If you don’t laugh you lose

September 26, 2014

The war on terror and spying on everyone are both very serious business. The war on terror is killing people all over the world, including, sadly this week in Australia too.
The tragic death of Abdul Numan Haidar is not a laughing matter. The confusion, misinformation and outright lies being spread about this young man are appalling. That the news media is buying into it with awful headlines and front page stories vilifying him, his friends and even random, totally unconnected young men should shame some journalists into silence.


At the same time, the rush to cut into our liberties in the name of ‘protecting’ us from a shadowy threat that kills less people than bee stings is also not something to joke about, or is it?
In the last 24 hours a new Twitter hashtag has burst into prominence and it is taking the piss out of Raging Bedsore’s new surveillance powers.
Now that our security services have the right to monitor the whole of the inter-webs with just one warrant allowing them to tap into any computer ‘network’, it seems that nothing we do online is going to be private anymore.
Well, Twitter has always been a bit irreverent – do you remember the wonderful #TonysMovieNight, for example? And this week, #lifebeforeabbott has been trending too.
The rightwing trolls don’t like it and curmudgeonly columnists like Andrew Bolt complain (without even having a Twitter account) that social media is dominated by THE LEFT, but for those of us who
a) don’t like the Abbott government;
b) think the terror threat is overblown;
c) don’t like the idea of ASIO snooping on us around the clock and, more importantly,
d) have a sense of humour
then #HeyASIO is a great way to get your message across while having a bit of fun.

It’s only been active for  few hours, but by lunch time today it was trending heavily.

Melbourne trends
Check the stream yourself and prepare for a few belly laughs.
Here’s my highlights so far.

Ethical Martini’s top 10 #HeyASIO tweets


Many places to hide information in the national security media

August 2, 2014

No place to hide: Snowden, Greenwald and Australia’s “national security media”

This piece was first published in New Matilda on 29 July 2014

Eyes On: The Five Eyes agreement means Australia is implicated in the global surveillance economy

Australia is about to get a new raft of national security legislation – the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill – that will radically increase the scope and powers of our spy agencies to snoop on private citizens. The justification for this ramping up of ASIO and ASIS espionage power is the supposed threat from Islamic radicals who, having fought overseas in Syria and Iraq, will be likely to import violent jihad back into Australia. It is a line run almost daily in the Australian news media over the past few weeks .

This is a tenuous justification at best. The historic evidence shows that the police – at both state and federal level – and the nation’s spooks already have ample power to deal with any real and present danger posed by jihadists. For example, Operation Pendennis, which led to the conviction of 13 alleged terrorists in 2007-2008, was conducted using existing phone-tap and other surveillance powers. Between July 2004 and November 2005, the Pendennis dragnet accumulated 16,400 hours of recordings from bugs and 98,000 telephone intercepts; but now ASIO, the Federal Police and state agencies want to sweep up even more calls and even more data.

Additional powers – to tap phones, infiltrate and hack computer networks, give spies the power to entrap suspects and to store electronic metadata for several years – are not necessary under current conditions. However, that has not stopped Attorney General George Brandis (aka “Raging Bedsore”) from touting the new laws as measures to save Australian lives and to keep safe the national interest.

Well, of course the Government – and her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – would say that wouldn’t they? It’s no surprise that the nation’s politicians, who govern through the promotion of irrational fears and promises of a quick fix, would jump on the “more powers to the spooks” bandwagon. After all, there are votes and endorsements in “security” issues; as well as happy feelings of safety and warmth induced by the vague and unfounded notion of keeping the country out of “harm’s way” and by appearing to be “tough” on terrorists. It is the tried and true method of invoking the sexy beast Laura Norder; and in a world of uncertainty, devastation and death (think Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan Gaza, MH17 and other global hotspots) her warm, comforting embrace seems like a haven from the horror and bloodshed.

But perhaps we might have expected a little more searching, or a little more critical and independent analysis from the nation’s leading media outlets. Maybe it would not have been too much to ask for at least one correspondent or pundit to write a “think piece” about how the call for more spying and less oversight could result in less freedom, not more. Surely there is one “national security” correspondent or “defence” editor out there in the media world who feels it necessary to add a note of caution about our unthinking stumble towards Nineteen Eighty-four?

If you’ve been looking for that op-ed or the news piece quoting critics of the Government’s new legislation, you’ve no doubt been thoroughly disappointed. It is missing in action; not there, invisible and unreported. Instead what we’ve seen in the last few weeks is article after op-ed after editorial praising and supporting the unseemly rush to becoming a nation of spies and spied upon.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of critical reporting; and, if you’ve seen Glenn Greenwald’s excellent recent book, No Place to Hide , you might be slightly and wryly amused at the lack of opposing views, but you won’t be surprised.

