SpyCast 1.23.24
Ep 618 | 1.23.24

Australian National Day Special: “Intelligence Down Under with John Blaxland”


Erin Dietrick: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm Erin Dietrick and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Each week, we explore some aspect of the past, present or future of intelligence and espionage. Please support the show for free by leaving us a five-star review or recommending the show to a friend. Coming up next on "SpyCast."

John Blaxland: It was an awesome breakthrough that put ASIO on the map because this young, only five years old organization gets this wonderful coup, gets the KGB resident to defect with his - with his wife.

Erin Dietrick: From the short-lived supercontinent Pangaea, surrounded by a single ocean, to Gondwana, a smaller supercontinent that at one point included Australia, India, Africa, South America and Antarctica, to the current distribution of land masses on our planet, the evolution of what is now known as Australia is utterly and totally fascinating. The same is true of intelligence down under. It has strong British and American influences yet, geographically, their orientation is between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And the country and its intelligence services are relatively new, but it's located in the world's oldest continent. To discuss this, this week's guest is John Blaxland, who's widely recognized as a leading expert in this area. John is the author of multiple books on Australian intelligence, including both official and unofficial histories, a professor at the Australian National University and a former Australian Army intelligence officer. He's here in the U.S. for a few years based out of D.C. And he joined Andrew in the studio to discuss Australia's Intelligence Community, SIGINT in Australia during World War II, Australia's relationship with South Asia, the Pine Gap facility, the implications of geography and the power of collaboration. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Andrew Hammond: So, I don't even know really where to begin, John, because your career and background is so rich and varied. So, could you just tell us a little bit to start off what brought you here to the states? I know you're going to be here for quite a bit of time.

John Blaxland: Yeah. Thanks very much, Andrew. It's great to be with you on this wonderful "SpyCast" podcast. So, I am a professor at the Australian National University. I'm professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies having written a few books on Australian intelligence, particularly on our Australian Security Intelligence Organization, ASIO, which is a domestic counterespionage, counterintelligence organization and on signals intelligence and about the Australian Signals Directorate. But I'm a former military officer who was hired by ANU to help Professor David Horner write their three-volume history of ASIO. So, I jumped ship from the military after 28 years to join ANU. And, 13 years later, I find myself a professor being asked by the ANU to come to Washington to represent the Australian National University and Australian universities to foster research collaboration, boost the profile of the Australian National University and Australian universities writ large, foster student exchanges and to enhance ties between our two countries.

Andrew Hammond: And just to put Australian National University in context for our listeners, can you just give them a couple of sentences? I know that it is quite unique within the Australian context.

John Blaxland: Yeah. So, it was established in 1946 as a research university for the federal government.

Andrew Hammond: And it's in Canberra, the capital city.

John Blaxland: It's in Canberra, the capital, which is a city that looks and is some respects a mini me of D.C. It was established with - under federal legislation in Australia. Australia, like the U.S., is a federation. All the other universities are under state or territory legislations. So, they're not actually under federal jurisdiction. We're the only university that is. And it is, therefore, the only university with a national remit. So, it is in that context that the Australian National University has a representative here in Washington to be in a position to foster ties, as I say, expand research collaboration, teaching exchanges, internships and encourage young American students to spend a bit of time in Australia.

Andrew Hammond: And let's say give our listeners a little bit of Australian flavor just before we dig more into your career and your expertise and intelligence, specifically where were you born and raised?

John Blaxland: So, I wasn't actually born in Australia. I was born in Chile in South -

Andrew Hammond: Okay.

John Blaxland: America. My father was the vicar of Valparaiso, so.

Andrew Hammond: Oh, wow.

John Blaxland: It's a long story.

Andrew Hammond: It sounds like a novel, vicar of Valparaiso. Right?

John Blaxland: It may yet be one. It's - I'll tuck that thought away, Andrew.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're welcome.

John Blaxland: We'll come back to you on that. Yeah. But I - we moved to Australia when I was about nine and settled in Sydney. I'm a sixth - my parents are longtime Australians, so I'm a sixth-generation Australian of British descent. Grew up in Sydney. Went to school there. And then I, for some reason, had an enthusiasm for military history and a real appetite to join the Army. And my parents couldn't make sense of it 'cuz the closest relative we had was a great uncle who died in the First World War. Right? So, why did I - I had to really kindly explain why I wanted to join the Army. But I did. So there.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. And, your time in the Army, what did you - give our listeners a little bit more about the trajectory of your career and what you specialized in.

