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My review of THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FIVE EYES. Ross Fitzgerald

29 March 2023 No Comment



By Richard Kerbaj.

Blink Publishing

RRP $34.99

Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald


The Sydney Institute Review, 29 March 2023, Issue 25

By Richard Kerbaj.
Blink Publishing
RRP $34.99

Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald

Recently released in the United Kingdom, Richard Kerbaj’s, ‘The Secret History of The Five Eyes: The untold story of the international spy network’ is a fascinating account of the Western world’s most powerful, but perhaps least understood, intelligence alliance.

Shrouded in secrecy since its formation in 1956, and only publicly known since 2010, it comprises the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Created during the early days of the Cold War, the Five Eyes was unique in having all member nations share with each other extremely intimate information, especially about their enemies.

Award-winning journalist and documentary-maker, Richard Kerbaj was the security correspondent for the Sunday Times from 2010 to 2020. Before that, he worked for The Times as a foreign correspondent, and also for The Australian. The Secret History of the Five Eyes, his first book, is a brilliantly revealing analysis of Western intelligence operations and of spy-craft in general.

As a result of detailed historical research, and on the record interviews with a number of prime ministers and other world leaders, plus more than 100 former and current intelligence officials who were or are direct participants in this five-nation collaboration, Kerbaj explores the various complex personalities who helped shape the Five Eyes.

Although this large, well-illustrated and usefully indexed book also deals with failure, discord, disharmony and occasional disingenuousness, Kerbaj correctly argues that despite being dominated by its founders America and Britain, especially the former, there are few multi-lateral institutions that have lasted so long. He explains that, unlike NATO, which has often expanded its membership base, “the Five Eyes has maintained its exclusivity since its creation.” Despite some major lapses, it has largely been effective.

Kerbaj draws from deep inside the corridors of power of all five member countries. A crucial participant was Sir Iain Lobban, GCHQ (the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters) chief during Edward Snowden’s infamous leaking of key documents. Snowden was the NSA (the US National Security Agency) contractor who exposed the global spying operations of the Five Eyes. This led to multiple investigations into government surveillance programmes, and acrimonious debates about personal privacy.

Another key interviewee was British official Ciaran Martin, who oversaw assessments about whether Chinese telecoms firm, Huawei, should play a leading role in the creation of the UK’s 5G network. As Kerbaj documents, Snowden’s leaks and the Huawei decision both caused the Five Eyes a great deal of angst and trouble. Intriguingly, this fine book explains that it was Australian officials who sought to persuade all member nations to exclude any Chinese entities from the establishment of such networks.

Other key participants interviewed for this so-called ‘secret history’ were former senior intelligence operatives such as CIA director General David Petraeus; MI5 director-general Eliza Manningham-Buller; National Security Agency director Admiral Mike Rogers; British National Security Advisor Kim Darroch; Canada’s Security Intelligence Service’s head Richard Fadden; and current ASIO chief Mike Burgess, who also ran Australia’s key SIGINT organisation.

In his Acknowledgements, Kerbaj thanks Australian writers Robert Manne, Brian Toohey and Greg Sheridan. He especially singles out for praise Christopher Dore, ex-editor-in-chief of The Australian. Dore was, Kerbaj writes, “the first to give me a staff job on a newspaper.”

The Secret History of The Five Eyes provides helpful information about five infamous Soviet spies based in Britain. The most useful to the Russians were Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, and especially Kim Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963. The Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt, confessed in 1964 to being a spy, while years later John Cairncross, who worked for MI6 and at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, was in 1979 also exposed as a Soviet agent. But ‘the Cambridge Five’ may have only been the tip of the iceberg. This is because MI5 suspected that “there were more than 100 KGB and GRU intelligence officers in Britain, most of whom were undeclared or had been given the protection of cover roles …at the Soviet trade delegation.”

Kerbaj also explains that, as early as the 1940s, Australians Jim Hill, Walter Sneddon ( ‘Wally’) Clayton and Dr Ian Milner, had been identified, via America’s Verona Project, as important spies for the Soviet Union. But, for decades, the existence of the Verona decrypts could not be publicly revealed. In July 1950, Milner fled to Czechoslovakia, where he continued to forward crucial information to the KGB, mainly about fellow Australians.

A huge intelligence coup was the defection in April 1954 of Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov, the Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, who was an alcoholic and a depressive – and then at the Darwin airport of the arguably more important intelligence agent, his wife Evdokia Petrov. This was especially significant for raising Australia’s previously dubious standing with MI5 and MI6 and with the American intelligence community. As Kerbaj explains, Australia’s enhanced status in the West was because the defection of both Petrov’s led to the exposure of Russian spies operating around the world, and particularly in the West. ASIO and its Director General Charles Spry, benefitted mightily from the so-called “Petrov Affair.” Indeed, it was the Petrov’s revelations that was instrumental in elevating Australia into the Five Eyes.

By the early 1970s, Canberra’s intelligence cooperation with Washington through the Five Eyes had well and truly come of age. In a key chapter, “Dissent”, Kerbaj writes, that on 4 December 1972, two days after Gough Whitlam had been elected as prime minister, the CIA, wrongly as it eventuated, “assured President Richard Nixon that (Whitlam) had committed to upholding the alliance with the US as the ‘cornerstone of Australian foreign policy’.”

But shortly after returning the ALP to federal power after 23 years in the wilderness, Whitlam became suspicious about the CIA’s previously undisclosed involvement in two joint US-Australian surveillance bases. Their prime purpose was to provide satellite intelligence. Both were ultra-secret. The first, at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory, was established in 1966. The second, at Nurrungar, in the South Australian desert, was set up in 1969 by the US Air Force to detect launches of Soviet missiles.

The fact is that, in the main, Whitlam despised US foreign policy. A month into his first prime ministership, spurred on by radical elements in federal Labor, including Dr Jim Cairns, Whitlam condemned the US bombing of North Vietnam that killed about 1,600 civilians. This angered Nixon and his chief foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger, reinforcing “a White House perception that (Whitlam) was soft on Kremlin politics.”

Having fought openly with the Oval Office, Whitlam then focussed on ASIO, whose close ties with its US counterparts caused the Labor PM great discomfort and concern.

Egged on by Whitlam, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy on 16 March 1973 actually raided ASIO’s headquarters in Melbourne. This was to obtain information from the agency’s files about an alleged plot by Croatian extremists to harm or kill the Yugoslav prime minister – who was due to arrive in Australia four days later, which he did. Labor’s unprecedented raid had immediate repercussions on ASIO’s relationships with intelligence agencies in the Five Eyes. Within hours, “American law enforcement and spy agencies, including the CIA, were ordered to stop sharing intelligence with the Australian agency.” It took until after the election in late 1975 of a conservative federal Coalition led by Malcolm Fraser for trust in Australia to repair.

A highlight of The Secret History of The Five Eyes is Kerbaj’s interview with leading Liberal Party politician turned diplomat, Alexander Downer. As Kerbaj reveals it was Downer’s tip-off to the FBI, when he was Australia’s High Commissioner in Britain, that triggered a long-running investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As is consistently the case throughout the book, the interview with Downer was strictly on the record.

The Secret History of The Five Eyes affords readers a serious, yet eminently readable, analysis of clandestine spy-craft and more generally of international Western intelligence operations, especially against Russia, China, Iran and Iraq.

A wit recently commented, with more than an element of truth, that The Five Eyes should be called The Four Eyes. This is because, she argued, New Zealand isn’t pulling its weight as a member nation. Indeed, as Kerbaj’s useful book hints at, it seldom has.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Professor Fitzgerald’s most recent publication are the co-authored political satire, ‘The Lowest Depths’, in which Russia’s President Putrid is assassinated ; and a memoir ‘Fifty Years Sober, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne; and ‘My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics’, coedited with Neal Price and published by Connor Court in Brisbane.

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