Greenwald has written his insider’s account of meeting Edward Snowden for the first time in a Hong Kong hotel room and coming to terms with the enormity of Snowden’s selfless action and the implications held in the treasure trove of National Security Administration data held in the cache of secrets he handed over for public scrutiny.

That story should be familiar to New Matilda readers. Unless you’ve been on Mars for the past year you will know about the NSA documents that revealed, inter alia, Australia’s spying on the Indonesians, the Americans spying on the Germans and pretty much any nation and anybody with a copper wire communication network, an Internet connection or mobile phone.

The sheer scale of snooping – billions of intercepted messages every day – is mind-boggling enough. Greenwald is convinced (and convincing) on the point that the NSA has a goal to collect every bit of electronic information that blips its way across the global communication network. He writes that the NSA mantra is “collect everything” and it is the logistics of doing this, then storing and sorting the results, that he forensically dissects in No Place to Hide.

One of the realisations that any intelligent reader of this book will come to is that the NSA and its “Five Eyes” partners (UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia) [https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/eyes-wide-open/understanding-the-five-eyes] could not manage the collection and sifting of so much data without the explicit cooperation of the world’s major telecommunications companies. Yep, just about everyone you deal with for your electronic data life is implicated – Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Verizon, Dell, Facebook and countless others – everyone is scooping and sharing your data with the NSA and God knows who else.

As Edward Snowden told Greenwald during one of their first Hong Kong interviews: “I saw firsthand that the State, especially the NSA, was working hand in hand with the private tech industry to get full access to people’s communications.”

A quick reminder that Snowden was employed by the private consulting firm Booz, Allen Hamilton while working at the NSA HQ is all you need to grasp the implications of this. The entire global economy is now systemically and irrevocably enmeshed in an alliance with Governments to suck, squeeze and pulp our data in order to make the juice of profits and to keep the world safe from people like us.

That’s why it is really good to have strong individuals like Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden in the world today. If we relied on the mainstream media to tell us this stuff, we would never know.

No Place to Hide also provides clues as to the “Why?” of the MSM’s silence on the downsides to the creeping, all-seeing surveillance state. There’s a fantastic chapter that details the media’s complicity in not reporting, or more often mis-reporting, the actions of the NSA. The details are different, of course, but the general outline is applicable in Australia. We are experiencing the world of the “national security news media”.

The roots of the media’s complicit silence in relation to surveillance go back to the immediate political reactions to the events of “9/11”. Since that time, Greenwald writes, “the US media in general has been jingoistic and intensely loyal to the government and this hostile, sometimes viciously so, to anyone who exposed its secrets.” The same thing applies here. Even today some columnists cling to the lie of Iraqi WMD, preferring to spout the line that they just “haven’t been found yet”; more than a decade on from the disaster of Iraq some commentators refuse to see that it was a terrible mistake, built on fabrication and probably a war crime. But, history is written by the victors and its first “rough draft” is compiled by the loyal stenographers in the political press corps.

When it comes to “national security” and the surveillance state, loyal news editors and respected senior writers on policy and politics continue to toe the

When Greenwald appeared on the talk shows he was accused of helping a traitor [Snowden]

When Greenwald appeared on the talk shows he was accused of helping a traitor [Snowden]

line. When Greenwald was doing the rounds of American political talk shows, he was confronted with a wall of hostility from his journalistic colleagues: “Many US journalists resumed their accustomed role as servants to the government.” In June 2103 the story turned from the expose of “serious NSA abuses”, to one that Snowden had “betrayed” the US, “committed crimes and then ‘fled to China’”.

In Australia, the Snowden is a “traitor” line continues to be vehemently pursued in the Murdoch newspapers, which increasingly reflect a kind of Aussie-fied Tea Party ideological bent. And it is Murdoch’s The Australian that is leading the “national security”: cheer squad for Bedsore’s touted “improvements” to ASIO and ASIS spying powers. However, to be fair, the Fairfax outlets are well and truly in-line and waving the flag almost as vigorously as News Corps.

I call this proposition the “position of the complicit insider” and it’s not a new phenomenon. The political media – Press Gallery journalists in Australia – enjoy a privileged status alongside politicians, political advisors and senior bureaucrats. Reporters and commentators are often seduced by the close access they gain to the centres of power and political operators are therefore able to prevail upon them to non-disclosure of uncomfortable secrets. As well as this agreement not to rock the boat too hard in return for favours (in reality scraps of information that the insiders want revealed), political reporters feel a false sense of duty to act “responsibly” and not reveal information, or write stories that might damage some false notion of “national security”.

