Documentary on ASIO monitoring of domestic extremism lacks balance

The documentary selectively showing ASIO surveillance footage from the 1960s and 1970s has excited much commentary. Much of this, however, has ignored the film's historiographical flaws, flawed assumptions and unbalanced analysis.


Letter to The Canberra Times
Monday, 06 January 2014
(published Wednesday, 08 January 2014)

Even excluding apparent ideological biases, Rick Fenely (“ASIO’s all-seeing eye”, January 4) and several subsequent letters have fallen into common historiographical traps.

Depicting all security-intelligence monitoring of foreign spies and domestic political extremists as somehow unwarranted ignores the context of the times — and current reality.

And the enduring constitutional legitimacy of liberal-democracies monitoring domestic extremism, especially where it includes co-operation with foreign dictatorships posing strategic security threats.

Such depictions also suffer from the “condescension of posterity” by ignoring that only now can we confirm that the then monitoring of some individuals may have been unnecessary — as the unavoidable but passing byproduct of monitoring inter-actions with foreign diplomatic missions actively running major espionage and subversion operations in Australia.

Another flaw is “presentism”, the projecting of current values and beliefs into the past when trying to explore motivations and contexts that bear little or no correlation with them.

It seems the documentary on ASIO and much commentary have concentrated on only a few celebrities rather than the range of people, extremist activities and foreign contacts involved.

Moreover, most security-intelligence “files” actually act to clear people through prophylactic recording, or legitimate checking, of potential vulnerabilities or false allegations.

Finally, there are the purported trends in ASIO funding and staffing that dishonestly quote figures from only 2001 onwards.

These ignore the substantial base-line cuts to both throughout the 1990s as a supposed post-Cold War “peace dividend” was mistakenly extracted — as post-Bali experience now proves.

Such biases are exemplified by the fashionable but surely invalid belief that an active engagement with far-Left and often violent ideologies at some stage in your life can be airily dismissed as having no personal consequences or intellectual meaning, then or now.

But even “youthful” involvement with far-Right ones should somehow still earn perpetual condemnation and retain meaning.

Despite the far-Left’s much wider incidence of extremist political violence, intimidation and subversive or worse co-operation with hostile foreign dictatorships throughout the 1925-1991 period.


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