MEET Haydn Keenan, the writer and director of the four-part Persons of Interest documentary, by Smart Street Films, which started on SBS One last Tuesday.

Keenan recently told Fairfax Media journalist Bridget McManus that, in the 1960s, he “regarded” himself “as a humanist and, therefore, probably left of centre and leaning towards socialism”.

These days Keenan is waiting for socialist humanism’s second coming. He told McManus that “if there’s a class war” it is being run “by the right-wing in Australia and they’re winning”. But not when it comes to presenting the history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and commenting on contemporary national security issues, it seems.

Screen Australia made the production of Persons of Interest possible and the documentary was commissioned by SBS. So there is quite a lot of taxpayers’ money invested in Keenan’s account of ASIO. The strength of the documentary is that it contains much ASIO surveillance footage which has been released by National Archives in Canberra. The weakness is that Keenan does not really believe in the necessity for national security in a democratic society like Australia.

In June 2011, Keenan appeared on ABC Classic FM’s Mornings with Margaret Throsby. In foreshadowing his documentary, Keenan suggested that ASIO’s files are “a little bit like the records of Auschwitz”.

In August 2013, shortly before Persons of Interest premiered at the Melbourne Film Festival, Keenan was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live along with Alan Hardy (son of Frank Hardy and father of the even more famous Marieke Hardy). Keenan declared that ASIO “looks just like East Germany if you just change the file from Frank Hardy to, you know, Dietrich Hardy”.

ASIO was set up by Ben Chifley’s Labor government in 1949. In over six decades it has performed well albeit, like all organisations, erring on occasions. The important point is that ASIO has not murdered or tortured Australian citizens. Yet Keenan has seen fit to compare ASIO with the notorious secret police in both Nazi Germany and communist East Germany.

Persons of Interest examines ASIO’s files on four Australians. First up there is author and journalist Roger Milliss, who was a member of the Communist Party of Australia along with his father Bruce Milliss. Next is Michael Hyde, a Monash University student radical in the late 60s who was a member of the CPA (Marxist-Leninist).

In other words, Roger Milliss was beholden to the communist dictators in Moscow while Hyde was beholden to the communist dictators in Beijing. Bruce Milliss switched his allegiance from Moscow to Beijing in the 60s.

The third episode of Persons of Interest focuses on Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, who was a member of the Black Power Movement in Australia. And finally there is Hardy, author of Power Without Glory, whose views are represented by his son Alan and granddaughter Marieke.

Of the four case studies, only Foley today recognises the “perspective” of those who were concerned about his past activities, even though he denies planning violence.

Despite Keenan’s attempts at spin, Persons of Interest indicates that ASIO’s assessments were essentially correct. Bruce Milliss and Frank Hardy joined the CPA before or during the 1939-41 Nazi Soviet Pact.

The former, who laundered money from China, was a lifelong communist while the latter did not abandon Soviet communism until 1968. Moreover, the Soviet Union did run a spy ring in Australia.

Hyde acknowledges that he and his comrades advocated the violent overthrow of the state and that he laundered money from China. One comrade hints on camera that the Maoists were intent on arson. Milliss, Hyde and the Hardy family fail to accept that ASIO did its duty. The fact is that communists in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s owed their allegiance to a foreign government, either the Soviet Union or China, which happened to be a totalitarian dictatorship.

As Mark Aarons documents in his 2010 book The Family File, the CPA received funding and direction from Moscow and CPA members operated openly in the trade union movement and secretly in the Labor Party. He is the son of one-time leading CPA functionary Laurie Aarons.

In his 1993 memoir What’s Left, Eric Aarons conceded that if the CPA had come to power in Australia it would have killed its opponents. Darce Cassidy makes a similar admission in Persons of Interest with respect to some of his fellow Maoist revolutionaries in the late 60s. Cassidy (falsely) alleges that ASIO might have killed its targets but declares that “if there was a revolution then we’d probably need to do the same sort of thing”.

Keenan has an epilogue at the end of Persons of Interest which is essentially a rant against national security, then and now. He is free to do so because those who want to overturn the state, then and now, have not succeeded in their revolutionary aspirations. Thanks, partly, to ASIO.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute