thinks, but not in a way that obstructs the reader forming his or her own assessment of the events, characters, and successes and failures portrayed.

This is a book for thinking Australians who know that democracy isn't perpetuated by accident; it takes hard yakka. Ponder this wily definition from an unexpected quarter – Norman Mailer, the late American novelist. Addressing the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2003 he observed that:


Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries … [It] is a state of grace attained only by those countries that have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom, but to undergo the heavy labour to maintain it.

This is why the book should also be recommended reading for all state and federal politicians as well as bureaucrats.

If you're wavering over reading SECRET, ask yourself one simple question: apart from the harsh treatment dished out to scapegoats and whistleblowers, how convinced are you that anyone is ever punished for failure, or even treachery, inside our AIC? Don't rush for pen and paper to draw up a list. Can you remember the Haneef case in Queensland? He was the young Indian doctor on the Gold Coast who, in 2007 was arrested and charged with the "reckless" provision of material support for a terrorist group. As Toohey points out, shortly after the case began, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) recommended that the charges be dropped because of a lack of evidence. More than twelve months and $8.2 million later, the Australian Federal Police admitted Haneef was no longer a suspect.

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This is a review of SECRET: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey, Melbourne University Press, September 2019.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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