The Crime of not Knowing Your Crime by Karen Throssell is a genre bending book which explores a great injustice.
The book uses a mixture of poetry, memoir, documentary, polemic, tribute and the exposure of a scandal to tell the story of her father Ric Throssell, the extraordinary Throssell family and the decades long persecution it faced.
Ric Throssell was the son of a Gallipoli VC winner, Hugo Throssell, and the great Australian novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard who was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia.
Ric served in Papua New Guinea in WWII and when he returned to Australia he applied to join the diplomatic service as a cadet. He was involved in social justice activism; wrote 26 plays; acted in theatres; wrote an engaging autobiography – My Father’s Son; and, despite his career being handicapped by a great injustice played significant roles in the Department of Foreign Affairs’ work but was constantly denied promotions for work he was eminently qualified for.
The problem was that he was a victim of the Petrov era Red Scare and the continuing hounding of him- even after his death – by the Australian intelligence agencies, journalists, the Murdoch media and commentators such as Gerard Henderson and Des Ball.
What’s worse is that the accusations made against him were false and the Petrov Commission found him to be innocent of the slurs and accusations made against him.
The problems started after the war when the US and British intelligence services pressured the then Labor Government to ramp up the national intelligence services. The pressure was more acute when a Russian, Petrov, defected to Australia and the Menzies Government established a Royal Commission.
At the Commission Petrov claimed that Throssell had been a Russian spy since an early posting in Moscow. The Royal Commission found that there was no evidence for this and that Throssell was innocent.
But in the strange minds of the intelligence community being innocent is never enough – mere suspicion or bloody-mindedness is enough to harass a victim for the rest of their career and life.
As Throssell wrote: “The conservatives had a mantra: If you are not with us, you are against us, and if you are against us you are our enemy.”
Des Ball was still making false claims about Throssell years after Throssell’s death. He did the same to John Burton, the head of what was then the External Affairs Department. Burton had the temerity to question Australia’s obsession with Britain and the US and argued for a foreign policy based on a better understanding of and engagement with Asia.
The way Karen Throssell recounts that story, and the story of her father’s life is innovative, creative and compelling. She dedicates the book “To my father, Ric Throssell and to all those who similarly suffered from the State’s determination to find them guilty despite proven innocent.”
Karen Throssell partly tells the story through her poetry; extracts from her father’s writings; official documents; pictures of the family; and interpolations of her unsuccessful attempts to get newspapers – particularly The Australian – to publish letters refuting their claims or even publish letters from her pointing out untruths in the articles. A typical one, an unpublished letter to The Australian submitted on 13 November 2010, demonstrates the Murdoch media’s never-ending crusades and refusal to admit error.
The lies and accusations continue to come up periodically despite the Royal Commission, the Department and others having made it clear that there was no problem to be dealt with.
The disclosure of the Venona transcripts was one such occasion when the lies were regurgitated although it is well known – and confirmed by of all people Petrov – that being named in espionage related reports didn’t mean you were a spy.
After the Freedom of Information Act was passed Ric Throssell went to the National Archives to look at his files as the Act had extended the same principles of public access to secret historical documents when they are more than 30 years old – albeit with a huge range of exceptions.
He found the files on his mother and an anonymous letter about her schoolboy son which begins his own file.
“As I read, the image of another existence emerges. Observed, for all those years: schoolboy, student, soldier – I begin to see myself as they might have – those hidden men, those judging men,” he wrote.
“The interest of the men in those same indiscretions of my birth and position, has been seen as proof enough of disloyalty. I could trace the pursuit. It is hard to believe it could happen here. I drive home from the archives feeling as if I had seen a glimpse of myself in a twisted window. Sick of the unfairness of it, I know that there is nothing I can do now to tell them how wrong they have been. Those diligent men do not want to know. It has always been like that.”
The book concludes with an essay by the scholar Phillip Deery which looks at Venona, ASIO and Cold War espionage. He concludes “ASIO’s tawdry past – its improprieties, its smearing, its often-dubious intelligence acquired from even more dubious informants and its occasional unlawful actions – have all been sidestepped as the reputation of this, the most critical of Australia’s six intelligence agencies is rehabilitated and transformed. “
Upton Sinclair wrote a book called It Couldn’t Happen Here. It has happened here, continues to happen here and is getting worse as secrecy and spying on Australians is all-intrusive and uncontrolled – as demonstrated by Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets Our ASIO Files and Brian Toohey’s Secret.
The reality is that the loyalty of many of our spies and their masters is not to Australia but to the US and the UK who they work with to create a never-ending list of new enemies and justify more spying, more legislation and more funding.
Karen Throssell’s book is an idiosyncratic superbly assembled mash up of where much of all this began.
The Crime of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell Against ASIO By Karen Throssell
With a contextual essay by Phil Deery
Published by Interventions
Purchase through Red Flag Books