I always respected ASIO’s work. That respect became admiration during the years that I was Prime Minister, when timely intelligence was so crucial in protecting Australia, and her people, from those who detest our free and democratic way of life.
John Howard’s blurb for The Spy Catchers makes plain what’s at stake with the first volume of David Horner’s history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which covers the years 1949-1963, for in recommending the book the former Prime Minister references not the Cold War, but the War on Terror. Two internal accounts of ASIO’s past apparently already exist, but the Commonwealth Attorney-General approved an ‘official’ version in 2008. ASIO put the task out to tender; the Australian National University won the gig in 2010. In his preface, Horner explains that the ‘many myths or half-truths’ about ASIO’s early years have damaged the Organisation’s standing in the Australian community and this is unfortunate because ASIO does not exist for itself. Rather, ASIO exists to serve the nation. As a government instrument, it ultimately needs to justify its existence to the people of Australia and to both sides of Parliament, and retain their confidence.
That justification becomes particularly important given ASIO’s remarkable expansion. The agency of 1 July 1949 employed fifteen officers. By 2013, that figure was 1800. Perhaps more importantly, the crude listening devices of the past have given way to technologies able to capture almost unimaginable amounts of information. In 1950, ASIO’s Canberra office could record only two telephone lines from the Soviet embassy at any time. By contrast, in a single month in 2013, according to Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency acquired data from more than 3 billion calls and emails. Perversely, the staggering gulf between then and now makes ASIO’s history more relevant than ever. We do not (and cannot) know what the secret organisation does today, but its record allows us to extrapolate, which is why spies the world over have recognised that their future might depend on their past.
Official histories of security agencies pose obvious methodological dilemmas. ‘The whole idea,’ says Horner, ‘of publishing a detailed history of an intelligence organisation based on its classified files seems counterintuitive.’ He explains the conditions upon which he and his team accepted the ASIO commission:
We would not accept any direction from ASIO as to how we would tell the story, and we would write the history as we saw it, based on ASIO’s records. To achieve this aim we would need complete and unrestricted access to all ASIO records relevant to the period we were researching. I am pleased to say that ASIO kept its part of this bargain to the full.
Under the circumstances, that is probably as much as could be expected. Nevertheless, problems remain with research based on archives that no-one else can see. An analogy might be drawn with journalism that cites anonymous sources – a legitimate, even necessary, method under certain circumstances, but readers should still proceed with caution.
Horner calls his account The Spy Catchers to emphasise the role of the so-called Venona decrypts in ASIO’s genesis. From 1943, the US succeeded in breaking the codes of its then ally, the Soviet Union. The Americans unscrambled some 200 cables between Canberra and Moscow, messages that contained the aliases of a dozen or so Australians supplying the Soviet Union with classified information. By the late 1940s, Britain and the US had concluded that Canberra leaked like a sieve. In 1949, the American navy even wanted to cut Australia out of the intelligence loop altogether:
Because of its political immaturity, a leftish government greatly influenced by infiltrated labor organisations, and the fact that Australian government activities had violated the basic security principle that classified information should not be divulged to unauthorized persons, Australia is a poor security risk.
Ben Chifley, the leader of that ‘leftish government’, came under enormous pressure to establish a new, more professional intelligence agency. The foundation of ASIO in March 1949 was the result. The Venona project remained secret until 1995, even though, as Ray Whitrod, an early head of ASIO’s counter espionage branch, put it, ‘the case’ (as Venona was known) ‘was the reason for our existence; it occupied all our thoughts’. With access to the Venona decrypts – and other documents never seen before – Horner has written what will undoubtedly be recognised as the definitive account of ASIO’s formation.
