At the height of the Cold War, the CIA organised for Russian translations of Eliot’s Four Quartets to be airdropped into the Soviet Union:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past

… take that, Ivan!

Perhaps that poetic history explains ASIO’s current newspaper advertisements, which — bizarrely — seem to be entirely written in blank verse.

You stop.
You talk.
You listen.

You look within.
You use your skills.
You gain trust.

You feel complete.

Not everyone can do this job.
But then.
You’re not everybody.

Are you?

The existential wholeness that overcomes our putative agent in the third stanza takes on rather a different character in light of the Age’s investigation of secret police in Victoria.

There, we read of an agent dubbed “Andrew” using his skills to gain the trust of the committee organising the Palm Sunday peace march — so that he could note on his secret list the names of those fiends demanding peace.

Deputy Commissioner Simon Overland defends Andrew’s work — it was “carefully monitored”, you see, and subject to “strict internal guidelines”.

What exactly are the guidelines under which the Palm Sunday rally, an event associated with subversive groups such as the Catholic church, becomes a legitimate target for surveillance? The Deputy Commissioner cannot say. The internal guidelines are secret, of course — and thus we return to the “trust us” explanation that fared so spectacularly well during the Haneef affair.

Every bureaucracy develops its own agenda, its own interests. But where other agencies are kept in check by an accountability to the public, the secret ones, by definition, are not.

That’s why there’s a certain déjà vu about the Age investigation. Many will remember previous revelations about the Operations Intelligence Unit in the late eighties and early nineties, a time in which undercover cops were so out of control that they were hosting the breakfast show on Radio Station 3CR, delivering lectures to radical feminist groups and sabotaging the Peace Fleet by convincing its members to run up debts by equipment they couldn’t afford. In 1997, a former OIU member explained:

The pressure was always mounting to get more and more information about particular individuals, who the members of organisations were, their associates … The files were always growing as we got more photographs, more identifications and more membership lists. The keeping of dossiers had become a normal routine. The covert people were being used more and more to collect information on ordinary citizens.

The OIU was itself a replacement for the old Special Branch, which, like its brethren interstate, became a byword for political harassment and brutality. The recent special edition of Griffith Review on Queensland provided a good account of how well the secret police used to operate up there.

Of course, ASIO has a long history of this kind of thing, too, stretching way back to the time when its first head, Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, compiled a list of 7,000 individuals to be detained in camps should war with the Soviet Union break out.

The psychology’s not hard to understand. If you’re a secret agent, with access to privileged information, you can easily convince yourself that rules don’t apply, and the end justifies the means.

Perhaps that explains the peculiarities of the ASIO’s advertising. Teenage poets often envisage themselves as a special breed, misunderstood by parents, teachers and an insensitive world.

Not everyone can do this job.
But then.
You’re not everybody.

Are you?

They’d be bad lines from an amateur versifier. But they’re a lot more sinister coming from the secret police.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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