Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The rise of spy agencies

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In the 16 years since the events of September 11, 2001 the global political landscape has undoubtedly changed. The horrendous attack, carried out by reactionary right-wing extremists, led to the deaths of thousands of people. The events however were then cynically used by capitalist governments the world over as an excuse to introduce rafts of anti-democratic laws, and to increase the powers of intelligence and spy agencies.

While Australia has seen very few terror related incidents, funding for clandestine spy agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) continues to grow.

We are told that these agencies primarily exist to protect us from the threat of terrorism but when you look back at the history of these clandestine organisations they have often been focused on other matters. While no doubt some of their attention is focused on terrorism a large part of what they do is monitor groups and individuals who they consider to be a threat to the stability of the profit-driven capitalist system.

Alongside terrorists, many trade unionists, peace activists, socialists and environmentalists have been the subject of ASIO investigations – whether they have known it or not!

Opposing dissent

The existence of ASIO is often seen as a direct outcome of the Cold War, however its origins can be traced back to World War One. The outbreak of the war in 1914 led to the hasty establishment of several intelligence bodies. Their purpose was ostensibly to round up German immigrants suspected of supporting the enemy. However, these organisations quickly turned their attention towards watching opponents of the war.

As opposition to the war grew, so too did the various intelligence bodies. In the time between the two world wars the various spy agencies were preoccupied with the two-fold task of monitoring the threat of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and preventing trade with Russia.

For a time, the CPA was banned but during the 1930s the bans were lifted and the focus of the intelligence agencies was turned towards the fascist threat. However, there was never as much of a focus on the middle-class, right-wing, paramilitary groups of the 1930s as there was on the CPA and other working-class, left-wing groups.

In fact, at the time, many government officials and members of the armed forces were themselves members of fascist groups. The police commissioners of both New South Wales and Victoria were members of far-right paramilitary organisations, as were at least 20 members of the NSW parliament.

The Chifley Labor government established ASIO in 1949 under pressure from the US and Britain. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Military Intelligence 5 (MI5) were convinced that there was a Soviet spy ring in Canberra and that the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was overrun by communists. These fears were based on the re-emergence of the CPA during World War Two.

During this time, the CPA was at the forefront of both the women’s rights and anti-war movements, but the biggest threat they posed to the establishment was through their influence in the trade unions. They were the leading opponents of many of the Labor Party’s economic policies.

The actions of the Soviet Union, during and after World War Two, and the success of the Chinese revolution in 1949, made it all the more important for the establishment to quash any opposition to the Labor Party’s pro-capitalist policies. They were desperate to keep tabs on militant trade unionists and potential communist sympathisers.

The political polarisation during this period was high and the US feared that any revolutionary movements in Australia would have the potential to incite a Pacific revolution, therefore threatening US imperialism’s interests in the region.

The Cold War

For most of the 1950s ASIO and MI5 focused on bringing down a spy ring which they believed was led by a prominent member of the CPA, and two diplomats within the Department of External Affairs. In the early 1970s the US administration and its spy agencies were particularly concerned by the Gough Whitlam led Labor government and were possibly involved in orchestrating Whitlam’s dismissal.

Through the whole of the Cold War period, ASIOs attentions were directed towards the nabbing of soviet spies. When there were none, they were invented, and spurious links were found between activists, scientists and writers and the “communist threat”.

The full extent of the surveillance that was carried out against activists and their networks has begun to be exposed as ASIO files have become accessible under Freedom of Information laws. The famous author and prominent CPA member Frank Hardy, aboriginal rights activist Gary Foley, and everyone’s favourite radical gardener Peter Cundall were just a few of the people who were followed, watched and listened to during this period.

Post September 11

After the fall of the Soviet Union the priorities of ASIO were readjusted again. In early 1992 Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating commissioned a review of ASIO. The supposed end of the communist threat meant that ASIO could be scaled back resulting in staff numbers being cut from over 650 down to 600. $3 million was also cut from ASIOs annual budget. In the decade from 1990 to 2000 ASIO’s forces were primarily directed to monitoring the growing anti-globalisation and environment movements.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 however ASIO’s staff and budget were not only increased but significantly expanded. According to Dr Chris Michaelsen, of the NSW University Law Faculty, as of 2011 AISO’s budget had increased by 655% in the decade from 2001 and federal parliament had enacted over 40 pieces of “security legislation” ensuring that Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the world.

This trend continues to this day. ASIO’s annual budget is now $518 million and many more laws have been introduced or changed in order to give ASIO and other arms of the state more powers – often with less oversight.

There is no doubt that Australia’s involvement in imperialist wars in the Middle East has increased the risk of a domestic terrorist attack but still the risks are comparatively low and do not justify the money spent, or the winding back of democratic rights.

Only five people have been killed in terrorist attacks on Australian soil in the past 20 years. In comparison, according to Destroy the Joint, 73 women died as the result of violence in 2016 alone. Far from funding anti-domestic violence strategies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars state and federal governments have been cutting domestic violence services or handing them over to the for-profit sector.

What then is the real reason for increased funding to agencies like ASIO? Why all the anti-democratic laws and the reduction in our civil liberties?

While the Soviet Union no longer poses a threat to US imperialism, and the CPA no longer exists as a mass party, the ruling class is still concerned about so-called ‘subversives’ and groups that advocate changing society. For more than a decade now the global capitalist system has been mired in crisis and this is forcing millions of people to question capitalism and to look for other ways of running society.

Movements built around these types of society-changing ideas are a threat to capitalist profits, and to their rule. The capitalist class is after all a minority. All that stands between them and the majority sweeping them aside and ushering in a new type of society is the state.

The role of the state

For as long as there have been class societies, there has been the need for a state. Put simply a state is a repressive apparatus used by one class to exercise its rule over another. The capitalist state, which includes the police, the prisons, the courts, the army, the parliament and agencies like ASIO etc, is what the ruling class use to impose their rule.

For the most part, they use the cloak of ‘democracy’ to obscure the way the state works but in times of crisis they use violence and brute force. Spy agencies like ASIO are just one part of this sophisticated apparatus.

The clandestine forces of today, such as ASIO, the FBI and MI5, aren’t just a continuation of the old spy systems that existed from the time of the industrial revolution. Historically, spy agencies have generally focused on maintaining “their own” nation state and respective ruling class.

But the global restructuring that has occurred since World War Two has led to a more interconnected global capitalist system. The rise of multinational corporations and the persistent drive to commodify new markets means that capitalism now has needs that transcend that of the nation state. This has forced spy agencies to adjust their focus. The current system of worldwide secret agencies working in concert is designed to keep capitalism safe in a global context.

The activities of agencies like ASIO include more than routine surveillance of political activists. They have been known to organise sabotage, terrorist attacks and even full-scale wars. These organisations have been expressly set up to maintain capitalist rule and they consider that they should do this by whatever means necessary.

That said, they are not all-powerful. Both the ruling class and the state is comprised of a minority of the population. What they fear the most is the majority of society becoming conscious of their latent power and mobilising en masse to put an end to their undemocratic rule. A democratic socialist society that was designed to meet the needs of the majority would have no need of clandestine agencies like ASIO and instead would use its resources to improve people’s lives.

By Meredith Jacka


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