John Blaxland: So, I went to the Royal Military College of Duntroon in Canberra and I did a arts degree and majored in history. And I'd actually thought about going to Foreign Affairs - to join the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And they said to me, "Come back and see us when you've got a first class honors degree." And, by the time I had one of them, I was locked into a return of service obligation with the military. Which actually worked out pretty darn well because I had 28 years in the Army doing some very interesting things. Started out in Signals, first year as a Signals troop commander managing HF communications. Then, the second year, managing a satellite terminal troop. That was my first entrée into the arcane world of signals intelligence. And I was in charge of this downlink to the U.S. Defense Satellite Communication System. So, I got all these code words thrown at me. I wasn't allowed to write any words down. And I remember coming out of my briefing for - on SIGINT and I asked the guy who briefed me, "So, what was that all about?" And he handed me this book by the late Professor Des Ball called "A Suitable Piece of Real Estate," and he said, "Read this and it'll help explain it."

Andrew Hammond: Okay. That's - I quite like that, here's a book. So, just for our listeners that aren't in the SIGINT world, could you just briefly break down a couple of those terms? So, HF -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Just give them a couple of sentences on that. And then -

John Blaxland: Sure.

Andrew Hammond: The satellite, you mentioned some terminology there. Could you just again -

John Blaxland: Sure.

Andrew Hammond: Just so listeners are not left behind.

John Blaxland: Yeah. So, that's good point 'cuz I ended up writing my masters on a history of the Army Signals Corp. And I had to do this - I had to explain these basic terms. So, the radio frequency spectrum includes sound and light waves that range in size from very, very slow and very, very low to very, very high frequencies, you know, that are short. The higher, the shorter the frequency so the more of them you can fit in a period of time and space. And, so, the frequency spectrum has been traditionally broken down to very low frequency, VLF, low frequency, LF, high frequency, HF, very high frequency, VHF, which is what we have transistor radios was traditionally VHF, then UHF, which is - and then SHF, super high frequency. And then you get into part of the spectrum where it's considered more light and then into laser. So, that's a very long spectrum. And you can use parts of that spectrum for different things. They have different physical properties that allow you to either bounce signal off the ionosphere, which is a layer around the Earth's atmosphere that reflects sound waves of different lengths.

Andrew Hammond: So, this is like shortwave radio that some of our listeners may know of?

John Blaxland: Shortwave radio, that's right. Shortwave radio which is bouncing off the ionosphere and reaching countries far and wide. Satellite communications operates at the very, very small - very, very high end of the spectrum. And there's various satellite types. There's military and commercial grade satellites that have different parts of the frequency spectrum that, once again, are very, very high frequency and very, very specific. So, you have to point the antenna directly at the satellite to get reception or transmission. Mindful that there's transmission and reception. So, what transmission means is when you're sending a signal and that requires the generation of electricity to amplify the signal from the transmitting device. And at the other end is the receiver that is - has wires that are picking up the radio frequency fluctuations in the atmosphere. And it is then reading them as a - the device that the receiver reads those transmitted signals, radio frequency emanations, and translate them into a sonic message that a human can understand. Back in the day, that was originally with tele - with Morse code and the telegraph and telegraphic signals, which originally, you know, was done via wire, a wire and then via radio, when the radio was invented. And we talk about that in one of my books, "Revealing Secrets," about the transformative effect of breakthroughs in communications that have an enormous impact on intelligence eavesdropping and on espionage writ large.

Andrew Hammond: I find just what you're discussing there, John, I find it so fascinating because, for a lot of people, they just think - when they think of spies, espionage, intelligence, they just think of the classic cloak and dagger over here in a conversation in a -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Cafe in Budapest or something like that.

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: But it's kind of fascinating because, basically, the laws of physics are put into action to either try to gather information or protect information. So, there's this whole way that the laws of physics, chemistry, all the phenomena in the universe can potentially be leveraged to try to find stuff out -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Which is - and you give an excellent explanation of it. It's kind of fascinating. There's so much - we hear a lot about STEM and STEAM at the moment. I mean -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: There's so much of this that goes on in the world of intelligence that a lot of people don't think about.

John Blaxland: Yeah, that's right. And, of course, in the 1990s, we go through what I would describe as the Copernican Revolution or the Industrial Revolution that sees the world going from analog communications to digital communications. This is where we go from relying on radio frequency variations and, you know, fluc - trying to fluctuate the message over the radio frequency of choice to a message that is all about ones and zeros. Literally a combination of ones and zeroes to make up code that is then turned into picture or sound. And that is transformative. Our worlds are different as a result of the Digital Revolution. And espionage is different because of the Digital Revolution.

Andrew Hammond: And what year was it that you joined the Army, John?