Anyone who regularly reads the “quality” press in Australia (including The Guardian), or who watches political chat shows on television will instantly recognize this problem.

In July 2014 we saw a good example of the supportive opinion piece genre in The Weekend Australian. Associate Editor Cameron Stewart wrote a lengthy commentary endorsing the Government’s proposed tougher surveillance powers and data retention laws . Stewart noted the “hand-wringing” of Left and liberal commentators when the then Howard Government updated and upgraded anti-terror and security laws in 2005 and added that in 2014 it was only “the Greens and a handful of human rights lawyers” who seemed to be complaining. Stewart repeats all the claims made by Bedsore and ASIO boss David Irvine that returning jihadists pose a significant danger and that the collection of electronic “metadata” is just a harmless means of identifying potential threats.

In Stewart’s worldview, any opposition to greater surveillance powers is dismissed as being an issue of concern only for “the Left” and its “prism of Cold War excesses”. Security officials are uncritically quoted about the effectiveness of metadata collection in previous terror-related prosecution. Stewart has only one area of concern: that journalists could be targeted by new provisions to prevent Snowden-style leaks. Stewart’s newspaper has never had much regard for Edward Snowden, whom it says – echoing the American view – is a traitor, not a whistleblower.

The Weekend Australian also carried an editorial supporting the boosting of security laws; ironically the paper seemed to blame communications technology for creating the need to change the law:

In the internet age, legislation governing Australia’s intelligence agencies must keep pace with terrorists’ capacity to use technology

When it comes to the Snowden materials, Greenwald makes the argument that the well-connected Washington media will never go all the way. He says it is an “unwritten rule” that only a few documents from such a vast treasure trove of secrets would be revealed, “so as to limit its impact…and then walk away, ensuring that nothing had really changed”.

This sensibility is evident in the recent Australian reporting of ASIO seeking more powers, or police breach of their own rules for eavesdropping.

A June 2014 story headlined ‘New surveillance powers aim to boost fight against terrorism’, by the Fairfax “National security correspondent” David Wroe, is framed in such a way that the move seems both natural and necessary. The lede clearly suggests that the move is necessary, “amid growing fears about the terrorism threat posed by Australians fighting in the Middle East.”

In the second par the clear distinction is made between “innocent third-party computers” and “a computer used by a suspect terrorist or criminal”, but already the scope of the powers is broadened from just a “suspect terrorist” to now include “criminal” behaviour.

The third par equates the reader’s interest with the point of view of the security services themselves by suggesting the new rules would benefit law enforcement “dramatically freeing up surveillance powers”. Of course, there’s really nothing to worry about because the new, expanded spying powers would only be used, reassuringly, “under ministerial authorisation”.

In the fifth par we are lulled to sleep with the anodyne phrase the “intelligence community” and with the further assurance that what this benign community group has “long called for” is to remove “hurdles” in the way of legitimate “investigations” and to fix a “failure of the law to keep pace with technology”.

The report goes on to tell us that the changes are based on recommendations made by a “parliamentary inquiry, last year, supported by Labor” – the appearance of bi-partisan support is meant to be reassuring too. We are reminded that the report to parliament “stressed there needed to be strict safeguards, including guarantees that the intrusion on the third party’s privacy would be minimised”.

The security community worldwide is fond of the word “minimised”. “Minimisation” is supposed to occur in the US context too, where it means that all non-relevant information is stripped from surveilled communications before it is passed on for analysis. However, as the Snowden documents reveal, in the race to “collect everything”, non-relevant data is always collected and nearly always stored, analysed and archived for later retrieval.

In other words, we cannot trust our political masters; they are probably lying to us and they are most certainly pulling the wool over the eyes of gullible “National security reporters” like David Wroe. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh by suggesting Wroe is gullible and there is another explanation that stands up. If you are the “National security reporter” it really is not in your interests (or your employer’s) for you to run foul of the key sources who inhabit your beat. If you were to write critically about an official source, for example, the next time you call for a comment, s/he might hang up on you. More likely, their departmental boss will call your boss and you’ll be back on the shipping rounds.

Whatever the ultimate cause, the gulling of the public continues in Wroe’s June 2014 article when he pulls in a “third party” expert to assess the situation. In this case the expert is hardly an independent analyst:

Tobias Feakin, a cybersecurity expert at the Australian Strategic Police [sic] Institute, said the changes would update legislation that was ”well out of date”.

Oops, an interesting Freudian slip by David Wroe; Dr Feakin is actually attached to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and has solid ties into the defence and security establishment, including the Royal United Services Institute (a UK-based military think tank) where he was “Head of Homeland Security Capabilities” and “Director, National Security and Resilience Department” between 2006 and 2007.

