Within the [photographic] archive meaning exists in a state that is both residual and potential. The suggestion of past uses coexists with a plentitude of possibilities.1
Unpacking Peter Butt’s film Final Rendezvous (2020) and the story of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s (ASIO) 1963 training film Legal Resident on the expulsion of Russian spy Ivan Skripov, brings to mind the figure of the babushka doll. Not so much the gorgeous, intricately patterned and lacquered artisan artifact of traditional Russian folk art, but more the mass produced tourist souvenir seen everywhere from St Petersburg to Vladivostok. With its smiling Vladimir Putin on the outside, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Stalin tightly bound in one package, each splitting in half revealing its predecessor within – until finally the tiny Lenin; an indivisible seed. Each opens up another epoch while repeating a familiar pattern. Here the babushka’s outside story is a global phenomenon defining our age, the image of ubiquitous surveillance – a utilitarian moving image. Inside this worrisome figure, like a droll prophecy, we find the 1963 ASIO training film Legal Resident. Inside this we find fragments of 16mm surveillance footage of Russian spy Ivan Skripov. But the figure of Skripov conceals yet another story, another face, soon to be disclosed by filmmaker Peter Butt in his new film Final Rendezvous, as of writing now finished, but not yet released. His astonishing findings, in what might be his best film to date, cannot yet be disclosed. His film begins, as it happens, with Legal Resident deconstructed. The utilitarian image – like the Russian doll – simply keeps on giving.
Since the beginning of TV in Australia in the mid-1950s, the world of spy-vs-spy has diligently served art and entertainment, and vice-versa. Over decades both commercial and public broadcasting have delivered stories of mystery, betrayal and romance, purporting to get behind the scenes of secret intelligence. Mick Broderick’s essay “Atomic Pop” in the 2016 exhibition catalogue Black Mist Burnt Country, an exhibition that eloquently responds to British atmospheric nuclear testing in Australia during the 1950s and ‘60s, cites among others the Crawford drama series Hunter (1967-69), informed by ASIO briefings, offering “self-conscious representations of Australian intelligence operatives confronting external threats or unmasking of subversive domestic infiltration.” ASIO’s official history notes in the case of Hunter “ASIO was satisfied that it had at least persuaded the scriptwriters to have a ‘more positive view of authority’.” In 1993-94 ABC TV ran a 13-part drama series Secrets that tracked a cohort of novice spies in training as they vied and toyed with one another through their first clandestine adventures. The image was of clever, attractive young graduates up for adventure, dedicated to duplicity for the common good.
More recently Pine Gap (2018), a six-part drama series commissioned as a co-production between the Australian Broadcasting Commission and Netflix, promised to expose a popular audience to the technical capacities and functions of this US signals intelligence “joint facility” near Alice Springs in Central Australia. Pine Gap is a crucial cog in the American war machine and one of three ground communications stations in Australia that collects and analyses vast quantities of signals under the “five-eyes” UKUSA Agreement (1947). The role of the base in verification of arms control treaties is disputed. Brian Toohey argues in his recent book Secret2 that the base is “irrelevant to compliance”. It’s monitoring of rocket launches is a nuclear war-fighting function as it informs targeting decisions in responding to nuclear attacks. The base itself is a nuclear target. In recent years control of the base has passed from the CIA to the US military’s National Reconnaissance Office, further militarising its functions. In conjunction with the US base at Menwith Hill in the UK Pine Gap is used – among other functions – for targeting drone assassinations in theatres of war such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.3
The TV show Pine Gap sought to rationalise and humanise the military imperative of Pine Gap through its characters’ personal dilemmas. Storylines teased out socio-political themes around the Australian-American Alliance, increasing Chinese influence in the region, terrorism and issues of Indigenous identity and politics. Questions of mass surveillance, of Australian complicity with extrajudicial killings and civilian deaths in countries where neither Australia nor the US is officially at war are never critically examined. Possible alternatives to the status quo are simply ridiculed. But the show might raise questions for audiences who may otherwise have no knowledge of the base, let alone the troubling issues it embodies.