John Blaxland: So, I joined the Army, I went to Duntroon in January 1983 and I spent 28 years in the Army. So, I did a couple years in the Signals Corp, then I went - did my time in Intelligence and learned to speak Thai. Over years, I ended up going to Staff College in Thailand. I was an exchange officer to the Thai military. And, so, that was - I got - it was an immersion course. So, I came out of that kind of pretty much a simultaneous translator of Thai and English, which was a lot of fun. And, along the way, I also was a brigade intelligence officer for the International Intervention in East Timor in 1999, which was a pinnacle experience I have to say. After that, I came to Washington and I was the Australian integrated exchange officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2000 and 2001. So, I was here for 9/11 and smelt the smoke of the Pentagon fires in my house down in Old Town Alexandria and the eerie silence of the quiet from the lack of planes flying in. It was really quite a - you know, that was quite an inflection point for all of us obviously. And I then - after that, I did a - I went to Canada and did a Ph.D. in War Studies and I wrote up what's become a book with Miguel Quinn's University Press, "Strategic Cousins: Canadian and Australian Expeditionary Forces and the British and American Empires." Came back to Australia, was posted to what was then the Defense Signals director. I'm thinking, "Why are they posting me there?" Found out it was just a amazing experience working with Signals intelligence and the experts in cryptography. And military Signals intelligence was really - it was a high, it was a real high. Extraordinary, really capable, bright, dedicated people working on some very, very cool technology, including - that included several visits for me at the Joint Defense Facility at Pine Gap -

Andrew Hammond: I was going to ask about that.

John Blaxland: Which is jaw-droppingly impressive. I can't go into too many details, but it was --

Andrew Hammond: That's okay, I've seen the TV show.

John Blaxland: Yeah. You've seen it, so then you know it all. Right? It's interesting. Successive political leaders in Australia, once they've been briefed in and once they've had a good chance to go and have a look at it, are unquestioning in their support of it. They realize how use - how powerful, how useful, important it is for Australia, for the Australia/U.S. alliance and for global stability and security. It is really an impressive piece of kit, if I can put it that way. So, that was a lot of fun. After that, I was made chief of Joint Intelligence at our Joint Operations Command. Then I was made defense attaché to Thailand and Myanmar. So, that was a very rewarding experience. And then, as that was ending, I got rang up by one of my mentors, Professor David Horner, himself a Vietnam infantry vet who'd written a number of military histories on high command in the Second World War and in the Australian Pacific Theatre. And he'd been commissioned to write a three - a two-volume history of ASIO, which became a three-volume history of ASIO. He was approaching retirement and he said, "John, I've - I only want to write one of the volumes. I want someone else to do it. So, I want you to apply for the job." So, I did. And, initially, someone else got it. But then that person couldn't get a security clearance. And then I got the job. So, yeah, fortune prevailed. I was very, very fortunate. So, I did that for a few years. And, along the way, I developed a course with my coauthor of volume three, Dr. Rhys Crawley, a course called "Honeypots and Overcoats: Australian Intelligence in the World." And that's been a lot of fun teaching that.

Andrew Hammond: And I want to come back to that, but if we could just touch on a few things just so that we keep - our listeners are keeping up with us. So, at Duntroon, the Royal Military College, is that the same as West Point?

John Blaxland: It's the Australian equivalent of West Point, yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. And Pine Gap, just before we move on, Pine Gap's fascinating.

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: And, obviously, I was joking about the TV show.

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: I've spoke - everybody I've spoke to in Australian intelligence says that it's completely terrible. But, yeah, tell the listeners about Pine Gap.

John Blaxland: So, the Joint Defense Facility was established in the mid-1960s, a agreement between Australia and the United States as a space research facility initially it was called. Really, it was about monitoring ICBMs and nuclear weapons testing in the Soviet Union and, to a certain extent, across the Eurasian land mass. So, it was a facility in the middle of Australia where you didn't get - have enormous electromagnetic sources of interference to passive listening to signals from space from satellites or from other parts of the Earth. So, incredibly useful. And it's also - because it's in the heart of Australia, you can't plunk a Soviet, you know, inverted commerce fishing vessel with antennas to listen in to what's going on there. It's really hard to get to. And, if you try and get there, it's pretty darn obvious that you're there. So, it was very convenient, particularly in the early days when you were looking at unencrypted downlink communications. That meant that the footprint in Alice Springs - just outside of Alice Springs was perfect for that kind of Earth station to be established. That then - as communications evolved as - particularly as the Digital Revolution kicked in and satellite communications becomes the norm and proliferates, you then see the purpose of Pine Gap expand exponentially.

Andrew Hammond: And Pine Gap is almost literally right in the middle of Australia. Right? It's -

John Blaxland: Smack dab in the middle, yeah. It's just outside of this one city in the middle of Australia called Alice Springs. And it's there because of the springs, the water. It - you know, 'cuz, really, the center of Australia is very dry, very arid, supports a very small population, mostly Aboriginal communities, and spread out very sparsely because very little to sustain life out there.

