The Fourth Eye

The Spy Catcher Trial

Turnbull, M. (1988). The Spycatcher trial. Richmond, Vic., William Heinemann Australia.

ASIO and Defence saw this as a chance to show their loyalty to Britain and the western intelligence “club”.


  • The Official Secrets Act imposes a total obligation of secrecy on all government employees no matter how junior and no matter how trivial the information. It did not apply to Australia
  • A lot in Spycatcher was information about intelligence services which is already known, out of date or innocuous if published.
  • Defences
    • The book disclosed evidence of criminal activities by MI5 and an Australian court could not suppress evidence of such criminality
    • If MI5 was penetrated by the Russians as claimed, what harm could be caused by the publication
    • A great deal of information in the book was already published, so not confidential and worthy of protection
  • Commonwealth v Fairfax 1981, attempt by the government to stop publication of certain Foreign Office documents and cables. Anthony Mason refused the injunction saying that governments could only restrain the publication of confidential information if they could establish that the information was still secret, and most importantly, that its publication would cause real detriment, not just embarrassment, and public debate and controversy.
  • Turnbull accepted that phones and faces would be intercepted and possible our offices bugged
  • RESISTANCE – telephone tapping “provided us with splendid opportunities for misinformation. Hooper and I had numerous conversations about lines of cross examination for Armstrong which were entirely fictitious.” P 15
  • An important factor in Wrights thinking was to create a public debate about intelligence in general and Soviet penetration in particular.” P 21
  • Wright had vetted Kim Philby’s book, “My Secret War” when MI5 got a copy from the printers.
  • “One of the government’s main objectives in the case was to deter any other officers, present or former, from writing their memoirs. P 24
  • Argued that
    • Contents of the book in the public domain
    • Already known to the security services of the Soviet Union
    • So out of date public action would not damage the interests of the plaintiff
    • Evidence of treason of the British security services should be in the public interest
    • Evidence of crimes and other unlawful acts should not be suppressed
  • “The government would have to answer on oath whether or not MI5 had been systematically breaking the law by bugging embassies, burgling consulates and generally doing the sort of thing law enforcement agencies are meant to stop.” P36
  • 1985 Cathy Massiter, former MI5, alleged MIF bugged civil libertarians, left wing politicians and trade unionists. Government admitted everything Mssiter said was true. P. 37 more p 120 – 121
  • Turnbull, “The government’s practice on official secrets was to be on trial, not Peter Wright’s book.”
  • 53 political interference – Sir Michael Havers overheard in the urinal at the Garrick Club as having persuaded PM Bob Hawke that the Australian government should give evidence in support of Britain. Turnbull immediately arranged for a friend to speak to Hawke. Turnbull himself spoke to Brian Burdekin, Attorney General Lionel Bowen’s privacy secretary, and learned that the government was planning to help but had not decided how much.
  • Turnbull wrote to Bowen, “Your government has built upon the achievements of the Whitlam government in showing the world that Australia is a truly independent nation.”
  • He also explained the position to Foreign Minister Bill Hayden, learned later that DFAT strongly opposed to involvement. Defence Minister Beazley very keen to help the British.
  • “ASIO and Defence saw this as a chance to show their loyalty to Britain and the western intelligence “club”. P 54
  • Wright on Thatcher’s statement to parliament, “She has just said what MI5 told her. They don’t argue the toss with politicians. We just tell them what to say and the poor beggars have to say it.”p. 114
  • “I had little doubt that my conversation with Kinnock was being taped. The calls to England were being monitored by the GCHQ in Cheltenham. International calls travel by satellite and are most vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping. Calls to Canberra were by and large conveyed by microwave links, again very vulnerable to eavesdropping. “ p. 117
  • “The judge had characteristically put his finger on the very heart of the issues. How can a democracy tolerate a situation where a vast intelligence apparatus is completely above the law, not because the law does not apply to it, but simply because it is so secret that nobody is ever in a position to know what it does. P 148
  • 1977 CIA creates a Publication Review Board
  • “For years the secret services have assumed their work is best done with minimum reporting and accountability to the Government and ultimately the people. When I was young I readily adopted this philosophy. I was told we can’t have a formal reporting system because we will be cast in concrete. I now think this is entirely wrong. 173
  • “Sir Robert’s evidence and his demeanour showed him to be a man with no regard for the truth, rather a man determined to say whatever he felt would advance the Government’s cause, regardless of its truth of falsity. His evidence is worthless.” P 188 Turnbull of Sir Robert Armstrong
  • “Sir Michael Havers allowed Sir Robert Armstrong to give evidence in New South Wales which Sir Michael knew was false. “ p. 191
  • “The public interest in free speech is not just in truthful speech, in correct speech, in fair speech, in speech one point at a time and never to be repeated. The interests is in the debate. You see, every person who has ultimately changed the course of history has started off being unpopular.” P. 195
  • The judgement issued by Phillip Powel l issued Friday 13 March, 286 pages, “the British Government, the Service has, for years, leaked like a sieve.”
  • The Economist protested at its inability to publish a review by simply spublishing a blank page where the review would have been. RESISTANCE