As Sydney prepares for the most repressive policing operation in Australia’s history, there’s a class of people who should be defending the APEC protesters — those ex-radicals from the seventies who have personal experience of ASIO harassment.

For instance, a few years back Paddy McGuinness decided that his longstanding opposition to the honours system applied only to gongs received by other people. Despite accepting the Order of Australia, he remained, he assured his Sydney Morning Herald readers, a pretty dangerous fellow — and, to prove it, he quoted from the ASIO file he’d accrued in his youth.

“McGuinness is an extreme left-wing ALP supporter,” it read. “[A]n extremely intelligent and shrewd person […] an excellent tactician.”

The article epitomises the attitude of so many in the commentariat to the security state and its relentless encroachment upon civil liberties. Nothing to worry about. All a bit of a giggle. But the closer you look, the less funny it becomes.

The McGuinness file is now available through the National Archives of Australia. In fact, it’s rather less flattering than he makes out, taking, for instance, as much interest in his personal hygiene as his mental agility.

McGuinness (or “Sebastian Scragg” as he, rather inexplicably, styled himself) was, one spook explains, regarded with great suspicion from his peers “due to his dirty appearance at all times”.

The spies also note his penchant for liquid breakfasts. “His most distinguishing feature,” says another agent, “is his capacity to consume alcohol (I have seen him consume ten cans of beer before breakfast.)”

The bulk of the McGuinness dossier consists of this kind of malicious gossip, supplied by unnamed informers (including some of his supposed friends).

More importantly, it shows that the agencies followed his career with interest. Though he’d done nothing illegal, ASIO, on at least one occasion, intervened to prevent his professional advancement.

Petty harassment compared to that suffered by many others, no doubt — but real all the same.

The file shows how information on a suspect person snowballs, with every snippet of tittle-tattle repeated each time the file is renewed. The scuttlebutt gathered right at the start of the surveillance of McGuiness comes back again and again, gathering a spurious authority simply by repetition. He, of course, has no chance to defend himself – he doesn’t even know the accusations being made.

But that was all in the past. It’s different now. Is it?

Compare the latest report about the treatment of Mamdouh Habib.

Authorities have cited phone calls made by a US terrorist to Mr Habib’s Sydney home in 1993 to bolster their case against him. But The Australian has learned the terrorist could not have made the calls, which phone records reveal were made after he was arrested over the 1993 bomb attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. … It is understood that the records of the calls form part of the reason Mr Habib is considered a security threat.

Alternately, read the Haneef interview transcript. The inability of the officers interrogating Dr Haneef to get even the basics of Islam correct recalls the people informing on McGuinness who apparently thought socialism was something to do with “sociability”.

We know about the McGuinness file because of the 30-year rule. We know about the Haneef case because of Haneef’s courage. But what about all the files we don’t know?

Take, for instance, the APEC exclusion list – a textbook example of the old methods in action.

Had the people on the blacklist committed any crimes, they would, presumably, have been arrested. But they haven’t been. Instead, the list is based upon classified information. We now live under a legal system that, apparently, recognises three classes of people: guilty, innocent, and under suspicion from secret police.

Note, too, how the complete list made it to the Daily Telegraph: another example of old-school ASIO tactics once more back in vogue. Information is secret, unless the agencies think they can make political capital from it. In almost all the recent terrorist cases, the security forces have invoked secrecy provisions – and then leaked relentlessly.

Reading the McGuinness file, you can see why. The people compiling these reports do not see themselves as neutral. They are engaged in a war against those they scrutinise – and in that war, all methods are good.

The McGuinness dossier does contain one impressive piece of spycraft. McGuinness, concludes one agent, is “an unreliable character whose ideological views would be swayed by the situation.”

And so it came to pass, with ASIO losing interest in our boy as he lost interest in his ideals.

From his position of safety and privilege, it’s easy for McGuinness to recall his youthful frolics with a certain wry satisfaction.

The ASIO that kept tabs on him was, however, a feeble creature, certainly when compared to the steroid-soaked monster unleashed by the Howard government after 9/11.

Can anyone else really look at the blend of malevolence and idiocy revealed by the files now in the archives, and sleep easy knowing the licence currently enjoyed by the people who compiled them?

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW