ASIO’s involvement in refugee security assessments has focused some attention on Australia’s spy agency. Tom Orsag looks at their horrible history and explains why they can’t be trusted
ASIO security assessments have condemned around 55 refugees to indefinite detention, by labelling them a “threat to national security”. The secrecy of the process, where recognised refugees are denied the chance to know the evidence or charges against them and cannot challenge the decision in any court, has drawn widespread criticism.
But a look at ASIO’s history shows that its decisions can never be trusted, whether over security assessments or anything else. From its inception ASIO has possessed a deep right-wing bias and a view of itself and its operations as above the law.
ASIO was set up in the 1949 by the Chifley Labor government after much Defence Force pressure to do so. Its various predecessor organisations and state-base Special Branches gave over their thousands of files on people to ASIO.
This secret organisation was set up without any legal authority. Its statutes never went before the Governor-General as required in the Constitution. In fact, ASIO had no legal basis until 1956! Its funds were secretly channelled by the Treasury via the Bank of NSW.
It saw a key part of its role as combating “subversion”, which it identified with anyone holding political ideas that challenged property, privilege and the establishment. Indeed, there was no legal definition of subversion, giving ASIO’s extremely broad discretion as to what was deemed subversive and had to be spied upon and fought.
In order to do this it set out to combat ideological enemies by denying progressive writers governments grants, harassing radical academics and public servants and preventing the entry of left-wing migrants to the country.
Yet it allowed extreme right-wing activists including German Nazis and Croatian Ustasha fascists to migrate here in the 1940s and 1950s without deeming them a threat. It later had egg on its face when some of them blew up the Yugoslav Consulate in Sydney in 1967.
Its targets also extended to militant trade union members and strikers, so that ASIO kept a black list of union activists and worked closely with senior management at companies like BHP. This kind of logic had a history in ruling class circles. Workers who took part in the NSW General Strike of August 1917, during wartime, were labelled “agents of the enemy”.
Until 1971 ASIO maintained a list of 10,000 “undesirables” to be interned in the event of war or a national emergency.
Targeting the left
ASIO’s shadowy operations were fuelled by Cold War hysteria against the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which became ASIO’s chief target. Not only was the CPA viewed as “subversive” it was targeted for its potential involvement in espionage for the Soviet Union. But at most only a tiny handful of CPA members ever undertook any spying, and there is no evidence this was organised by the party itself.
The CPA had many flaws, including its support for the crimes of Stalinist Russia. But at its height it was also a mass workers’ party that won broad support in many unions for its dedication to fighting for wages and conditions at work. It also supported struggles for Aboriginal rights and against imperialist wars. It was this basic left-wing activism, and in particular the CPA’s support for the struggles of working people against capitalism, which were marked as “subversive” to ASIO.
ASIO raided the CPA’s offices and printery in July 1953 and the homes of the publishers of its magazine Communist Review, after it published an article on the Queen. So subversive was the article that the Sydney Morning Herald reprinted it in full, the day after the three men were charged.
Charges of sedition and “intention to excite disaffection against the Sovereign” were thrown out of court.
When the Liberal Robert Menzies was elected in 1949, he recruited Colonel Charles Spry as the new head of ASIO and the organisation became even more explicitly politicised.
Menzies’ politics were utterly reactionary. A year before World War II broke out he returned from a tour of Nazi Berlin and remarked, “It must be said that this modern abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty and of the easy and pleasant things of life has something rather magnificent about it.”
Under Spry, ASIO entered a twilight zone of defining anyone left-wing, including the Labor Party, “subversive”.
It began spying on many figures in the Left of the Labor Party, surveilling and gathering smears against many well-known Labor Party figures, including John Burton, Allan Dalziel, Les Haylen, Moss Cass, Clyde Cameron, Tom Uren, Lionel Murphy and Jim Cairns.