Initially led by Geoffrey Reed, ASIO came into its own under Colonel Charles Spry, a Duntroon graduate who was awarded a Distinguished Service Order during the Second World War and had experience directing military intelligence. Spry took over in 1950 and ran the organisation for nearly twenty years, shaping it in his image. Working from a series of code names, Spry’s agents eventually made identifications for ‘Klod’, ‘Ben’, ‘Bur’, ‘Tourist’, ‘Academician’ and many of the other figures mentioned by Venona. Some of these assessments were later confirmed. Wally Clayton, a senior member of the Communist Party of Australia, apparently confessed to being ‘Klod’, the leader of the group, in 1996. ‘It was an awful name they gave me, wasn’t it?’ he mused to historian Des Ball. Other identifications were never entirely resolved. ASIO confidently deemed the novelist and CPA founder Katharine Susannah Prichard to be the source known as ‘Academician’. But it also identified her son Ric Throssell as ‘Ferro’ – an accusation, never substantiated, that followed Throssell all his life, effectively ruining his public service career. He committed suicide in 1999.
Naturally, the book devotes considerable space to the most celebrated incident in Australia’s Cold War: the dramatic defection of the Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia. Again, Horner’s work, drawing on new material, will be central to all subsequent research. Turning Petrov, a colonel in Soviet intelligence, was a coup for ASIO. The congratulations the agency received from its British and American counterparts dispels the common perception of local spies as mere bumblers and boobies. The Spy Catchers also deflates the assumption, once a matter of faith for the Left, that Menzies had engineered the Petrov affair to win the 1954 election. ‘As true as I stand here,’ said Arthur Calwell in 1960, ‘I believe the Petrov commission was a frame-up and a stunt to defeat the Labor Party, and we have been out of office since.’
Horner – following Robert Manne – shows Calwell to be wrong, at least in his implication of a deliberate conspiracy. Yet in some ways that is no longer the important point. Alongside the blurb from Howard, The Spy Catchers features a puff from Kim Beazley, the current Australian Ambassador to the United States: ‘Not many Australians realise that the most important single government action aligning Australia with the West in the Post-World War II Cold War power distribution was the decision by the Chifley Government to create ASIO.’ Rather than repeating Calwell’s denunciations, Beazley claims credit for ASIO’s formation on the ALP’s behalf, a move symptomatic of how far modern Labor has shifted on national security.
Of course, Beazley led the Labor Party in 2001 and seemed poised to win at the November poll – before 9/11 dramatically transformed the fortunes of the two parties. Now, conservatives in Australia (or, for that matter, in the US) did not engineer the tragedy of September 11, but that does not mean they didn’t seize the political opportunities it offered. Contemporary Labor embraced ASIO after the battering it received over terrorism during the 2000s, when Howard’s national security agenda pushed society to the Right, leaving Beazley and his successors to feebly echo Liberal rhetoric. In that respect, Howard, during the War on Terror, followed Menzies’ Cold War playbook, forcing Labor into awkward and demoralising conflicts with its own supporters. The Petrov episode might not have been the conspiracy that Calwell suggested, but Menzies and his allies certainly exploited it to the hilt.
With that, we come to the biggest problem with The Spy Catchers: a consistent failure to contextualise or analyse the events it chronicles other than in the terms by which they were understood by ASIO at the time. In 1951, Rex Chiplin published an article in the communist newspaper Tribune, in which he revealed that the government was considering a draft ‘Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Immigration with the USA’. ASIO immediately launched an investigation into how Chiplin had obtained information clearly leaked from the Department of National Development. Two years later, the Communist Review ran an article entitled ‘The “Democratic” Monarchy’. The piece, signed with the initials ‘RC’, labelled the aristocracy a ‘reactionary institution’, noted that some hundred Australian officials were attending the London coronation with ‘most of their expenses [coming] from the taxpayers’ pockets’, and concluded that the event was ‘in the best interests of the ruling class: it is their show’. Spry decided that the Communist Review had ‘disparaged the monarchy’ and received the approval of the Attorney-General to raid the CPA’s premises and printery. In the process, ASIO took the opportunity to search for signs of espionage in the office of Rex Chiplin, who was assumed to be the author. Nothing was forthcoming. Yet three men were charged with sedition and sent to court, merely for questioning the coronation.
