ASIO Agents and Moles

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ASIO's predecessor was the Commonwealth Investigation Branch (CIB), its director 1919-1944 Harold Edward Jones. Identified as a Security agent who played a key role in NTL surveillance in the 1930s was CIB inquiry officer William Harold Barnwell (1896-1977). Friendly with Dr Asmis, the German consul who complained about the portrayal of Nazis in Till the Day I Die, Bill Barnwell reported on the 1936 performance in the Savoy Theatre. The play was subsequently banned. On 13 June 1940 he overviewed the history of the NTL, recommending it too be banned. Two days later the NT premises were raided and the CPA banned under the National Security Act. Barnwell is known to have reported on the cast members of Off the Leash which opened on 6 October 1940.

During the Second World War Barnwell investigated Germans in Australia, and postwar screened West Germans wanting to migrate here. By 1957 he was said to have retired. A Life Member and President of Queenscliff Surf Club, he was also a keen lawn bowler. Described as of medium height, with a sunburned face and perpetual grin, his favourite adjective was “ruddy”.

In May 1940 a CIB agent named F G Murray accidentally attended The Patriot and the Fool instead of the scheduled No Conscription in which he which he would have been far more interested. (We know Murray's name only because of a redaction failure.)

A substantial 14-page report was delivered to the CIB in October 1940 re a meeting in the Domain protesting against a ban on the NTL performing agit-prop there. Police shorthand writers were kept busy in the rain transcribing the speeches by Freda Lewis (NTL Secretary), Tom Wright (Sheet Metal Workers Union), Sam Lewis (Teachers Federation), Rupert Lockwood (journalist) and E Thornton (Ironworkers Union). Investigating officer R Gamble wrote up a comprehensive report in 1947.

ASIO moles were active after the agency was established in 1949. Theatre Secretary Miriam Hampson took membership lists home with her. The theatre’s phone was tapped and callers often quipped "Hullo, Colonel Spry!". Number plates were recorded of cars parked near the theatre and programmes, newsletters and written reports were regularly submitted. (Reports were often inaccurate, one agent checking a film review in the Spotlight! newsletter noted that Ingmar Bergman had no previous Security record.)

There are a number of Security people suspected to have infiltrated the theatre. We have plenty of names but proving their association is difficult. They were probably moved by patriotism but their reports often had a devastating effect on members' private lives and their prospects of employment.

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