The intelligence officer today

Spy: Espionage in Australia is now on show at our National Office in Canberra. Exhibition Curator Emily Catt tells us what she learnt about working in the current-day intelligence sector.

Veterinarian, sports star and soldier: these are some of the childhood career aspirations of the ASIO officers interviewed for inclusion in our exhibition Spy: Espionage in Australia.

Before undertaking my research for Spy, I had never thought of ‘spies’ as people; they were faceless, nameless entities that emerged from the shadows. During the research process, I viewed hundreds of records and photographs and hours of AV footage, each created by past or present employees of Australia’s security and intelligence organisations.

Public versus private

Negotiating the landscape between public and private is always a challenge for those working in the field of intelligence and security. Simple things we take for granted, like saying hello to a co-worker at the local supermarket or complaining about a work problem at the dinner table, are no longer possible due to their choice of profession.

For those working for ASIO, making a mistake can have a tremendous impact on someone’s life. As one of the interviewed officers says, regarding people under surveillance, ‘You need to be very, very sure of what they’re doing because you are going to have a massive impact on their lives … with the decisions that you’re making’.

As the faceless and nameless entities in my mind began to take form, it was reassuring to see that these employees took their work very seriously. Another officer recalled coming to work on the morning of the September 11 terrorist attacks and finding the carpark completely full, as staff had arrived at work hoping to help.

This is not to say that ASIO has not made mistakes in the past or that these mistakes remain taboo within the exhibition. Spy explores the surveillance of the protest movement in the 1960s and 70s and subsequent Hope Royal Commission, highlighting the need for security and intelligence agencies to remain accountable.

It also adds depth to the discussion around individuals who choose to work in such organisations. What drives a person to get up and do this sort of work every day? How does one negotiate a job that impacts the way you travel to and from work and where you are allowed to holiday?

How does a democracy defend itself?

This question has proved to be a thought-provoking one and stayed with me long after it was initially posed by a former ASIO officer.

Australians operate in a democratic society. As a part of this we expect to experience a certain level of safety. How do we ensure that we get to experience that safety and what liberties do we give up in to achieve this safety? Who is safeguarding our interests in this increasingly digital age, where Google, Facebook and others are privy to our every move? Who else is watching and why? When an agency or organisation’s business is ‘keeping secrets’ how do we hold them to account?

Spy: Espionage in Australia gives us the opportunity to ask and discuss these contemporary questions through an engaging account of ASIO’s history from 1901 through to the present day.