ASIO's dirty secrets

1 July 2014
Marty Hirst

Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files, edited by Meredith Burgmann, is a who’s who of former and current radicals, agitators and old communists.

One of the best pieces is the chapter about Communist Party member and author Frank Hardy, written by his son Alan. Another is that of retired High Court judge Michael Kirby. His file was created when he was 12 years old. Members of his family – in particular his father’s mother and her friends – were members of the CPA in the 1940s and 1950s, and young Michael was dragged along to protests and meetings at which he was photographed. Another entry mentions the child of one subject as being a seasoned kindergarten militant at the unlikely age of four.

Several contributors make the point that reading their own files made them distinctly uncomfortable. That’s one reason I have not yet accessed my own ASIO records. The writers also make the point that the files are disjointed, disorganised and riddled with mistakes. They also contain photographs, some taken as part of routine surveillance, but, more disturbingly, some obviously taken and submitted to ASIO by informants. For example, the only photos of Verity Burgmann (now an academic at Melbourne University) are of her in a bikini during an April 1978 International Socialists’ summer camp at Kempsey in NSW.

It is horrible to think that there are rats in the ranks, but these files make it clear that the spooks routinely recruit people to infiltrate protest movements and organisations.

No limits

In one story, the “subject” of the file finds out 40 years after the event that ASIO broke into her flat, rummaged through her personal items and wrote down for its files the titles of books and magazines she had in her bedroom. In several chapters the subject discovers that ASIO attempted to interfere with their job by trying to have them sacked, or intervened to make sure they were not employed. It seems that the spooks routinely make inquiries with employers when checking up on surveillance targets.

But it gets even more personal. Penny Lockwood, the daughter of journalist and Communist Party member Rupert Lockwood, recounts how her heart was broken when a man she loved revealed to her that their affair had been part of his job as an ASIO informant. She’s not the only one to receive such a shock: Peter Murphy mentions that he was in a relationship with an informer in the late 1970s while both were in the CPA.

In 2011, a British case revealed that a police undercover officer had infiltrated an environmental group, befriended and then married another member, eventually having children with her. We should perhaps not discount that such infiltration is still happening.

We have no reason to assume that ASIO does not engage in infiltration, break-ins, creepy snooping, false attempts at intimacy, covert photography and video collection, contacting employers or telephone tapping today.

There is a very interesting chapter by historian and activist Gary Foley. Gary has been active in left wing and Indigenous politics for more than 40 years. He first came to ASIO’s attention in the early 1970s. Perhaps the first time was 26 January 1972, when the inaugural Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawns of Parliament House (the old one) on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin.

ASIO had been interested in radical Aborigines for at least 20 years. The concern was that Aboriginal political networks had been infiltrated by the CPA, which – in ASIO’s fevered hive mind – meant that Indigenous activists were “dupes” and “stooges” for the communists and ripe to be influenced by Soviet agents.

Wendy Bacon’s file provides insight into how ASIO dealt with the emerging new left. Bacon was an anarchist student at the University of NSW when she came to the notice of the secret police in 1968. Her brother Jim (later Labor premier of Tasmania) was a member of the Maoist CPA-ML (ML stood for “Marxist-Leninist”), and he too came to the attention of ASIO while a student at Monash University.


For students of modern espionage, the stories told here also are interesting because the main picture of ASIO that emerges from the pages of Dirty Secrets is that Australia’s premier domestic spy agency is a bumbling clutch of Inspector Clouseaus backed up by a squad of Keystone Cops who couldn’t find their arses if they were on fire.

An entry from Alan (son of Frank) Hardy shows just how stupid some of ASIO’s informants really were: “1. Alan Hardy is a blond haired, tattooed truck driver working for Dalgety’s. 2. Alan Hardy is very thin, lives with another boy in Kings Cross and is VERY interested in theatrics.”

Many of the 26 prominent Australians who’ve shared the secrets of their ASIO files in this collection recount that the entries made over a period of 40 years by spies and their informers are riddled with mistakes, misspelled names, dates and times wrongly recorded and physical descriptions that bear no resemblance to any person living or dead, yet purport to be of the file’s “subject”.