Erin Dietrick: To help you digest this episode, here is a short interlude on the Copernican Revolution, which John mentions. Essentially, the Copernican Revolution changed how we thought about the universe and, more importantly, Earth's place within that universe. Previously, geocentrism was the order of the day. You may have heard the joke, "How many narcissists does it take to screw in a light bulb? One. They stand still and let the Earth revolve around them." Well, geocentrism was the idea that the Earth is at the center of the universe and the sun revolves around the Earth. Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer and mathematician working in the 16th century, appended this. He theorized that the sun was at the center and Earth, with other planets revolved around it. Now, as you can imagine, if you thought the world revolved around you and someone told you this was actually not the case, then, hey, maybe you'd be a tad displeased. And this would turn out to be the case in the following century when Galileo provided empirical evidence through his scientific observations to prove and popularize Copernicus' theory. The powers that be in the Catholic Church found Galileo vehemently suspect of heresy. And he would be forced to recount his views and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. E pur si muove, and yet it moves, he is rumored to have said.

Andrew Hammond: I think it would be interesting just for a minute just to place Australia in a little bit more context for our listeners. So, Australia, what size is the population?

John Blaxland: So, the - Australia is the size of continental United States.

Andrew Hammond: So, the physical size.

John Blaxland: Physical size of the land.

Andrew Hammond: It's huge.

John Blaxland: It's huge. But there's no Mississippi River Delta in the middle. You know? It's - it just - it's a - just a desert in the middle. That's the problem. So, it can't sustain a big population. But it's going back to Dirk Hartog and the Dutch explorers of the 1600s. They came and they hit the west coast and they thought, "Well, this is just - there's nothing here." Right? It's just desert. So, they didn't stay, they didn't hang around. And it was only when James Cook explored the east coast that he realized that, "Well, this is actually pretty fertile, pretty abundant and you could actually settle here." Of course, Aboriginals and people have been there for tens of thousands of years, but they had not established towns or cities. Their presence was to a Western eye from the 1700s, primitive and not very - not permanent it appeared. So, they were - well, as you know, I mean, this is a very controversial part of Australian -

Andrew Hammond: Sure.

John Blaxland: History. Much like in other settler cont - countries, newer countries like Canada, the United States and New Zealand and beyond.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. So, the size of the United States, that's huge. And the population -

John Blaxland: Population 20 - 25 1/2 million.

Andrew Hammond: So, imagine the states of 25 1/2 million.

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: That's crazy.

John Blaxland: this is - yeah. It's tiny. It's really, you know, what, half the population of California? It's just - it's small. And yet we sit upon a land of plenty. You know, this is land rich with uranium, iron ore, a lot of rare earths, oil and gas.

Andrew Hammond: Great wine.

John Blaxland: Awesome wine. Wheat, sheep, cattle. You know, there's a great Australian author, Donald Horne, wrote a book called "The Lucky Country." And he was tongue-in-cheek in his - it was sarcastic in his title. But there's a truth to what he was saying that -

Andrew Hammond: So, let's just go - just really briefly, John, I just wanted to take a brief detour to get people that are not from Australia to be able to have an imaginary about the situation there, what it's like to be located there, the neighborhood, the region and so forth. So, let's just do a around-the-clock type -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Survey of -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Australia and talk about -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: The region if you -

John Blaxland: Sure.

Andrew Hammond: Don't mind.

John Blaxland: So, one of the things I like to talk about with my students is the dichotomy between our history and our geography. So, we are largely a transplanted Anglo European community, now much more multicultural than ever. But we're sitting on the edge of Asia. So, we actually struggle with reconciling that dialectic of who we are and where we are. So, as I say, increasingly multicultural, with more and more people from Asia, but we have a huge migrant community from - almost a million from South Asia, about a million from the China countries group that Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China. People identified as Chinese, ethnically Chinese, there's more than a million and - of the 25 million. And then there's a large number who are from - obviously overwhelmingly from the British Isles, but increasing - large numbers from South Europe, Italy, Greece. Some now increasingly from Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Large migrant communities from Southeast Asia. So, if you group the Southeast Asians, about a million of them as well. So, Australia hangs - I kind of use in my lectures a map of Australia centered on Darwin, but spun 45 degrees so you get the sense of Australia hanging off of Asia and the idea of the Indo-Pacific space that Australia inhabits. So, we are on the edge of Asia. We're between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. We have Antarctica to our south, New Zealand to our southeast, the Pacific Islands to our east. The United States is a long, long way away across the Pacific to the northeast. In our immediate neighborhood, we have Indonesia, which is a country 10 times Australia's population, primarily Muslim, a country - a very rambunctious, lively, growing economy that is broadly well disposed to Australia that we - but we are very, very different cultures. Next to that is Papua New Guinea which, after the First World War, was mandated to Australia. So, we managed as a colony until independence in 1975 after the Second World War. Then there's all the Pacific islands, many of which are former British colonies that were never colonized by Australia. But, because they're kind of anglospheric, they gravitate towards Australia. So, they don't have common law. They operate in English when they're not using native languages.