The Chiplin episode illustrates how ASIO’s counter-espionage was always twinned with counter-subversion, which in practice meant combating the Communist Party. ‘The major consequence of the Cold War,’ writes Horner, ‘was that ASIO pursued its campaign against the communists with an almost religious fervor.’ For Spry and his men, espionage and subversion went hand-in-hand, conceptually linked by the disloyal doctrines of communism. And throughout The Spy Catchers Horner seems to accept that on face value, never providing his own analysis of what communism actually represented: ‘this is a history of the Organisation,’ he says. ‘It is not about Soviet espionage in Australia, the Communist Party of Australia, the Cold War, or ASIO’s effects on particular groups in the community, although all of these appear prominently in the story.’
At 700-plus pages, the book is already a doorstopper, so one can understand the historian’s desire to prevent his narrative blowing out further. But Horner himself acknowledges that the events he describes only make sense in context:
It is impossible to understand the early history of ASIO without appreciating the political and social climate of the early Cold War period. Australians, who had lived through the Second World War when the threat of invasion seemed frighteningly real, were determined to confront and defeat what they perceived as a new and equally dangerous threat [i.e. communism].
But look at that second sentence. Read literally, it implies either that everyone in the country shared the preoccupations of the Cold War Right – which was demonstrably not the case: in 1945, the CPA had around 20 000 members – or, alternatively, that communists and their supporters were not proper Australians. Most ASIO agents adhered to the second notion, but that doesn’t make it true.
To put it another way, there is a difference between understanding the political attitudes of the Cold War and adopting them. Too often, Horner simply presents the perspective of the operatives he discusses as if those perspectives were uncontroversially valid. For instance, nowhere does he adequately analyse the meaning and implications of ‘subversion’, a concept central to ASIO’s activities. ‘In simple terms,’ Horner says, ‘subversion is an activity aimed at overthrowing or undermining the legitimately elected Government of Australia.’
That is a fair summary of how ASIO understood the term. But it does not tell us anything about the implications of such a notion for basic democratic theory. In 1958, Stephen Murray-Smith, the founder of Overland, stormed into the office of Communist Party leader Ted Hill, seeking to overturn the expulsion of his friend, Ian Turner. When Hill rebuffed him, Murray-Smith resigned on the spot. Unbeknownst to either of them, ASIO had installed a listening device in the room. Presumably seeking to embarrass either the party or Murray-Smith or both, the agents leaked the resignation to the Herald. Someone at the paper warned Murray-Smith of the coming story; he passed the tip on to Hill, who searched his office and uncovered the hidden microphone. The Communist Party announced the discovery of ASIO’s eavesdropping in its own press. More importantly, it convinced Labor MP Jim Cairns to ask Robert Menzies a question in parliament about the legal basis on which government agents had installed the bug. Spry had already admitted to the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General that the device came from ASIO, but assured them no illegal entry had been necessary to install it – even though, in reality, Spry’s men had repeatedly broken into the office.
Even more remarkably, Spry then drafted Menzies’ parliamentary reply. In response to Cairns, Menzies said:
Although the honourable member refrained from saying so, it is evident that the inspiration for his question is an article in the Communist ‘Tribune’ of 18th February, 1959, repeated in the Communist ‘Guardian’ of 19th February 1959. My attention having been drawn to them, I have now read these articles. Like the overwhelming majority of loyal Australians, I have not bothered to interest myself in what those Communist papers care to print, let alone to believe them. I do not propose to do so now.
In other words, ASIO used information it had unlawfully gathered to campaign against a legal political party; the head of ASIO then lied to cabinet ministers and assisted the Prime Minister to obfuscate to an elected parliamentarian, in the process smearing as disloyal an MP investigating an act that ASIO knew to be illegal.
