Traitors and Spies: Espionage and corruption in high places in Australia, 1901–50
by John Fahey
Allen & Unwin, $34.99 pb, 448 pp
I am a great fan of archives, and so is John Fahey, a former officer of an Australian intelligence service (the Defence Signals Directorate) turned historian. His previous book, Australia’s First Spies (2018), covered the same time period (1901–50) but focused on the good guys (our spies) rather than the bad ones (their spies). His itemised list of Australian, British, and US archival files consulted runs to several pages. Most of these are the archives of intelligence agencies. And here’s the rub: intelligence files contain many names, but not necessarily the names of actual spies. They include people whom intelligence officers have their eyes on and would like to recruit but so far haven’t, and people they suspect the other side may have recruited, without so far having been able to confirm their suspicions. Can we call someone a spy just because his or her name shows up in an intelligence file? I will return to this question. But first let’s look at what Fahey has to offer on espionage and corruption in high places in Australia in the bad old days before ASIO, under Colonel Spry’s direction, brought, in Fahey’s account, order and proper procedures to the Australian intelligence world after 1949.
There are two main tracks to Fahey’s story. The first is the failures and deficiencies of Australia’s small and fragmented pre-war and wartime intelligence agencies. The second is the ever-present threat of Soviet espionage, linking up with home-grown Australian communists and fellow-travellers.