Peter Edwards reviews John Blaxland and Clare Birgin’s Revealing Secrets: An Unofficial History of Australian Signals Intelligence & The Advent of Cyber (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2023) and John Fahey’s The Factory: The Official History of the Australian Signals Directorate, Volume 1, 1947 to 1972 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2023).


The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), previously known as the Defence Signals Bureau/Branch/Division/Directorate (DSB/DSD), has traditionally been one of the most secretive of Australia’s intelligence agencies. It is remarkable, therefore, that this longstanding secretiveness has been replaced by the almost simultaneous appearance of two historical studies of the agency, one billed as ‘the official history’ and the other as ‘an unofficial history’. For Australians interested in the interaction of history and public policy, the back story behind this event is as significant as the books themselves.

Edward Snowden, via Wikicommons

In 2013 media around the world published stories, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, that suggested that the American and British signals intelligence (sigint) agencies, the National Security Agency (NSA) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), were intercepting the emails of virtually every citizen. In the subsequent furore, the distinction between metadata and content of communications was lost: media stories, especially in the UK and US, implied that NSA and GCHQ were spying on their own citizens, not just foreign adversaries. The ramifications of the media furore reached Australia because the links established in World War II between NSA’s and GCHQ’s predecessors became, with the post-war inclusion of Australian, Canadian and New Zealand agencies, the foundation of what we now know as the Five Eyes intelligence network. Consequently policy-makers in all five countries recognised that significant steps had to be taken to rebuild public trust in their national and international intelligence arrangements.

These steps included not only upgrading the official, ministerial and parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies but also efforts to be as open as possible, without compromising operational security, in relating matters that had long been protected by extreme secrecy and misleading euphemisms. The publication of authorised histories, often described as official histories, was one such measure. Even before the Snowden affair, Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI5 and MI6, had published histories of their early years,[i] but now the time had come for GCHQ to step out of the shadows.

GCHQ commissioned John Ferris, a Canadian academic, to write its ‘authorised history’.[ii] Published in 2020, Behind the Enigma traces the development of British signals intelligence from the early nineteenth century to the impact of the Snowden leaks. A comprehensive, detailed and engagingly written book, Behind the Enigma says a great deal about the relationships that GCHQ and its predecessors had with other government agencies and with the public. Ferris noted, for example, that the unauthorised disclosure in the 1970s of Bletchley Park’s success in breaking the German Ultra code proved unexpectedly valuable in winning public support and admiration for signals intelligence. As Ferris put it, ‘the cult of Bletchley … protected GCHQ more than the cult of secrecy ever had done’.[iii]

Mike Burgess, the head of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) in 2019, presumably had in mind an Australian equivalent to Behind the Enigma, as well as the three-volume history that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had already published,[iv] when he commissioned John Blaxland to write a two-volume official history of ASD. Blaxland engaged a small team of writers and researchers and embarked on a project that would place Australian sigint in the long tradition of espionage, secret communications and cryptography. When Burgess moved to become head of ASIO, however, his successor at ASD, Rachel Noble, abruptly cancelled Blaxland’s contract. She later told a parliamentary committee that she concluded that the draft chapters of the first volume spent too much time on the early history of cryptography and signals intelligence, going back to Greek and Roman times, rather than on the Australian agency.[v] Noble clearly did not share the view that the chapters in Behind the Enigma on developments well before the triumphs of Bletchley, let alone the disaster of Snowden’s leaks, had done much to establish the importance of signals intelligence in British statecraft.

In cancelling the contract, Noble allowed Blaxland and his co-author Clare Birgin to retain and to publish the material that they had already written, but no longer to have privileged access to post-1945 records of ASD and its predecessors. This is the origin of Revealing Secrets which starts with a succinct and relevant coverage of intelligence and cryptology, internationally and in Australia, to World War II. On developments after 1945, Blaxland and Birgin rely on public source material but, given the extensive experience that both authors have had in intelligence and related areas, readers can confidently assume that their assessments of those sources are well informed. While primarily a history, Revealing Secrets addresses current and future issues, particularly those created by the advent of cyber, as well as the need to balance the new powers required by intelligence agencies with commensurate measures of oversight.

After cancelling Blaxland’s contract, Noble commissioned John Fahey to complete the two-volume project originally envisaged. After a career in signals intelligence, Fahey had written two books on the early history of Australia’s intelligence and counter-intelligence. The accounts are colourful and engaging, but two leading scholars on intelligence have pointed to occasions where the author’s judgements go beyond the evidence.[vi] The Factory includes some useful information, for example on the role of signals intelligence in the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation and the Vietnam War, but the tone is that of an agency insider rather than an independent external observer.

This is the background to the nearly simultaneous publication of an unofficial history which began life as the official history, and the first volume of the projected two-volume official history. Reading the two books in quick succession evokes a curious contrast. Anyone seriously interested in Australian military history will have had the experience of reading the official war histories, which endeavour to give an independent, external and whole-of-government, even whole-of-society, account of Australia’s involvement in conflicts and peacekeeping operations; and alongside them, accounts of the experience of particular individuals or units, showing what high-level strategic decisions meant for the personal experience of those who served on the battlefield or on the home front.

The irony is that here it is the ‘unofficial history’ that gives greater guidance into both the historical and the contemporary contexts of the developments it records, while the ‘official history’ has the air of a record of siginters by siginters and primarily for siginters. Revealing Secrets has the benefit of positive scholarly reviews,[vii] glowing endorsements from respected practitioners and historians, and talks by its authors on prominent platforms, while The Factory has attracted little attention. As an exercise in gaining public recognition and respect for ASD’s role in Australian statecraft, Noble’s decision to substitute Fahey for Blaxland and his colleagues must count as a regrettable own goal.



[i] C. Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (Melbourne: Penguin, 2009); K. Jeffery,  The Secret History of MI6 (New York: Penguin Press, 2010).

[ii] J. Ferris, Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020).

[iii] Ferris, Behind the Enigma, 675.

[iv] D. Horner, The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, Volume I, 1949-1963 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014); John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO, Volume II, 1963-1975 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015); John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley, The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO, Volume III, 1975-1989 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2016).

[v] A. Galloway, ‘Spy agency says dumping historian had nothing to do with national security’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 2020.

[vi] R. Crawley, ‘Book Review: Australia’s First Spies’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, 2020, 99-100; P. Deery, ‘Soldiers, spies and Soviets’, Inside Story, 7 August 2020, accessed on 20 June 2023 at .

[vii] See, for example, David Schaefer, ‘Sigint and Cyber Power Down Under’, Intelligence and National Security, published online 31 May 2023, accessed at DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2023.2219442.

Peter Edwards
Peter Edwards

Peter Edwards is the official historian of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts 1948-1975 and the author of Law, Politics and Intelligence: A Life of Robert Hope (2020).