Most of the time we don’t bother to check the CVs of these experts that are put in front of us, all too often without question. If “expert” and “official” sources say something then a journalist will usually just report it with stenographic accuracy and perhaps (if we’re lucky) offer up one or two tame questions to be kicked away by the expert.

Dr Feakin is particularly popular on ABC News24 where he pops up on an all too regular basis, confirming Greenwald’s central thesis about media complicity. In September 2013 Dr Feakin was used as a source in an Australian Financial Review story about the new and expensive ASIO headquarters building in Canberra. This story reveals that when ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) occupy their new building, private companies in the security industry will be offered the opportunity to “collocate” some of their employees alongside the nation’s senior spooks.

It is expected the centre will allow executives and security staff from select industries to share knowledge and learn from government cyber specialists…in a bid to liaise more frequently with private industry, a task DSD cannot easily do as a Department of Defence entity.

This is another classic play from the American security state experience that highlights with some certainty that the Security State needs to be enmeshed with the security industry in order to function at a high level. If you ever thought the interests of the State and of Capital were not contiguous, let this dispel you of that myth right now. The AFR article confirms it with this simple statement:

Senior intelligence officials said they remain deeply concerned about the ­vulnerabilities that exist outside a few “islands of excellence”. They said ­relatively “hardened” areas include the major banks and Telstra, which last year hired a former DSD deputy director, Mike Burgess, as its chief security officer. (emphasis added)

Dr Feakin makes an appearance in the final two paragraphs of the story and it is abundantly clear which side of the security fence this “independent” analyst sits:

[Feakin] welcomed the move to integrate private firms into the new cyber operations centre, but said companies would have to be “willing to share data with government, otherwise momentum will be lost and they won’t keep their focus on such efforts”.

The story of Dr Feakin is also a salutary lesson that we should never take for granted the so-called independence and bona fides of the experts served up to us by a complicit and compliant media.

We can expect to see more of this type of “national security news” over the coming months as the new expanded spying power legislation is passed and bedded in. If you want to really know what’s going on, look beyond the mainstream media, which has decided to enjoy the comforts of the insider and to lull the rest of us into a false sense of security.

Remember, there really is no place to hide any longer.

 


Statement about disciplinary action at Deakin University

July 30, 2014

As part of the settlement of disciplinary action taken against me by Deakin University on an allegation of “serious misconduct”, I am pleased to be able to publish the following agreed statement.

 

On 15 and 16 April 2014 two articles were published on the Herald Sun webpage that included tweets I had posted. In those tweets I used inappropriate and offensive language, including profanity. My behaviour was then linked to my profession, as an Associate Professor in Journalism at Deakin University.

There has since been commentary about this being a matter of academic freedom; however, this has not been the University’s position and I agree that this is not at issue here as the University remains steadfastly committed to the principles of academic freedom. Their concern was not with any robust, critical enquiry, but rather with the inappropriate and offensive language I used which was not consistent with Deakin’s Code of Conduct.

I am remorseful for my actions, and for the impact they have had on Deakin University. I apologise unequivocally for my poor judgment and for any reputational harm caused to any individual and to the good name of Deakin.

I am pleased that the University continues to acknowledge my standing and expertise as an Associate Professor in Journalism, which is not in question. I look forward to continuing with my work at Deakin and to supporting the Deakin journalism program and students.

You can read my earlier statement about this matter, if you wish to.

At this time I am making no further public comment.

Coverage in Red Flag  The Australian and in The Guardian

 

 


Apology to EM’s colleagues, friends and supporters

July 10, 2014

On April 15 & 16 this year, I engaged in a series of exchanges on Twitter.

It is essential that academics are prepared and willing to engage in robust debate about matters of public or academic importance, without fear of the consequences for them in doing so.

However, I recognise that the tone and content of my tweeted remarks was inappropriate for a scholar engaging in public discussion, and could readily be used by others to attack the reputation of Deakin University.

For this I apologise to my colleagues at the University, anyone offended by any of my tweeted comments, and to those who might expect a higher level of decorum when scholars are involved.


ASIO – still Australia’s “dirty secret”

July 1, 2014

Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO files

Edited by Meredith Burgmann
New South Press, $32.99

Dirty Secrets cover 400x0_q20If you exist with any level of social paranoia at all, you would not want to find yourself in the index of this book, for it’s a “Who’s Who” of former and current radicals, agitators and old Communists.

For those of us who like to read about Australian social history and the colourful characters who made up the student left of the 1960s and 1970s it is a delightful trip down memory lane.

