SpyCast 5.14.24
Ep 633 | 5.14.24

“Codebreaking and Codemaking Down Under” – with John Blaxland and Clare Birgin


Erin Dietrick: Welcome to "SpyCast ", the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. My name is Erin Dietrick and your host is Dr. Andrew Hammond. Each week we explore some aspect of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. You can support the show for free by leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Coming up next on "SpyCast."

John Blaxland: It's like decades of research that is exposing the nest of spies in the UK, in the US, in Australia. The Australian chapter of that is not as well known but it is a significant part of the equation. [ Music ]

Erin Dietrick: This week's guests are John Blaxland and Clare Birgin, co-authors of the new book "Revealing Secrets, an unofficial history of Australian Signals Intelligence & the advent of cyber." You may remember John from a previous episode of "SpyCast" this year. He's a professor of International Security and Intelligence studies at the Australian National University. And Clare, an ANU alumni, is a former Australian diplomat who served as ambassador in Serbia, Hungary, and Romania, among others. In this episode, the trio discuss the importance of Signals intelligence, code-breaking, and Australian intelligence, Australia's role in World War II and the Cold War, and the advent and evolution of cyber. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast". Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. Well, thanks ever so much for coming into the studio to speak to me. I'm really looking forward to speaking to you both about your book.

Clare Birgin: Oh, thank you.

John Blaxland: Good to be with you, Andrew.

Andrew Hammond: I thought a good place to start, just for the people out there that don't know what's, again, as they hear people talking about Signals intelligence, sounds cool, what is it? Just give our listeners a couple of sentences on it for people that are not in this business.

John Blaxland: It's eavesdropping, it's listening into conversations. Historically, that's been with analog radio signals, increase -- and telegraphy. Increasingly over time, it's about digital communications interception, and listening into conversations to which the listener is not the intended recipient.

Andrew Hammond: So there's an interception part to this, right? You intercept information?

John Blaxland: Yep.

Andrew Hammond: Or trying to stop interception?

John Blaxland: So the motto of the Australian Signals Directorate in Australia is to reveal their secrets and protect our own. So there's a sword and a shield dimension to SIGINT, where you are looking to ensure that your own communication security is tight and that your ability to eavesdrop is better than your adversary or your target's ability to protect themselves.

Andrew Hammond: There's a whole bunch that I want to unpack, but for the book, there's a quote in there from a former foreign minister, and he said that signals intelligence is Australia's most consistently productive form of intelligence. What did he mean by that and why is that so?

Clare Birgin: One reason is that it's intelligence which is untouched. If you have a transcript of what somebody has said, it's not somebody else's interpretation of it. Another reason is it's consistent. If you have a consistent flow of signals intelligence, you can actually discern a particular trend. It has been -- it wasn't just Australia's most consistent form of intelligence. It was probably the most productive form of intelligence in the Second World War and during the Cold War as well.

John Blaxland: So there's the converse, the flip side, if you like Andrew, is that a clever target will have a good sense of your ability to intercept or eavesdrop and may well put out some spurious information in the hope that you are listening and that that you believe misinformation. So that's why SIGINT on its own is -- as a good intelligence analyst is considered a single source of intelligence that has to be put into a broader context. It has to be analyzed, evaluated, rated, and give it some kind of weight of trustworthiness of accuracy and reliability, the two broad categories of measuring the worth of intercepted material of intelligence, be it from human intelligence, signals intelligence, or imagery intelligence, or other forms of intelligence.

Andrew Hammond: And I mean, it could be a form of confirmation bias, but John Ferris has a book on GCHQ, which is similar to yours --

John Blaxland: An inspiration to our work, by the way. A great piece of work.

Clare Birgin: Yes.

Andrew Hammond: And he talks in that about SIGINT being, you know, the queen of British intelligence, the thing that consistently delivers the goods and so forth. So that seems to be a common theme.

John Blaxland: Very, very true. And the thing is, you know, as we explore in the book, you can do it from the other side of the world. You don't actually even have to be there. You can be listening into communications that are bounced off the troposphere and landed in Bonegilla in Victoria, which is able to reveal incredible insights into the enemy's plans, intentions, actions, and weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. It's quite powerful.

Clare Birgin: Just in the absence of what John mentioned, you know, deceptive communications, you actually get from the horse's mouth exactly what they think. Whereas with human intelligence, intelligence collected by an agent in some way, it's through their eyes, through their perception. Whereas I think people like ministers find it very reassuring sometimes to actually see --

John Blaxland: Virtual transcript of what a private conversation was. That's very reassuring for them. I mean, let's face it, intelligence is supposed to aid in policymaking and decision-making by government officials. And in a crisis, a government official, a minister, a prime minister, a president wants to have a decision advantage. They want to get a leg up. They want to be one step ahead of the target, of the adversary or the enemy. And if they feel they've got an insight that is giving them that advantage, then that is very, very fruitful and, you know, constructive in terms of sending the signal back to the intelligence collection agency that they're on the money, that they're doing the right thing.

Clare Birgin: Perhaps the best example I can think of at the moment is the Zimmermann Telegram, which is one reason why the United States entered the war.

John Blaxland: Which gets a good coverage.

Clare Birgin: It does. And the leaders of the United States were quite skeptical and were not keen to enter the war at that stage, but because they saw this telegram, you know, in black and white once it was decrypted by a British cryptanalyst, they saw that what Germany was planning to do in the United States, i.e. give back New Mexico and Texas to Mexico in exchange for the Mexicans keeping the Americans busy on the border. So once they saw that, they realized that Germany had plans for them. There was no doubt because they could see the telegram from the German foreign minister.

John Blaxland: Carefully managed by the Brits, of course. They didn't give away their own MO.