Unfortunately, this bungling of simple details, like personal descriptions of individuals, gives a rather comical impression of what is essentially a well-funded, disciplined and aggressive formation of political police.

Still in business

It is a mistake to see ASIO, various state police Special Branch agencies and other collections of Australian spooks as benign, incompetent, out of touch or out of date. ASIO is the Australian government’s dirty secret. We know little of its current operations – which no doubt continue to have stupid code names like “Operation Whip” – and little of its political targets beyond the usual suspects.

Today those usual suspects are mostly – but by no means limited to – alleged Islamic radicals, so-called “home grown” terrorists and the sort of young men who are most likely to venture outside Australia on “jihad” to Syria, Iraq, northern Africa or Pakistan.

We hear almost nothing today about ASIO’s spying on non-Islamic groups. We don’t know whose phones, email and Facebook communications they are monitoring. We don’t know the extent of ASIO’s files on left groups. We don’t know if the private security firms who have been caught infiltrating anti-fracking groups are contracted to ASIO or if they just happily coexist, sharing personnel and “intel” on protesters and agitators.


The disappointing aspect of the book is that most of the writers are now 30 years older and 30 years more conservative. They portray an image of radicals and leftists in the 1960s and 1970s as idealistic youngsters who were playing at being revolutionaries.

Many of them give the impression that what they did was mostly harmless fun.

They make fun of their arrests on ridiculous charges of disturbing the peace. They joke about discovering through the files that the phone taps that they thought were all part of dressing up as subversives 30 years ago were actually in place and being used to keep tabs on them.

Worst of all, many of them now describe their youthful convictions as folly. They lament the wasted hours spent in “endless” and “boring” meetings discussing politics, tactics and revolution.

Michael Kirby is one who complains with hindsight that he should have been out partying instead of spending hours in the committees of the Council for Civil Liberties and other causes.

Even Verity Burgmann, who was in the International Socialists in the 1970s and early 1980s, says that she now regrets her involvement as a waste of time.

In the end, this is the reactionary message at the heart of this book. It is a shame that many of the contributors – who were pioneering members of the CPA, inspirational leaders of the women’s movement, foundation members of Gay Liberation, militants in the anti-Vietnam War campaign and the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1970s – now think that maybe Australia does need a competent and well-managed domestic surveillance agency to help keep “us” “safe” from … well, “From what exactly?” is the question I am left with.

That is why it is unfortunate – and profoundly apolitical – that so many of the contributions to this book end with the lament that from the 1940s to the 1980s ASIO seemed so unprofessional and incompetent in its espionage efforts. This comment, from the late Joan Bielski, is typical and disappointing – coming as it does from the pen of a radical and militant leader of the early women’s movement:

“As taxpayers, Australians have a right to expect a more sophisticated, politically astute security service … Recent cases made public suggest that ASIO is not such an organisation.”

ASIO can never be an organisation that “respects human rights” or “the right to differ and to advocate for a cause or an idea”, as Joan Bielski might have wished for.

The ruling class is still the ruling class and ASIO – like the army, the police and the courts – is an institution established, funded, directed and managed in order to ensure that modern day subversives do not get the upper hand.

So while Dirty Secrets is a good read and a fascinating insight into the surveillance of radicals – at least up until 1983 – it is not an effective guide to fighting back or resisting the predations of ASIO or other spy agencies into the left today. If the spooks were interested in the women’s movement and the gay rights struggles of the 1970s-80s, we should assume they are just as interested in today’s activists.

The most salient comment in this regard comes from renowned jurist Elizabeth Evatt, the daughter of the famous Clive Evatt, the NSW politician and lawyer who successfully fought the Menzies government’s attempt to outlaw the CPA in the 1950s:

“In this age of fear of terrorism, restrictive security legislation and security services concentrating on the prevention and punishment of politically inspired violence, we would do well to remember that judgments about potential subversion and security risks are not always based on reliable grounds.”

Let’s not have any illusions that organisations like ASIO are in any way “necessary” for our protection. Their job is to protect the interests of Australian capitalism and the state that serves it. Our job is to continue the struggle.

[Dirty Secrets is published by NewSouth Books.]­­

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