MEREDITH BURGMANN (Ed) Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO files. Reviewed by Jean Bedford
Absurdity and anger reside in this anthology of personal responses to ASIO’s clumsy and calumnious file-keeping.
Meredith Burgmann’s Introduction to this fascinating book foreshadows some of the themes that emerge repeatedly as the contributors discuss their own or their families’ ASIO files. One is the ‘waste of money and resources’ allocated to the detailed surveillance of people who were not in any way threatening to the state, but simply exercising their democratic rights to free association, to membership of legal and legitimate groups and political parties and the public criticism of social inequity and political oppression.
Another is the ‘lack of analysis’ shown in the compilation of the files – much attention is given to the subjects’ appearance, associates, attendance at meetings, rallies and protests, as well as personal circumstances, but, as Rowan Cahill says in ‘Joining the Dots: C/58/63’, no real ‘biographical narrative’ is offered that coherently explains the need for surveillance of particular people. However, he quotes Fiona Capp:
‘… ASIO surveillance files constitute a form of biography compiled while the subject was alive, with a “narrative” that is implied … The existence of a file … [brings] with it implications of being guilty of something, of being a dangerous social type, of being subversive.’
The absurdity of the ‘make-work’ behaviour of the ASIO agents is another common theme – David Stratton being described as wearing a red tie and pocket handkerchief, for example, with its clear implication being that only a pinko would dress this way.
The effect of being spied upon is also spoken about by many of the contributors. Although most left-wing activists, communists or other radicals assumed they were being watched by ASIO, and that there were almost certainly moles in their various organisations and groups, the confirmation of that is confronting. The fact of people’s careers being thwarted and jobs being threatened is an occasion for regret and sometimes anger. Several writers wish they could identify the people, often obviously part of their inner circles, who had reported on them, hoping they were not close friends. In Penny Lockwood’s case (as he confessed to her), it was a boyfriend.
The ‘impropriety’ of ASIO’s activities also recurs as a topic: the often illegal phone-taps and searches, break-ins to private houses, harassment and agents’ repetition of gossip and innuendo as evidence.
The ASIO home page outlines their mission:
ASIO’s main role is to gather information and produce intelligence that will enable it to warn the government about activities or situations that might endanger Australia’s national security … The ASIO Act defines ‘security’ as the protection of Australia’s territorial and border integrity from serious threats, and the protection of Australia and its people from espionage, sabotage, politically motivated violence, the promotion of communal violence, attacks on Australia’s defence system, and acts of foreign interference.
However, ASIO was not so much keeping tabs on people who might endanger Australian national security as behaving in accordance with party-political objectives. While ASIO was established by Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley and, as Mark Aarons points out, both Whitlam and Fraser used it to monitor East Timor activists, its focus was predominantly on spying on the left (including, at times, surveillance of Labor MPs) and serving conservative social agendas on issues like racism, sexism and homophobia. The agents also clearly had a hit-and-miss approach to their work. As Burgmann says:
If the nation decides that it needs a secret intelligence service, then that organisation should employ clever, skilled and astute agents, and have proper and well-resourced oversight and an appropriate appeals mechanism. There is much evidence in this book – in some cases up to 1996 – that this has not been the case with ASIO.
And Jean Bielski emphasises in ‘Fear and Loathing in the Fifties’:
As taxpayers, Australians have the right to expect a more sophisticated, politically astute security service, one that understands politics, one that respects human rights; that respects the right to differ and to advocate for a cause or idea; one that is careful not to clumsily damage people’s reputations and lives.
Many of us are accustomed to regarding ASIO as a joke, its acronym representing multiple oxymorons, as clearly Phillip Adams still does in his essay ‘I was a Teenage Bolshevik’. (How did agents never discover his sending of photos of the Kew Tramway Depot to the KGB?) But it is a sick joke. Its activities have engendered paranoia and fear, prevented people like Susë Milliss from following their chosen careers, got others sacked from their jobs and nurtured an atmosphere of suspicion, cynicism and betrayal. Its incompetence and its weirdly skewed focus have meant that we do not feel well served by a credible or accountable security service. As with the CIA at 9/11, we suspect that ASIO would probably be the last to know if there were ever a genuine foreign threat to our country.
