Politics and Intelligence in Australia
Justin T McPhee
Clayton, Vic: Monash University Publishing,
Paperback 272pp RRP $34.95
Reviewer: Bruce Brown, July 2021
One of the most contentious and ongoing issues confronting liberal democracies is the relationship between politicians and their national intelligence agencies. In theory, intelligence agencies are designed to provide political-neutral information to help governments frame appropriate policies to protect the national interest rather than their own political agenda. But as Justin McPhee establishes in this fascinating and readable book, the Australian experience since federation has been replete with instances where this classic model has gone amiss.
Not all intelligence advice, for example, is necessarily accurate. In 2003 the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition including Australia was premised on intelligence that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction. Two years later, President George W Bush admitted that the intelligence was flawed.
More importantly, McPhee cites many instances as far back as 1901 when politicians have manipulated intelligence for a political outcome. During World War I Billy Hughes used intelligence information to discredit the anti-conscriptionist movement. In the early Cold War years post World War II, there were concerns about how secure the information was derived from top secret cables between Moscow and its embassies. This ultimately led to the creation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 1949. The following year, in 1950, Menzies used intelligence to show the need for the Communist Party Dissolution Bill.
In 1954 the dramatic defection of Vladimir Petrov established ASIO’s reputation, but left-wing critics increasingly suspected links between ASIO and the conservative political parties. In 1966 during the Vietnam War Malcolm Fraser as Minister for the Army used intelligence to attack a mother and son for their opposition to conscription and the war
Fast forward to the Iraq war during which McPhee (p 195) argues:
‘At the very least, intelligence was cherry-picked and publicly disclosed to promote the necessity for invasion, as well as to persuade a sceptical audience - the Australian public - of the wisdom of such a volatile and disputed policy measure and to discredit opposition to that policy.’
McPhee also cites a period during the Cold War when ASIO pursued its own agenda using media organisations as well as bringing pressure to bear on the newly-elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1972 to have his personal staff vetted by ASIO.
Spinning the Secreta of State blends excellent scholarship with a very readable narrative. It will satisfy both the academic and general reader.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.