Clare Birgin: Oh yes, absolutely.

Andrew Hammond: That's quite an interesting example there. And like you say, there's no -- you don't need to put any additional interpretation on it.

Clare Birgin: No, it's there. There it is.

Andrew Hammond: Here's what A said to B, it's not you're relying on an intermediary like say, the Iraq war curveball, a human source. Well, this person said this and we think that this is what happened or he said, she said. It's just, here's for example, Saddam Hussein saying to his chief defense minister, "Where did you put the nukes, buddy?" Or something like this.

John Blaxland: That's right. Incriminating. Where did you put the WMD?

Andrew Hammond: Yeah, exactly.

John Blaxland: What WMD?

Andrew Hammond: Yeah.

John Blaxland: And that's not what curveball said.

Andrew Hammond: So that's quite powerful and interesting. And just very briefly before we move on, you know, when you were speaking there, Clare, it made me think as you were an ambassador to several countries, could you just tell the listeners which countries you were an ambassador to? And of course, you worked in many more, so tell us about your experience of walking in the world of intelligence.

Clare Birgin: If I could just start a little -- if I could just start maybe a little bit from the beginning because my first experience of it was in Warsaw, where I was just before the collapse of communism, which in my opinion began with the round table talks in Warsaw, not the Berlin Wall. It was, you know, Poles who had sat in prison and really suffered very greatly, but in the end managed to win democratic elections, which actually was the crack for the other countries. It was earlier, if you look at the dates.

Andrew Hammond: And when was this, Clare?

Clare Birgin: This was in -- I was there from 1983 to 1987, during the Able Archer, at the time of the Able Archer exercise. But there I became very interested in the signals intelligence because when you picked up the phone you had a message which was put on by the -- you know, by the secret police saying, "Rosmova controlovana", which meant your conversation is being listened to. But half the time we would hear the conversations of our colleagues in the embassy. So, I don't know how well the system was working. But, you know, it taught me a great deal because one of the things we say in our book is -- well, we quote John Le Carré saying that it's actually an expression of a nation's subconscious, the secret services, and we also quote Alex Younger, the former head of MI6, who said, you know, "It's a key to the soul of the nation," or words to that effect. But, you know, the secret police in Poland, their hearts weren't in it, and therefore they didn't do a particularly good job, and I think half the time it was deliberate. But then I went to Moscow, where it was a very different situation. One did have to be careful, one had the sense of being followed. And the KGB there attracted very talented people. So it was again an expression of the soul of the nation. You would get people who were quite nationalistic and patriotic, in their point of view, who would join -- you know, compete to join the KGB. It was a good job. So I learned quite a lot during that period. And obviously, we'd go to great lengths not to be overheard, putting on music, running water. I once had a hilarious visit to Moldova where I was complaining to my late husband that I couldn't find my key. And I opened the hotel room door and found three men with very short hair, scrabbling around, searching the stairs for my key. So, you know, that actually, you know --

John Blaxland: Thank you. You were looking for me.

Clare Birgin: Yes, yes, yes, yes. So, yeah, very interesting experiences then.

Andrew Hammond: What years was it that you were in Moscow, Clare?

Clare Birgin: Just at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I actually heard the tanks come in and it was the time when Gorbachev was kidnapped and Yeltsin was taking over.

Andrew Hammond: Wow. That must have been an incredible time to be there.

Clare Birgin: Yes, it was. It was really amazing and really showed -- one was extremely conscious of the importance of those things because it was a very tense time. And certainly, we were aware of being listened to. We were keen to obviously understand as much about the situation around us as possible. And intelligence was most important for that.

Andrew Hammond: And I was just thinking, tell me if you think this is a terrible analogy, but when you were talking about signals intelligence, to me, it seems almost like a game of American football where you're trying to advance the ball down the field and you have deception strategies, you try to mislead the opponent, but the difference is with SIGINT, there's no auditory or physical or visual feedback, you're just trying to get the ball from one end of the field to the other without the other side intercepting it. And you devise a series of strategies to stop --

Clare Birgin: That's very clever.

Andrew Hammond: To stop the deception, but you never get the cues. You may think it's still safe, but actually it's been intercepted. But you have to go through all of these different things just to try to protect the information. Do you think there's something to that or am I just getting carried away?

John Blaxland: No, it's a good metaphor. It's a good metaphor. In the course we teach Honeypots and Overcoats, Australian Intelligence in the World, we use the metaphor from the movie Bull Durham, where it's talking about what's the essence of baseball, you know, you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. That's what it's about, right? But of course, it's a lot more than that. And SIGINT and the intelligence enterprise is a bit like that. You get direction, you collect information, you report it. And you collect it, you analyze it, you report it. But that, you know, process is much more complicated than those simple set of four words, you know. And, you know, it gets back to what we were saying before about the sword and the shield dimension of the enterprise. You're looking to protect your sources, your communication security, and of course in the digital era that's become an industrial task, the industrial scale task.

Andrew Hammond: Just to go to the Alex Younger point, so former head of MI6 -- I've actually got this as a question. So, he says it tells you something about the soul of a nation, the essence of a nation. So, the question perhaps obviously is, what does--

Clare Birgin: Why does it --

Andrew Hammond: What does ASD, ASIO, and ASUS say about Australia or the soul of Australia, or the essence of Australia?

John Blaxland: That's a good question.

Clare Birgin: I really believe that. I think he's absolutely spot on because my theory anyway is that because being in the secret services, and particularly SIGINT, requires a lot of discipline, learning those skills, not everybody can do it and it also requires extreme attention to security and secrecy. And this creates -- this creates a rather cloistered environment for people. And they tend to become very close. And more than that, it creates, this isn't just Australia, obviously, Alex Younger said about the British. It's the same with the British, the same in America, but it also creates a fantastic camaraderie between them. But what I've noticed, you know, with the Australians, and I think it's similar in the other Five Eyes countries, is these people tend to be quite patriotic to do that job. They want to, they love their country, and it also seems to preserve very good qualities. I may be being romantic about this, but it's what I've observed. For instance, the first Australian head -- I understand, the first Australian head of what is now the Australian Signals Directorate, Ralph Thompson. He'd also been in signals in the Middle East, never told his family what his job was. But he had quintessentially very fine, I understand, qualities. And this is -- it's my observation, but I think it's really true. I don't know whether you'd agree with that, John.

John Blaxland: I've got a slightly different take on the question. I think much of what we have in our national intelligence enterprise, our national intelligence community in Australia has reverberations of 1942, the kind of existential moment when Australia was physically under threat and bombed and attacked in Sydney Harbour, Darwin, Townsville, etc. And the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought to prevent the Japanese from capturing Port Moresby. And this is before the Battle of Midway event, which was the inflection point of the Pacific War. In that moment, we see, and we talk about this in detail in the book, which is one of the reasons why we explore the early antecedents of British and American SIGINT because they come together in 1942 in Central Bureau and the Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne, and that experience of deep, trusted collaboration in extremists is that the foundational experience which then provides for the post-war contexts in which these organizations are reimagined in the Cold War. And you get people like Abe Sinkov who is instrumental in the Atlantic Charter and in the Assygian Agreement of 1940-41, coming to Australia and playing a pivotal role in managing MacArthur to a certain extent and managing --

Andrew Hammond: Tough job.

John Blaxland: Tough job, exactly. And managing the Australians and bringing them together and knitting together a team. That is, it's an extraordinary accomplishment. So that, I think, has informed what I call the dialectic of our Australia's history and our geography. Our history is transplanted Anglo-European English-speaking federal democracy, and increasingly the cosmopolitan one, with our geography being on the edge of Asia, in the heart of what we now call the Indo-Pacific. And I think that's what's generated the culmination that in 1942 and the dialectic of our history and our geography goes a long way to explain what Allan Gyngell talks about in his book "Fear of Abandonment," the late Allan Gyngell who passed away last year. A great mind, a great thinker, a great contributor to Australian foreign policy and national security writ large. So when we think about the enterprise, Clare's got it right in terms of the soul, reflection of the soul, but it's also a reflection of the geostrategic and historical circumstances in which they arose. And I think that's -- so there's a complementarity to the answers there.

Clare Birgin: There are a couple of examples which we found of how these relationships sometimes have transcended perhaps political relationships. For example, I think it's in -- John Ferris mentions that during the Suez crisis, exchanges of intelligence still went on between -- despite the fact that political relations were at an all-time low, between the NSA and GCHQ, exchanges continued. And according to another source, when Australia, when we were actually cut off from forms of -- from all classified information, oddly enough, it was SIGINT, that the SIGINT exchanges still continued according to one of our sources anyway. [ Music ]

Erin Dietrick: To help set you up for the remainder of this episode, here is a quick primer on Australia's entrance into World War II. On September 3rd, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. The same day, the Australian Prime Minister made the following announcement. "Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that as a result, Australia is also at war." At the time of the outbreak of World War II, the Australian armed forces were still recovering from the First World War and the depression of the 1930s. Only two weeks after war was declared a volunteer force, the Second Australian Imperial Force, was formed to support the military effort. During the first two years of the war, Australians fought on land, air, and sea, largely within Europe and the Middle East. The Japanese entrance into the war in 1941 called troops back to Australia to defend the Pacific. As John and Clare discuss in this episode, Australia held an incredibly important role in the Pacific Theater. In 1942, American troops under General MacArthur's command arrived in Australia just before the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbor, the first attack on the Australian mainland in its post-colonial history. By the end of the war, almost 1 million Australians served across the Pacific Theater, the European Theater, and the North African Campaign. The Australian Armed Forces and their intelligence capabilities that we discuss in this episode were absolutely critical to the Allied effort during World War II. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: And so, when we're talking about Australian SIGINT, can you just tell the listeners a little bit more of what we're talking about because we're not just talking about the Australian Signals Directorate, can you just give us a broader understanding of the various players in this space?

John Blaxland: So what happened? We have three chapters on the Second World War in the book, and this is when we see an absolute, you know, mushrooming of the SIGINT capabilities, both the collection capabilities, the analytical and reporting capabilities. So, what we have is the two big ones that emerge in 1942 are the Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne, which is really supporting the maritime war in the Pacific, and the Central Bureau, which is combining the work of the Australian Army and Air Force and the US Army, which in those days incorporated the US Army Air Force prior to the 1947 separation of the US Air Force, all under General Willoughby, all under General MacArthur. And Australia basically worked collaboratively in that space with them. So you have that, then you have the diplomatic special section or D special section, as it was known, looking at diplomatic communications and revealing some of the most fascinating cables from Japan. Japanese diplomats reporting back to Tokyo about things like the Adolf Claus coup attempt --

Clare Birgin: Against Hitler.

John Blaxland: Against Hitler in 1944, you know, revelations to the allies, but picked up in Bonnegilla in Victoria because you couldn't pick it up in London or somewhere in North America, but you could in -- the way that the VHF signals bounced off the troposphere, they landed beautifully in Bonnegilla in northern Victoria, the state of Victoria in Australia. And so you've got -- and that's why you see you had the Army and Air Force Special Wireless Group that were actually placed out. So there was one at Bonnegilla, for instance, there were several forward deployed in Darwin. The Canadians sent one, Canadian special wireless group sent to operate in Darwin in 1945, the Royal Australian Air Force has several of them as well in Northern Australia and then in Papua New Guinea, and then the elements of them go forward with MacArthur into the Philippines, doing the combination of close-in collection VHF, so the kind of direct line-of-sight communications because the VHS signal doesn't bend very well, whereas the HF1 bounces very nicely off the atmosphere, the troposphere in particular. And so the close-in VHF collection could be picked up of signals, maybe intercepting landlines if they may be defined one, so you could listen into a landline if you've intercepted one. The further back, the special wireless groups in Australia would listen into those longer-range communications. So, you're talking about voice, you're talking about telegraphy, you're talking about over the radio and overline. And so it's a mixture of those things. Some of it in plain text, in plain Japanese or German or Italian, and some of it encrypted. So, if you're in a forward-deployed unit, and we talk about this in the book with the Special Wireless Groups, if you're forward-deployed, you can actually derive some tactically useful, the shelf life of which is quite short information that is perhaps not encrypted that can be used by the local commander for the operations that are ongoing at that particular site. And that's very useful. And then there's other stuff that requires more detailed unpacking, decryption. So in which you look at the longer, you know, term analysis and that required a lot of brain power, it required the use of the first computers in Australia, the IBM computers bought in by MacArthur and the cast team from the Philippines. So, quite a lot. You know, this is the early days of computing power in Australia. And, of course, it lays the groundwork for the post-war computerization of signals intelligence, which in turn lays the groundwork for when the digital revolution kicks in.

Andrew Hammond: And traffic analysis is something that Australia excelled in back in the day?

Clare Birgin: Yes, we were the best. We were the best traffic analysis. And we've seen this. The Australians being very diffident didn't say this about themselves, but the British and others definitely recognized it. And it was -- I think we were -- in part, we were very good at it because it was all we could do. We weren't introduced into crypt analysis early on. Once we were, we were as good as any, but in traffic analysis, which required just using your wits and being very quick, we were recognized as being the best.

Andrew Hammond: If I remember correctly, in the book, you also tie this in a way into Australia's sense of self, one of the reasons sure that they excelled in it because, you know, this is one of the main things they could focus on. But if I remember correctly, you tie it into Australia's ability to like muck in, resourcefulness, you know, scrappiness, if you want to put it like that.

Clare Birgin: Yes, I think that's true. I mean, we mentioned early on there's a statue, a very nice statue in Sydney of a sailor called John Varco, who was -- who was in charge of -- he was a signaler, right? But people like him in the Korean War, who were only supposed to be doing own force communications and assisting the South Koreans with their communications, which we did. There's -- there are letters, which have been found and other records showing very clearly that they did far more than that. They were definitely intercepting enemy communications. So I think that's one thing about Australia, that they're very resourceful, keen to do -- and keen to do as much as they can.

Andrew Hammond: I'm just curious, for our listeners that are a bit rusty on the war and the South Pacific, the Indo-Pacific region, how much was Australia used as a place to project American military force from? So like in Britain, it's a listening outpost in some respects, but then it's also used as a place to build up material so that it can be projected into Europe. Is this the case in the "island hopping" campaign?

John Blaxland: Certainly.

Andrew Hammond: Can you tell us a little bit more about that, just some broad numbers?

John Blaxland: Yeah, broadly. So, the First Marine Division, which is reconstituted in Melbourne after the Battle of Guadalcanal in Honiara, it's the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands being the main effort from the Japanese to try and isolate Australia in early to mid-1942. And Australia found itself kind of the bread basket for the Pacific War, supplying a lot of in the land lease arrangements. So Australia actually did quite a lot of manufacturing of munitions and stuff, but also particularly food that supplied the Allies, and particularly the US forces operating in the Pacific. But the other thing which has got relevance today which people had kind of overlooked is that Cockburn Sound, which is this kind of big water, a body of water just south of Fremantle, where the Australian submarines are now based, was the biggest submarine base in the Indian Ocean and one of the biggest in the whole of the Indo-Pacific region across all of the Pacific and Indian theaters, where at the height of the war there were 170 Allied submarines operating from. And they were then able to go up north into the various straits, Malacca, Sunda, Wetar, Lombok, etc., and interdict Japanese shipping. My late great colleague, Des Ball, talked about Australia being a suitable piece of real estate. And certainly, it became very much that with Pine Gap, which we talk about in the book as well. But at the height of the Second World War, it's also a suitable piece of real estate for MacArthur's campaign up into to recover the Philippines for the maritime campaign to interdict Japanese shipping and for the reinforcement and resupply of and refresh and rehabilitation of maritime forces operating through the island chain as well. You know, and because much of the history is written from a British or American perspective, the Australian angle tends to get overlooked, and it was deeply consequential.

Andrew Hammond: That's why I'm trying to bring it out.

Clare Birgin: Yeah, it's very good.

John Blaxland: Thank you, Andrew.