While commentary on the ubiquity of the moving image as surveillance is somewhat passé today, it is still deeply affecting to watch, for example, the dramatic deployment of horrific acts of killing observed from great distances and carried out by drones or piloted aircraft – such as the horrific and widely reported murders of civilians and journalists in Iraq 2007, leaked by Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning and released by WikiLeaks. Acts of killing engineered by men and women at screens on remote work-stations thousands of miles distant from their purposeful result have been the subject of reflection around both the psychological experience of these men and women, and the philosophical insights that these instances of “war at a distance” illustrate, such as that “constitutive abstraction” that characterises our epoch.4 The series Pine Gap used footage of this kind composited into its imagined “war-room” dominated by its huge screens strangely reminiscent of the infamous war room in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 “nightmare comedy” Dr. Strangelove.5 These actuality references embedded in the fictional frame destabilise any untroubled reception of this fairly mundane TV drama series. The data-film observation, with its aura of authenticity, delivers an uncanny ambiguity and ambivalence as it both enables the suspension of disbelief in the fictional register, while at the same moment confronting the spectator with the opposite; surveillance footage originally serving a utilitarian purpose is repurposed again legitimatising dramatic, fictional imperatives.
The ideological work performed by Pine Gap invites a case study in the narrative negotiation of contradictions at the heart of Australian foreign policy and governments’ relations with Indigenous peoples. But this is not the place for such a project. Rather this essay is interested not so much in spy-vs-spy as TV drama, but rather with the other end of the audio-visual production spectrum: the utilitarian film and surveillance as a “useful” film practice in counter-intelligence, training and propaganda. Utilitarian film is a category that draws together the sponsored film, public relations films, training films, data collection and surveillance – “films for a purpose” other than principally of art and entertainment. The collection and storage of visual data observing nuclear tests at Monte Bello or Maralinga (1956-63) a missile test at Woomera (rocket goes up, rocket comes down, how far? how fast? how high? how hot? How true to its target), 6 the microscopic observation of the doubling of a cell, the automated infra-red recording of the movement of deer, deep in a forest wilderness, and the YouTube “nature-cam” are devoid of aesthetic or creative imperatives. The surveillance image is of this taxonomy. In its multifaceted abundance surveillance must by now surely be the dominant articulation of a utilitarian use of the moving image.
This visuality for a purpose is unprecedented and now constitutes a plentiful archive, increasingly available in vast numbers to generations of users. Circulating online this audio-visual archive offers “found footage” that can be refashioned to countless purposes. Through “multiple and different acts of viewing” creative re-use of the utilitarian image keeps on giving.
Surveillance is a fundamental component of Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity”. For Bauman, Lyons, Zuboff and other scholars of surveillance culture, coming to grips with this requires firstly the recognition that the current formation of surveillance culture is unprecedented.7 Surveillance as social practice is today so pervasive that it can plausibly be argued as constituting a new mode of production. In an influential recent study Shoshana Zuboff argues surveillance capitalism is “the dominant form of capitalism in our time”.8 The decommissioning of regulations curtailing the security state in service of the War on Terror, an elective affinity between the massive apparatus of US security and enterprises such as Google, Facebook, Twitter result in what Zuboff calls “a unique historical deformity, surveillance capitalism”.9 Harvesting of “data-exhaust” that citizens generate in using search engines and social media becomes a surplus, a “shadow text”, that feeds surveillance capitalism’s business models and practices. These are fundamentally antidemocratic; the firms control vast databases of comprehensive information about people’s behaviour, opinions and actions while securing their analytic tools, their capabilities and practices as secrets.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign harvesting, with Facebook collaboration, personal data of 87 million individuals in order to deliver back to them political marketing fashioned according to psycho-geographic profiles, is a well-known example. Lesser known are the “data-driven” campaigns for Barack Obama of 2008 (harvesting 240 million unique voting-age individuals) and its expansion in 2012 using voluntarily surrendered Facebook data aggregated according to Timothy Erik Ström with:
hundreds of layers of commercial and private data […] such as mobile phone contacts, voting records, consumer databases, magazine subscriptions, student loans, Twitter handles and other surveillance data […] automatically customized to individualized voters imagined as data aggregates.10
Contemporary experience involving social media, speech and face recognition, mass surveillance and so on – technologies that artist Trevor Paglen characterises as “new geographies of seeing machines” – render 1960s surveillance footage of spies and left-wing activists with a strangely uncanny affect, a mode of spectatorship in which the familiar surveillance image hovers somewhere between kitsch, eerie prophecy and dark parody.