Andrew Hammond: What are a couple of those islands?

John Blaxland: Fiji, Tonga. They're the two ones that immediately -

Andrew Hammond: Okay.

John Blaxland: Spring to -

Andrew Hammond: Okay.

John Blaxland: Mind. But there's - the Pacific islands from - there's a dozen countries in that space, including some of the French colonies as well. So, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Tahiti.

Andrew Hammond: I've always wanted to go to all of those islands. I bet they're beautiful.

John Blaxland: They are beautiful. They're hot and steamy as well.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah.

John Blaxland: Beyond that, you've got the Five Power Defence Arrangement countries, Malaysia and Singapore, former part of the British Empire that Australia obviously invested in in defending in the Second World War, only to get captured by the Japanese and then sent out to the Thai-Burma Railway to build the infamous Death Railway. Singapore and Malaysia are very important partners of Australia, trade partners, security partners, Five Power Defence Arrangement, which is the mechanism that was established after Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez, was a kind of a residual guarantee to Malaysia and Singapore that the Brits would stay engaged along with Australia and New Zealand. And that's, hence, the FPD, Five Power Defence Arrangement.

Andrew Hammond: Does that still exist?

John Blaxland: That still exists, ironically enough. It was set up in part to assure Malaysia and Singapore that they would be defended against any repeat incursion or confrontassi from Indonesia because, in the mid-60s, Indonesia had threatened - existentially threatened Malaysia and Singapore. That - that's really not the case anymore. But the utility of those five countries still talking to each other, practicing together has meant that no one's wanted to turn it off. And, so, it still exists, it still works.

Andrew Hammond: Let's pivot back to your research, John. So, this has been really fascinating and I feel like I've got a much better hand - handle on things and I hope our listeners think that, too. So, these books on ASIO, you mentioned some of your other books, I think you're being a little bit coy saying, "I've written a couple of books." It's more than a couple there. Tell the listeners about some of the things that you've researched, some of the things that you found out, what gets you up out of bed in the morning and so forth. So, let's start with ASIO. You mentioned that that's Australia's MI5 or FBI -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Sort of, but not quite. Tell us a bit more about your research.

John Blaxland: So, the project - the ASIO project was kicked off after Britain's MI5 history was commissioned. So, there was a sense that all Australia should do that, too. And, of course, mindful that ASIO was - very much its creation was shaped by the work of MI5 leaders who were instrumental in the late-1940s helping the Australian government recognize that it needed to reform its domestic security intelligence apparatus because there were - there was a nest of spies operating in that space. It was not an organization in which the government had confidence. So, there's a group of people who'd been operating in the Second World War who are communist sympathizers, if not - and - if not Communist party members, who had been passing stuff to the Soviet Embassy. And SIGINT actually picked up from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra and were reporting back to Harbin where the Russians had a post in occupied China where they were passing messages to the Japanese, messages that were proving helpful to the Japanese in extending - in fighting against the allies, against us, in the Pacific. And - but, of course, back then, people were - we forget there was a degree of sympathy towards the Soviet Union because they were our allies. And that kind of sympathy and appreciation for the work of the Soviets in defeating Nazism lingered after the war, even though when the Cold War really kicked in there was a sense in some circles that, "Look, this was a mistake allowing the Cold War to happen, and that we just needed to show good will and that, you know, everything would be okay. So, we need to keep working with the Soviets, not against them." And it's in that context that the Americans and - were communicating to the Brits. They said, "Guys, we're going to have to cut off the Australians." And, when Australia was cut off, we were downgraded. Our access after the Second World War when we were trusted intimately was wound right back. But nobody wanted to reveal the source, which was the Venona decrypts. The Venona decrypts being these Soviet diplomatic cables that had been decoded, decrypted, because of this quirk in history. And this is probably worth just explaining to the -

Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah.

John Blaxland: To the listener.

Andrew Hammond: I think it would be good because there's a bit of convolution. But it's a -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Fascinating story.

John Blaxland: Well, and it comes out in both the history of ASIO that I was in - the project that I was working on that one. But, also, on the history of Signals Intelligence in Australia. So -

Andrew Hammond: And even things like the Cambridge Five -

John Blaxland: All of that. They're all -

Andrew Hammond: You know, Rosenberg spy ring.

John Blaxland: Exactly.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah.

