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May 28, 2008

ASIO’s weird, incompetent little cold war

You can get a sense of the malice and paranoia that dominated ASIO’s operations by looking at the files now available under the 30-year rule, writes Jeff Sparrow.

In 1950, a year after ASIO’s formation, its head, one Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, began compiling lists of individuals to be detained in army camps should war break out. Spry’s sinister document eventually contained some 7000 people.

That’s the context in which new material from Justice Hope’s 1978 report on ASIO, just released under thirty year rule, should be read.

As the ABC notes, the documents show that fears that ASIO “was doing the political dirty work of the Liberal Party” were “well-grounded” since the organisation was “passing scurrilous gossip onto the Menzies government” which was then used under parliamentary privilege.

Mind you, ASIO’s tight relationship with the Liberals was never much of secret. As David McKnight argued a few years ago, the public parts of the Hope inquiry made clear that “ASIO had been largely unaccountable and had been used as a political tool during the long reign of the Liberal-Country Party coalition from 1949 to 1972”.

In particular, Justice Hope documented ASIO’s “Special Projects” section, a body that prepared material for “covert spoiling activities” and “counter-propaganda”. As an example of its handiwork, he noted that Robert Mayne, a SMH journalist, had been approached by Liberal politician Peter Coleman about establishing a magazine called Analysis to attack the Australian Left. A few days later, as an indication of the kind of dirt the new project could expect to dish, Mayne was handed the ASIO files on a number of leading Left-wingers.

Many of the newspaper reports today focus on Hope’s suggestion that ASIO’s preoccupation with domestic radicalism allowed its penetration by foreign spies.

But it should also be remembered that Hope’s inquiry was partly prompted by ASIO’s relationship with the Croatian fascist group, the Ustasha. In the late sixties and early seventies, the Ustasha conducted the most serious terrorist campaign in Australian history, with bombings in Sydney in 1967, 1969 and 1972, Canberra in 1969, Melbourne in 1970 and 1972. Ustasha activities were discussed openly in the Croatian press but ASIO, while monitoring even the most mild-mannered activists of the Left, took no action whatsoever against these fully-fledged terrorists.

Why not?

The historian Frank Cain suggests two reasons.

Most obviously, the Ustasha was an anti-Communist body, attacking Communist Yugoslavia’s consulates and local Left-wingers. Many ASIO agents were, in all probability, sympathetic to its aims.

Secondly, ASIO knew that Yugoslav secret agents were monitoring the Ustasha. Accordingly, it allowed the bombers free rein, so that Australian agencies could study the techniques of their Yugoslav counterparts. In the Byzantine world of the security services, low-level violence, mostly directed against foreigners, paled beside an opportunity to garner information against rival spies.

Today, The Oz ’s editorial page leaps to ASIO’s defence.

ASIO and other security forces would have had no option but to keep close tabs on Communist Party members and sympathisers in Australia. […] Much as he was loathed by the Left for his arguments, the late Bob Santamaria was correct about the Communist Party of Australia’s determination to infiltrate Australia’s trade unions. […] The 100 million people killed by communism underlined its danger and why it was the top priority of our spooks.

Leaving aside the bizarre suggestion that Australian trade unionists had any connection to the deaths of millions people, ASIO’s close ties with Bob Santamaria’s NCC epitomized the very worst aspects of its work. As Richard Hall notes in his book The Secret State, “one ex-NCC man recalls that the main thing ASIO men in the trade union area seemed to want was s-xual gossip – who was sleeping with whom.”

You can get a sense of the combined malice and paranoia that dominated ASIO’s operations by looking at some of its files now available under the thirty-year rule.

Here’s a couple digitalized from a dossier on the women’s liberation movement.

From the first one, we learn that ASIO casually opened files on any phone number connected with the new feminist movement. Dulcie Bethune had the temerity to use her number as a contact for a women’s liberation group. There’s no suggestion that she broke any law or did anything wrong but she duly became file VPF 22378, something that would have had real consequences on her ability to work in the public service.

The second image is of interest mostly because of the subject’s subsequent career. Today, Helen Garner is one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors. Back in 1972, she was a prominent feminist – and so ASIO kept tabs on her. Again, she seems to have done nothing other than put her phone number down on a list.

In The Australian today, Patrick Walters assures us that ASIO today is a beast of a different nature. “More than 30 years later ASIO has changed completely. It is treble the size and a sizeable proportion of its intelligence officers are women. Its relations with its close allies are in good repair.”

But one wonders. If you substitute the word “Muslim” for “communist” and “terrorism” for “subversion”, the political climate post-911 doesn’t seem utterly unlike the Cold War.

Besides, in his reflections on the Hope Royal Commission, its former secretary George Brownbill concluded that, in fact, Australians were protected from ASIO only because the agency stuffed up so regularly.

“It would,” he said, “have been much more serious if the ASIO operatives had been more competent.”

