The German film The Lives of Others (2006) ends with a coda, set after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which protagonist Georg Dreyman is finally allowed access to the volumes of secret files collected on him by the Stasi. Apart from the sheer number, what strikes Georg most is the utter banality of the information contained within. It is a familiar reaction among the contributors to Dirty Secrets, a collection of essays from prominent Australians on the receipt of their ASIO files.
Meredith Burgmann, who has edited these essays, is refreshingly honest as to her aims. ‘I wanted to look at the effect of spying on those who have been its targets,’ she says in her introduction. Delightedly she adds, ‘We are finally writing about them instead of them writing about us.’ The lingering outrage underpinning the book rarely subsides.
ASIO was set up by Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1949, mainly in response to British and US agencies uncovering a spy ring operating from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. The national security threat was real, and the official response may well have been justified. But over time something happened to our secret service, something with disturbing modern corollaries.
For an ostensibly apolitical organisation, ASIO rapidly developed an unhealthy obsession with the supposed subversion of leftist causes, from women’s lib to Vietnam War protests. How the perfectly legal rights of the citizen to dissent can be configured as a threat to national security is anyone’s guess. As Rowan Cahill puts it, ‘The ideological forces that have shaped … the collector/agency frame the data collection process.’
This explains the inclusion of people like Gary Foley and Dennis Altman, whose movements were intimately tracked on the basis of their involvement with Aboriginal and gay rights campaigns respectively. To understand why ASIO took such interest in progressive social movements is to understand the particular hold that Communist Party paranoia had over all echelons of Australian society in the decades after World War II. The offensive notion that the Communist Party of Australia was the puppet master behind Aboriginal land rights activism understandably raises Foley’s ire. All Aboriginal protest was interpreted in the context of the international struggle against communism; this was a convenient way of ignoring the legitimate claims of the Aboriginal people themselves.
This tendency to view social activism through the lens of dangerous subversion, a kind of dysmorphia of the body politic, surely reaches its nadir in the essay by Wendy Bacon. Her parents came to the attention of ASIO when they joined a local organisation called the ‘Kew Peace Group’. The informant helpfully listed the members as belonging to three separate categories: the key organiser, those ‘moderately interested in peace’, and those who were only ‘occasionally interested in peace’. Bacon adds ruefully that it seems ‘odd that the more interested in peace you were, the more dangerous you were perceived to be’.
Myopia could be identified as a central theme of Dirty Secrets, the ways in which surveillance can blind as much as reveal. Almost every account includes an example of ASIO getting the most basic facts wrong, of misinterpreting innocent relationships, of implanting sinister motives into innocuous scenarios. Another film comes to mind, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in which Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert Harry Caul narrows the focus of his surveillance so tightly that he misses the bigger picture altogether.
Some of these blunders are hilarious in a ‘Keystone Special Branch’ way, as when a letter from an aggrieved member of the public to the director-general of ASIO is included in Anne Summers’ file. It describes a ‘Dr Anne Cooper (very dangerous), psychiatrist, hypnotist, KGB terrorist’. The fact that Anne Cooper had married and changed her name to Summers before attaining her PhD seems the least of her worries.
‘Of course, any humour found in these testimonials is of the blackest hue’
Of course, any humour found in these testimonials is of the blackest hue. Even Phillip Adams, by far the most avuncular contributor, adopts a flippancy of tone that serves only to heighten his outrage and contempt. His particular bugbear is the protection of privacy ASIO extends to ‘the various dobbers they’d had keeping an eye on me and my fellow subversives’. Of course, the preferred word is informant, ‘which is the official ASIO term for someone who dobs in his friends’.
Reading these essays back to back can feel like reading an actual ASIO file, with its constant repetitions and redacted, unknowable material. Where they differ is in the conviction and engagement, something the smug, bureaucratic judgements of the ASIO officers chillingly lack. Many of the contributors speak of a dismaying absence of analysis in the files, and of an overarching tendency to see the worst in people, what Cahill describes as ‘a circumstantial construction of an imagined … political being’.
The thirty-year rule, which precludes files from release before then, means that Dirty Secrets has nothing to say about current spy activity in Australia. While this could be seen as an unfortunate, if unavoidable, omission, the effect is satisfyingly telescopic. For those who grew up in the era it is no doubt an evocative and alarming portrait of the time, and for the rest a fascinating insight into the particular anxieties that troubled Australia’s recent past. If the modern resonances remain largely unspoken, they are still evidenced between the lines, and should be a serious cause for concern.