The episode – minor in itself – illustrates the conceptual slippage facilitated by the concept of ‘subversion’. To ASIO, the fact that neither Hill nor Murray-Smith was breaking the law did not matter; nor did the illegality of its own conduct. ‘Subversion’ meant undermining the established order and so communism, as the antithesis of that order, could never be legitimate. The more mainstream communists became, the greater the danger they represented, since their prominence made them better at duping the unwary. Hence the constant temptation for largely unaccountable agents to see themselves and their allies as embodiments of the collective interest, even – and perhaps especially – when they possessed no democratic mandate for that representation.
In 1951, Dr H. V. Evatt, newly elected leader of the Opposition, met with Spry and asked him about The Association, a secret paramilitary group established by retired General Thomas Blamey. Here was a body that met the textbook definition of subversion: in the late 1940s, it seems to have made serious preparations for a military coup. Spry told Evatt that he was aware of the group. But, he explained, ‘nobody need have any fear as to its misuse in any way, shape or form’ because of the calibre of men involved in The Association. By that stage, The Association was in decline; its members were reassured by the virulent anti-communism of the Menzies administration and content to let their organisation lapse. Nevertheless, Spry’s response is telling. Subversion, by definition, implies that the population is liable to be gulled by honey-tongued agitators. The idea is thus innately anti-democratic, even when it is presented as a defense of democracy, since it implies that voters must be guarded against their own weaknesses. Not surprisingly, ‘the Australian democratic system’ becomes synonymous with those anti-communists supervising it, even when they are in the minority. As a result, a progressive literary editor becomes a ‘subversive’, but generals contemplating a military coup remain patriots.
In his preface, Horner explains that ‘ASIO and the Government believed that the CPA, on behalf of the Soviet Union, was engaged in a long-term campaign to undermine the public’s confidence in the Australian democratic system and ultimately overthrow it.’ In reality, the CPA, in line with other Western communist parties, had abandoned an insurrectionary policy as far back as the mid-1930s. ‘Let it be known definitely once and for all,’ said party leader Jack Blake in 1938, ‘that the Communist Party is not and never has been an advocate of force and violence.’ Party leaders still quoted Marx and Lenin, but their campaigning material explained that the Australian road to socialism ran through parliament. Even the Victorian Royal Commission into Communism in 1949 could not sustain claims that the CPA intended a coup. Today, no serious historian argues that the Communist Party of the 1950s was anything other than electoralist. As Horner writes elsewhere: ‘generally CPA members and sympathisers had not broken any law, and increasingly it looked like they had little, if any, intention of doing so either.’
Yes, the CPA was loyal to Moscow and, yes, some of its supporters collaborated with Soviet intelligence. Yet the vast majority of its members joined for prosaic reasons. They wanted their unions to fight for better pay or conditions. They worried about another war; they sought equal pay for women; they thought Indigenous people deserved better treatment. Communism was, in other words, a political movement, not a conspiracy, something that The Spy Catchers consistently fails to grasp.
‘It is now clear,’ Horner writes at one point,
that ASIO’s surveillance of academics, intellectuals, writers and artists, and the gathering of information into voluminous files, was a massive waste of time and resources. But to ASIO this did not appear to be the case at the time. The information allowed connections to be made between individuals, sometimes revealing who were communists or sympathisers. Having said that, the activity had a corrosive effect within ASIO, whose officers came to believe that leftist dissent – and the advocacy of what would become relatively mainstream views about feminism, social welfare and Indigenous Australians – indicated potential disloyalty. … Moya Horowitz, an ASIO officer, recalled that, ‘you only had to be a member of the labour movement, which I think every student [was] in those days … and [you were] down on file … I spent a lot of time at university.’
Again, note how the passage analyses ASIO’s behaviour exclusively from the perspective of the agency. Mass surveillance of people committing no crimes was a problem, but only because of its effect on ASIO. No doubt the maintenance of a vast archive chronicling the intimate lives of thousands of Australians did waste ASIO resources and no doubt it also had a ‘corrosive effect’ within ASIO. But is that really what’s important here?