Andrew Hammond: And were American armies billeted there for any period of time? You know, when people think of the war movies, they think of --

John Blaxland: No, that's right. So, there were a lot of Americans, as I say, the first Marine divisions reconstituted in Melbourne. I had spent some time with the Marines a few years ago on a deployment, and they pulled into Darwin. I was on a ship called USS Boxer, an amphibious ship, and they played Waltzing Matilda. And I was like, wow, this is pretty amazing. And of course, what I came to realize is that Waltzing Matilda is the song of the First Marine Division, which has on their badge, the Southern Cross. Right. Why? Because of that formative experience in Australia. Several of them took wives back with them, you know, after the war. It kept relationships going and took many of them. But with the US Army under MacArthur, its presence was much greater. And as the war continued, Queensland, Brisbane, the Atherton Tablelands became the kind of training ground, the prep force locations of billeting of tens of thousands of American soldiers, which overwhelmingly were welcomed, but for the occasional jealous Australian soldier, proved a little bit problematic. And this led to the moment which was kind of captioned as the Battle of Brisbane, which is really just a stout on the streets between drunken Australians and drunken Americans over, you know, what they called oversexed, overpaid, and over here, right? And they were better paid than the Australians and they would say they could afford more things, they had more things to offer, and of course, there was something -- and it's an interesting dynamic at work between North Americans and Australians. Australians really liked that accent. Australian women tend to like the North American twang, if I can put it that way. And conversely, Australians tend to like the North American -- Australian men tend to like North American women. I happen to have married a Canadian. So I'm an anecdotal illustration of this phenomenon at work.

Clare Birgin: It's a bit -- it's like in -- I think it was in 1908, the Great White Fleet came to Australia, and apparently very warmly welcomed, and apparently quite a number of them stayed. They had such a good time, it was party after party. So, as John said, people tend to get on very well.

John Blaxland: And it's worth remembering that we weren't actually a US ally in the Second World War. We were coalition partners. And so when the war ended, MacArthur went north to Japan and really has kind of walked away from Australia. And there was an expectation that we would then go back to the Brits. And to be fair, the Brits were very helpful as the war concluded. And for the early days of the creation of Australia's then-Defense Signals Bureau, in the absence of that cryptanalytic component that the Americans brought to Central Bureau, the Brits helped regenerate that with an Australian flavor. So we had for several years, throughout the 1950s, Brits playing a pivotal role. The first director of the Defense Signals Bureau, Teddy Poulden, is a Brit who has been -- who was in the salon with the Wireless Experimental Center there sent over as a trusted agent to help integrate British expertise, cryptographic expertise, help DSB as it was then the Defense Signals Bureau, became Australian Signals Directorate now, and help them get on their feet to fill that technological gap that the departure of the United States had created. So that was then very, very significant. And it's interesting because that then leaves -- because, you know, there was a sense in some kind of circles -- there was a sense that, oh, the Brits betrayed Australia in 1942, you know, and a former prime minister has made a lot of this in Australia. But you know, what was Britain to do in late 1941? Its back was against the wall, it still sent out to us its most significant warships, the Prince of Wales and Repulse, and an aircraft carrier that was broken down in Sri Lanka or Ceylon. It had multiple divisions. It had -- you know, it had a big stake in what was happening. And of course, Australia hadn't helped itself that much by not muscling up in the pre-war period although we had deployed three divisions and the navy to North Africa. So, it's complicated, but there was a sense there from the Brits, there was a sense of, well, Australia's a really important partner, particularly as the UK tried to re-engage in its Far East, our near north, after the war, re-establishing itself in Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, and not so long in Burma, of course, they got independence in 1947. And then, of course, Malaya got independence a decade later, and Singapore as well. But you get the relationship with Malaya and Singapore stayed -- Malaysia now -- stayed healthy, and Australia remained an integral part of that. And of course, in Hong Kong. And we talk about this in the book, Australia played a very critical role in supplementing the personnel resources and the intellectual horsepower, if you like, or, you know, the intellectual grunt of the SIGINT enterprise in Hong Kong, which was critical. When you think about this, you know, what made the special relationship between the UK and the US in the post-war years? It was the fact that Britain still had an empire, it still had Hong Kong, it still had Cyprus, it still had territory that was -- that served from a pure realpolitik point of view, utility for the United States.

Clare Birgin: It's very clear from the SIGINT history, and my dual degree was one of the SIGINT historians, that there was huge affection for Australia, and I think we refer to it as an almost familial relationship. They describe -- I mean, he actually says that they're one, you know, Australians are one of us. So, it was really very close. And there were other occasions too when they -- when we had the situation where intelligence wasn't being shared because of the leak, it was the British who interceded on our behalf. They were very, really extremely helpful. And, but, you know, similar thing with the United States. I keep thinking of the IBM machines. They brought IBM machines with them, which we really needed. And we had arranged to get our own, right? We'd arranged to get our own, but the arrangement fell through. It hadn't been done by the end of the year. And it looked as though we would never get them. But the Americans somehow mysteriously abandoned them, you know, in Australia, and in the end, ASD got them. So yeah. So, I think we benefited from great relationships with both the British and the Americans. [ Music ]

Erin Dietrick: Throughout this episode, Andrew, Clare, and John have spoken about Australia's relationship with the UK and America. For those like me who might be a bit rusty on Australian history, here's a quick interlude on the Australian Federation and Australian Independence. Prior to 1901, Australia was just the name of a large continent comprised of six different British colonies. These colonies, settled on indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land, have their origins in the late 18th century. Following American independence in 1783, the UK sent the first fleet to Australia to establish a penal colony in New South Wales. If you've ever bought a bottle of the Australian wine, 19 Crimes, which is very good, by the way, you'll know that many of the first Australian colonists were criminals sent down under by the British in an attempt to alleviate the overcrowding of Victorian prisons. Indeed, the first fleet dropped off 736 British convicts, both men and women. Colonists also included willing immigrants, and as the population grew, more colonies were established, eventually dividing the continent into six, now states today, that operated independently with their own leaders and own sets of laws. By the late 19th century, the idea of federation, the unification of the six colonies into one country, was gaining popularity. Much like the early United States, a series of constitutional conventions took place with representatives from each colony to draft a new constitution. The settled-upon constitution, which detailed a hybrid blend inspired by the United States Congress and British Parliament, was voted upon and passed in all of the colonies by 1899. British Parliament passed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in July of 1900, and Queen Victoria gave her royal assent four days later, announcing that the Act would come into effect on January 1, 1901. Thus, in 1901, the six colonies became the Commonwealth of Australia, a federation of six states, and today two additional self-governing territories. [ Music ]

