ASIO – still Australia’s “dirty secret”

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.

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