February 2014

Arts & Letters

ASIO surveillance in ‘Persons of Interest’

By Mark McKenna

ASIO photo of Gary Foley with Black Panther Denis Walker. Courtesy of Haydn Keenan

Documentary series charts the history of Australia’s intelligence-gathering operations

It rises five storeys above Canberra’s Parkes Way, barely 200 metres from Lake Burley Griffin: a curved wall of glass surrounded by a chain-wire fence crowned with barbed wire. The latest monument to Australia’s surveillance state stands empty; its occupation by 1800 staff has apparently been delayed by the building’s “high-security requirements”.

When the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s new $700 million headquarters was opened in July last year, the then Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, ever keen to present himself as the nation’s bodyguard, ecstatically welcomed its completion: “We only sleep safe in our beds at night because of rough men on our borders and because of smart men and women huddled over computer screens in buildings such as this.”

The spectre of a nation under threat, whether from subversive communists, student radicals, Aboriginal activists, desperate asylum seekers or terrorists, has defined ASIO’s rationale since its inception in 1949 under the Labor prime minister Ben Chifley. Compared to the capacity and scale of Australia’s modern intelligence network, which includes the recently established Australian Cyber Security Centre, ASIO’s activities at the height of the Cold War might today appear relatively innocuous. Yet the stark fact is that ASIO has acted at the behest of conservative governments for 42 of its 63 years. It is not only the mania for surveillance in the post–September 11 era that can be traced back to ASIO’s beginnings but also the entrenched suspicion of intellectuals, writers, artists and the ABC within the Coalition. The history of ASIO is a midden of conservative Australia’s deepest fears and anxieties.

Writer-director Haydn Keenan’s four-part documentary series Persons of Interest (which screened on SBS One last month and is now available on DVD) tells the stories of four men targeted by ASIO between the 1950s and the 1970s: the communist author and journalist Roger Milliss; Michael Hyde, a Maoist from the Monash University Labor Club who was one of the leaders of the Moratorium to end the Vietnam War; the mercurial indigenous campaigner Gary Foley, a founding member of the Australian “Black Power” movement in the late 1960s; and the renowned communist novelist Frank Hardy.

Each episode opens in semi-darkness with a predictably menacing soundtrack and solemn voice-over: “There are two kinds of history. Official history, the kind which is taught in schools. Then there’s secret history, a scandalous kind of history, which explains how things really happened. This is the story of Australia’s secret history.” But the narratives become progressively more subtle and powerful. They reveal the personal and emotional toll of ASIO surveillance on each man, and ultimately document ASIO’s excessive intrusion into the lives of Australian citizens over more than three decades.

Because Keenan’s “dark biographies” rely on Milliss, Hyde, Foley and Alan Hardy (Frank’s son) to narrate their respective stories (we see them confronted “for the first time” with their ASIO files, reading ASIO’s reports on their activities and revisiting the sites of their former revolutionary fervour), the success of each episode depends largely on the narrator’s talent in front of the camera. Alan Hardy, who has long worked in television, is brilliantly at ease, as is Gary Foley, whose wit and natural storytelling ability make Keenan’s job so much easier.

Although the broader political history surveyed in Persons of Interest is not quite as “secret” as we are led to believe, Keenan skilfully weaves original ASIO surveillance footage through his characters’ autobiographies to lend the series its slightly sinister air. ASIO’s jittery black-and-white shots of postwar Australia (complete with projector sounds in the background) are both eerie and evocative. It’s impossible not to be disturbed by the extent of ASIO’s surveillance, just as it’s impossible not to marvel at the social history ASIO’s agents have documented in passing (hip ’60s fashion, a country conquered by Holdens and Fords, and entire streetscapes that have vanished in little more than 50 years).