John Blaxland: It's all linked. So, in the 1920s and '30s, British Intelligence has some remarkable successes against Soviet diplomatic traffic. And, you know, full hearty British politicians boasted of their success in Parliament. And this led to the Soviets recognizing that machine-generated code was not workable. They needed to go to one-time pads. And, after that point on, Soviet diplomatic traffic was virtually unreadable, unless you could get a copy of the one-time pads through humans, usually. You struggled to have any success in decrypting because to decrypt, this gets to some of the points I talk about in my book, "Revealing Secrets," you need kind of - some kind of pattern that you can compare and contrast with other messages.

Andrew Hammond: And, with a one-time pad, there's no pattern.

John Blaxland: There's no pattern.

Erin Dietrick: In this interlude, I'll take a very brief moment to tell you a little bit about British Australia's surprisingly spy related origins. You may have heard of James Cook's very famous Endeavour voyage of 1768. It was a maritime mission originally commissioned by the Society of London as a strictly scientific exploration. The idea was to circumvent the Southern Hemisphere of Earth to collect scientific data, like plant species. When word spread of this epic journey, the Royal Navy became interested. But they weren't too interested in plants, however, their intentions lied in a much more clandestine camp. Remember, British colonialism was nearing its peak in the late 18th century. The Crown was intent on building its empire and an in-depth exploration of previously uncharted territory with the potential for new trade and new navigation routes was music to King George's ears. And, so, the Royal Navy and the Royal Society of London decided to collaborate, but, to keep their colonial intentions a secret, conveniently hidden behind the previously mentioned idea that the voyage set off with strictly educational goals. The crew's first mission was to make it to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. After that, Cook's instructions for the journey from the Navy read, and I quote, "You are to put to the sea without loss of time and carry into execution the additional instructions contained in the enclosed sealed packet." As you may imagine, the directions in the secret enclosed packet read something along the lines of "should you stumble upon the Great South land," as it was called, "claim it as England." In the end, the voyage was a smashing success on both fronts. The botanists on board increased the number of plant species known to Western science by 10%. And, on August 22, 1770, on the northernmost tip of Queensland, James Cook declared the continent we now know as Australia under the rule of the Crown.

John Blaxland: Now, what happened though in 1941 when the So - when the Soviets were really hard pressed in the nuts, we were sort of coming in on Moscow, they ran out of one-time pads. So, they made duplicates. And those sets of duplicates were used from 1942 to 1948. And, in that time, that period of duplication allowed just a sliver of light through for the two copies to be compared and contrasted to then be able to look for patterns, look for any indications. So, to do that, you would use a couple of things. One is - so, in English and French, for instance, the letters T and E are the most frequent letters. So, you look for frequency. That's one thing. You would also look for the signatures at the start or at the end of a message, which are almost invariably hail fellow, well met type greeting and salutations at the end. Right?

Andrew Hammond: So, like for Enigma, quite often they close with "Heil Hitler"?

John Blaxland: Big binger, yeah. The same kind of phenomenon would give you a lead to how to start unpacking the thread of the code of the one-time pad that was duplicated. And people in Arlington Hall, the precursor of the National Security Agency and then NSA, subsequently spent decades, literally decades, until about 1980, working on this unpacking the - this one-time pad that had only been used from 1942 to 1948. But, that window, it provided incredible exposure of Soviet espionage behind lines in Western countries.

Andrew Hammond: The breadth and depth of the penetrations and the networks -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: And so -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Forth.

John Blaxland: So, it gave a lot of hints. And, so, it helped in unraveling a range of networks of spies, including in Australia. And that's the one I write about and David Horner writes about. That's what contributed to this formation of ASIO because, while in the Second World War, we had with Ultra and the reading of the Japanese PURPLE, we had - which are these rotor - you know, these kind of electromechanical encryption devices with rotors that - with - it's the - with alphanumeric wheels.

Andrew Hammond: And Enigma is the classic example.

John Blaxland: Enigma is the classic example. We don't actually have a copy of a PURPLE machine left because between the declaration of surrender and the arrival of the Americans to take the surrender, the Japanese destroyed every last copy of their PURPLE machine. There are none known to exist that I've heard of. And there are no examples, unlike Enigma's, which are in museums, there's one here in the Spy Museum.

Andrew Hammond: Two.

John Blaxland: Two - two. There you go. So - but, you know, because they were captured after the war. Right? PURPLEs were not caught, were not - they were just destroyed. And in part because, when Japan surrendered, you physically had to get to Japan, right, whereas, when Japan surrendered, the allies were there. There was nowhere for the Germans to hide. So, that was a big difference. But that electromechanical device provided - and this is of which Australians were using monitoring Japanese diplomatic traffic were picking up signals that they were getting messages from the Soviets. That was in 1944. Venona also was picking up these signs, but no Australian was given access to Venona. This was strictly held by the Americans with some Brits in the loop. And Venona was the code name to this project on deciphering this copied one-time pad that the Soviets used from '42 to '48.