In that light, ASIO’s new size and new efficiency does not seem particularly reassuring.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine.

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5 thoughts on “ASIO’s weird, incompetent little cold war

  1. Colonel Blimp

    About 1970 I passed on to ASIO some info that I had been given about alleged Palestinian terrorist plotting. I was very unimpressed by the amiable ASIO officer who came to see me. However, the regular repetition of apparent absurdities like recording contacts of Helen Garner, Phillip Adams or a thousand others, doesn’t impress me with the seriousness of the thinking behind it. If you can’t collect and you can’t process more than a fraction of the information that might lead to something important to know how do you go about creating a useful data base. Depending on how good you were at knowing what was in fact relevant and how well, by using good technology or just lots of attentive people, you could process the data I would have thought it worthwhile to consider interesting co-incidences in telephone contacts with people known to be vigorously and publicly hostile to aspects of the national foreign policy or in favour of radical change in social and economic affairs. It is at least logically defensible, not requiring a sneer, and comparable to the “profiling” which gives such offence to some PC smitten people that one can see in a US airport a whitehaired 85 year old woman being asked to step aside take her shoes off and the rest while a couple of Middle Eastern looking young men are simply waved through. And yes, I regard stereotyping as something we were programmed by evolution to do with rough-and-ready but generally favourable results (i.e. for staying alive and living long enough to reproduce and bring up another generation). We should be wary of stereotypes and aware of them but most stereotypes have a big element of truth in them. (Or do the rich not tend to be a bit lacking in sympathy for the unemployed? Are not English soccer fans more likely to be offensively drunk than Mediterraneans? Just exercise the imagination to find 1000 examples where the probabilities are strong enough to create a more or less true stereotype). And so….. people who kept company with members of the Communist Party (or one of the Communist parties) in the 60s and 70s were more likely to be attempting something damaging to Australia’s short or long term security than officers of the National Farmer’s Federation. Mind you it does’t sound as though ASIO would have been too good at detecting the plants in the NFF who might attempt to make a hundred flowers bloom…..

  2. col emanuel

    realy brings back a nfew memories..i remember seeing a picture of ,billy mcmahon at a ustasi training camp.myself ,i used to work on the a 21year old..having opposed the war in burning my draft card..this being about the extent of my polical activities..i transfered to melbourne to work,on my return to sydney,my girlfriend told me the police spoke to her where was i…be it that her father was a liberal member of state best mate at the time,had just finished 7 years studying mechanical engernering..all this time working for protector industries..two young kids..guess what job..completely black listed…i can still see santamaria on tele with his map showing the heards comming from indonesia…not a word about the facist …with his support of the catholic church…when we ever learn …

  3. JH

    So, wonder of wonder – miracle of miracles, ASIO was the Liberal parties KGB. What does that make ‘The Australian’? It’s Pravda?

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    This topic calls up some funny memories, of Paul Monk former security official for Oz govt, media commentator now, getting chummy at Ursula College ANU in the 80ies, always wondered if he was doing a little recruiting for Big Brother? We will never know. But also on my press delivery rounds some years back noted a box of give away books outside Surrey Hills Library in Crown St – whacko one is “The Petrov Story” by Michael Bialoguski, in fact the immigrant Polish MD and musician, fluent Russian speaker (with correct accent) who in fact was the spy doing ASIO’s work to get Petrov to defect. Good grist after SpyCatcher I thought. Then my grandfather Eric McLoughlin mentioned with thanks by the author opening pages “Acknowledgement // My sincere thanks to Eric McLoughlin for his invaluable assistance in preparing material for this book.” Wow, I never knew the old drunk SMH reporter moved in those circles. So what has Bialoguski who absconded to the UK as soon as he could after the Petrov Royal Commission got to say about ASO (later ASIO) and Colonel Spry and PM Menzies, imbued as he was with visceral hatred for Stalin’s pogroms that possibly destroyed his family back in Poland? Well not much good to say actually. This supreme spy thought they were ignorant, crude, immensely disrespectful of his skills, indeed incompetent, even dangerously so (eg Russian ambassador called into Menzies office while MB was on the same schedule in the carpark to meet the PM’s private secretary – if Ambassador has seen him there the whole game would have been up, no Petrov defection, no royal commission. Indeed Bialoguski says he wanted to quit the project to pay his bills as ASO were so stingy with allowances. The only thing in ASIO’s defence really is that Bialoguski was so good at covert infiltration they were fearful he had turned double for the Russians. Such is the stuff of Australian cold war history – truly an immigrant / Anglo arrogance story. Clearly MB got so pissed off, or a much better offer from the Brits, or both, he scarpered back to Europe away from we rough yet laughably condescending colonials. How ironic that Bialoguski had no respect for Spry or Menzies yet ramped both their careers at the same time.

  5. Marilyn

    Someone needs to tell Dr Al Haque who was illegally kidnapped, illegally detained and illegally charged with “terror” that our deluded ASIO have changed.