By drawing on original ASIO footage and interviewing both political activists and former ASIO agents, Keenan allows us to understand the watchers and the watched. After countless hours spent filming communists walking to and from their cars as they enter and leave party headquarters, the ASIO agent might only discover that their “person of interest” has a flat tyre. The sheer banality of surveillance is patent. As one former subject of ASIO interest, Jean McLean, jokes when looking at the contents of her file: “It must have been so boring for the spies.” Perhaps it was more exciting for those under surveillance. Some even seem to revel in the attention, as if the existence of an ASIO file is evidence of their credibility as political activists. At times, Keenan shows them looking over ASIO surveillance photographs as if viewing an album of old school photos.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ crusade against the communist “anti-Christ” in the 1950s was ruthlessly exploited for political advantage. In the words of the academic and commentator David McKnight, ASIO became “the research service” of the Liberal and Country parties. Menzies’ vetting of Commonwealth Literary Fund applications is well known, as is his government’s barring of some communists from employment in universities and the middle and upper levels of what was then known as the Commonwealth Public Service. ASIO displayed a catch-all approach to intelligence: cast the net wide, and if we happen to burn some reputations and careers along the way, it’s the price we pay for ensuring that those who threaten national security are “known” to us and monitored. What is less known, as Keenan shows, is how ASIO’s overreach came at a cost not only to the political activists it chose to monitor but also to those whom ASIO employed. Tom Shepherd, who worked as an ASIO agent for 24 years, reflects on the psychology of surveillance. In their reports, he explains, “agents would gild the lily just to make themselves interesting”. Spend long enough looking for conspiracies and you’ll start to see them everywhere. As those who were aware that they were under ASIO surveillance began to perceive every “abnormal” occurrence as evidence of infiltration, ASIO agents were under “constant pressure” to discover “something else”, even when the evidence was non-existent. Looking back on his two decades with ASIO, Shepherd feels tainted and “duplicitous”: “I still don’t know whether I’m lying or whether I’m telling the truth.”

In the most memorable of the four episodes, Keenan manages to extract equally surprising reflections from the “Aboriginal nationalist” Gary Foley. All too conscious of the way in which the passage of time might distort his explanation of what he believed 40 years earlier, Foley talks himself into a corner on ASIO’s chief point of interest: his potential for violence. Keenan shows the young Foley declaring that if Aboriginal people “have to go about violent means of getting the power of controlling our own destinies, then we will”. Later, the older man editorialises: “We would never use violence unless we were attacked.” When asked about Black Power’s capacity for revolution, Foley ducks for cover, hinting that it was nothing more than the romance of youthful activists. “There were so few of us,” he admits. Two things make this film exceptional: Keenan’s masterstroke in capturing Foley’s meeting with the impressive Barrie Dexter, his former superior in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in the early 1970s (Foley to Dexter: “If I was you, I would have sacked me, too”), and Foley’s unexpected gratitude to ASIO: “I’m able to piece together vast tracts of my life that had disappeared from my memory … some of the files are very good historical records … in certain ways ASIO has done us a bit of a service.” Age has softened both men. As a grinning Foley tells the 92-year-old Dexter: “Bazza … we were both caught up in the same web of history.”

These webs of history are on graphic display in Persons of Interest, including communist support for indigenous rights and social justice, which, cushioned by distance and stubborn adherence to dogma, coexisted with a refusal by some to condemn Soviet crimes, even after Russian tanks had rolled into Hungary in 1956. Yet Keenan’s caveat is unmistakeable. The history of ASIO, as the activist Jack Mundey concludes in the final film, is “a blight on the democratic character” of Australia.

The ever-increasing reach of modern surveillance technology, and what is now more than six decades of ASIO counter-intelligence, has created a power base that is unrivalled in the Australian Public Service. We are all persons of interest now. ASIO’s staff has almost trebled since 2000. The great danger is that ASIO will act independently of government, as anti-terrorism laws have given it extraordinary powers. ASIO can detain Australian citizens without charge or trial for up to 14 days. It can deny those in custody the right to speak to their family and friends, their employer and medical professionals. Suspects who refuse to give ASIO the information it requests can find themselves in jail for up to five years. The need for parliamentary scrutiny of ASIO is paramount. As the former High Court judge Michael Kirby tells Keenan: “We’ve got to call ASIO to account, that’s the challenge of a free community.”

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is an award-winning writer and historian. His most recent book is Return to Uluru.

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