Andrew Hammond: So in your book, you have a nice narrative arc of World War One, the interwar period, World War Two. We don't have time to cover all of that, unfortunately. People can obviously go and buy the book. But I think it would be quite interesting at this point to just discuss a couple of figures from World War Two. So we've discussed various parts of the Second World War, but I'm thinking in the US, you have Joe Rochefort for the Navy, you have the Freedmen's for the Army, you have the Nassian, World War I, you know, Herbert Yardley, the Black Chamber. Then in the UK, you have Room 40, Dilly Knox, Alan Turing. And a lot of our listeners won't have heard of a couple of important Australians like Eric Nave and Ruby Boye Jones. So, maybe you can discuss both of them. I think that would be quite interesting.

Clare Birgin: Well, the Coastwatchers were very interesting. You know, they obviously had a function reporting on bad weather, things like, you know, just what was happening, and so on.

Andrew Hammond: So they would be based on islands and they would rapport--

Clare Birgin: On islands, remote areas, you know, yes.

Andrew Hammond: And the Pacific.

Clare Birgin: They were placed strategically in the Pacific. And she was on an island called Vanikoro, where the French explorer Lapérouse was probably shipwrecked because the island had very dangerous reefs around it. Anyway, she was there with her husband. She reported on, you know, meteorological matters and taught herself Morse code. But during the war, she became a coastwatcher as well. These people provided cover for SIGINT, you know, when SIGINT picked up that there were enemy planes coming, they could say that, oh, the coastwatchers must have seen it if they were flying in that direction. So, it was a very, very important cover. But she was particularly good at it. She was very -- she was very resourceful. But the Japanese knew exactly what she was doing and she received death threats. And on one occasion, they came to get her and couldn't because of the reef surrounding, you know, surrounding the island where Lapérouse apparently came to grief. But she was recognized by the Americans for her work, just warning messages, she transmitted secret messages as well. And one of them, I think it was Nimitz sent a plane when she became ill so that she could get hospital treatment. And there's, I think, a bath block or something named after her at Duntroon, some sort of dormitory. So she was quite an amazing figure. And Eric Nave was equally -- was, well, probably even more remarkable because he was really Australia's world-famous code breaker. He was brilliant at it. He was also an expert on Japan, which is, people don't say enough about that.

Andrew Hammond: He taught himself Japanese from scratch and became very deftly.

Clare Birgin: He had lessons. He had -- he was --

John Blaxland: And he lived in Japan for a while, too?

Clare Birgin: Yes, he lived there for a year. And actually knew a lot about Japan and Japanese politics so that he was able to -- he was able to decrypt a very important cable on -- it was called the Washington Ratio. Why Japan was satisfied with a naval ratio of three to five --

John Blaxland: The Washington Treaty.

Clare Birgin: Yes.

John Blaxland: 1921.

Clare Birgin: Because Japan had worked out that by the time the US ships had crossed the Pacific, they'd be exhausted, running out of fuel, etc. It was just a -- it was just a really terrific exposure of how the Japanese were thinking and he understood it. He understood the Bushido code. So, it really made him a fantastic code-breaker. And, you know, he actually set up that -- he led that organization in Australia.

John Blaxland: And it was instrumental in breaking JN-25, a critical Japanese naval code as well.

Andrew Hammond: For Ruby Boye Jones, can we just unpack, for example, some of the contributions that they made to the Battle of the Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, which you mentioned in the book? So just give our listeners a flavor of how Australians impacted those battles.

John Blaxland: The Coastwatcher organization, you know, they're scattered -- these are people who had been there in the interwar years. They've got plantations, they're working, they've got farms, they're invested in agricultural enterprises in the islands, and their skills, you know. And they often would have their own radio just to, you know, order in something for the next barge that was going to come by and for their supplies for the next month and things like that. Of course, those radios would then become incredibly useful for reporting in wartime. And particularly in the line of islands from Robben, where the Pacific Army headquarters was for the Japanese, and down to Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands chain. There's two lines of islands and there's kind of a gap between them that's calmer water where you can steam through and a lot of ferrying of supplies happened along that route from Robben down to Guadalcanal. It's in that space, the Battle of Savo Island happens, it's in that space that John F. Kennedy's patrol boat is cut in half by a Japanese warship. It's in that space that there are a lot of coastwatchers who are working with local people, Pacific Islanders, and then reporting and collaborating and, you know, rescuing JFK and working with the allies of the Americans and Australians. So there's enormous goodwill in that space. And for when you've got a message you've got to get out that's unclassified, singing the praises of the coastwatchers is an easy, easy sell. That's easy. Because you just -- we know, you know, in the espionage business, the secret of success is in keeping one's successes secret. And the success of SIGINT had to be kept secret. So you couldn't gloat. There's nothing worse than this. And we talk in the book about some examples of politicians who gloated about the successes in SIGINT and the catastrophic knock-on effect of that revelation on the ability to continue.

Clare Birgin: People would change all their codes and use one-time pads, the total silence.

John Blaxland: Yeah, that's -- yeah, and so, you know, there's a lot of credit to the coastwatchers to be given, rightly so. But as we say, you know, in the book, and I think an important point for the book is most scholars on international relations don't know what they don't know. One of the things few of them really have a good understanding of is the impact of SIGINT on international relations writ large. And this book is an attempt to cover that gap to a certain extent.