On the effect of ASIO’s surveillance on Australian society more generally, Horner says almost nothing. Think back to the Chiplin affair. The charges emerging from the raids eventually failed. But what consequences did the sight of three men in the dock merely for criticising the monarchy have for the development of Australian republicanism? How many ordinary people would express a dissenting opinion about the coronation if there seemed a realistic possibility that by doing so they would attract a sedition charge?
More generally, if, as Horowitz states, you only had to be a member of the labour movement to get yourself on file, what influence did that fact have on the evolution of progressive politics? Insofar as Horner discusses the implications of ASIO’s surveillance for the people being surveilled, he is flip and dismissive. He discusses, for instance, how the spies kept Manning Clark under scrutiny for about twenty years, but then writes: ‘Considering the later prominence given to allegations about Clark, it is noteworthy that his ASIO files are rather thin.’
That might be the case, but we also know that Clark lost his post teaching Australian history to cadets at the Department of External Affairs on the basis of an ASIO assessment, which stated that he was ‘not altogether sympathetic to the policies of that party’ – i.e. the CPA. Would Australian academics today speak openly about contemporary political issues if they knew that their interventions might well see them mysteriously denied employment?
Horner reassures us that
the information [in ASIO’s files] was not necessarily needed for internment purposes. If war had broken out with the Soviet Union (and by 1953 this was considered unlikely), the Government planned only to intern the leading members of the CPA.
He quotes Fiona Capp’s Writers Defiled: Security Surveillance of Australian Authors and Intellectuals, 1920-1960 (1993):
Having a file did not automatically mean that the subject would be disciplined or punished … Agents were largely voyeurs without the power to influence behavior except by intimidating presence.
But Horner misunderstands Capp’s argument about the significance of that voyeurism. The Leftists of the fifties could not be sure they were being monitored and they could not know what the consequences of that monitoring might be. But the ambiguity made the experience more harrowing, not less. Uncertainty about surveillance leads to internalisation, the development of self-censorship, in which the subject, perpetually unsure as to what might happen to them, thinks and rethinks their actions and statements.
At this point, it is useful to read The Spy Catchers alongside Meredith Burgmann’s edited collection Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files, a book in which a number of (mostly prominent) Australians respond to ASIO documents they have extracted from their archives under the 30 Year Rule. The title itself hints at something never acknowledged in Horner’s account: the deep sense of violation that comes from realising your private conversations and interactions have been observed and assessed by secret watchers. Burgmann writes:
My sister Verity, a historian and one-time Trotskyist, did not want to look at hers in case she found out that someone she knew and liked was an informant. Academic Ann Curthoys was so reluctant to look at hers in the end she declined to participate. I found myself strangely unable to open my own large parcels for many months. Some were reduced to tears. The writer Roger Milliss wept as he read about the extensive surveillance his father had endured; including twenty pages of intrusive details about his father’s funeral.
To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, this is what a boot looks like when seen from underneath – and, not surprisingly, the view is somewhat different. Burgmann’s book depicts an organisation utterly out of control. She notes a reference she found in a file on the early feminist Lucy Woodcock, dated from 1950. It reads:
Mrs Reed very militant, active … Son Jonathan (4 ½ years old) an active school propagandist … Organises groups away from teacher’s grasp.
Burgmann notes: ‘When the secret police are filing reports on four year olds we have serious problems.’
When, as with that file, the material dates from the period covered by The Spy Catchers, it is striking how differently the two books present the period. For instance, Horner notes that Menzies instructed ASIO to vet every writer who applied for Commonwealth arts funding. ‘Thereafter,’ he notes, ‘ASIO maintained files on numerous well-known writers such as Frank Hardy, Eric Lambert and Dorothy Hewett.’ That is the only reference to Hardy in The Spy Catchers. By contrast, the chapter in Dirty Secrets by Frank’s son Alan reveals that ASIO gathered nearly 1500 (!) pages about Hardy. The files also show that, after the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the Power Without Glory trial, Spry compiled a list of jury members and instructed his men to check whether or not the agency had anything on them.