One of the best pieces is the chapter about Communist Party member and author Frank Hardy, written by his son Alan. Reading this left me wanting to know more about this famous communist who broke with Stalinism in the mid 1960s and who was a champion of Aboriginal land rights throughout his life. One funny fact I learned from Hardy’s story is that in 1966 he was writing for Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian. How times have changed; there is no way today that a known communist would get space in that right-wing shitsheet.

The first-person memoirs were, for me, among the most interesting chapters. Some were startling for revealing how detailed the ASIO records appeared to be. The file on retired High Court judge Michael Kirby for example was started when he was 12 years old. Members of his family – in particular his father’s mother and her friends – were members of the CPA in the 1940s and 1950s and young Michael was dragged along to protests and meetings where he was photographed. Another entry mentions the child of one subject as being a seasoned kindergarten militant at the unlikely age of four years old.

There are some obvious and curious exceptions to the first-person style. Some chapters are based on interviews between the ‘subject’ and editor Meredith Burgmann and one, by Rowan Cahill, is written in an odd third-person voice. Perhaps this reflects Rowan’s own discomfort at having to confront a version of himself that was created by ASIO, but does not reflect his self-perceptions of personhood.

Several contributors make the point that reading their own files made them distinctly uncomfortable and it is one reason I have not yet accessed my own extensive ASIO records. The writers also make the point that the files are disjointed, disorganised and riddled with mistakes. They also contain photographs, some taken as part of routine surveillance, but more disturbingly, some obviously taken and submitted to ASIO by informants. The only photos of Verity Burgmann are of her in a bikini during the April 1978 International Socialists’ summer camp at Kempsey in NSW. I am in one of these photos and other friends have sent me surveillance images in which I appear with them.

Photo courtesy of ASIO

Photo courtesy of ASIO

My own ASIO files – at least the ones I am able to know about – are in eight volumes covering the period 1977-1985. One of them is a folio of images, probably including me on the beach with Verity and other holiday snaps. It is horrible to think that there are rats in the ranks, but these files make it clear that the spooks rely on recruiting people to infiltrate protest movements and left-wing organisations with the explicit purpose of gathering information.

In one story, the ‘subject’ of the file finds out 40 years after the event that ASIO broke into her flat, rummaged through her personal items and wrote down for its files the titles of books and magazines she had in her bedroom. In several chapters the subject discovers that ASIO made attempts to interfere with their job by trying to have them sacked, or intervening to make sure they were not employed. It seems that the spooks routinely make inquiries with employers when checking up on surveillance targets.

But it gets even more personal. Penny Lockwood, the daughter of journalist and CPA member Rupert Lockwood, recounts how her heart was broken by a man she loved when he revealed to her that their affair had been part of his job as an ASIO informant. She’s not the only one to receive such a shock; Peter Murphy mentions that he was in a relationship with an informer in the late 1970s while both were in the CPA. In 2011 a British case revealed that a police undercover officer had infiltrated an environmental group, befriended and then married another member, eventually having children with her. Gruesome and horrible as this sounds, we should perhaps not discount that it is still happening.

All this knowledge about ASIO’s techniques is very creepy and should make us angry. A leopard does not easily change its spots. We have no reason to assume that ASIO does not engage in infiltration, break-ins, creepy snooping, false attempts at intimacy, covert photography and video collection, contacting employers, or telephone tapping today.

Historically the entries fall into two categories: for the sake of discussion I will call them the “Cold War” period and the “early New-Left” period.

The “Cold War” files are those concerned with the 1940s, 50s and early 60s when the Communist Part of Australia was a real force on the Australian left. It was in this period that ASIO was tasked with keeping tabs on CPA members and fellow-travellers. It was a time of “reds under the bed”, the “yellow peril” and an irrational fear that the communists were in a position to do real harm to Australia’s interests.

This seems absurd now. The CPA was firmly riding the coat-tails of the Soviet Union, which made it an irritant in Australian foreign relations, but which also hamstrung the party politically. For 40 years the CPA was caught up in the reactionary vortex of Stalinism, despite the good union work of some of its best militants.

The entry by former High Court justice, Michael Kirby inadvertently highlights the sterility of Stalinist politics and the paralysing effect it had on a generation of Australian communists. Writing about his grandmother, Norma and her husband (not his grandfather), Kirby notes a rather depressing description of their living room:

…on the bookshelves in the rather dark lounge room of the Tempe residence were volumes of the collected speeches of VI Lenin and Joseph Stalin. I noted at the time that these books seemed in a pristine state, indeed untouched. No corners were turned down to indicate a well-love phrase or a point of departure where the reader could go no further…Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, I was not convinced that Jack (or certainly Norma) had ever opened them. But they were on display for all to see. (p.56)

The “early New Left” files begin with the student movement of the mid to late 1960s; the Vietnam Moratorium, early Women’s Liberation, nuclear disarmament and the beginnings of the non-Stalinist left, including Australia’s early post-war Trotskyist parties.