Andrew Hammond: So, it wasn't just one copied one-time pad, it was a series of copied of one-time -

John Blaxland: It was a series, yeah, yeah. And access to that. And then correlating - figuring out which one to correlate it to and trial and error, you know, you know matching and cross patching. So, this idea of the frequency principle and, you know, I've got this idea of what we call alphabetic substitution and polyalphabetic substitution, which is essentially what electromechanical devices were operating on, so you swap a letter for another letter and then you swap it again and then you swap it again. That's kind of - that's what Enigma did, polyalphabetic substitution, which is an old concept going back to the Middle Ages, cleverly hiding a message behind swapped letters. That enabled us to access the Ultra and the PURPLE traffic, but it didn't give us access to the Venona traffic. The Venona stuff happened separately. And that's what continued after the war and that's what worried the Americans about trusting Australia, which led to Ben Chifley, the Australian prime minister, being approached by the British prime minister to make - start a new organization, dump the old one, the Commonwealth Investigation Service, start a new one, which is like MI5. So, he sent out a couple of people. So, Percy Sillitoe sent out by Clement Atlee to go and work with Australia to help form an Australian Security Intelligence organization. So, they couldn't call it the Australian Security Service.

Andrew Hammond: I can see why.

John Blaxland: That acronym was not going to work. Right? Even though some people might have thought that that was appropriate, the practitioners weren't up for that. So, they had to come up with another name. So, ASIO it became. And that's the one that was then validated a few years later with - when the - Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov defected in 1954. And that was the - that was the pièce de resistance, if you like, that was a awesome breakthrough that put ASIO on the map because this young, only five-years-old, organization gets this wonderful coup, gets the KGB resident to defect with his wife.

Andrew Hammond: Was he a walken?

John Blaxland: It's a long story. And David Horner writes beautifully in his first flume, on "The Spy Catchers," which is a riff off - a little bit off Peter Wright's book, the - "A Spy Catcher." But it was about this is the why ASIO was set up to catch the nest of spies. Right? And this guy, Vladimir Petrov, is recruited by a Michael Bialoguski, who is a slightly unsavory Polish migrant doctor involved in unethical, at the time, practices on women who had, you know, kids that didn't want to keep. Right? He was also a fast drinker and he was a big fan of the red light district in Sydney called Kings Cross, to which he introduced Vladimir Petrov. And they - and when on and had a rollicking good time together, became fast mates. And he - on the cusp of - this is when Sir Charles Spry, the head of ASIO, is disgusted by this man's ethics and his behavior. He's on the point of firing him as an ASIO agent. Only to find out he's about to bring in the best of - the best cats of the decade. Right?

Andrew Hammond: So, he's an ASIO agent, not an ASIO officer?

John Blaxland: No, he's an ASIO agent. And he's a - he's recruited by an ASIO officer as a paid agent for ASIO to recruit Vladimir Petrov. So, Petrov defects. And then his wife is caught by surprise. She's detained by the Soviet Embassy, then flown out of Canberra. And, back then, you had to refuel in Darwin. At Darwin, she is given the phone to her husband who says, "Darling, stay. It's much better here." And, so, she decides to stay. And there's a wonderful couple of photos in David's book on these thuggish Soviet officers manhandling Evdokia at the airport next to the plane. It's a great photo. But what we hadn't realized was that Evdokia was the - she was the crème de la crème because she was the cryptologist. She had -

Andrew Hammond: Bingo.

John Blaxland: She was gold. Right? So, she helped networks of counterespionage activity in many, many Western countries for years thereafter. People came and sucked at her feet and learned about vulnerabilities and who was who in the zoo in their own network. So, they were the gift that kept on giving for Western intelligence for years. And that put ASIO on the map, as I say.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. Wow. And just a couple of things you mentioned there I'd like to pick up on, John. So, PURPLE's diplomat, Japanese diplomatic traffic -

John Blaxland: Great.

Andrew Hammond: As opposed to JN-25, which is Japanese Naval traffic in the Pacific during the Second World War.

John Blaxland: So, the Japanese have a series of different code protocols and encoding devices. But the PURPLE is the principal high-level one, yeah. JN-25 had been broken by cryptographers, including Eric Nave, who was an Australian seconded to the Royal Navy working out of Hong Kong for a while, who then came back to Australia and was formative in shaping the Pacific War Signals Intelligence Enterprise in Australia. And the JN-25, ironically enough, the Japanese - Imperial Japanese Navy prided itself on its cryptographic water tightness. They thought they were beyond reproach and they thought the Army was the weak link. In fact, it was the other way around. The Army was very difficult to crack. And there was a couple of instances there which are about - I write about in "Revealing Secrets," the book that came out just a few months ago with Clare Birgin, my colleague, that we caught - we found these code books that had been in water, they had been abandoned, waterlogged and other ones that have been burnt. But you could still see the image of if you carefully treated, carefully managed. And that was then able to be transcribed and used to unpick the Japanese Army codes, the water transport codes actually. But they were about land force operations. And that then gave enormous leads into Japanese plans and concepts that could be exploited for operational purposes.

