26 September 2023

The Life of a Spy: An Education in Truth, Lies and Power

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Rod Barton, Black Inc., $32.99.

Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan did say: “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”

This quote is exemplary, and reflective of the true story of an exceptional intelligence officer with the Australian Government. Rod Barton had moved on from sitting in an office analysing data to participating in an operation he could not have imagined at the start of his career. His profession took an unlikely path when he applied for a junior scientist role in the Department of Defence in 1971. Little did he know what it entailed: as the Cold War intensified, Barton was inducted into the murky world of espionage.

As Barton indicates: “I was no James Bond with a licence to kill, but I worked with the British intelligence services and with, and for, the CIA. I had guns pointed at me, death threats issued, a price placed on my head.”

His autobiography is a remarkable behind-the-scenes narrative of a world identifiable by stealth, peril and acts of tenacity. Through the written word, you get to know a man of principle in a time of chaos, taking you to the frontlines of politics and war. He recounts the strange circumstances of his recruitment to the intelligence world and some of the adventures of his professional life.

It starts from being “a naïve junior intelligence analyst, through working for Hans Blix as a weapons inspector, to my clashes with the CIA and my wrangle with the politicians who led Australia to war in Iraq in 2003. I have seen a unique side of intelligence operations around the globe, and witnessed things that have both alarmed and reassured me about the capabilities of our intelligence agencies.”

The Life of a Spy is scripted with ardour, humour and directness. It’s not intended as a deep study in the theory and practice of intelligence. Barton says it’s meant to inform, and, “I hope, entertain.”

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