Historically political surveillance in Australia developed an organisational structure and a national coverage during the Great War (1914-1918).
After [1914-1918] the willingness to misuse the power of security services continued to determine the pattern of political surveillance in Australia, where a series of non-Labor coalition governments used [the security services] to monitor and harass individuals and political groupings likely to push Australia, according to non-Labor standards, in the wrong direction.11
Recently published official histories of ASIO12 concede that over the course of the second half of the twentieth century “an extravagant interpretation of the 1956 ASIO Act” resulted, as:
[ASIO] was ill equipped to understand and deal with the period of social upheaval in the late 1960s […] ASIO officers came to believe that any political movement or societal group that challenged a conservative view of society was potentially subversive.13
Charged with collecting information and advising governments but denied authorisation for executive action, ASIO nonetheless conducted “spoiling operations” beyond its charter. These practices long preceded the 1960s. Citing the community based cultural movements of the 1940s and ‘50s, and instancing the Realist Film Associations, Horner writes:
ASIO faced an immense task to keep watch over [cultural groups on the left] and keep files on those members who might possibly be communist sympathizers. Many of these were actually not sympathizers, but ASIO failed, or was unable, to differentiate between them.14
ASIO’s in-house film production during the Cold War was at the “data-film” end of the utilitarian spectrum. Photographic and film surveillance of meetings, protests and social events were used for training recruits in a who’s who of the Communist Parties. I have written elsewhere of ASIO’s other contributions to Australian film production through the agencies of the Australian National Film Board; e.g. the advice and support for films made by the newsreel unit under Producer Jack Allan,15 the disruption of the documentary sector, blacklisting, spoiling and surveillance of staff – including the Producer in Chief of the Commonwealth Film Unit and its predecessors from 1946 through to 1970.16 ASIO’s interference with the Film Unit of the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) is also on record elsewhere.17
The film Legal Resident (30 minutes) made by ASIO in 1963 was a departure from the agency’s familiar collecting practice, moving into narrative, advocacy and public relations. The film might be reckoned as propaganda, for although it does not conceal its sources or editorial, it does – like most corporate public relations films – distort the interpretation of its facts with self-serving “spin”.
Legal Resident narrates events surrounding the expulsion in February 1963 of Ivan Skripov (pronounced “scree-pov”), First Secretary to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. The film deploys moving image and still photographs gathered by ASIO’s Photographic Bureau over the course of 16 months as ASIO’s double agent Kay Marshall (1918-92) – code-named “Sylvia” – drew Skripov out as he in turn trained and tested her in classic “tradecraft” – clandestine rendezvous, invisible ink, dead letter boxes, all the grand tropes of the genre. There are no creative credits on the extant prints. A factual production house like Cinesound may have been commissioned to make the film. Filmmaker Peter Butt was told that a CIA agent was brought to Australia to “advise” on the production. While there were plans for public release of the film as a cinema newsreel, this was not followed through.18
There are two editions of the film, one introduced by Sir Garfield Barwick, Attorney General and Minister of External Affairs, who issued Skripov’s notice to leave, and another introduced with a scrolling graphic citing Attorney General Billy Snedden, appointed to the position by Prime Minister Robert Menzies after elections in November 1963 narrowly returned the Menzies government. [Figures 1 & 2]
Legal Resident is narrated by an unnamed, dark-suited, male presenter, played by Geoff Wayland.[19 Reminiscent of presenters from US TV series of the period such as The Untouchables or Twilight Zone, Wayland addresses the spectator with authority and earnest restraint. The film opens with a scrolling graphic “Produced by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization”, followed by voiceover: “This country holds secrets that the Russians want.” Now, the spinning newspaper headlines: “HOW GIRL TRAPPED SPY”, “NEW RED SPY PLOT”, “SYDNEY BEAUTY TRAPS RED SPY” etc. Standing against a plain background beside large graphic cards mounted on a tripod, Wayland explains the organisational structure of Russian espionage; KGB internal security, the GRU, the foreign service. The camera pans from the presenter to the graphics as he explains the difference between the “legal resident” – i.e. the GRU Embassy staffer whose identity is declared to the host government – and the “illegal” – i.e. agents whose existence and identity are closely held secrets.
