New book sets out how Ric Throssell fell victim to a Cold War smear campaign

August 17, 2022
Ric Throssell

The Crime Of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO
By Karen Throssell
Interventions, 2021
344 pp

Karen Throssell's book The Crime of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell Against ASIO was launched at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in Greenmount, Western Australia on August 13.

Karen is the daughter of Ric Throssell and the granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard and Hugo Throssell, who were founders of the Communist Party in Australia. Their son, Ric was never a communist, but his life and career were darkened by official suspicion towards him.

Melbourne-based labour historian, Phillip Deery, contributed a postscript to the book. Deery’s latest publication is Spies and Sparrows: ASIO and the Cold War. He gave the following speech at the launch.

* * *

As many of you here know by now — or will know when you buy it — this is an unorthodox book, because it combines the lyric with the narrative.

It is a multi-genre, non-linear and hybrid work in which form and content are seamlessly blended. There are personal letters, newspaper clippings, historical documents, artwork, photos, Karen’s own recollections of her parents and grandparents and some wonderful poems.

Both the layout and the text are often carefully crafted to imitate an ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] dossier, complete with item numbers and redactions.

Many years before I met Karen, Ric Pritchard Throssell was just a name, the name of someone who had suffered a great political injustice. I already vaguely knew that his was one of the most contentious and controversial cases of the domestic Cold War.

And I also knew from Ric’s marvellous memoir, My Father’s Son, about the continued, thwarted attempts at promotion within the diplomatic service; about the smear that stymied his life; and about his profound frustration with “not knowing his crime” and not knowing the source of accusations against him.

But I wanted to know more. So I began to research the case. In searching for answers about why he had been victimised, I turned to the records of his victimiser. 

There are five bulky volumes of ASIO files on Ric Throssell. They were released to the National Archives in 2006, several years after Ric took his own life in April 1999.

Because they were classified as “Not Yet Examined”, in 2012 I sought access and later obtained copies. This eventually developed into an 8000-word article, which I recently submitted for publication in Labour History.

In Volume 3, I found this letter from the Director-General of ASIO, Charles Spry, to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Sir Arthur Tange.

The context was this: after the Petrov Royal Commission on Espionage in 1954-55, Throssell, as part of his diplomatic position with the Department of External Affairs, repeatedly sought a security clearance. And repeatedly his requests were refused.

Spry’s letter stated: "If I were to give a security clearance to Throssell, it means I do not believe the evidence of the Petrovs. I cannot accept this … A doubt remains about Throssell, and in the interests of the Commonwealth, that doubt should be resolved in favour of the Commonwealth. I therefore cannot give Throssell a Security clearance."

So, was this the answer to the black mark against Ric Throssell?  The source of the stigma that stuck? Was it the testimony of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov at the Royal Commission — and in particular, their reference to a Soviet code name, FERRO, identified by ASIO as Throssell — that struck the lethal blow?

Well, as Karen’s book records, the Royal Commission on Espionage largely exonerated Ric from being a Soviet spy.

It stated there were “only remote, hearsay assertions”.  At the most, it concluded, he may have unwittingly shared some secrets with his famous mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard, who in turn was close to Wally Clayton, a member of the Communist Party.

Clayton was also the so-called “spymaster” who was, indeed, transmitting secrets from the Department of External Affairs to the Russians.

There is no doubt that "KSP", who features prominently in this book, was a devout communist (in fact a founding member of the Communist Party in 1920) and a devoted admirer of Stalin and Soviet Union. As she wrote to young Ric and husband Jim in 1933 (just before Jim committed suicide):

"My dearest loves,

To see socialism happening! Everywhere the Soviet government is creating order out of the chaos of centuries. Truly inspiring. We now know it can be done!

Your Katharine"

What was being done at that time, but which she didn’t see, was the Holomodor — Stalin’s genocidal engineering with the Great Famine in the Ukraine, in which four million Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death.

Soon after there was the Great Terror, which claimed well over a million lives, including thousands of so-called “Old Bolsheviks”, whom Katharine once revered, who were purged, sent to the Gulag, or summarily executed.

Notwithstanding Ric’s tribute to his mother, in Wild Seeds and Windflowers, Ric did not share KSP’s views — he was insufficiently ideological, too freewheeling, to be tied to a party line. He argued with her about Russia — but the close mother-son relationship (which Karen’s book illuminates) meant Ric was the casualty of guilt-by-association.

If she were an open communist, he must be a covert Soviet spy.  Especially when the Soviets gave him that code name, FERRO, and expressed interest in recruiting him, as the Petrovs told ASIO.

But it was not just Charles Spry and ASIO who were convinced that Throssell was a spy and a security risk. There was also an old friend of Karen’s.

As she writes on page 278: “We were once comrades: fellow anti-Vietnam activists at ANU in the sixties.” This was Des Ball, who became a highly regarded international expert on Australian intelligence and foreign policy.

In 1998 he co-authored Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network. This book, which Karen refers to in her book, used the Venona decrypts to repeat the allegations about Ric Throssell.

The Venona decrypts were ultra-secret Soviet cables decrypted (or broken) in the 1940s but not released until the mid-1990s. Incidentally, in my postscript to Karen’s book, I refer to the two Venona cables — there were only two — that mention Ric and there’s nothing to suggest he was part of Wally Clayton’s network of Soviet agents in Australia.

But the matter didn’t rest there. More recently, Des Ball took up the cudgels again.

I won’t burden you with the details, but he claimed to have evidence from sources (that he could not disclose), that confirmed Throssell’s espionage past. Karen’s book includes some of the unpublished letters she wrote to newspapers challenging these unanswerable accusations.

And she asked Ball, “When you were researching Breaking the Codes in the 1990s, did you think to interview my dad and hear his side of the story”?

But Ball’s version of the truth has become the truth. Just last year, in a piece for The Conversation, an academic repeated as fact Ball’s claims from an article in The Australian to conclude that Throssell was indeed a leading figure in a “Soviet spy ring”.

There were, however, high-ranking defenders of Throssell.

One was John Burton, the permanent Secretary of the Department External Affairs from 1947–50. When interviewed in the 1990s, Burton stated: "Well, I think what happened to Throssell was absolutely disgusting and tragic and I think ASIO should be sued for it … He just … he just felt destroyed. Imagine a person like Throssell doing anything that would prejudice Australia in any sense. It’s just absurd."

The anger and exasperation that Ric felt for four decades was profound, palpable and deeply poignant. As he wrote: “I have to accept I must go on living with suspicion for the rest of my life. When I face up to it, I know I have been crippled.”

This frustration is encapsulated in Karen’s fine poem entitled “The man who wasn’t there”. Part of it reads:

What have I done?

How can I confess when I have no idea?

Ah, so you’ve committed the crime

Of not knowing your crime…

You’ll never escape us — we know what you’ve done

I’m screaming now — what have I done?

The phrase “You’ll never escape us” is telling. In December 1972, in fact, an ASIO interviewing officer actually told Ric that “there is never a closed door on this”.

Well, this book comes as close as it’s possible to get to closing that door.

It is an expression of love, an act of catharsis, a political defence and a rounded and complex portrait of her father, who was also a playwright, an actor and a fiction writer as well as a diplomat. Karen rescues his reputation and restores his integrity.

She lifts from him the veils of secrecy and the suspicions of disloyalty that constantly shadowed him. The result is that he is no longer “the man who wasn’t there”.

He is here now, in this book. I therefore have great pleasure, especially here at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, in launching The Crime of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell Against ASIO.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.