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ASIO and me

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Recently I was interviewed on the ABC 7.30 ACT television program about my Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) file. It was a human interest story to accompany an item about the current exhibition called 'Persons of Interest: The ASIO Files', in Sydney at the Justice and Police Museum. I had first learned in passing of the existence of this file from a Canberra Times journalist, Philip Dorling, sometime in 2008. It took me more than a year until February 2010 to eventually obtain my file after applying to the National Archives of Australia.

In March 2010, after reading my file and noting the gaps, I applied for internal reconsideration of the exempted information not released, but to no avail. I haven't appealed further.

The documents

It is a story that begins when I was a PhD student at the Flinders University of South Australia in the early 1970s, working on communism and anti-communism in Australian politics from 1949–1966, the Menzies years.

Some documents from the South Australian branch of the Catholic Social Studies Movement came into my hands. The story of these documents, now lodged in the Butlin Archives at the Australian National University as the Edward F. Farrell Collection, is an intriguing tale in itself and has recently been examined by Dr Malcolm Saunders in the academic journal Labour History, November 2010.

I was given the documents in a somewhat battered, brown suitcase when I was tutoring in political science by one of my students, Fr John Hepworth, now the Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion in Australia, who told me that he had come across them in the garage ceiling of a nearby Catholic presbytery where he was then based as a young Catholic priest.

They include some correspondence between the Adelaide and Sydney branches of the Movement in the 1940s and 1950s at a time of high drama within the Movement and the Labor Party surrounding the Labor Split and the creation of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party. Farrell was the senior Movement officer in Adelaide at that time, and sided with his Archbishop, Matthew Beovich, who opposed the Movement's role in the Labor Split.

I brought them with me in the suitcase when I first came to Canberra to work at the ANU in 1978. Before then I had delved into some of these documents to write an article for the May 1976 issue of Labour History called 'United States Government Assistance to the Catholic Social Studies Movement, 1953–4'. It was about the apparent provision to the Movement by the US Embassy in Canberra of quantities of anti-communist propaganda, that is some assistance in kind to help fight communists.

In the course of additional research for this article, in those pre-electronic times, I had written to B. A. (Bob) Santamaria, the head of the Movement, seeking confirmation, and also to several international sources fruitlessly seeking information about parallel activities in other Western countries.

It was a time of some public controversy about the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), stimulated by authors such as the former CIA agent Philip Agee (Inside the Company: CIA Diary, 1975), but my article mentioned only US diplomats such as Labor attaches, not the CIA.

Looking back it was that research which apparently brought me to the attention of the CIA and eventually ASIO. By that stage I was living in Warrnambool, Victoria, lecturing in politics at the small Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education (now part of Deakin University).

My ASIO file

My ASIO file for this open access period is incomplete in at least two standard ways spelled out in the Archives Act. First, all mentions of the names of ASIO staff are blacked out as are some other matters. Secondly, no communications from other intelligence agencies or governments are included; these can only be obtained from the foreign government concerned and, according to advice from Archives, such referrals are usually lengthy and additional information is unlikely to be released.

Of 50 relevant folios in my case 10 were fully opened to me, 32 were opened with exemption and 8 were totally exempted. Furthermore there is a lot of in-house jargon that needs deciphering.

Bearing that in mind, here goes! My file begins in May 1977 when an internal request to the Adelaide office noted that 'Subject has been brought to our attention by delicate overseas sources in relation to current accusations being made by Philip Agee'.

Within days a short report from Adelaide summarised my family and professional situation and noted that one of my brothers was already 'recorded at this office'. It was noted that he had participated in a 'Stop Omega' protest march in Adelaide during October 1974 and that he had applied for membership of the Australia-China Society.

My father Tom was obviously known to and highly regarded by the author of this memo. He was described correctly as 'a first class state tennis player and sports commentator', who was 'well known and respected in the community'.

My profile was developed via ASIO access to public documents, such as my birth certificate, rates and electricity checks, marriage certificate, passport, travel documents (for a 1971 overseas holiday which included a visit to Moscow), and electoral records. Such are the basic building blocks available to intelligence officers.

