The surprising thing about the National Security Agency spy scandal reports oozing out of Washington is that people are surprised. Credible reports of U.S. and British decoding and information gathering activities have been around for years.

Australians had the chance to know something about all this long ago, thanks to a scoop published prominently in the pages of the Australian Financial Review back in 1976 revealing a large Australian intelligence decoding operation against confidential Japanese diplomatic and business correspondence.

A follow-up story by former Tokyo-based Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Max Suich gave more details. Canberra then imposed a D-notice prohibiting further media disclosures, which in effect confirmed that the original story was correct.

At the time some of us expected a strong reaction from Tokyo, along the lines we are seeing today as the Europeans discover they too have been spied upon. But there was nothing, even though the main Japanese media had people based in Sydney. It seems they had all headed for the Japanese Embassy in Canberra for advice on what to do and were told that the story was false, that it was quite impossible for Australians to want or be able to decode Japanese messages. And so the story died — stillborn in Japan and strangulated in Australia.

Back in Japan I tried to follow up. Japan had lost the Pacific War because it refused to believe that its military messages could be decoded. Surely Tokyo officialdom would have been sensitive to any hint we foreigners were still at it today.

But there too I found the same lack of alarm; Japanese diplomatic codes were unbreakable, I was told.

And to some extent that was true. Like most other security-conscious nations Japan was using the unbreakable one-time pad codes (ran-su hyo in Japanese) for sensitive top-secret messages. But a lot of lower-grade messages went out in weaker encryptions. Even in those early days Western cryptography was advanced enough to break most codes.

The Max Suich article put it into perspective. Australia, then as now, was a member of the Echelon decoding club of trusted Anglo-Saxon nations — Australia, the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Dedicated to discovering the world’s secrets they had carved up the globe, with Japan allocated to Australia since the U.K., Canada and U.S. were already busy chasing Cold War enemies elsewhere (we never discovered what New Zealand was supposed to do).

Operating out of something called the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) in Melbourne, a major role for Australia’s decoders was supposed to be getting access to cable and telephone links in and out of Japan. Anyone in Japan, or elsewhere, who relies on telecommunications experts from any of the Echelon nations to do their wiring for them should be worried.

But the harm does not stop there.

Spy and other secret information is handled on the basis of “need to know.” Inevitably this means that only those trusted by the spy networks — hardliners or opportunists happy to go along with the spies — get to see that information, and that only those with the information get to make the decisions.

So, policy is decided in an echo chamber created by those who only listen to what they want to listen. Those not trusted — individualists, persons of conscience, or simply people who are better informed — are left “out of the loop.” Even decision-makers suspicious of the spies can be drawn in. As former Australian ambassador to Japan, John Menadue, wrote in his memoirs, “What you Learn along the Way”:

“They [the spies] are, however, adept in doling out juicy tidbits of information that are often untested but draw one into the inner circle of people with privileged information,a twilight world of secrets and gossip. Perhaps we all read too many spy thrillers and vicariously want to be part of the action. Few are immune.”

(Menadue was writing after discovering how the spies had successfully used false information to derail an agreement with Japan that he wanted and they had opposed. At the time I was strictly “out of the loop” and unable to help.)

Under Echelon and other secret information sharing arrangements, the demand for need-to-know reliability becomes even stronger. The use of false or distorted information to influence other nations’ policies becomes even more rampant. Yet even when it is clear that the information is unreliable and the spies are out of control, it is hard for anyone to complain or disagree.

“Group-think” is now openly blamed for the Iraq disaster. Criminal collusion would be the better word.

Over Iraq, bogus reports of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear ambitions (the “mushroom cloud”) and phony al-Qaida links (by a regime dedicated to suppressing al-Qaida?) were all fed into that “twilight world” to call for an attack that today no one even tries to justify.

As the U.S. and U.K. try to dig themselves out of the current diplomatic mess created by their runaway spy agencies, both like to insist they have not used spy information for economic gain. But that is untrue; business information is a major target for all such agencies, especially since it usually falls into the easily code-breakable category.

The targeting is also highly corrupting since the information gained can be passed on selectively to cooperative firms — often firms that provide employment and cover for spy operatives.

In Australia favored firms getting spy material on Japanese contract policies and other business negotiations used to joke how they had found it “fallen off the back of a truck.” And that was 40 years ago. Imagine what is going on today.

Gregory Clark has worked in government in Australia and now resides in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will be found on www.gregoryclark.net.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.