Andrew Hammond: I like that impact of SIGINT on IR writ large. So, we get to the end of the Second World War. Australia comes out of it and then tell us how Australia goes into the Cold War? As I understand it from the book, after the war, like many countries, it's okay, we don't need all these personnel, we don't need all of these agencies. There's a bit of a winding down and then there's someone else we have to keep a close eye on. And there's a ramping back up. Tell us how it begins to build back up after the war.

Clare Birgin: Well, we were drawn into a number of wars in our own region. You know, there was the -- there was -- we were part of the Cold War because obviously, we didn't want the spread of communism any more than our allies did. But our situation was a bit different from theirs because of where we were. These wars were taking place quite near us. We were active in, you know, in terms of SIGINT too in Malaya, then in the Indonesian confrontation, and then fighting alongside the United States in Korea. So -- and then Vietnam.

John Blaxland: So there's an interesting -- particularly the hiatus at the end of the war, where the Chifley government has people in its circle who are by association tainted with the nest of spies that emerges in the 1950s. And this is what leads to the break of communications, there's American imposition of restraints on the sharing of information with Australia in the late 1940s to '47, '48, '49, a real sense that Australia is in crisis mode because of the Venona decrypts, these decrypts of these Russian diplomatic reporting pointed to active Australian passing of classified information to the Soviets. Now, on one level, you know, in hindsight, we think, oh, that's terrible. But we, I think, need to remember that for a lot of these people who had leftist leanings, the Soviet Union having also done the heavy lifting in the fighting against the Germans in the Second World War, they had been our allies, you know, and the revelations of kind of Stalin's atrocities were not widely understood. Were not widely known before the crushing of the Hungarian uprising and the Prague Spring. There was a sense on the left of politics that the Soviet Union model wasn't such a bad thing, right? They had beaten the Nazis. They, you know, they had redeeming qualities. And so, I think there was a sense in that circle that, ah, well, we should just help them, you know, not realizing in fact that, you know, and as Des Ball and David Horner make clear in their book on breaking the codes, that this information was then being used against us, because the Soviets wanted the war in the Pacific to go longer than it was otherwise going to go because they wanted to finish off the Germans and then claim parts of Japan and the Japanese Empire. So, you know, it was important for them to be able to draw the conflict out, which meant making it less easy for us to fight.

Clare Birgin: Yeah. I mean, and it wasn't just us, obviously, who were caught up in the Venona revelations. It was, I think, that's the reason why not very -- why even less is written about SIGINT in the Cold War than during the Second World War because it was such a hostile and extensive campaign against the United States. And, you know, picking up, for example, the atomic bomb project, and so on. But, as a close ally of the United States, we were also part of it. But fortunately, we redeemed ourselves to a certain -- we did redeem ourselves, I think, because of the Petrov defection, which was very useful and actually assisted in the decryption of some of the Venona material because of what Petrov --

John Blaxland: Could confirm. He could corroborate things.

Clare Birgin: Yeah.

John Blaxland: So, but it's worth unpacking a little bit the significance of the one-time pads. There'd been revelations in the British Parliament of SIGINT success against the Soviets. We talked about in the book. That then led to the Russians realizing that they needed to go. The only way that was safe was a one-time pad. Electro-mechanical generated cryptography was breakable, essentially. Much like with the German Enigma, you know, the polyalphabetic substitution, the rotors with alphanumeric numbers on them, you could actually replicate the code sequence if you had enough computing power and a couple of leads. So, the Russians picked up on that early before the Germans. And they went to the one-time pad in the late 1930s. But when it came to the start of -- when the Nazis invaded, they evidently had a challenge in keeping a supply of one-time pads. They made duplicates. And for a period that the duplicate pads provided a slight crack in the window for some light to pass through to allow cryptographers to unpick the Russian code. And it is -- you know, the Venona project goes from the mid-1940s through until 1980. It's like decades of research that is exposing, you know, the nest of spies in the UK, you know, in the US, in Australia. The Australian chapter of that is not as well known in the Northern Hemisphere, but it is a significant part of the equation and breaking that nest of spies and the significance of Venona to that. It goes a long way to explain how post the Royal Commission on Espionage, the Petrov defection, Australia is really rehabilitated in terms of the Five Eyes partnership.

Andrew Hammond: I think Venona is really interesting for a number of reasons, but one thing that I was wondering was if Venona uncovers that America has a spy problem. Those people inside the Manhattan Project, for example, that are spying for the Soviet Union. If Britain has a spy problem -- if I remember correctly, Alistair MacLean, and there's even implicating -- stuff that implicates Philby in Vinona. So why is Australia iced out if both of those countries have their own issues with internal security? I'm trying to understand it. I hear what you're saying about the unwitting aspect. You know, they are allies, we're trying to help them. But I'm assuming that there's also a witting aspect where there's actual people that are penetration agents or moles that are passing information over. Like, help me understand that.

John Blaxland: So I think it's probably worth thinking about the secrets. These are revelations that happened in the mid to late 1940s. Before the Cambridge Five revelations become clear and before the revelations about the --

Andrew Hammond: The Rosenbergs.

John Blaxland: The Rosenbergs and the revelations of the Manhattan Project leaks. So, Australia seems to be an outlier of weakness, not realizing -- it's not only later that they realize in fact Australia's then just the norm, you know, it's like everyone else in the West is subject to penetration, subject to exploitation and moles operating in a trusted capacity. So, you know, this -- we have the benefit of hindsight today, but in the early Cold War period, there was a lot of fumbling around, and there was a lot of trying to figure out, you know, the Truman administration had, you know, had not yet adopted, you know, an adversarial approach towards the Soviet Union. It took a while for that to happen. Churchill probably was a bit more front-footed, but then he was taken -- you know, he was booted out of office. And Attlee was -- it was Attlee, wasn't it?