The book covers five decades – from the early 1950s to the 1990s, though some people, like Frank Hardy, had been under some form of surveillance since World War II. ASIO’s main focus for much of this time was the Communist Party of Australia until its dissolution in 1991. This is, in fact, understandable, and properly part of ASIO’s stated mission, as it was suspected CPA members might have strong links to the USSR and therefore be spying for the KGB, and some of them probably were. The Petrov Affair showed that there were Russian spies in our midst, seeking access to UK and US intelligence that was shared by Australia.
Many CPA members became disillusioned with Russian communism and left the party over Hungary and, later, Czechoslovakia, but ‘communist influence’ continued to be regarded as a threat, and anyone who’d ever met a CPA member, or attended the same function as one, or who knew someone who’d once known one, remained under suspicion. This became the rationale for monitoring any organ of social or political change.
The many activities that come under this aegis recur frequently in these essays – anti-Vietnam movements and entities like Save Our Sons and the Moratorium marches; Aboriginal land rights and Indigenous equality platforms; feminist groups like WEL and women’s liberation; the Sydney Libertarians; the Worker Student Alliance; Ananda Marga; organisations like the Humanist Society, the Unitarian Church and the Fabians; resident action; gay rights; women’s refuges; the Eureka Youth League; student protests and publications; May Day marches, New Theatre and so on, and so on. Anything, in fact, that contested and queried the status quo or that offered an alternative way of viewing the world. ASIO assumed, or pretended that it did, that these activities and entities were controlled and organised by communists (and, therefore, were being manipulated from Moscow in a bid to overthrow Australian democracy), that the people involved were being duped, or were willing accomplices to some nefarious Russian plot.
But it isn’t all gloom, doom and Oh my God. Some essays make you laugh out loud at the absurdity of ASIO’s assumptions, although the agents seem to have no sense of humour at all. A positive common thread is that the files have restored memories of the past – Wendy Bacon says in ‘A Bacon Family Affair’:
Exploring these files was a mixed experience. Having an ASIO file is a bit like discovering a long lost personal clippings service, reintroducing me to forgotten articles I had written … as well as agent reports that refreshed my memory of life back then.
Another common thread is a rather rueful admission that people weren’t ever the threat that ASIO saw them to be, or ASIO a real threat to them. As Mark Aarons says in ‘State Affairs and Love Affairs’, ‘Sadly, capitalism and the Australian Constitution were safe from me’, or as Gary Foley remarks in ‘ASIO, the Aboriginal Movement and Me’, ‘… we were probably more of a danger to ourselves than in any real danger from ASIO.’
Many contributors speak about their initial apprehension and excitement at the thought of reading their files, and the disappointment they felt at the triviality of what was documented. In ‘They Just Didn’t Care’ Aboriginal land-rights activist Kevin Cook says, ‘… there were lots of pages but there was nothing in them. The whole thing was just nothing!’ Anne Summers also comments on the irrelevance – and inaccuracy – of what was recorded in her file.
In the end, the secrets are not ‘dirty’ at all (apart from the previously mentioned innuendo) – the files record, often in tedious and unimaginative detail, the openly conducted activities of people and groups concerned with social justice, equity and political reform. The information in the files is not even particularly ‘secret’; it is often part of the easily accessible record of public appearances, journalism and other writings – hardly clandestine behaviour. No doubt some people did engage in activities they wanted to keep secret, but the essays in this book make it clear that ASIO agents were probably not competent to ferret these secrets out.
The collection is heavily slanted towards Sydney activism and participants, although other states are represented. While not wishing to deny an editor the privilege of her own selection, I was personally disappointed at some omissions from the book, particularly those of key figures in the radical left in Melbourne (Monash was a hotbed of radicalism in the 1960s and 70s) and Canberra. Some of these people are dead but friends, family or others might have been asked to write pieces about their ASIO files, as Alan Hardy has done for his father Frank.
However, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about our dissenting past or our potentially oppressive present. Its contributions are personal and honest; it lays bare the absurdity of ASIO’s actions during this period and it raises important questions about what a secret national security organisation might really mean, and, if it is necessary, how it should be administered. It has also made me determined to access my own ASIO file, if only to remind myself of who I once was – David McKnight tells you how at the beginning of the book in ‘How to Read Your ASIO File’, and my daughter, who works for the National Archives, tells me I have one. I hope she’s right and I do not find myself in Francis Letters’s position, protesting the lack of a dossier and having to assert my credentials.
Meredith Burgmann (Ed) Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO files NewSouth 2014 PB 384pp $32.99