Over a “bird’s-eye-view” of a busy city street, a warning: “any one of these [people] could be a Soviet illegal resident”. Now for the play of concealment and revelation: a staged interview with “Sylvia”, shot in silhouette. She says she only knew Skripov as “John”. For the truth, well, “ASIO had to explain it to me”. With the aid of photographs and illustrations of mysterious cylinders Sylvia explains how she was instructed to collect booby-trapped messages concealed in tubes designed to disburse acid that would destroy the message if it were to be wrongly opened. [Figure 3]
Later Sylvia demonstrates the technique she learnt for revealing invisible ink. You will need the secret capsules, boiling water, a jar of mysterious clear liquid, a tumbler and a teaspoon – for a moment it’s a kind of cooking show. “Gloves are necessary because if the liquid gets on the skin it will turn it to purple” Sylvia explains. [Figure 4]
We hear a moment of dialogue arranging a meeting recorded from her hidden microphone:
He was furtive and his conversation was furtive too […] You’ll notice he chose a noisy place […] to drown out our voices to outsiders, but in spite of that ASIO was able to decipher every word.
Her voiceover on occasion refers us to the image we see:
Meetings at night like this one you can see at Coogee […] were hair raising for me because I never knew when or if Mr. Skripov would find out about me. But he didn’t and we soon became good friends.
Legal Resident was screened for senior public servants to alert them to the serious business of counter-intelligence, promoting the importance and efficacy of ASIO’s work and to teach “tradecraft” to new ASIO recruits. In 1966 it was screened for Hector Crawford with selected writers and producers during the development of the TV series Hunter. It was never publically released until it appeared in the National Archives of Australia’s ASIO collection 40 years after it was made. The film is included in the National Archives of Australia’s (NAA) touring exhibition, developed in partnership with ASIO, Spy: Espionage in Australia (NAA Canberra November 2019-April 2020).
Today there are around 46 items of moving image material related specifically to the Skripov affair (at NAA Series A8703) and over a hundred still photographs (at NAA Series A432 – Attorney-General’s Department). Short excerpts of Legal Resident can be found on the NAA YouTube channel. The stills include those provided to the press when the story of Skripov’s “outing” hit the streets in a sensational government public relations campaign in February 1963. The stills include “product shots” of various apparatus required to reveal invisible writing embedded on the back of seemingly innocent letters delivered to “Sylvia”’s home. Stills of Skripov and “Sylvia” meeting at the zoo in Sydney, in shopping centres in Canberra and Sydney, at night in Coogee, etc. These stills are digitised and are accessible from the NAA website.
Researchers and filmmakers (including this writer) have sought access to ASIO surveillance footage since the 1990s. These inquiries encouraged a dedicated project of accession and preservation between 2005 and 2008. Since then further items have been examined and released, and have been the subject of critical attention in works for gallery exhibition, film and television. Some films in the collection include a strangely compelling voiceover as each person who appears emerging from a doorway or approaching a meeting room, is named; the male voice “educated”, mechanical, deadpan. Most of the films are without sound. The films show people attending meetings, bookshops and demonstrations, May Day marches, picnics and barbeques. The collection also includes films made by others, “acquired” (or purloined), including films and offcuts of camera original belonging to the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit and independent films (e.g. The Forever Living, 1953).20 There are also off-air recordings of current affairs TV. The quality of the image varies. A number of the surveillance films seem to have been projected and re-photographed on VHS, and the originals apparently destroyed.
