The Crime Of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO
By Karen Throssell
Reviewers are often tempted to review the book they think should have been written (or perhaps the one they wished they had written), rather than the book before them. This may be the case with Karen Throssell’s unusual book about her father’s persecution at the hands of Australian security services, but I would caution both reader and reviewer against it.
Karen Throssell presents us with a deeply personal response to her father’s life, one that is heart-felt, impressionistic and multi-faceted, including both prose, poetry, photographs and other ‘exhibits’. On its own terms, the book leaves an impression of the damage done by political witch hunts, secrecy and the many half-baked truths presented as fact for political purposes.
At the start of the Cold War in the 1950s, the defecting Russian Embassy staff, the Petrovs, had motives for providing as much ‘intelligence’ about Soviet spying as they could and swept up the innocent and fellow travellers in their wake, including Ric Throssell. For this, the Petrovs were given asylum, anonymity and a handsome stipend.
ASIO won a new-found status as spy catchers, which they exploited to the full as they continued their pursuit of the innocent, so-called cultural elites, migrants and those on the left of politics. The more spies, the better for the conservative politicians and businessmen who held sway in 1950s Australia.
The inference that Throssell shared his mother’s communist politics (she was Australian author Katherine Susannah Pritchard), dogged him throughout his life. In spite of multiple ASIO assessments that he posed no security threat, Throssell was denied a security assessment for his job in the public sector. The mud stuck.
Karen Throssell’s poetry and short vignettes from her family’s life paint pictures of ordinary Australians trying to live through the Cold War and its legacy.
The Cold War was a hammer used to smite the Left, with ASIO and the media wielding the blows. The role of the media is well outlined, as pieces by right-wing commentators in the Murdoch press, reproduced and commented upon here, continued to throw accusations at Throssell.
Karen Throssell’s attempts to put the record straight through letters to the editor went unpublished.
The essay by Emeritus Professor Philip Deery at the end of the book may be best read first so the reader has the context for some statements made earlier in the book. He details the crucial but secret role that Project Venona played in the Cold War from the 1950s. Through it Russian codes were broken, enabling around 3,000 documents to be deciphered over time and the identities of Soviet spies revealed across the Western world.
The essay makes it clear that Throssell was caught up in the hysteria manufactured in the wake of the Petrov defections, which the Menzies government and ASIO used for their own fear-mongering, propaganda and cultural control purposes.
We need more material such as that presented by Karen Throssell, to illuminate the domestic war waged by successive Australian governments and their apparatchiks in their efforts to crush social and political movements that threaten the hegemony that capitalism has over our lives. The ‘culture wars’ were not invented by John Howard, but are a product of the Cold War, the legacy of which continues to this day.
Philip Deery's speech at the Western Australian launch of The Crime Of Not Knowing Your Crime can be read here.