Andrew Hammond: I don't have time to go into it fully, but I find JN-25 so fascinating -

John Blaxland: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Hammond: And the way that it would be a code book. So, say, a frigate is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in the code book and then every term there is a series of numbers in the code book, but then what they would do is they would have these books of supposedly randomly generated numbers, additive book, and then they would add numbers on top. So, basically, there's another layer of obfuscation that you have to try to peel away. And is -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: That Is kind of ingenious. But then, when you think about the size of the Pacific and the distribution of the code books and the way that you can't change them particularly frequently and so forth, I think that JN-25 and PURPLE are just such a fascinating way to understand. I know I'm preaching to the converted. Such a fascinating way to understand the Second World War I think.

John Blaxland: Absolutely. No, I completely agree, yeah.

Andrew Hammond: The other thing that I was going to say, just before we wrap up, so you mentioned your book, "Revealing Secrets," can you tell the listeners a little bit more about that?

John Blaxland: Absolutely.

Andrew Hammond: How can our listeners get a hold of it?

John Blaxland: So, it's available on Amazon. It's with an Australian publisher. But it's on Kindle and Amazon for purchase. It is called "Revealing Secrets: An Unofficial History of Australian Signals Intelligence and the Advent of Cyber." So, what Clare and I - Clare Birgin and I do with that book is we take a broad view on the story of cryptography going back to ancient times, and we explain the evolution and the adaptation of concepts of how you hide messages and how that works. And then we follow the strands through U.S. cryptographic history and British cryptographic history to see how they then shape Australian cryptographic organizational concepts and feed into the architecture that emerges in the Second World War in Australia. And that is the precursor of the Post-Second World War architecture, which lasts - it's been going for 81 years, you know, since Central Bureau was established in March 1942.

Andrew Hammond: And, just to be clear for our listeners, the current primary signals intelligence organization is the Australian Signals Directorate?

John Blaxland: Australian Signals Directorate, yes. So, the Australian Signals Directorate used to be - it started out after the Second World War as the Defense Signals Bureau, deliberately named to deflect attention from its real purpose. But, 80 years later, the Australian Signals Directorate, as it's become now, is a much more out and proud organization, in large part because the Cyber Revolution has placed demands on these hoodie-wearing, basement-dwelling introverted geeks, right, to actually man or operate a shop front for the nation. And this echoes phenomena across many Western countries, particularly in the Five Eyes world, where the cyber enterprises for the nation have become the half of cybersecurity expertise, in part because of the experience going back to the Second World War, the electromechanical computers, the bombs, the devices that unpicked the Enigma and the PURPLE machine, the IBMs, the - with the punch cards, these are all the antecedents of what when - what happened when we get Cray computers, we get the Digital Revolution and the expertise that's residing in the SIGINT space is the expertise you need in computing to help a nation defend itself against state-based threats and corporate actors, malevolent corporate and non-state actors.

Andrew Hammond: And, just finally, John, so if any of our listeners in the American community that would like to communicate with you or meet up with you for a -

John Blaxland: Yeah.

Andrew Hammond: Coffee or online, how do they get in touch with you?

John Blaxland: So, I'm easy to get. I'm here in the U.S. But my email address is just john.blaxland@anu.edu.au. And I'm - you know, as I say, I teach "Honeypots and Overcoats: Australian Intelligence in the World," which is - I teach that as an undergrad course. I teach masters postgraduate course as well on this very similar topic. And I'm here based in D.C. to foster research collaboration between Australian universities and their American - North American counterparts to encourage student exchanges, to encourage teaching and related collaboration and to just deepen the ties between our tertiary institutions and North American ones.

Andrew Hammond: Well, it's been a pleasure to speak to you and to be continued.

John Blaxland: Andrew, great to be with you. Thanks for having me on your program.

Erin Dietrick: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. On March 1st, the Spy Museum will be opening its first ever special exhibit, Bond in Motion. The exhibit features 17 vehicles from the James Bond movie franchise. It's an experience, I can promise you, you won't want to miss. To brush up on your 007 knowledge, next week, we'll re-release a Bond special from last year with our in-house expert, Alexis Albion. Grab yourself a martini, tune in and, hopefully, we'll see you in March. If you go to our page, thecyberwire.com /podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. I'm Erin Dietrick and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Rens, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tré Hester and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.