Recommended ReadsSeptember 17th, 2019

The spies who thought we were messy

McKinley Valentine
McKinley Valentine, Senior Content Strategist

Intelligence agencies in both Australia and the US spent the 70s spying on various left-wing groups: feminists, Aboriginal rights activists, union members, anti-Apartheid protestors and so on. Since these people were not actually doing anything shady, declassified ASIO and CIA files are a hilarious if worrying record of perfectly ordinary lives seen through a suspicious and paranoid lens.

In Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO files, we find out that Justice Michael Kirby’s file was opened when he was 12 – after he was taken to the zoo by his communist step-grandfather. Film critic David Stratton came to ASIO’s attention because he wore a red tie and pocket square to a Polish festival (red being part of the Polish flag, not just the former USSR’s). ASIO spies often felt the need to comment on women’s “frumpy” dress choices. And a note in feminist Lucy Woodcock’s file reads of her friend: ’Mrs Reed very militant, active…Son Johnathon (4 ½ years old) an active school propagandist…Organises groups away from teacher’s grasp’.

Stew Albert, of US counterculture group the Yippies, had his FBI file released after his girlfriend found an illegal tracking device in their car:
“Boy, did the Feds hate our messy house. There are pages of complaints about our sloppiness. (...) And they really hated our irregular lifestyle. They would get a solid piece of information that we were planning to leave town and so they would show up at our cabin all bright and ready to break in only to discover we had changed our plans.”

He describes it as a kind of culture clash, which I think is right: I was once interrogated by US border guards, and they almost literally could not understand the concept of being disorganised. They asked me about an old receipt they’d dug out of the bottom of my handbag: Why did I choose to take it with me on the flight? If it was really trash, why hadn’t I thrown it away? Why did I want to bring this 2-month-old receipt into America? I could not give them an answer that made sense to them.


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