Practitioners know that the secret of success in the espionage business is in keeping successes secret. Uninitiated commentators often miss fundamental aspects of how intelligence is deployed in a country’s statecraft as a result. Practitioners of old went to their graves without revealing the feats of cryptography and its strategic importance, for example, leaving many historians and international relations scholars to miss crucial nuances for the simple reason that they have been kept secret.
My recent book with Clare Birgin, Revealing Secrets: An Unofficial History of Australian Signals Intelligence and the Advent of Cyber, makes bold claims about the place of intelligence in Australian statecraft, the impact of the fourth industrial revolution (or digital revolution), and the advent of cyber, as well as the misreading of history when it excludes intelligence. There is a richer story to be told by placing signals intelligence (Sigint) in historical and contemporary context. The genesis of the book was a contract for an official history of the Australian Signals Directorate originally awarded to the Australian National University, but its cancellation in 2020 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Free to put the work of the ASD on a broader canvas, Birgin and I shed new light on the role of Sigint in statecraft, the emergence of cyber, and even the AUKUS arrangements.
We explored aspects of cryptology, drawing on historical examples to explain concepts such as the frequency principle, where common letters give clues to codebreaking. We also looked into transposition ciphers, the spatial placement of letters to hide meaning. This extended to mono-alphabetic transposition ciphers used as far back as the days of Julius Caesar, where letters transposed hid the message. And poly-alphabetic substitution ciphers, where wheels with alpha-numeric sequences added layers to the substitution, complicating decryption.
Cryptologists brought to their task powerful intellects. They included the elite among linguists, historians, artists and mathematicians. Some had mysterious intuitive powers that could not be easily explained to others.
Often scholars have missed the role this intelligence played in statecraft because it isn’t “bombs bursting in air”. Napoleon, for instance, is lionised by many, including Carl von Clausewitz, in On War. Yet after a series of battlefield successes, his enemies matched him, the winning differential being espionage and cryptography.
Napoleon lost in Moscow, on the Iberian Peninsula, and at Waterloo, having dismissed the value of intercepting and decoding enemy messages. Clausewitz played down the usefulness of intelligence, echoing Napoleon’s approach, despite the latter’s defeats from 1812, which can be attributed to ignorance of the enemy as well as hubris. Armchair strategists to this day still miss the significance of espionage and deception to diplomatic and military success.
Electricity, telegraphy, wireless radios, Morse code and submarine cables, which arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, amplified the powers of cryptographers and other Sigint practitioners.
The cabinet noir or black chamber (where secret messages were accessed, copied, deciphered and translated) gave negotiators a secret advantage that was often decisive. In the modern era, the headquarters of America’s National Security Agency is housed in a building designed to look like a black chamber.
The Zimmerman telegram of 1917 is perhaps the most famous example of the influence of Sigint on diplomacy and statecraft. Germany’s intercepted and deciphered telegram inviting Mexican authorities to join in the war against the United States was decrypted by the British. As a result, the Americans joined in the war against Germany. There are many other examples in Revealing Secrets.
We were also conscious that the role of Sigint in the formulation of Australian foreign and defence policy in the Second World War and the following decades is, at best, incompletely understood. Official historians, perhaps afraid to divulge secrets, or never briefed on them, omitted or glossed over its pivotal role.
When the Defence Signals Bureau was formed in 1947, assembling in Melbourne remnants of the Australian wartime Sigint entities, the title, abbreviated to DSB, was intended to conceal its real purpose. The electro-mechanical IBM computers used in wartime created the momentum that led to ASD becoming a centre of computing excellence today.
As the digital revolution accelerated in the 1990s and early 2000s, society went from being web-enabled to web-dependent, and, in turn, web-vulnerable. The directorate found itself the focal point for critical skills and knowledge that would form the core of the nation’s cyber security apparatus and lead to the creation of the Australian Cyber Security Centre.
This once reclusive intelligence agency, with its introspective technicians and technocrats, formerly described as the “Gnomes of Melbourne”, experienced a Copernican revolution. It became the shopfront for the nation’s cyber security advice and “essential eight”.
Today, with cyber security central to domestic and international affairs, Revealing Secrets challenges some established preconceptions on statecraft. The book also explores how the trusted collaboration spanning eight decades culminated in the United States having the confidence to provide Australia with nuclear propulsion technology otherwise closed to all except the United Kingdom. Revealing Secrets explains how AUKUS came to fruition.