However, there is also a very interesting chapter by historian and activist Gary Foley that provides something of a cross-over between the “Cold War” and “early New Left” interests and activities of ASIO. Gary has been active in left-wing and Indigenous politics for over 40 years and he first came to ASIO’s attention in the early 1970s. Perhaps the first time was 26 January 1972 when the inaugural Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawns of Parliament House (the old one) on the shore of lake Burley-Griffin. As Gary notes, the nation’s spies wasted little time in directing attention at a new wave of Indigenous radicals:

At eight minutes past six on the morning of 27 January, ASIO headquarters received a telex message from its Canberra office advising that the protest had been set up and seeking urgent information on the four young black men present on the lawns. (p.99)

Gary Foley was one of those young men.

However, by January 1972 ASIO had been interested in radical Aborigines for at least 20 years. The concern was that Aboriginal political networks had been infiltrated by the CPA, which – in ASIO’s fevered hive mind – meant that Indigenous activists were “dupes” and “stooges” for the communists and ripe to be influenced by Soviet agents.

The file on Frank Hardy – some 1500 pages covering the years 1950 to 1972 – is definitive of the Cold War period and Wendy Bacon’s file provides a useful insight into how ASIO dealt with the emerging new left.

Bacon was an anarchist student at the University of NSW when she came to the notice of the secret police in 1968. Her brother Jim (later Labor Premier of Tasmania) was a member of the Maoist CPA-ML (ML stood for “Marxist-Leninist”) and he too came to the attention of ASIO while a student at Monash University.

For students of the modern espionage game the stories told here also interesting because the main picture of ASIO that emerges from the pages of Dirty Secrets is that Australia’s premiere domestic spy agency is a bumbling clutch of Inspector Clouseau’s backed up by a squad of Keystone Cops who couldn’t find their assholes if they were on fire.

An entry from Alan (son of Frank) Hardy shows just how stupid some of ASIO’s informants really were:

  1. Alan Hardy is a blond haired, tattooed truck driver working for Dalgety’s
  2. Alan Hardy is very thin, lives with another boy in Kings Cross and is VERY interested in theatrics. (p.239)

Unfortunately, this bungling of simple details, like personal descriptions of individuals, gives a rather comical impression of what is essentially a well-funded, disciplined and aggressive formation of political police. While ASIO cannot be compared in every detail to the Stasi and we assume there are no dungeons in which political prisoners are held incommunicado and tortured, the job of the spies is to keep tabs on dangerous people; people like us.

Many of the 26 prominent Australians who’ve shared the secrets of their ASIO files in this collection recount how the entries made over a period of 40 years by spies and their informers are riddled with mistakes; misspelled names; dates and times wrongly recorded and physical descriptions that bear no resemblance to any person living or dead, but purport to be of the file’s “subject”.

But herein lies the danger in this book. It is a mistake to see ASIO, various state police Special Branch agencies and other collections of Australian “gooks and spooks” as benign, incompetent, out-of-touch or out-of-date.

ASIO is the Australian government’s dirty secret and we know little of its current operations – which no doubt continue to have stupid code names like “Operation Whip” – we know little of its political targets beyond the usual suspects.

Today those usual suspects are mostly – but by no means limited to – alleged Islamic radicals, so-called “homegrown” terrorists and the sort of young men who are most likely to venture outside Australia on “jihad” to Syria, Iraq, northern Africa or Pakistan.

We hear almost nothing today about ASIO’s spying on non-Islamic groups; we don’t know whose phones, email and Facebook communications they are monitoring; we don’t know the extent of ASIO’s files on groups like Socialist Alternative or Socialist Alliance or their infiltration of movements like the Leard Forest blockade.

We don’t know if the private security firms who have been caught out infiltrating anti-fracking groups are contracted to ASIO or if they just happily co-exist sharing personnel and “intel” on protestors and agitators.

The problem is the historical nature of this book. Most of the writers, even those who were members of the Communist Part of Australia back in the 1960s, are now 30 years older and 30 years more conservative.

They portray an image of radicals and leftists in the 1960s and 1970s as idealistic youngsters who were playing at being revolutionaries.

Many of them make the point that what they did was mostly harmless fun – like spray painting the walls of the South African Embassy compound in leafy, quite Canberra during the anti-apartheid movement.

They make fun of their arrests on ridiculous charges of disturbing the peace; they joke about discovering through the files that the phone taps that they thought were all part of dressing up as subversives 30 years ago were actually in place and being used to keep tabs on them.