The moving image items related to the Skripov case are mainly short fragments of soft focus, long lens observation of meetings. One of the many evocative fragments – also used as illustration in Legal Resident – is a two minute, five second shot catalogued individually as “Coogee 5 July 1962” (NAA: A8703, 1129786) and described in the archival record as “surveillance footage of a street scene at night” with the note “bad exposure and poor image quality”. A man and a woman, together but slightly separate, stroll up and down a suburban shopping centre under the street lights, perhaps choosing a restaurant. While the man turns to examine a menu in the window of a Chinese restaurant suddenly the woman glances knowingly directly to camera. [Figure 5]
It is precisely the attribute of imperfection in the archival artifact that evokes an aesthetic response. The utilitarian film as fragment, removed from its original purpose, becomes that “gift that keeps on giving”, its appropriation endlessly available, as its “meaning is liberated from use” (Sekula).21
The degree of difficulty involved in gathering this kind of footage covertly is also “performed” in the works. The spectator’s identification toggles between the subject of surveillance and the hidden camera. The omniscient observer contemplates the figures represented here – the one under observation who knows and the one who doesn’t know, the one concealed behind a hidden camera and another, professionally suspicious, yet oblivious to the cameras’ gaze.22 “Sylvia” /Kay has the burden of a doubling complicity. Knowing every moment she is the subject of surveillance, and conscious this awareness must not, at any costs, be disclosed – her performance in the company of Skripov must be doubly complicit. She carries off this deceit with expertise and professionalism. Her performance is finely attuned to the man she is with and the concealed spectator, the hidden cameraman. Not knowing who she really is, Skripov says to her: “If there is anything suspicious you must wipe your forehead with your handkerchief. So you should remember to carry it” (NAA A9199, 1413: 10).
Skripov was among the first accredited Soviet diplomats to arrive in Canberra in mid 1959 when diplomatic relations between Moscow and Canberra resumed following their suspension after the Petrov defections.23. The film and photographs ASIO supplied to newspapers created a sensation with surveillance photographs documenting Skripov’s meeting with “the brilliant […] counter espionage agent [in her] early 30s, well educated of pleasing personality and […] an attractive figure.” (The Sun, 8th February, 1963, p. 3).24 Newspapers around the country lapped it up: SYDNEY BEAUTY TRAPS RED SPY story p. 2,3,4,5,6 (The Sun, 8th February, 1963, p. 1).
The double agent Kay Marshall, a “beautiful Sydney divorcee in her early thirties” had been working for New Zealand Security Service (NZSS) since 1958. When she decided to move to Sydney her Russian contacts referred her to Skripov. She was encouraged by a somewhat reluctant ASIO to continue with these clandestine meetings. Skripov encouraged her to apply for jobs in various embassies but ASIO made sure these failed so Skripov might be tempted to use her for more important projects. They hoped to nab an “illegal”. Her flat and car were wired for sound and before each of their meetings she was fitted with a concealed microphone.
At Skripov’s direction they meet first at Taronga Park Zoo, in July 1960, outside the aquarium, or “the shark house”, as Skripov called it. A strange location to choose for a clandestine rendezvous, as naturally every second visitor has their camera. ASIO filmed and photographed their meeting. Privileged in our covert spectatorship we observe these two species: the enigmatic, full-bodied Soviet spy and his foil, the slight, “shapely” double agent, each caged silently in their wilderness of mirrors.
Over the course of the next year or so there were 17 such meetings, in a variety of locations. We learn via Legal Resident how the thermos-like cylinder she has collected is bobby trapped so as to spray acid on documents concealed inside should the cylinder be opened incorrectly [Figure 3]. On their 11th meeting (Coogee, 5th July, 1962) Skripov introduced her to secret writing, giving her a small bottle of clear liquid and half a dozen small capsules – materials for recovering invisible text. He would send her a trial invisible message embedded on the back of an innocent looking letter from a fictional friend, “Therese”. If she successfully recovered the text she was to send a copy of Modern Screen to the Public Relations Officer USSR Embassy Canberra (there was no Public Relations Officer at the Embassy). If she was unsuccessful she was to send two copies of the Readers Digest to the same address. (NAA A6199: 1413)
In October Skripov sent Sylvia a secret message instructing her to collect a polythene bag from a cemetery near Bronte Beach. This package contained a Canadian passport and a loose passport photograph of a man. This face was soon to be plastered over newspapers around the country with the authorities calling on citizens to report any sightings (Cold War Pokemon Go). The man was never found. In December, Skripov gave Marshall a hair dryer as a Christmas gift. Inside the box – babushka-like – she would find another parcel that should be delivered to a man she would meet in Adelaide, “45 years old, going grey, wearing spectates speaking very good English [… ] there would be an exchange of secret codes and a password.” The parcel concealed a “burst transmitter”, a device that when connected to a radio transmitter could transmit 270 coded words a minute as a high-pitched screech.25 [Figure 6]
The proposed Adelaide meeting had the potential to net an “illegal”. But the Adelaide man allegedly didn’t show. Skripov became increasing keen to retrieve his parcel, but ASIO decided they could not risk returning it. Kay was instructed to stall and arrange meetings she had no intention of attending. The last of these was scheduled outside the Academy of Science building in Canberra.