Andrew Hammond: Attlee, yeah.

John Blaxland: Attlee comes in and, you know, similarly, there's a kind of center-left inclination to be more understanding and forgiving and accommodating. And the same in Australia. There's a sense in the Chifley government that, oh, you know, yeah, for sure. Yes, there were priorities with the Alliance, the US, the ties with the UK, and ties with the United States, because it was an alliance until 1951, of course, with the US, with the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. But prior to that, there's a sense, well, we were allies in the war, and of course, so were the Soviet Union. So, you know, the idea of the Iron Curtain takes some while to get traction in Australia.

Clare Birgin: Yeah, there's a certain amount of idealism in it, even a bit of naivety. You know, people just weren't aware of what was really -- what was going on. They'd go on visits to Russia and obviously be welcomed and see the good side of communism, which does exist, but not things like people being sent to prison for -- that's right, for, you know, for saying what they thought. They didn't see that side of it yet.

Andrew Hammond: And just bringing it up to the present day as we're running out of time. So I'm just trying to get a sense of when does Australians again move toward the cyber age. So, one of the subtitles of the book is "the advent of cyber". So for our listeners, when is the advent of cyber, and when does Australia join the advent of cyber?

John Blaxland: So the --

Andrew Hammond: Or maybe the two coincided.

John Blaxland: You know, the fourth industrial revolution happens across the world. It's starting in the '90s. I remember getting a brief in 1988 by an electrical engineer, a colleague of mine, in the signals call. He said, "John, the world's about to get transformed by ones and zeros." And I thought, "What are you talking about, mate?" You know? He was right. The world was on the cusp of a transformation. And of course, by the mid-1990s, it's becoming clear. We've got the internet emerges, which is all about communications with digital communications globally, with ones and zeros, some kind of, you know, permutations of ones and zeros. That, of course, laptops, computers, these things all add to the momentum for the digitalization of the world, which in the SIGINT enterprise generates an existential crisis because SIGINT has, for the longest time, relied on analog signals communications, right, radio frequency emanations and stuff passed on telegraph lines. So, the digital revolution, OMG, you know, what are we going to do? How are we going to manage this challenge? And there's a great, you know, sense of, well, maybe our days are over. Of course, what they hadn't quite realized in this. By the mid-'90s to the late-'90s, there's a sense of, oh, no, this is a Copernican revolution taking place here. We are going through an absolute transformation. So, this once very secretive organization whose very title was meant to deflect attention. I mean, the Defense Signals Bureau was not the AT&T or the Telstra of Australia. You know, it was an eavesdropping organization. But its title was meant to hide that fact. By the late '90s into the early 2000s, the cyber dimension, this need for cyber security becomes all-encompassing. The government needs it, departments, industry needs it, schools, education, society needs, we need patches, we need security, and all of a sudden ASD or then DSD is pushed to the forefront. Like in other countries, GCHQ in the UK and NSA in the US, and counterparts around the world, these hoodie-wearing, basement-dwelling introverted geeks are pushed to the front to help us protect ourselves, right? So they have to be developed by shopfront, you know, a website. There's the Australian Cyber Security Centre with its essential eight, you know, getting out there with a message about, "Hey, this is a team effort, folks, but we are the experts to help you get there." And that's that computing half from the electromechanical era of the IBMs of World War II, to the Cray computers of the 1970s, to the IBMs and HPEs of today, Hewlett Packard Enterprise. They're the supercomputers of today that are generating the space for, you know, quantum, and this is generating, of course, the next wave of challenge, what do we do with quantum? Of course, this is a particular challenge for the future. And of course, the best people in my estimation, the best people for this to help us think this through, are our SIGINT experts.

Andrew Hammond: I mean, I really love in the book, at the beginning, you chart the narrative arc of SIGINT, look at the effect that the telegraph, the radio, electricity have on signals intelligence. But just a final question to try to tie all of this together. What connects people waving flags on ships, you know, the "Signal Book for the Ships of War," 1790, Admiral Howe, 10 flags have 9999 possible meanings, what connects the ships using flags to the modern era of cyber and computers, and so forth?

Clare Birgin: I think it's -- I mean, it's communications when people want to communicate. That's a very important thing. But also understanding -- the link is understanding others. And that can be in order to protect yourself or to become closer to a particular country. And this was what -- I mean, one of my favorite characters in the book is Eric Nave, whom I mentioned before because I think that what he probably loved most about his job is that it enabled him to understand Japan where he was an expert better. So it goes -- what it goes to is deep understanding, very efficient communications, and deep understanding either for the purpose of protecting yourself or sometimes, you know -- or to get secrets from someone else, from an opponent, but basically deeper understanding than you could get by any other means.

John Blaxland: I wanted to just add that that communication was to generate effects in the Napoleonic era. It was about getting the battleships in the line to cross the T if you like to win the battle. Today it's about gaining an information advantage to ensure that our forces are best protected and any potential adversary is put into a disadvantageous position so that their T is crossed metaphorically.

Andrew Hammond: Which brings us full circle we get back to the sword and shield aspect.

John Blaxland: Indeed.

Andrew Hammond: Protection of the secrets.

John Blaxland: Yeah. It really is.

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much. Thank you. [ Music ]

Erin Dietrick: Thanks for listening to this week's episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast@spymuseam.org or on X @intlspycast. Coming up in next week's show.

Unidentified Person: He was much more important than I'd be led to believe. I mean the popular image of him, the tabloid image of him, is that Ian Fleming is just during the war, he's six years in naval intelligence. He was just a kind of -- he cleared out out trays, in trays and ashtrays.

Erin Dietrick: 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 you're 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, Ariel Samuel, Elliott Peltzman, Tre 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. [ Music ]