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.

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Someone’s looking at you: Welcome to the surveillance economy

July 26, 2013

One of my favourite Boomtown Rats tracks is “Someone’s looking at you”, written by Bob Geldoff and released as the third single from The Fine Art of Surfacing. I wanted to include the lyric as a chapter header in my 2007 book Communication and New Media: From broadcast to narrowcast, but it was too expensive to secure the rights. It is so much easier on here, and free.

I wrote two chapters on media and surveillance in that book and always wanted to return to the theme because I think we all need to be concerned about how much surveillance there is of all of us in our daily lives.

The paranoia of Thatcher’s Britain comes through in the song and I like this verse and chorus because it is about resistance:

You may as well
Shout it from the roof
Scream it from your lungs
Spit it from your mouth
It could fall on deaf ears to indulge in your fears
There’s a spy in the sky
There’s a noise on the wire
There’s a tap on the line
And for every paranoid’s desire…

There’s always Someone looking at you.
S-s-s-s-someone looking at you…
They’re always looking at you. [Bob Geldoff, 1979]

We take it for granted today, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried.

I have returned to the theme of surveillance to kick-start some more thinking and writing on the subject. It begins with this piece written for The Conversation.

The surveillance society

Everything that fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden has revealed about America’s global espionage network PRISM should make you alert and alarmed. His exposé shows that we are clearly living in a well-established surveillance society. But it also reveals more than that: surveillance is at the heart of the global digital economy too.

One document revealed that in 2001 the Australian telco, Telstra, signed an agreement to allow US spy agencies access to data about its American customers. However, according to the agreement, Telstra is not permitted to let other governments access the same data.

In response, Telstra issued a brief statement only saying that the agreement reflected its contractual obligations at the time and the revelation has received only limited media coverage.

Read the rest of this entry »


2011 – just like 1984: social media and social control

January 18, 2011

I’ve had a good holiday and now I’m back in the tower and it’s a grey, rainy and windy lunchtime in Auckland. I can see the groundworks of our new building from here and the miserable weather is not affecting the builders. They’re out there sinking pillars into the ground for the foundations.

There are 10 cranes currently deployed and half-a-dozen trucks. I won’t bother with a photo today, but later this week, I’ll take a couple.

Thanks to my mate Gary in London, I have just this morning come to grips once again with Ethical Martini.

A lot’s happened over the antipodean summer, floods of “biblical” proportions that some take to be a sign; northern Africa is hotting up with protests; wild weather closing aiports across the US and Europe and this all on the back of an amazing flow of unrest across Europe throughout 2010. Maybe there’s something going on.

It seems that the security services seem to think so.

There’s an amazing story out of the UK about police infiltration of the British Greens. It’s a mind-boggling plot and a sinister reminder that we do indeed live in a surveillance society.

Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian that a secret and semi-private police security unit [APCO] is infiltrating political groups and acting as agents provocateur:

A culture of perpetual fear has become so ingrained in government that nobody dares question any spending to which the word security can be attached. Last month these same agencies gave Britons their annual Christmas present, a day of planted headlines screaming, “al-Qaida threat to Christmas shopping”. It capped a year of “cuts threat to child protection” and “cuts threat to Olympic safety”. The only consequence of the Christmas stories would have been to scare people off going shopping. They must cost London shops millions in lost or deflected sales.

It seems this elite group is beyond any judicial or political control and runs as a semi-autonomous business. Isn’t this how death squads operate?

It trades on its own account, generating revenue by selling data from the police national computer for £70 an item (cost of retrieval, 60p). It owns an estate of 80 flats in central London.

This is amazing, privately on-selling data on protesters and others at a huge mark-up and then investing that money in illegal spying operations against activists. What a great business model — the surveillance economy — in full-swing.

The other story of note that Gary alerted me to is the US government demanding access to an Icelandic politician’s Twitter account to assist its investigation of Wikileaks.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an MP for the Movement in Iceland, revealed last week that the US justice department had asked Twitter to hand over her information. The US authorities are trying to build a criminal case against the website after its huge leaks of classified US information.

“[It is] very serious that a foreign state, the United States, demands such personal information of an Icelandic person, an elected official,” the interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, told Icelandic broadcaster RUV. “This is even more serious when put [in] perspective and concerns freedom of speech and people’s freedom in general,” he added.

The article by Dominic Rushe of the Guardian, also raises concerns that the Justice department might also be seeking information from Google, Facebook and other social networking sites to rope in Wikileaks’ contributors and supporters.

The surveillance power of social networks is now being exposed. I’ve long felt that this issue was under reported and not really taken seriously by proponents of social media evangelism.

