Monday, 16 June 2014

Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files by MEREDITH BURGMANN (ed)

Newsouth, 2014, 464 pages, $32.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The only thing worse, notes Meredith Burgmann in Dirty Secrets, than discovering that your personal file held by Australia’s domestic political police, ASIO, is disappointingly thin is to find out that your official subversion rating hasn’t warranted a file at all.

Flippancy aside, two dozen of ASIO’s many thousands of targets (from High Court judges to gardening identities) take a serious look at their watcher which has doggedly spied on, and imperilled the jobs and personal relationships of generations of left wing and progressive activists engaged in traditional, and entirely legal, political dissent. 

The official justification for all this was combating communism but the miniscule ring of those Australian communists actually involved in Soviet espionage was but a pretext for the establishment in 1949 of ASIO whose riding instructions specified countering ‘subversion’, a hugely elastic term which covered all opposition to the conservative political and corporate status quo.

None of the political activity on the Vietnam war, apartheid, feminism, gay rights, nuclear disarmament or trade unionism was remotely concerned with ‘national security’, that magic incantation which chloroforms any concerns about the infringement of civil liberties and democratic rights by political spying.

A protected bureaucratic species, ASIO’s files inexorably mounted, devoid of any understanding of left wing politics and padded out with mind-numbing minutiae, innocuous trivia, cavalier mistakes, malicious gossip, third-hand tittle-tattle from paid informers and worthless ‘intelligence’ from agents reporting what their superiors wanted to hear.

Some targets have sympathy for the working lives of, for example, ASIO’s telephone bugging transcribers which must have comprised “utter tedium punctuated by short bursts of not very interesting activity”.  Forgiveness is also shown by David Stratton, film critic, who says “no real harm was done”, an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude shared by an equally complacent Jack in the book - “I am not greatly concerned”, writes Jack Waterford, a Canberra Times editor and now occasional ASIO ‘consultant’.

Whilst ASIO’s often bumbling incompetence earns it the deliciously mocking humour of ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams, such irreverence is complemented by more solid reflection on ASIO’s highly effective reality as a conservative political force.  As Burgmann notes, ASIO’s history of error and political bias casts serious doubt on whether it can be trusted today.  “Do we simply ignore the history and cross our fingers about the future?”, she asks sceptically.

The Cold War may have ended but ASIO’s budget and powers have been hugely expanded over the last decade.  The rise of terrorism is the official rationale for ASIO’s growth but, as some contributors show, public oversight and legal processes are lacking from ASIO’s response whilst the organisation’s track record for poor quality information must compromise its non-reviewable ‘adverse findings’ against asylum-seekers.  ASIO may dress itself up as a ‘security service’ or an ‘intelligence agency’ but it should be called after its real function - a political police.  Political police belong in a police state not a democracy.

ASIO also continues its political mission by spying on coal protesters but these files remain exempt from public access under the ‘thirty year rule’.  So, only if you were causing political disorder more than three decades ago can you check to see if ASIO has a file on you (start by checking series A611  at the National Archives of Australia website,  But beware - by requesting access to a file that may not exist you “may well be able to start one by demanding to see [your] file”.

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