In her chapter on her father, Elizabeth Evatt quotes a speech Clive Evatt made at a United Nations Day event in 1950, at which he denounced anti-communist legislation.
‘One cannot attend a meeting today,’ he said, ‘without somebody taking notes. Probably they are taking down what I am saying now …’ The file on him began a few days later. We learn that ASIO opened a file on film critic David Stratton, probably because he travelled through Eastern Europe. The spies identify Stratton at a Polish National Day event at the embassy and report that he was ‘celebrat[ing] the occasion by wearing a red tie and pocket handkerchief’. They kept tabs on television gardener and one-time CPA member Peter Cundall, whose file contains the following description:
Up until a short time ago, Cundall used to attempt to put over ‘the working man’s’ image, however he has recently changed and is now on the committee of the Children’s Film Society, he had his name in the social pages of the papers recently attending a ‘first night’ film and has become quite a society man.
The future Justice Michael Kirby makes his mark in an ASIO file in 1951 at the tender age of twelve, when he was recorded as attending Taronga Park Zoo with his grandmother’s communist partner. Gary Foley explains how almost all the major campaigners for Aboriginal rights in the past acquired ASIO files; even conservative Christians such as Dr Charles Duguid and Pastor Doug Nicholls were regarded as communist fellow travellers. ‘ASIO was so preoccupied with its obsessive quest to uncover imagined communist subversion,’ observes Foley, ‘that they clearly denied any ability of Aboriginal people to think for themselves.’
Many of the chapters in Dirty Secrets relate to later periods – in particular, the late 1960s and early 1970s. By that stage, the counterculture and the agents spying on it inhabited entirely different worlds. Dennis Altman went down on file as ‘a self admitted homosexual’ and a ‘frequent speaker at meetings staged by organisations of interest to ASIO’. Anne Summers acquired her first mention when she applied for entry-level clerical work in the Commonwealth public service in 1969. The Director General of ASIO himself wrote to the Secretary of the Public Service Board in Canberra explaining, ‘Mrs Summers has an extensive history of activity in relation to the Vietnam Protest Movement.’
Summers expresses a common sentiment about the level of surveillance revealed by the files – namely, that it exceeded the fears of even the most paranoid activists:
ASIO was there at every planning meeting. ASIO was listening in to phone calls; ASIO was working closely with the Special Branch of the police, which had its own surveillance capabilities, and ASIO did indeed take photographs of us as we marched along Adelaide streets.
Her chapter includes a remarkable surveillance photo from a 1966 protest, in which Summers (future adviser to Paul Keating) stands next to Peter Duncan (future South Australian Attorney-General), Robyn Layton (future South Australian Supreme Court judge) and John Bannon (future Premier of South Australia). Yet the image, with its array of movers and shakers frozen in their youth by ASIO cameras, can be misleading.
‘In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast,’ Quentin Crisp once wrote. ‘Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.’ It is possible to read Dirty Secrets and conclude something similar: that ASIO’s efforts, while intrusive, did not prevent its targets becoming successful politicians or journalists or whatever. But of course these were people chosen, at least in part, because of their celebrity. By definition, the book features those whose lives were not ruined, those who managed to forge a career despite ASIO’s ministrations. It does not include those whose aspirations were stifled: the worker who lost a job after an adverse security report; the writer whose novel never eventuated because ASIO advised against the Commonwealth Literary Fund giving a grant; the bright young person who simply stayed out of politics out of fear of getting into trouble.
Secondly, and more importantly, Dirty Secrets mostly tells the stories of the generation whose rise coincided with ASIO’s decline. From the 1970s onwards, a combination of political pressure and the gradual easing of the Cold War lessened the power of the security forces. In the 1980s and 1990s – the decades of peak productivity for most of Dirty Secrets’ contributors – secret agencies were probably more restrained than at any time in their history, so much so that many concluded that ASIO would slip into eventual irrelevance.
