Australian Books

Under the bed

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Australia Under Surveillance Frank Moorhouse

Vintage, pp.298, $33, ISBN: 978085798972

The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963 David Horner

Allen & Unwin, pp.736, $60, ISBN: 9781743319666

The bogeyman of the ASIO agent under the bed has long been an obsession of the Left, and judging from Australia Under Surveillance it will continue to be for a long time to come. Moorhouse is clearly not a person who falls into the ‘useful idiot’ category – he has a long list of writing and research credits to his name – but his look at the security agencies in Australia is disappointing and unfocused. He has covered much of this ground before, particularly in a Griffith Review essay, and the cases he looks at have already been dissected elsewhere.

Much of Moorhouse’s motivation of the book stemmed from the fact that ASIO had a file on him, going back to his youthful days. This is not that surprising, since he was connected, in tangential ways, to various Left-leaning groups. He says that he was a ‘Balmain anarchist’, which sounds silly rather than dangerous. In fact, he seems a bit disappointed that when he gets to read the file he finds that ASIO designated him to be entirely uninteresting. Must have been a bit of a blow to someone with a rather inflated sense of self-importance.

He is on firmer ground when he discusses how ASIO, in the Cold War era, often engaged in surveillance of organisations and people that, like Moorhouse, could not really be said to be a security concern. But this is the sort of thing that looks obvious in hindsight. At the time, it might not have been so clear, and in the volatile 1960s there were plenty of radicals who screamed that they wanted to burn down the system. Which led ASIO to believe that they wanted to burn down the system. Logical enough, and security agencies are probably obliged to err on the side of prudence, although this can raise its own problems.

Moorhouse enters murkier territory when he discusses security in the age of terrorism. He acknowledges that the threat of terrorism is real, and that security agencies have a role to play. At the same time, he worries that they have too much power, especially after the post-9/11 changes made by the Howard government. He suggests that only the committing of a crime should be the subject of police action, and that radical beliefs are not sufficient. Presumably, this means that the authorities should wait for a bomb to go off rather than trying to stop it. True, it would then be easier to obtain a conviction, but is such an approach really sensible?

There have certainly been times where the security agencies have over-stepped their authority, or simply got things wrong – the Haneef case being one. Moorhouse makes a big deal of it, although this seems odd if he is trying to say that ASIO has too much power, since in the Haneef case their view was expressly over-ridden by the Attorney-General.

And there is a glaring omission here. The most significant security-rated scandal of the past decade was the eavesdropping on political figures in Indonesia that occurred in the Rudd (Mark I) era. Surely, this should be a central issue for Moorhouse. There are obvious questions: who in the Labor government authorised this? Was it something driven by the Labor Cabinet or was it one of the Prime Minister’s private side projects? Was the Labor Foreign Minister involved? What about the Labor Attorney-General? Or – perhaps worse – was the whole thing a fishing expedition by the security agencies while the government that was supposed to be overseeing them was asleep at the wheel?

Perhaps the reason that Moorhouse ignores all this is his unexamined belief that security over-reach is essentially the fault of the conservative parties, which he is happy to attack whenever possible. Conversely, he notes that Paul Keating ‘is a hero of mine’, which says it all, really.

Neither is it clear that his central thesis of an over-muscular, self-contained, intrusive ASIO is sound. He conducts a wide-ranging interview with the director-general of ASIO, David Irvine, who carefully lays out the extensive oversight mechanisms that apply to ASIO. To his credit, Moorhouse largely reproduces the interview, even though it does much to undercut his premise. The interview seems to throw the book off-balance, and in the subsequent chapters it is hard to see what Moorhouse is saying, and why. Yes, security agencies need active oversight. Yes, the Digital Age raises all sorts of new problems. Yes, ASIO is overly insular. But… is that it? Is that all? It doesn’t seem like much for 298 pages, and none of it is new.

Moorhouse expresses his view that security agencies by their nature represent a threat to the freedom of expression that underpins liberal societies, an issue of concern to writers and journalists. But his focus is too narrow to be taken seriously. Perhaps he should have looked at the plans by the Greens to licence journalists according to their political views. But that would have upset his anti-conservative paradigm, and writers of the Left, well, don’t do that.

If Moorhouse, when he looks at ASIO’s early days, insists on applying current standards to an earlier era, The Spy Catchers is dedicated to providing historical context. The book is the first instalment of the official history of ASIO, and Horner had access to all the organisation’s records of the period. He is not uncritical, referring to ASIO’s occasional ‘extravagant interpretation’ of its governing legislation. But he points out that in the 1950s the presence of Soviet spies was quite real. The group within the government bureaucracy did so much damage that the US and UK curtailed communication for years. The key asset to protect was the Verona intelligence, the decoding in the late 1940s of encrypted communications between the KGB and its operatives around the world.

Horner dismisses the revisionist idea that the CPA was a sort of social club (Moorhouse’s view), noting its direct links with Moscow. For ASIO, the game changer was the Petrov defection, which gave the agency critical credibility. But Horner also acknowledges that ASIO failed to adapt to the climate of the 1960s, and that its surveillance of academics and writers was a waste of everyone’s time. Hopefully, these issues will be further examined in later volumes.

One might hope that the tribes of the Left would welcome ASIO’s opening of its files, and the consequent aspect of self-criticism.

But it would seem unlikely. If they can choose between reality and the bogeyman, they are likely to choose the latter.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Derek Parker is a regular book reviewer for The Spectator Australia.

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