These technologies can be easily turned into tools of social control and that’s what seems to be happening. We’ve been aware of it in China for some time and thankfully Chinese activists and pro-democracy groups are finding their way around some of the blocks.

It is the telescreen from 1984. Orwell foresaw the two-way nature of these applications and how they could be used to ferret out dissidents and to quash unrest.

Winston is painfully aware of the telescreen, which is both a receiver and transmitter at the same time. It incessantly relays messages from the Party and simultaneously allows the dreaded “thought police” to tune into the activities of any individual at any given time. The administration is divided among four Ministries- the Ministry of Truth, which deals with news, entertainment, education and fine arts, the Ministry of Love which maintains law and order, the Ministry of Peace which wages war and the Ministry of Plenty which handles economic affairs. The very vocabulary of the people was under Party Control; a system called “newspeak” was encouraged. One of the most dreaded words in the arsenal of Newspeak was the most heinous offence according to the Party – that of “thoughtcrime” which was sure to be punished by the Thought police. [summary from the Literature Network]

‘Thoughtcrime’, we commit it every day. Social networks are the new telescreen and in this case Western governments and many others I’m sure, are actively gathering data from social media to use for political and security means.

How long before we’re all branded as potential terror suspects?

So, I’m really grateful that Wikileaks is around and that Gary sent me another great piece about how Wikileaks is being slandered and subject to a constant, well-funded black-ops propaganda campaign by the US and other governments.

Glenn Greenwald’s piece in Salon canvases a range of important issues here, including freedom of speech and the hypocrisy of the US government over its treatment of Wikileaks and the newspapers that published extracts from the cables.

More importantly perhaps, Greenwald makes the point that it is the nature of the relationship between Wikileaks and its newspaper and media partners which really tells the story:

…there is a full-scale government/media campaign to demonize the group through outright fiction of the type that sold the nation on Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and Al Qaeda alliance.  The undeniable truth from the start is that, with very few exceptions, WikiLeaks has only been publishing those cables which its newspaper partners first publish (and WikiLeaks thereafter publishes the cables with the redactions applied by those papers).  This judicious editorial process — in which WikiLeaks largely relies on the editorial judgment of these newspapers for what to release — was detailed more than a month ago by the Associated Press.

This is fascinating and I’ve not seen it explained anywhere else. It is a great move on Wikileaks’ part and shows a level of integrity that the MSM does not often apply, as Greenwald points out in relation to the Guardian‘s own treatment of this story.

The Orwellian undertones that link these three recent events are clear enough; the question is what do we do about it?

I’m certainly going to be mulling on this over the next few months and it’s a theme I will return to over the year.

For now though, if you still need a bit of holiday mood as you ease into the year, or if you’re cut off by wild weather, snow, floods or other natural disasters, you might contemplate a bit of reading.

May I suggest two downloadable and free sci-fi novels by Cory Doctorow.

These two books capture the mood I was trying to invoke here. The dialectic between pessimism and optimism in relation to the political realities of earth circa the ‘new 20s’

Little Brother [download for free]

For the win [download for free]

Little Brother is a great story of surveillance and resistance against ‘homeland security’; For the win is about how we might make revolution today.

Both are excellent.


Media a target for zealous police – not it’s not Russia

March 12, 2009

Thanks to Colleen for this tip.

The Guardian has an interesting story and video clip about police surveillance of reporters covering an environmental protest late last year.

Secret footage shot by two police surveillance officers during the protest, obtained by the Guardian and broadcast online over the weekend, confirmed officers have been monitoring journalists at protests. Senior officers had previously denied journalists had become the target of surveillance units.

The footage showed that while officers had been asked to monitor protesters against the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, they showed particular interest in journalists.

An ITV news crew, a Sky News cameraman and several photographers were among members of the press placed under surveillance as they left the camp in August. Later in the day journalists were followed by another surveillance unit to a McDonald’s restaurant where police filmed them.[We wre wrong]

It’s interesting that the cops feel quite at ease following journos who are legitimately doing their jobs. It’s very worrying and clearly the informal extension of surveillance by the police is just a normal part of function creep.

It’s really just their creepy function to keep tabs on undesirables like journalists.

Read the rest of this entry »


Facebook and surveillance: “You can leave your hat on.”

January 20, 2009

The lesson here is when you’re committing a crime, no matter how hot it gets, keep your balaclava on.

Queenstown police nabbed a burglar after posting security camera images on the internet networking site Facebook of him trying to crack a safe.

Police said it was the country’s first such Facebook arrest and they would use the site again to fight crime.

“Facebook was very handy, and it’s a good little tool,” said Senior Sergeant John Fookes. [NZ Herald]