Worst of all, many of them now describe their youthful convictions as folly and they lament the wasted hours they spent in “endless” and “boring” meetings discussing politics, tactics and revolution.

Michael Kirby is one who complains with hindsight that he should have been out partying instead of spending hours in the committees of the Council for Civil Liberties and other causes

Even Verity Burgmann, who was a comrade in the International Socialists in the 1970s and early 1980s says that she now regrets her involvement as a waste of time.

In the end, this is the reactionary message at the heart of this rather thick volume (464 pages). It is a shame that many of the contributors – who were pioneering members of the CPA, inspirational leaders of the women’s movement, foundation members of Gay Liberation, militants in the anti-Vietnam war campaign and the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1970s – now concede that maybe Australia does need a competent and well-managed domestic surveillance agency to help keep “us” “safe” from… Well, “From what exactly?” is the question I am left with.

That is why it is unfortunate – and profoundly apolitical – that so many of the contributions to this book end with the lament that from the 1940s to the 1980s ASIO seemed so unprofessional and incompetent in their espionage efforts. This comment, from the late Joan Bielski is typical and disappointing; coming as it does from the pen of a radical and militant leader of the early women’s movement:

As taxpayers, Australians have a right to expect a more sophisticated, politically astute security service…Recent cases made public suggest that ASIO is not such an organisation. (p.146)

ASIO can never be an organisation that “respects human rights” or “the right to differ and to advocate for a cause or an idea” as Joan Bielski might have wished for. The role of ASIO is to disrupt every radical “cause” and to prevent the spread of any “idea” that threatens the status quo.

The system hasn’t changed all that much in the post-war period. The old Communist Party is no longer a threat, but the ruling class is still the ruling class and ASIO – like the army, the police and the courts – is an institution established, funded, directed and managed in order to ensure that modern day subversives do not get the upper hand.

So while Dirty Secrets is a good read and a fascinating insight into the surveillance of radical Australians – at least up until the year 1983 – it is not a really effective guide to fighting back or resisting the predations of ASIO, or other spy agencies, into the left today. If the spooks were interested in the womens’ movement and the gay rights struggles of the 1970s-80s, we should perhaps assume they are just as interested in today’s activists too

ASIO’s focus may have shifted from radical leftists to the mostly concocted threat of “homegrown” “jihadists”, but we should not be under any illusions that our organisations and our movements are not being monitored, photographed and infiltrated today just as much as they were being 30 years ago.

The most salient comment in this regard comes from renowned jurist Elizabeth Evatt, the daughter of the famous Clive Evatt, the NSW politician and lawyer who successfully fought the Menzies’ government’s attempt to outlaw the CPA in the 1950s.

In this age of fear of terrorism, restrictive security legislation and security services concentrating on the prevention and punishment of politically inspired violence, we would do well to remember that judgments about potential subversion and security risks are not always based on reliable grounds. (p.330)

One obvious difference between 40 years ago and today, though it is about form over substance and it is really an artefact of neo-liberal postmodernism, is the privateers who spy on social movements. Today we know, from recent media reporting, that some of the spying on our activities and protests has been outsourced to private security companies. They are working hand-in-glove with the State because that’s what this rotten system is all about.

Finally I guess we should take some heart from the fact that the secret police cannot, at the end of the day, prevent revolution. We know this from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc dictatorships, which had extensive networks of spies, and the more recent and inspiring examples of the Arab Spring in nations with a history of repression and brutal secret police agencies.

When we finally get rid of the State, we too will ransack the headquarters of ASIO and the other spy agencies and we too will get our hands on the up to date records, not the heavily redacted and sanitised versions that are released after 30 years by archivists when they can only be of use to historians and curious folk wanting to write memoirs of their long-forgotten radical youth.

Lets not have any illusions that organisations like ASIO are in any way “necessary” for our protection. Their job is to protect the interests of Australian capitalism and the State that serves it. Our job is to continue the struggle without worrying too much about the stooges who infiltrate our meetings and movements; they can’t really hurt us and they certainly can’t stop us.

Well done, as a reward for reading this far…enjoy classic Johnny Rivers.


Delusional free speech fundamentalists all on the same [racist] page

March 30, 2014

There are two certainties about the Weekend Australian that make a weekly reading of it a tiresome duty.

1. The newspaper propaganda sheet is tireless and relentless in pursuit of the shibboleths that occupy the increasingly erratic thoughts of Chairman Murdoch

2. The pervasive groupthink emanating from the  News Limited bunkers like the smell of a slow death, displays a remarkably consistent level of paranoia, delusion and editorial agreement among the chief journalists and writers propagandists.