Soon I was linked with other Australians, including journalists, academics and political activists, under surveillance under the general theme of 'exposure of CIA'. The whole operation was given the code-name Operation 'Attaboy'.

When it was ascertained that I was living in Warrnambool internal discussion turned to what resources and contacts might be available there to investigate me further. The Victorian ASIO regional office was said to have a number of Warrnambool contacts: ASIO in Canberra also knew a bank manager who might be able to help.


There are a number of wider implications of this story.

One is the quality of the work as revealed in the file. It was a time when, according to the Hope Royal Commission, ASIO was not doing its best work. Neither ASIO nor the CIA seemed to reveal in my file much sense of mid-1950s Cold War Australian politics.

My file suggests mistakenly that I 'had undertaken work on the question of the provision of CIA funds for the Liberal and National Country Parties', when my research interest was actually in the in-kind relationship between the Embassy and the Movement.

The file makes no reference at all to my 1976 Labour History research article which would have clarified my research interests for all concerned. This is despite the fact that it was widely enough known to attract the attention of Mark Aarons (author of The Family File, 2010, about ASIO and the communist Aarons family) who came to Warrnambool for a quick look at the documents.

However to the credit of ASIO officers they moved slowly and cautiously, sensing the delicacy of the investigation and what one officer described in a TOP SECRET minute as 'the somewhat tenuous links between Warhurst and Agee'.

Various suggestions were canvassed for discreet enquiries in Warrnambool (the police, CMF, Boy Scouts, local Catholic priest, postman, and bank manager (is Warhurst in receipt of unexplained funds?). The question was asked whether my home phone could be intercepted or whether direct or indirect enquiries could be made of me, my wife, my brother or my father. ASIO appear to have demanded further grounds from their international source.

By May 1978 ASIO remained unconvinced and loath to proceed. At the end of that month it was noted that 'We have not yet — and probably will not now — undertake a BUGLE operation on WARHURST, nor have we made specific enquiries concerning him in Warrnambool'. But the Director-General had nominated two people at the Warrnambool Institute who could be approached if required. Thank goodness they were not! There this particular file on John Warhurst ends.

Legitimate questions can be asked, nevertheless, about the costs versus the benefits of such investigations as well as the intrusiveness into the lives of citizens. Where do you draw the line? How many dead ends have to be followed in such intelligence operations to justify a success? In my case to know that I was under observation is somewhat unsettling even if nothing ultimately came of it.

There may also be wider and more substantial implications for the careers of others with ASIO files. As far as I know my file played no part in my subsequent life though I cannot be sure. During the 1960s and 1970s there must have been thousands of such files, though generally stemming from anti-war political activism rather than academic research.

Even among my small circle of friends, in Adelaide and Canberra, the television interview has served to unearth examples where it seems ASIO files may have played a role in interrupting subsequent professional lives. One friend is troubled that a file impeded his entry into the public service, while another is bothered by unexplained hostility towards him by a federal public servant in an inter-governmental forum.

My experience has stimulated several other friends to apply for their own files.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist. The television interview went to air on Friday 1 July. This article originally appeared in the Public Sector Informant magazine insert in the Canberra Times on 2 August.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, ASIO, Santamaria, Labor Split, CIA, Labour History, Edward F. Farrell



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Existing comments

Well, well! This reminded me that I was photographed at one of the Vietnam Moratorium marches and sessions where we listened to speakers in front of Parliament House, by ( I presume) the police in civvies.

I must have a file, I'm sure. Never thought about it. I just went off teaching in 1980 and had no problems. I do remember students at Flinders, hiding from the police because they had been conscripted. Much later on, some of my friends (we all went teaching) were followed by their students (from the country) to demonstrate in Adelaide on matters such as the killing of whales, and anything that was unjust. As far as I know, none got into trouble. But, we must all have files from the early 1970s! Very interesting!

nathalie | 03 August 2011  

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