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Issue #1544      25 April 2012

Culture & Life

ASIO – with portions omitted

Last weekend, my Party Branch held an excursion to the Police & Justice Museum at Circular Quay in Sydney to view the exhibition “Persons of Interest”. The title is of course Intelligence Agency jargon for the people they are interested in spying on.

The Police & Justice Museum is very small – basically just two rooms – but the exhibition is well mounted and presented. It strives for an air of “official secrets revealed at last!”, but make no mistake: this is very much official history.

ASIO was set up (by a Labor government, let us not forget) in the latter stages of the Second World War. Britain and the US, who had let the USSR bear the major burden of the war and inflict most of the casualties on the Third Reich, had unblushingly withheld vital information from their Soviet ally and indeed had waged the War with the public aim of defeating Fascism and the private aim of preparing the ground for the defeat of socialism.

Their eyes were on the main prize – post-war global dominance – and they did not intend the anti-fascist alliance to be permanent. So, long before the War ended, and long before Churchill’s infamous “iron curtain” speech, they were planning how to achieve an anti-communist post-war world.

It was a big task: they had to undo all the pro-Soviet propaganda the Allies (and the USSR’s colossal anti-Hitler achievements) had thrown up and turn today’s anti-Hitler heroes into tomorrow’s potential enemy. Suspicion had to be thrown on to anything Soviet and anyone who was – or had been – pro-Soviet.

The official story, as purveyed by the Museum, is that Britain and the USA became alarmed that information which was meant to be kept secret from the USSR (while the War was still on, remember) was being passed to the Russians by sources in Australia. [Shock, horror!] So ASIO was set up, and the cold war climate of fear and paranoia, which Menzies had tried to unleash on us in 1940 with his unconstitutional banning of the Party, was finally up and running, albeit in less severe form than he had planned.

Two things are made very clear as you tour the Museum’s display: the colossal waste of manpower and resources spying on the people’s legitimate political activities, and the general ineffectiveness of it all. ASIO was never able to bring any “Soviet spies” to trial. The most they were ever able to do was to approach employers to try to get suspected Reds sacked (in which activity they were aided by Santamaria’s Catholic Action outfit, which was also very active within the Labor Party, not that Catholic Action gets any mention here).

There are in the exhibition not only photos but also movie film of “persons of interest” going in and out of doorways, walking along footpaths, even gardening. My aunt Peace is seen in her garden, obviously filmed over her front fence from a car. Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon’s parents are seen (separately) walking along a footpath. They (and other people filmed or photographed similarly) were almost certainly on their way to or from a perfectly legal meeting of a perfectly legal organisation, meetings they had every right to attend.

However, to the “secret police state” mentality behind ASIO, the democratic right to organise, associate, protest or demonstrate does not exist. People who do not support a pro-business right-wing agenda are suspect. Worse, they are potential terrorists and spies, who must be identified and hopefully weeded out.

Although there is ample evidence in the exhibition of the extent of ASIO’s snooping on ordinary people. (Just how many agents did ASIO have photographing or filming every single person entering the Soviet Consulate to enquire about a visa, or entering the Party bookshop and headquarters at 40 Market Street?) Filming my aunt in her garden was not because ASIO thought she was burying a bomb or even planting microfilm in a pumpkin. It was simply to familiarise other agents with the subject in case that “person of interest” was to be seen somewhere else. Think of the logistics, the sheer size of the accumulated files.

Like an ASIO file released to the public, the exhibition has major sections omitted. There is almost no material on ASIO’s snooping on the trade union movement, nor on ASIO’s infiltration of and spying on every migrant organisation and group in the country, on both the left and the right, although clearly ASIO was more concerned with left-wing migrants than right-wing ones (the latter tended to have powerful Liberal Party politicians in their corner).

The overall image that the exhibition presents is that ASIO’s snooping was a quaint side-effect of the Cold War, and like Communism itself, it is now a thing of the past. We know better, but the exhibition seems to have been put together with the help of people associated with the Aarons group of the old CPA, so the lop-sidedness of the display is not unexpected.

In the decades since the end of WW2, imperialism, especially US and British imperialism, has constantly sought ways to gain military dominance over the world, dominance that would allow it to destroy first the USSR and after the overthrow of socialism there to destroy the new socialist power, China.

While imperialist leaders strove to find the means of successfully launching a nuclear “first strike”, lots of ordinary people all around the world strove just as hard to thwart such plans. If they came across information about Anglo-US war plans or actions that could precipitate a third world war, they would often pass that information to their local Communist Party, confident that the Reds would see that it reached the people most concerned with defending and promoting world peace: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

For this, imperialism – and the Crime & Justice Museum’s exhibition – calls them “Soviet spies”. I don’t think any Communist or other peace activist should feel anything but pride in being identified as someone who acted, in whatever capacity, to stop nuclear war.  

 

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