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Frank Cain, Terrorism & Intelligence in Australia: A History of ASIO & National Surveillance.

Frank Cain, Terrorism & Intelligence in Australia: A History of ASIO & National Surveillance, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2008. pp. xi + 362. $39.95 paper.

A senior lecturer in the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, Frank Cain is the author of seven earlier works--on the Australian persecution of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), on the origins of political surveillance, on the history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and on issues relating to international relations and military history. The book under review draws on Cain's previous knowledge and updates it to provide an impressive synthesis.

The book more than once touches on terrorism as its title suggests, but it is really a critical survey of Australian surveillance history. Cain argues that the surveillance apparatus has too frequently been politicised, and that it has been biased in favour of the Right. It has been a threat to the civil liberties of Australians. It has undermined Labor governments and operated behind the backs of Labor premiers. Yet those Labor governments have been unable or unwilling to curb the excesses of ASIO.

Government surveillance predated the formation of ASIO in 1949. Cain points to the pioneering role of the Counter Espionage Bureau (CEB), a branch of the UK's MI-5 set up in 1915 under the Prime Ministership of Billy Hughes. The CEB helped to crush the operations of the IWW, the American syndicalist organisation that opposed World War I. It set the tone for the subsequent history of Australian surveillance.

Venona, the American code-breaking program, led indirectly to the discrediting of Australia's World War II Labor government. A series of politically inspired misinterpretations encouraged the perception that Labor was responsible for leaking the details of Anglo-American post-war strategy to the Soviet Union. In consequence of this, Washington denied Canberra certain confidential information. Against the background of this political skulduggery, Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley tried to set up ASIO on an apolitical basis, placing it in the Attorney-General's department with a judge (Geoffrey Reed) as Director-General.

But it was to no avail. ASIO leaned to the Right, for example in supporting the 'rat line' operation whereby Nazi criminals were let off and even helped on their way in exchange for their cooperation in the information war against communism. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was the lead player here. The CIA also had a program of cooperating with social democrats; in the case of Australia Cain has not found, or at least does not mention, any equivalent of this 'opening to the Left'. On the contrary, he thinks that ASIO turned a blind eye to right-wing atrocities in the case of Ustase, the pro-Nazi Croatians who ran terrorist tactics against communist Yugoslavia in the early Cold War years.

Cain says that the CIA and ASIO conducted joint operations without telling Gough Whitlam. Although he is unforthcoming about what was a disgraceful episode in Australian history, he does point to CIA-ASIO collusion in the successful effort to discredit this latest Labor Prime Minister. He argues that Whitlam, for his part, missed a golden opportunity to force ASIO to clean up its act. Cain is circumspect about what subsequently lay behind the undemocratic, royalist firing of Mr. Whitlam: 'it is not known ... whether the dismissal had any intelligence overtones to it' (p. 186).

The book winds up with a rehearsal of the civil liberties lost in Australia post-9/11, and with the observation that Australia's intelligence community 'lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq in the period when the Liberal-National Coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard was preparing the Australian people to join in President Bush's 2003 war (p. 332).

Cain's book and his wider scholarship exemplify a tradition of vigilance and criticism regarding the intelligence services of democratic countries. The circumstances of every nation vary, but comparisons might be made with the work of civil liberties historians in other countries, for example Athan Theoharis in the USA. In such literature, the concern is sometimes with exposition more than interpretation or explanation. On the basis of Cain's evidence, can one argue that the original stimulus to international intelligence cooperation is usually internal not external threats? What is it about Australia that made it susceptible to politicised surveillance? Lacking as it did the urgencies of imperial ambition, why did it succumb to exactly the same kinds of misguided intrusion as its more powerful allies? Not all the answers are to be found in Terrorism and Intelligence in Australia, but future students of these problems are unlikely to find a more scholarly source of evidence.


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Author:Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri
Publication:Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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