In one of the final clips, framed against the background of Canberra’s Academy of Sciences building, with its distinctive modernist dome looking remarkably like a grounded flying saucer, we see Skripov nervously pacing. He is waiting for her to show up and return the precious burst transmitter. The words of Cold War warrior and Kremlinologist’ Robert Conquest come to mind:
A science fiction attitude is a great help in understanding the Soviet Union. It isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad, exactly; they’re not bad or good as we’d be bad or good. It’s far better to look at them as Martians than as people like us.26
We imagine any moment extra-terrestrial figures will emerge and hurriedly escort the spy inside the craft as it rises skyward.
On 7th February, 1963, ASIO advised Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick, who was also the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to declare Skripov persona non grata. Skripov left the country with his wife and son in a storm of publicity the following week. And so, Legal Resident begins and ends with purpose; Skripov’s sensational expulsion visual evidence of the menace among us and the effective countering of mortal risk by clever counter-intelligence. A fine Cold War spy story loaded with “tradecraft” lessons for ASIO recruits for decades to come. In addition to the film, a secret 24-page publication was distributed internationally to fellow spy agencies.27
But questions arise that are elided by Legal Resident: it is evident that the Skripov affair is in fact a tale of multiple failures. Who was the mystery man whose face appears on the loose photographs packaged with the Canadian passport? Is it “intelligence failure” that his identity has never been known? Was he the illusive “illegal”? How come the mysterious Adelaide meeting was aborted? Why Adelaide? Did a Soviet mole inside ASIO alert the mystery man?
David McKnight’s detailed account of the case in his book Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets28 reports inside speculation that:
If normal counter-surveillance measures had been taken [by the illegal] […] it wouldn’t have been too difficult to be a wake up to it. [At the Adelaide rendezvous] there were too many people looking under car bonnets.29
If McKnight is right about this – and the official histories agree that ASIO’s surveillance techniques were on a learning curve in the early 1960s – are these errors incompetence, or by design? There were those within the organisation who suspected the whole project was a farce designed to distract the agency’s attention from other matters, such as, for example, the “London to Moscow” Blue Streak weapons testing at Woomera in South Australia, negotiations for an American base at North West Cape underway, and right-wing Croatian nationalists preparing terrorist attacks inside Yugoslavia and against their enemies in Australia.30
A true-crime storyteller and investigative filmmaker, Peter Butt not only sets out the problems but also solves the mysteries.31 Butt’s television projects traverse “secret history” and true crime and often draw on archival utilitarian footage, from Commonwealth film production – the “data films” of defense monitoring and ASIO surveillance footage.32 One of his most important films, Silent Storm (2003), made for SBS (with international partners), documents the extent of previously little known radioactive fallout across the country during British atomic weapon testing in Australia and the human and animal experimentation carried out in parallel with this. (Silent Storm was screened in the exhibition Black Mist Burnt Country cited above.)
Butt also made a strikingly critical bio-pic about Charles Spry (Director General of ASIO from 1950 – late 1960s), I Spry, emphasising with “dramatic reconstruction” (a treatment approach increasingly favoured in Butt’s work for ABC factual) what is described by Blaxland in ASIO’s official history as Spry’s “largely unaccountable […] later failings” such as “his proclivity to drinking to excess in after work gatherings”.33. I Spry also speculates about a possible Soviet “mole” in ASIO, a suspicion that is somewhat endorsed in the official history.34
Once again, in Final Rendezvous, Butt delivers striking new insights. Butt’s deployment of the original surveillance footage from 1961-62 and of ASIO’s narrative re-use made in service of public relations and training – that might be considered the first adaptation of this footage – becomes a remake of a different kind. Like Kracauer’s observation that in the detective novel it is irony the “brings rationality to bear against legal force”,35 in Final Rendezvous Butt’s revelations brings “Sovietology” back into play for a new generation.