Well, we know what happened to that. The remarkable return of national security – the reinvention of ASIO with powers and capacities it never possessed during the Cold War – should prevent any temptation to see ASIO as merely a historical curiosity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. A number of contributors to Dirty Secrets discuss their files with grating self-satisfaction, almost as if they had stumbled on the colourful record of a convict ancestor.
Dirty Secrets also demonstrates a crucial historiographical point: namely that, in and of themselves, security files conceal as much as they reveal. Many of the contributors to the book played leading roles in the foment of the seventies. But the excitement of the time, and the significance of their achievements, rarely comes across in these chapters. In Writers Defiled, Fiona Capp analyses the ASIO file as literary genre. She points out:
Just when the theory and practice of biography were developing as an art form at the hands of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in the late eighteenth century, the documentation of real lives was becoming an administrative procedure applied to most members of society through educational, medical and corrective institutions, and through government surveillance. With the advent of the science of the individual, what had once been a privilege – having one’s life documented in its every detail – had become a means of social discipline.
Although literary and bureaucratic biography seemed to be evolving in opposite directions, their political function was complementary. The former created heroes and ‘great men’; the latter created citizens and misfits. That is, intelligence files are not merely a source; they are also a methodology. The way that security forces gather information about their enemies implies a particular understanding of history. You can’t spy on social relations: by definition, an agency must identify change as the result of the efforts of individuals. The traditional collation of intelligence therefore rests on an inverted Great Man theory, where society moves according to the machinations of subversives, whose intrigues can be classified and tagged and prevented. The flatness of many of the chapters in Dirty Secrets results from the incompatibility between what is being discussed and the manner in which it has been framed in the files. The social movements of the 1970s were, first and foremost, social. They were the collective expression of disparate forces coming together in a particular place and time. They involved charismatic leaders and activists and organisations, but the attempt to reduce them to an aggregation of those elements – as a collection of phone taps and surveillance reports necessarily does – always misses the point.
Which is not to say that ASIO documents are not important for historians. But they require a reading against the grain. The ‘spy versus spy’ paradigm permeates every record that an intelligence service produces: it is the necessary ideology for the agency’s existence. That is partly why The Spy Catchers, constructed from ASIO’s archives, tells the story it does. As a history, the book is at its best when it is charting the cat and mouse games the agency played with the Soviet embassy as Petrov was being convinced to defect, since that is a narrative the files are designed to inform. But the bigger, contextual questions cannot be answered from telephone intercepts. Venona establishes, for example, that there were a small number of genuine spies in Australia, a fact that ASIO’s supporters have subsequently used to justify the agency’s existence and activities. Yet The Spy Catchers never poses the obvious query: what exactly was at stake in these leaks? No one now doubts the ruthlessness of the Soviet state and the imperial ambitions of its leaders, but that does not, in and of itself, validate ASIO’s claims about the importance of its counter-espionage.
Let’s quote from Beazley’s blurb again. The creation of ASIO, he says,
demonstrated our willingness, in an environment of intense intelligence attacks on the various elements of our and our allies’ national security capabilities, to be a trustworthy player: a capable protector of our and other secrets.
There is an obvious circularity here: secrecy allows us to be a protector of secrets. From the perspective of a government agency, that proposition makes complete sense. Horner’s account documents the institutional effect of ASIO’s successes, which allowed it to exert more influence and forge closer ties with its overseas counterparts – including, we might note, the spy services of some very dubious regimes in South East Asia. But what about the rest of us? The Spy Catchers shows that the British and the Americans worried incessantly about whether the Australian government would allow details of their weapons testing to become known. Given what has subsequently been revealed about the damage the atomic blasts did in Australia and the Pacific, would that have been such a terrible thing? Or consider Chiplin’s publication of the draft treaty with the US. Why shouldn’t Australians have heard what their government was negotiating? In the age of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, it is no longer adequate simply to assert the protection of government interests as a self-evident justification. Yes, Soviet spying was real. Al-Qaeda is real, too. But that does not (or should not) legitimate every claim that an administration makes about secrecy.