It habitually handed over information on Labor Party MPs to right-wing organisations like the National Civic Council and to right-wing journalists. In April 1970 the office of Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton asked ASIO for information on any brushes with the law by Jim Cairns, then a Labor shadow minister, and got it. It continued to monitor him after he became deputy prime minister, in June 1974, when it gave his file to a journalist from the Bulletin to have him smeared as a communist.
Labor Left MP Tom Uren successfully prosecuted Frank Packer’s media empire in the 1960s and won damages following smears against him that appeared in Packer’s newspapers from information leaked to them by ASIO.
As the war escalated in Vietnam Menzies introduced conscription for 18 year olds in 1964, who at that stage did not have the vote, and a new, young, left-wing protest movement arose.
ASIO looked at the anti-war protest movement through the prism of the past and saw the hand of the CPA. That kind of thinking was fundamentally flawed as new layers of people, with all sorts of politics, became involved in the movement against the Vietnam War.
But ASIO went into overdrive, trailing activists, launching phone-taps and break and enter operations, infiltrating anti-war organisations and compiling immense files on anti-war activists. Doug White, a New Left academic and on the board of Arena magazine had his house broken into in January 1971.
A virtual who’s who of New Left student radicals were spied upon—Albert Langer, Humphrey McQueen, Harry Van Moorst in Melbourne, Hall Greenland and Mike Jones in Sydney and Brian Laver in Brisbane.
With the end of the Cold War, ASIO would have us believe it has cleaned up its act. But in recent years it has been handed a raft of new powers to spy on internal enemies as part of the “war on terror”.
Its bias is still obvious. In 2005 ASIO organised the deportation of US anti-war activist Scott Parkin, who was, like refugees, assessed as a “threat to national security”. Then head of ASIO Paul O’Sullivan later admitted that Parkin had never been involved in any violent or dangerous protest activity, nor had he been convicted of any crime in the US.
Its decisions remain shrouded in secrecy. But it has admitted in the past to relying on information from foreign security services against refugees—obtained from the very governments they were fleeing. In 1999 it was forced to change a security assessment against a Kuwaiti refugee after admitting it had relied solely on information from either the Iraqi or Kuwaiti secret police, both of which had persecuted the man.
Two refugees, Muhammad Faisal and Mohammed Sagar, were left on Nauru for years under the Howard government because of ASIO negative security clearances. But ASIO quietly reversed its assessment for one of them, Faisal, after he was hospitalised with mental illness. Sweden eventually accepted Sagar as a refugee by Sweden despite the finding.
The vast majority of refugees detained as “threats to national security” today are Tamils from Sri Lanka suspected of involvement with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Yet the LTTE’s national liberation struggle has been confined to Sri Lanka, and the group is not listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.
Even Clive Williams, head of terrorism studies at ANU believes, “They’ve never done anything here except collecting money and they’ve never posed a threat to Australia.” Yet, for reasons it will not reveal, ASIO thinks otherwise.
ASIO’s whole history and record is one of illegal activity, such as break and enters, phone-tapping, and considering itself above the law. Its bias against the left is a product of its role as part of the state’s repressive apparatus.
This machinery of the police, military and the upper reaches of the public service bureaucracy are an institution for defending the local capitalist class against threats from mass social movements, workers’ struggles as well as foreign enemies and competitors.
Its unelected and secret nature means it is able to operate as a law unto itself, even ignoring the wishes of governments, especially those it does not approve of.
Gough Whitlam and Jim Cairns were to find this out in 1972-5, when a group of hardline ASIO officers plotted to discredit Whitlam in his dealings with ASIO’s then Director General, Peter Barbour.
Because it is a part of a state that defends the capitalist system, ASIO shares the capitalist ruling class’ world view, values and methods. Many of its staff have been former military and police officers who brought with them values ingrained in their previous careers.
ASIO is a tool for the rich and powerful to maintain their control over society. It shouldn’t be trusted. Its history of right-wing bias, political interference and contempt for the requirements of the law show that the best thing we could do is disband it.