Aided by expert archival scans and careful restorative work on the original 16mm rushes and prints in collaboration with the NAA, Butt’s screen design work, precise scripting and cutting deliver an engrossing story. He interrogates the mystery rendezvous in Adelaide and its implications for understanding Australia’s Cold War security intelligence. He sets out to answer why the case failed. Was it due to too many men “looking under car bonnets” as McKnight says? Was there a mole inside ASIO? Was there another answer? Butt argues that ASIO’s officers were so fixated with the photographic image found in a passport Marshall recovered from the Sydney cemetery that they missed something extraordinary playing out in front of them. Butt’s Final Rendezvous offers final resolution of a number of key questions in a manner previously publically unknown. Through very close reading of the surveillance image, he identifies the mystery Soviet illegal and uncovers his dramatic story – a story that should reframe both our understanding of the KGB’s activities in Australia and the ability of ASIO to counter them. Final Rendezvous propels Skripov back into the limelight as a new piece of the puzzle in the great game of the mid 20th century: spy-vs-spy.
What was once reserved for dissidents and spies is now democratised – everyone can have some (surveillance). What was once a policing action of governments is now privatised and aligned precisely with the neo-liberal market. As Surveillance Studies expands as a discipline in the academy, surveillance “spills out all over”. The provision of privatised surveillance is so deeply integrated with consumer culture that social media functions as a vast DIY surveillance machine, liquid and expanding exponentially.
Back in the early 1960s, enmeshed in Cold War innocence, and while preparing their overview of the Skripov case for the Department of External Affairs, ASIO provided the following assessment of the embodied (as opposed to surveilled) relationship between their persona non grata and their double agent Kay Marshall:
Skripov never attempted to sway her ideologically, romantically or with promises or offers of large sums of money. In the sixteen months […] he paid her only 350 pounds […] Skripov did not permit himself to become personally involved with the agent. He spoke of going dancing with her and visiting her in her flat but he never did. He was always polite and courteous in her company. Nor did she at any time attempt to beguile him with female charm. Their relationship was never more than a business one. (NAA C3140 3/19/1)
At one point ASIO thought it possible that, like a bizarre parody on Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History:
Skripov carried with him a miniature camera, possibly a Minx, and used it to take photographs behind his back as he walked along. (NAA 6199, 1413: 5)
These photographs, if they exist, are yet to be discovered. If ever they come to light, what might they tell us about “this storm we call progress”? At the time of writing, with “Russian interference” hot in the headlines and Chinese spies a daily sensation, when will Australian audiences get to see Peter Butt’s Final Rendezvous?
This is written with support from an ARC Discovery Project, Utilitarian Film in Australia, 1945-1980, hosted by the University of Canberra. Heartfelt thanks to Michelle Carey for skilfully shepherding this draft for Senses of Cinema, and to Peter Butt for allowing me into the editing room as the film approached fine cut in 2019.
- Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital” in Patricia Holland, Jo Spence and Simon Watney (eds.), Photography/Politics: Two, Comedia, London, 1986, p. 155. ↩
- Brian Toohey, Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2019, pp. 110-115. ↩
- Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson and Richard Tanter, “Australia’s Participation in the Pine Gap Enterprise”, NAPSNet Special Reports, 8th June, 2016; Richard Tanter, “The ‘Joint Facilities’ Today: Desmond Ball, Democratic Debate on Security and the Human Interest”, Arena Journal 39/40, 2013, pp. 89-139. ↩
- Alex Edny-Brown, “Embodiment and Affect in a Digital Age: Understanding Mental Illness among Military Drone Personnel”, Krisis 1, 2017, pp. 19-33; John Hinkson, “Globalization and the New World Order”, Arena Journal 45/46, 2016, pp. 51-73. ↩
- Mick Broderick, Reconstructing Strangelove: Inside Stanley Kubrick’s “Nightmare Comedy”, Columbia University Press/Wallflower, New York, 2017. ↩
- See Stella Barber’s recently completed ground-breaking PhD concerning a cohort of women who operated data collecting film cameras at Woomera rocket range in the 1950s and ‘60s: “Woomera’s Women: Rolls and Roles of Film”. ↩
- Zygmunt Bauman & David Lyon, Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation, Polity, London, 2013; Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power, Profile Books, London, 2019. ↩
