Filmmaker Haydn Keenan has spent the past five years pouring through secret files that ASIO kept on potential enemies of the state in the 1960s and 1970s. His obsession began after his friend, a political land rights activist, showed him his own file.

“It was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen,” he told Crikey. “It was completely banal, filled with bureaucratic detail, and every now and again there would be a plot to commit an act of terrorism, plans to blow up buildings with gelignite … it had the most outrageous plots that you would see in a movie.”

The exhibition, Persons Of Interest: The ASIO Files, at the Justice and Police Museum in Circular Quay focuses on Sydney-based persons of interest such as novelist and journalist Frank Hardy, Bruce Milliss, a prominent member of the Labor Party and member of the Communist Party, as well as his son Roger.

The legitimacy of the contents of the ASIO files has come into question with many of the subjects denying much of the material. Keenan explains: “If it was a plot to blow up a building I don’t know why the Commonwealth Police didn’t drag us in for questioning, so someone didn’t take it all that seriously but there it was on this file 40 years later.”

Communism, despite its legality, was ASIO’s biggest threat at this time and potential communists flooded the files. ASIO also kept files ranging from university students who attended a single anti-apartheid or African slavery protest, to individuals who were members of organisations that advocated indigenous or women’s rights — all of which were seen as part of a communist plot to take over Australia. Yet during the peak of ASIO’s reign from 1949 till 1989, the organisation caught only two spies from the half a million files on Australians monitored in this era. Four ASIO files will be portrayed in a four-part documentary to be aired on SBS later this year with the person of interest deconstructing the legitimacy of the document.

Keenan argues ASIO wasted enormous amounts of money and time creating fear and targets to serve the Commonwealth’s bureaucratic aim — “to replicate itself, to stay alive, to grow bigger and to get a bigger budget”. To achieve this intelligence agencies need  “threats, you need lots of targets”.

“If there is nothing to fear and there’s no one plotting to overthrow us, what do we need [ASIO] for?” he asked. “The conservative government used the threat of communists taking over the country as a way of being voted in on a number of occasions. The intelligence agencies and the government are not in collusion but they have similar motives and similar needs. The worst thing that ever happened for ASIO was the collapse of the Communist Party, the best thing that ever happened was the attack on the World Trade Centre.”

Keenan describes ASIO in the 1960 and 1970s as “out of control” and hopes the historical exhibition will provoke debates on contemporary issues such as civil liberties as well as keeping secret service organisations such as ASIO in check. “When you see some of the stuff Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks crew have released, I have the grandfather of those documents,” he said.

Keenan echoes Assange’s theory of two co-existing histories in his investigation into the ASIO files: “There is one sort of history you read about in newspapers and they put in school books and there is another sort, a secret history, this is how things really happened. The ASIO files reveal how things really happened.

“I hope that people will connect some of these documents and draw the threads out and see that if it was going on then, how can we check them from say, deciding to target anyone of Middle Eastern appearance and hounding them. The concern I have is that ASIO has a history of gradually running off the rails.”

The details: Persons Of Interest: The ASIO Files is on display at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney until April next year.