'I pry with my little spy'

This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 31 2008

May 1970 was the high point in protests against conscription and the Vietnam war. That month the Vietnam Moratorium drew 100,000 people onto the streets in Melbourne and 30,000 in Sydney. The Liberal-Country Party government, which had denounced the protests as communist-inspired, was alarmed at the strength of the demonstrations.

A month after the protests, the NSW secretary of the Liberal Party, John Carrick, approached the federal Attorney General Tom Hughes for help. He asked for ASIO briefing papers on the student protest movement which had done so much to turn the tide against the government.

According to ASIO archives, Hughes authorized this request and ASIO provided Carrick with three ASIO background papers, among them, 'Student revolutionary activism: its implication for the promotion of insurrectionary warfare in Australia'.

The release of such information to a private individual was not unusual. Hughes was doing what many of his predecessors had done. Indeed ASIO research papers were regularly sent to rightwing journalists and to anti-Communist organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and to B.A. Santamaria's National Civic Council.

So when Justice Robert Hope began investigating the Australian Security Intelligence Organization in 1974, he found an organisation that was routinely used for party political purposes by the Liberal Party. But he decided that none of this dirty washing would be released in his official reports. His role, he said, was to 'make recommendations for the future rather than to seek to track down the truth or otherwise of past errors or alleged past errors.'

Nevertheless the details of ASIO's politicization scandalized him and his small staff who were the first independent investigators into the shadowy organization. Many of the details which Hope found but chose not reveal for strategic reasons emerged during my research over the last four years into ASIO's archives.

Perhaps the most bizarre instruction given to ASIO came from the Foreign Minister, Nigel Bowen in May 1972 who asked ASIO chief Peter Barbour to investigate the 'subversive affiliations' of the Australia Party. The Australia Party, a precursor to the Democrats, had been formed by dissident Liberals. ASIO reported that the party had links with the anti-Vietnam protests but was not strictly speaking 'subversive'.

More serious were ASIO reports that were used to damn the Opposition Labor Party and its MPs. One briefing paper in particular analysed the political motivations of Dr Jim Cairns, a senior Labor MP who was a leader of the Vietnam Moratorium movement. The paper argued that Cairns' activities could ultimately lead to the destruction of parliamentary democracy. The anti-Labor bias continued as the government prepared for the 1972 election. At one point, the Attorney General, Nigel Bowen, and Minister for Labour, Phillip Lynch, asked for ASIO's assessment of proposals put forward by Labor's shadow Minster for Labour, Clyde Cameron and ACTU president, Bob Hawke, on reforming the industrial arbitration system.

While Ivor Greenwood was Attorney General (1971-72), frequently sought security information which he could use to attack the Labor Party. On one occasion ASIO informed him of behind the scenes moves to get a communist trade union leader John Halfpenny, to leave the CPA and join the Labor Party.

Greenwood also liked reading raw intelligence, unusual even for Liberal Attorneys General. In October 1971 he asked to read the transcript of a telephone intercept on Darce Cassidy, a leftwing employee of the ABC. He also asked for security details on a number of left-wing trade union officials, including George Crawford, a leading figure in the Victorian branch of the Labor Party. In the case of feminist and trade union activist in the Melbourne Mail Exchange, Zelda D'Aprano, he suggested to ASIO an unusual strategy. 'He thought she should be got rid of, even by promotion (!) [sic] to some minor Post Office,' reported an ASIO officer.

Just before Christmas 1971 two senior ASIO officers briefed Greenwood on the 'the Aboriginal problem', covering the influence of the Communist Party, marxist intellectuals, the US Black Power movement and the influence of the World Council of Churches. Greenwood saw threats where even ASIO did not. According to one ASIO officer, Greenwood 'was emphatic' that major violent incidents were likely to occur and that 'he was not satisfied with some [ASIO] assessments, [which argued] that no major acts of violence were likely to occur'. Greenwood suggested more telephone intercepts might be required and said he was happy to approve them.