- Ibid., p. 53. ↩
- Ibid., p. 115. ↩
- Timothy Erik Ström, “Data-Driven Democracy”, Arena 163, December 2019. ↩
- Frank Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1983, p. viii. ↩
- David Horner, The Spy Catchers; The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963, Volume 1, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2014; John Blaxland, The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975, Volume 2: The Protest Years, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2015; John Blaxland and Rhys Crawley, The Official History of ASIO, Volume 3 1975-1989: The Secret Cold War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2016. ↩
- Blaxland, op.cit., p. 201. ↩
- Horner, op. cit., p. 201. ↩
- Jack Allan was the producer of Menace (1952), the government’s answer to Bob Mathews’ “realist” film, They Chose Peace (1952). From ASIO’s point of view one of the black marks against Stanley Hawes (Producer in Chief of the government’s film production unit) was his resistance to Menace, made in close collaboration with right-wing politicians and ASIO’s Director General, Charles Spry (NAA: A6122 40 157 Volume 2). According to Dick Mason, Jack Allen “claimed to be ASIO’s representative” in the Commonwealth’s film production agency (Dick Mason, interviewed by the author in 1981). ↩
- John Hughes, The Archive Project: The Realist Film Unit in Cold War Australia, ATOM, Melbourne, 2013. (See also documentary film of the same name, 2006). ↩
- John Hughes, “From Cold War to Hot Planet: Australia’s CSIRO Film Unit”, Studies in Documentary Film, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/17503280.2017.142041. ↩
- Interview Peter Butt, Sydney, November 2018. ↩
- Thanks to Peter Butt for this; the films have no credits. ↩
- Made by Keith Gow and Norma Disher for the Defend the Rosenbergs Committee, The Forever Living (11 minutes) (NAA: A8703, 1464675) documents an all-night vigil outside the American Consul in Sydney corresponding with the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in Sing Sing Prison (New York, 19th June, 1953). ↩
- Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs”, Art Journal 41:1, 1981, pp. 15-25; Sekula, “Reading an Archive”, op. cit. ↩
- “It can confidently be said that Skripov never at any time detected the surveillance ASIO had placed on him.” (NAA 6199, 1413.) ↩
- Diplomatic relations between Canberra and Moscow were discontinued when Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia defected in April 1954. ASIO’s Director General Charles Spry advised External Affairs head Arthur Tange against accrediting Skripov (and others), but Tange managed the Department of External Affairs’ security and his acceptance of Skripov is a footnote in a long-running bureaucratic “tension” between Spry and Tange. ↩
- Kay Marshall was around 44 when she met Skripov. ↩
- This device was the same as one discovered in London one year earlier during the bust of Gordon Lonsdale’s Portland Spy Ring. Walton, Calder, “The Unbelievable Story of How the CIA Helped Foil a Russian Spy Ring in London”, Politico Magazine, November 2017. Accessed 9th February, 2019. ↩
- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1968. ↩
- Horner, op. cit., p. 556. ↩
- David McKnight, “Smart Sylvia and Ivan the Terrible Spy”, Chapter 14, Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994, pp. 162-170. ↩
- Ibid., p. 169. ↩
- Phillip Deery has documented previously concealed material regarding security leaks from Woomera in the late 1950s. Phillip Deery, “Menzies, Macmillan and the ‘Woomera Spy Case’ of 1958”, Intelligence and National Security vol. 16:2, Summer 2001, pp.23-38. ↩
- Peter Butt’s project on the Nugan Hand Bank (apparently a CIA proprietary dedicated to money laundering and gun running), planned as a film for ABC TV, had its presale withdrawn “due to budget cuts” shortly after the Abbott government came to power (September 2013). Instead he published the story as Merchants of Menace (2015), a podcast and book. ↩
- Butt made Fortress Australia (2002), documenting attempts by Australian governments over several decades to build nuclear weapons. His The Prime Minister is Missing (2008) offered new insights around the disappearance and presumed drowning death of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt; Who Killed Dr. Bogle and Mrs. Chandler (2006) offered new explanations regarding this mysterious cold case. ↩
- Blaxland, op. cit. p. 460. ↩
- In 2015 The 7.30 Report interviewed ex-ASIO analyst Molly Sason who had “no doubt that ASIO had been penetrated (…) The Soviets always seemed a step ahead of us. If you put on an operation, it failed”. See also Deery, op. cit., p. 23. ↩
- Gertrud Koch, Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2000, p. 23. ↩