Spies and Sparrows
ASIO and the Cold War
By Phillip Deery
Published by Melbourne University Press
RRP $34.99 in paperback – ISBN 978052287830
Phillip Deery is an historian of the Cold War with a special interest in the impact of communism, anti-communism and espionage on the politics and culture of Australia, Great Britain and the United States.
He has authored more than 100 scholarly publications in the fields of Cold War studies, intelligence and national security, labour movement history and Communist Party history.
In this, his most recent book, he describes the ‘sparrows’ of the title as ‘an indispensable means of acquiring information about communists and left-wing organisations and activists’. Sparrows went undercover in suspect organisations. Their activities were shrouded in secrecy, their anonymity protected, with the exception of several cases Deery writes about.
But let’s backtrack. In the wake of the Second World War and the realisation that the Soviet Union had set up extensive espionage networks around the world, Australia responded by establishing its own spy-hunting agency: ASIO.
By the 1950s its counterespionage activities were increasingly supplemented by attempts at counter-subversion – identifying individuals and organisations suspected of activities that threatened national security.
In doing so, it crossed the boundary from being a professional agency that collected, evaluated and transmitted intelligence, to a sometimes politicised but always shadowy presence, monitoring not just communists but also peace activists, scientists, academics, journalists and writers.
The human cost of ASIO’s monitoring of domestic dissenters is difficult to measure. Deery focuses on a handful of cases where the detail is known.
One fascinating story is that of housewife Anne Neill, whose undercover activities were closely supervised by ASIO boss Charles Spry. She infiltrated the Communist Party of Australia, Adelaide branch, as an unpaid typist.
In later life, having exposed herself as working for the security agencies, she drifted further and further to the right on the political spectrum.
Hers and other hidden histories reveal the personal damage inflicted by ASIO on both lawful protesters and, in some cases, its own agents.
Deery shines a powerful new light on the history of ASIO and raises important and enduring questions about the nature and impact of a state’s surveillance of its citizens.