Traitors and Spies

Espionage and Corruption in High Places in Australia, 1901-50


John Fahey

Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2020

Paperback  448pp   RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Bruce Brown, June 2021


In March 2021 Mike Burgess the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) presented a ‘Threat Assessment for Australia’ which included an observation that, under his watch, he wanted ‘to make ASIO more open and transparent’. Established in 1949 the modern professional ASIO is a far cry from the haphazard way Australia’s internal security interests were defined and managed from 1901. John Fahey has meticulously researched the pre-ASIO years and provides some significant revelations.

In 1901 the imperative was to establish an effective security intelligence system to police the Immigration Restriction Act. The focus was to identify and remove non-white residents. During the conscription campaigns of 1916-17 Billy Hughes established the Commonwealth Counter Espionage Bureau, a very small security intelligence group to spy on senior military officers, his Cabinet colleagues, and members of his own party. Security intelligence was gathered by military authorities, including the Defence Department and the Navy, and later from 1919, by the Investigation Branch of the federal Attorney-General’s Department.

Fahey documents the role played by the military and special branches of the state police forces during the inter-war years. Of particular interest is Fahey’s study of the NSW Police force and the rise to prominence of William John MacKay, who famously pulled Francis de Groot off his horse at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, and as Commissioner influenced the creation of the Subversive Organisation’s Bureau which was ‘the largest and most effective of the many security intelligence organisations operating in Australia at the time’. It accrued records on more than 40 000 NSW citizens.

Fahey devotes a lengthy section on the rise to prominence in Queensland of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Frederick Wake. In the wake of hysteria about Japan’s entry in the war Wake led a crackdown on Italian cane growers and imprisoned a large number - leading to shortages of sugar and hardship for the families. Wake incurred the ire of senior US figures when they discovered that Wake was using prostitutes to seduce and gather information from US officers stationed at Queensland bases.

In 1946 Soviet espionage activities were highlighted by the defection of Igor Lourenco, a cypher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Canada. Gouzenko’s revelations, US unease and British government pressure eventually encouraged Chifley’s Labor government to create ASIO. a civilian-controlled security intelligence service, governed by legislation. In this regard Fahey pays tribute to John Dedman who overcame Chifley’s doubts about the new service to see it established in negotiation with Britain’s MI5.

John Fahey’s attention to detail is apparent throughout the book. In sum, he has researched and written a significant and readable book which will satisfy both the historically minded cognoscenti as well as the general reader.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

Traitors and Spies.png