Justice Hope was especially concerned with the practice of back bench MPs asking for information from ASIO for political purposes. One example occurred in 1967, during bitter political conflict in the NSW South Coast electorate of Liberal MP, Jeff Bate. Bate asked then Attorney General Nigel Bowen to inquire of ASIO whether local shire councillor, John Hatton, was a member of the Communist Party. ASIO said they had no information that Hatton was a Communist Party member. But it then gave helpful details about one of Hatton's associates who actually was a CPA member. Later an anonymous smear pamphlet which purported to describe the 'security record' of Hatton and his supporters was spread in the area. Years later Hatton later became a distinguished Independent MP in the NSW parliament.

Perhaps because of such blatant requests, the new ASIO chief after 1970, Peter Barbour, refused to grant some requests for political ammunition. In April 1970, just before the huge Vietnam protests erupted, Prime Minister John Gorton's secretary asked ASIO for published references to 'any brushes by Dr. J. F. Cairns with the law'. She said that the Prime Minister recalled that Cairns was involved in an incident in 1956. She also stipulated the Prime Minister wanted this information 'to be provided solely from within ASIO resources and no reference was to be made to the Victoria Police without the approval of the Prime Minister'. After some considerable delay Barbour responded that he 'regretted being unable to provide the information requested as it had not been considered of security interest'. The wording of this response, carefully recorded in a 'Note for File', is deceptive because ASIO did have the information. Barbour refused to hand it over. Shortly after his deputy, Jack Behm, suggested to the Attorney General 'that perhaps the Liberal Party research group could provide the service which members sought.'

But resistance to politicized requests was patchy. In April 1970 the South Australian Liberal MP, John McLeay, asked ASIO for information on the Rev Eric Nicholls who had taken part in anti-Vietnam groups in which communists had been active. Barbour reported that that he 'does not propose to accede to Mr McLeay's request' apparently because nothing adverse was recorded on Rev. Nicholls. But 12 months later ASIO assisted with corrections to the manuscript of an anti-Communist pamphlet written by McLeay. Needless to say such services were not offered to Labor members of parliament.

Shortly before the 1972 election, perhaps having in mind the possible change of government, Barbour told Greenwood, that he declined to provide information on communist trade unions to a backbencher. 'I explained that ASIO was not geared for researching newspapers and other public sources... I said we liked to think that Members of Parliament would turn to the Parliamentary Library or to their party secretariat for such material.' Barbour repeated his statement in writing to Greenwood the following day and pointedly noted that '[t]his sort of requirement seems to me to raise questions about the use of a security service'.

Many of these incidents were uncovered by Justice Hope's first Royal Commission. Hope chose not to dwell on them publicly but noted in an acid aside that it was 'improper for an MP to ask such questions for remission to ASIO, improper for a minister to transmit them to ASIO in the expectation of a reply and improper for the Director General to communicate information on persons by way of reply to the MP's inquiries'.

But ASIO's critics got things wrong. They imagined that ASIO was 'out of control' and running its own agenda. They thought it needed to be brought under democratic control and be accountable. But the problem was that ASIO was already under too much 'democratic control' and it was too 'accountable', at least to its minister. Hope realised that if Australia was to have a security agency it needed autonomy from direct government control. It needed to be accountable to the government but it also needed to have the legal framework to reject politicized requests.

Hope's findings are relevant to a post-911 world. In the cold war much righteous anger was directed at communists against whom any tactic was justified. In those days ASIO cast a wide net around anyone they regarded as sympathetic to communism. They believed they faced an infinitely evil and infinitely cunning enemy.

Today Islamic fundamentalists are the target of much righteous anger. They are seen as infinitely evil and cunning. Today exaggerated threats from terrorism can form a handy tool for governments to mobilize a frightened public. But thanks to Justice Hope today there is at least a better legal framework.

Today those subject to adverse security reports can lodge an appeal. Those who suspect ASIO is acting improperly can at least complain to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. None of this guarantees that abuses will not occur but it puts some balance into the relationship between citizens and 'the secret state.'