This appears to have come to light after ASIO agents interviewed Rebecca Harrison. According to the article:
Harrison says ASIO asked her whether there was any support among Australian anarchists for violence as a means to achieve political goals. They were also ”very curious” about connections between Australian anarchists and similar groups overseas.
But the ASIO officers had one specific case they wanted to talk about. They asked Harrison what she knew about Felicity Ann Ryder, another Melbourne activist who had attracted brief media attention in early July. They showed Harrison a couple of news articles about Ryder and asked what she thought about her activities.
(My previous coverage of Felicity Ann Ryders alleged involvement in vandalism in Mexico can be found here.)
Further in The Age article:
Fairfax Media has confirmed that ASIO has pursued a wide-ranging investigation in relation to Ryder, including ASIO officers carrying out inquiries in her home town of Rutherglen. ASIO liaises with its Mexican counterpart, the Centre for Research and National Security (Centro de Investigacion y Seguridad Nacional) and the Australian security agency’s inquiries have focused on identifying friends and associates whom Ryder might contact.
Significantly, however, the ASIO officers were also keen to inquire broadly about the Melbourne anarchist scene, asking who the main leaders and identities were, and what they thought about violent protest. After asking whether there would be any ”solidarity events” organised in support of Ryder, the ASIO officers said they would be ”very interested” to learn who organised or attended any such gatherings.
Security sources have told Fairfax Media that international connections between anarchist extremists, facilitated by the internet, are ”a matter of legitimate concern” and that ”radicalisation” through contact with overseas extremists is ”something that has to be monitored”.
Update 14 November,
13:00 23:00: (Updated) statement from Rebecca:
I decided to meet up with ASIO because people from Quit Coal asked me to do so. They had reason to believe that ASIO was investigating Quit Coal and people thought that meeting with ASIO was worth the risk so that we could get confirmation of this that we could then take to the media.
Turned out, they weren’t at all interested in Quit Coal. I’d apparently been ‘identified as someone active in the anarchist movement.’ They asked me a heap of questions. I replied with a lot of ‘I don’t know’s. Should go without saying that they didn’t get any information from me that could be used against anyone.
Afterwards, some people thought it would be worth talking to a journo from Fairfax so that other people could know what was going on and we could bring some attention to the way that people in Melbourne are currently being targeted for surveillance for nothing more than holding lefty/revolutionary political views.
As you can see, though, this didn’t work out as I had hoped. As usual, the mainstream media is happy to present anarchists as scary terrorists and little else.
I sincerely apologise for any harm/erosion of trust that has been caused by my actions. I’m completely open to admitting that I’ve messed this up. And I really hope that Felicity’s campaign for justice is not negatively impacted by the scrutiny this article has resulted in. In the end, all I can really do is try to think more about the strategical lessons of this and how I can do better in the future.
I think some of the things we should take from this are:
1. The dangers that come with engaging with the state and the mainstream media.
2. We should be aware that in the next couple of years there may be increased attention on anarchists and other lefty dissidents from the state and its various instruments of control.
3. We shouldn’t respond to this by stopping the good work that we are doing. I’m proud to be an anarchist and to take part in anarchist organising. Part of the purpose of these approaches by ASIO is no doubt to scare people into silence. I think we should respond by being even more organised and even more vocal.
4. We should think about ways we can show solidarity to anarchists who are facing state repression. My experience with ASIO was what made me want to help organise this rally.
I think a good response to ASIO’s bullshit would be a have an amazing solidarity rally to show them that they cannot intimidate people into silence.
I’ve previously argued amongst Anarchist comrades that there is little evidence that ASIO is paying any attention to Australian anarchism.
But then there was this from ASIO’s 2011 Annual Report to Parliament:
Australia’s Security Environment
There has been a persistent but small sub-culture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves. Over the past year, such extremists have been active in protesting against various Muslim interests.
A recent development is the emergence of an ‘anti-fascist’ movement, led by self-styled anarchists, which aims to confront those it identifies as fascists, including some of the nationalist and racist extremist groups also of interest to ASIO. Where such confrontations have occurred, the ‘anti-fascists’ have outnumbered the nationalist and racist extremists and police intervention has been required.
Slackbastard has more on the 2011 annual report.
And earlier this year The Age also revealed that ASIO, AFP and private contractors had been maintaining tabs on various environmentalist groups.
So what can we make of all this?
Despite the reference to Anarchists in the 2011 annual report, the reported interview with Rebecca points to an intelligence agency that is beginning inquiries rather than continuing surviellance of our community.
Phoning up the organiser of a campus anarchist group and asking “who are your leaders?!” is hardly the behavior of an organisation that already has assets (moles) in a community.
ASIO is a secret organisation but it’s still possible to make a broad assessment of the possibility that we as individuals are under survielance.
We know a bit about the history of ASIO. We know that by the late ’90s they were strapped for cash and resources, and supposedly failing in the most basic responsibilities of a spy agency. In 1997 the Australian government was famously caught unawares by the Sandline affair. The idea that ASIO was conducting any widespread surviellance of domestic dissent at that time seems absurd.
We know that ASIO dramatically expanded after 2001, and now have somewhere around 1760 staff. But we also know where the official paranoia was focused, and (unfortunately) Australian anarchists have next to no links to the muslim community.
All in all, I stand by the argument I have made in the past. At present it is highly unlikely that we as individual anarchists are being actively spied on.
The risk of us being subject to entrapment is similarily low.
We can observe how ASIO targetted disaffected youth in the muslim community. Infilitrate, incite, entrap. If someone comes to your reading group asking if there are any bombings going down, and hey, they know someone who can sell you C4… well, I suggest you show them the door.
The information that a spy agency is likely to have on us is that we have put in the public domain. Think newspaper reports, internet postings, websites, etc. But even that would require staff attention to process into any meaningful form.
This might be changing, thanks in part to events in Mexico.
ASIO liaises with its Mexican counterpart, the Centre for Research and National Security (Centro de Investigacion y Seguridad Nacional)
It seems probable that today’s ASIO interest in Australian anarchists is due to a request from CISN.
But there is a longer term concern.
All bureacracy seeks to expand its turf, resources and staffing, lest it be squeezed out of existence. The War on Terror is officially being wound down, and an ASIO without the War on Terror will have to seek out new threats to justify it’s budget.
Either way, it’s important to keep the threat of surviellance in perspective. The relevation that we might be watched can prompt us to become overly security concious.
I like this piece of advice from Gene Sharpe’s From Dictatorship to Democracy:
secrecy is not only rooted in fear but contributes to fear, which dampens the spirit of resistance and reduces the number of people who can participate in a given action. It also can contribute to suspicions and accusations, often unjustified, within the movement, concerning who is an informer or agent for the opponents. Secrecy may also affect the ability of a movement to remain nonviolent.
In contrast, openness regarding intentions and plans will not only have the opposite effects, but will contribute to an image that the resistance movement is in fact extremely powerful.
Update: statement on events from “some comrades in Sydney”, An open letter to anarchists (and others) in Melbourne (and other places) who feel under attention from the state; or, “Please Don’t Talk To The Cops”.