More importantly, given the vast resources ASIO allocated to fighting against communism, a history of the agency surely should contemplate the effects of that campaign on Australian society. Despite the small size of the Communist Party in this country relative to its European counterparts, communists were responsible for shaping all manner of aspects of Australian politics and culture that we now take for granted. Throughout the immediate post-war period, for example, the strongest and best-organised unions generally had a communist leadership. If waterside workers now enjoy a reasonable degree of safety while earning decent wages, that is partly the legacy of a generation of communist militants, going all the way back to Jim Hill. As Gary Foley notes, communists supported Aboriginal rights from as early as the 1930s. While most white publications and politicians were openly deriding Indigenous people as savages, the party was almost alone in recognising the significance of Aboriginal struggles – CPA activist Don McLeod went to jail in 1946 for mobilising solidarity for striking Aboriginal stockmen in the Pilbara.
The CPA also created a remarkable cultural infrastructure. The Communist Eureka Youth League promoted folk music and played a major role in the early history of Australian jazz. The EYL also organised all manner of sporting and social activities for working people – it seems, for instance, to have been responsible for bringing volleyball to this country. The Communist Realist Film Unit pioneered Australian documentary film making, particularly about working class life, while the Realist Film Association held public showings of experimental or innovative movies (Battleship Potemkin, Blue Angel, Metropolis) simply not screened anywhere else. The Melbourne International Film Festival grew from its efforts. The New Theatre put on plays that no other company would touch; the Australasian Book Society published books that otherwise simply would not have been available, and the International Bookshop sold them. Oodgeroo Noonuccal began writing after attending the Realist Writers, as did Rodney Hall. Without the Communist Party, there would have been no Frank Hardy, Dorothy Hewett, Judah Waten or Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was far more significant as a novelist than an intelligence source.
One could continue, but the point is simply that ASIO’s war on the Communist Party led it to oppose organisations, campaigns and activities the significance of which most people would today accept without question. Neither the illusions that so many on the Old Left harboured about the Eastern Bloc, nor the presence of a tiny number of spies, changes the fact that, on a vast range of issues in Australia, ASIO lined up with positions now condemned by history. Edmund Wilson’s quip about John Dos Passos in his reactionary years comes to mind: ‘On account of Soviet knavery / he favours restoring slavery.’
Let’s pose the question like this. Say that ASIO had won the battle its agents believed themselves to be waging against the Communist Party. Say Colonel Spry and his men had succeeded in disrupting and demoralising the CPA and its periphery so effectively that the organisation had ceased entirely to exist, perhaps in an alternative universe where Menzies’ ban had been upheld. Say that all the ‘front’ groups, the ones ASIO so assiduously monitored, also collapsed. Would Australia have been better off as a result? To ask the question is to answer it.
So what does that mean? If ASIO back then could so grievously misrepresent the movement it spent so much time and energy studying, what does that tell us about national security today? Obviously, one cannot extrapolate directly from the mid- twentieth century to the early twenty-first, but it is fair to say that one does not come away from this account feeling reassured. Certainly, nothing in the historical ASIO files, with their distinctive mixture of tittle-tattle, speculation and spite, inspires any confidence in what the organisation will do with all our metadata, let alone whatever other digital spoors it is collecting.
Of course, in the 1950s, the Soviet Union controlled vast swathes of territory and millions upon millions of people in what, as early as the 1930s, Hewlett Johnson called ‘the socialist sixth of the world’. In that context, ASIO’s over-reach at least made a certain sense. Today, by contrast, its expansion has been justified by reference to terror groups. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and the others of their ilk might be vicious, but there is no serious comparison between their might and that of the Soviet empire. And yet parliament has granted ASIO powers – control orders, secret detention without charge – that it never possessed during the height of the Cold War. What could possibly go wrong?