Nowhere are these certainties more likely to reveal themselves than in the fevered attention the editor and his minions are throwing at the supposed attack on free speech posed by Section 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act. News Limited’s considerable, yet unprofitable editorial resources are being lavished on support for George “right to be a bigot” Brandis in his campaign to make it OK to be a racist in 21st century Australia.

In The Weekend Australian 29-30 March 2014 there are no less than six pieces supporting the campaign to have the ‘Bolt’ amendment passed in Parliament.

That alone is an indictment of their bleating claims that debate is being shut down and that 18C has a chilling effect on free speech. These dribblejaws are able to prosecute their case freely and at great length with the support of an editorial and acres of newsprint.

The only issue I have is that it is not a debate as such in the pages of the Weekend Australian. It is all one way traffic, it is propaganda without answer. Perhaps it is wishful thinking to argue that a newspaper that claims to take freedom of speech and debate so seriously would allow an oppositional voice. But hey, it is the party news organ of the coalition, so I won’t be so fucking stupid. How about you?

Read the rest of this entry »


When a spade’s a spade, let’s not be afraid to say so

March 19, 2014
This piece was published today on New Matilda.

Andrew Bolt’s ‘hurt’ over Marcia Langton’s comments was confected to force another humiliating backdown from the ABC, at a time when it’s already under threat, writes Martin Hirst

Andrew Bolt’s crocodile tears over being called a racist fool” by Marcia Langton were calculated to stir up more anti-ABC bile among his hardcore fans.

Despite claims to the contrary, Bolt himself would not be too much bothered by Langton’s comments; he is, after all, a champion of verbal abuse, nasty insinuation and downright mistruth. That makes this week’s apology on the the ABC’s Q&A program by host Tony Jones even weirder and more inappropriate.

If there was any offence at all, surely it was delivered by Langton and not by the program itself. That the ABC would apologise on behalf of a guest’s informed personal comment is extraordinary.

Where will it end? Will Mark Colvin have to apologise every time a guest or interviewee on PM criticises News Limited or the Prime Minister? Will Fran Kelly have to apologise to The Australian for daring to continue breathing?

This week, Langton herself apologised to Bolt on-air, on a different network, but in my view it was an apology born of hectoring and badgering, a token “sorry” offered to get Bolt and his trolls off her back as much as an indication of Langton’s real regret.

Langton issued a 19-page clarification, published on the Q&A website after the episode went to air, in which she said that she had only apologised for causing offence and hurt feelings, not “for my beliefs or my intention of trying to explain my beliefs”.

“I conclude that his singling out of ‘fair skinned’ Aboriginal people goes to the issue of ‘race’ and could be construed as racist,” Langton continued.

Anyone who pays even passing attention to Bolt’s disjointed meanderings in the Herald Sun can see for themselves that he is a hardened campaigner and a warrior for all that is good and right. A few pointy words would hurt him as much as a slap with a feather.

After all, in Eatock v Bolt, the Racial Discrimination case Bolt lost in 2011, he was judged to have failed to act “reasonably and in good faith”. His infamous comments about “light-skinned” Aborigines that landed him in court in the first place “contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language”, according to Justice Mordecai Bromberg

Let’s not forget he was not keen to apologise for that offence and also claimed to be the victim in that case.

If Bolt was serious about taking offence at Langton’s comments he could have made an official complaint to the ABC, which I understand he did not do. Instead he chose to make a media circus out of the issue in order to maximise the damage to the public broadcaster.

He was successful in that aim. Jones’ apology on behalf of the network was another abject pre-emptive retreat by the ABC in the face of ongoing and concerted bomb-chucking from the News Limited bunkers.

The conservative commentariat is emboldened by such moves and by the tacit support given to their feigned outrage and conveniently hurt feelings by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his senior ministers.

That the Prime Minister also considers it appropriate to comment on an ongoing legal stoush between the ABC and another News Limited hack, should signal that this government knows no bounds in its desire to nobble any independent and critical reporting of its actions.

His thinly-veiled warning that Cabinet will consider cutting the ABC’s already stretched funds even further in the May budget, because the public broadcaster has dared to defend itself in the Chris Kenny “sex with a dog” defamation suit against The Chaser, should send shivers down the spine of every comedy producer in the country.

If satire can be curtailed so easily through defamation actions, and a flagship current affairs program bullied into an unnecessary and uncalled for apology, then those of us who appreciate the ABCs independent take on the world will need to mobilise.

If we stand back and watch as the political attacks on the ABC gain in strength and frequency, we will only have ourselves to blame when the national broadcaster goes down in flames.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,570 other followers