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Exhibition Looks Into Shadowy World of Australian Espionage

FILE - Ferries and boats pass in front of the Sydney Opera House as strong winds and heavy rain hit the city of Sydney, Australia, Nov. 28, 2018.

A new public exhibition has opened in Australia charting country's history of espionage and revealing the personal experiences of secret agents. It features the gadgets they used, surveillance images and case studies.

This is the first time an Australian intelligence agency has taken part in a public exhibition. Officials hope it will help Australians to consider the "nature and purpose" of the nation’s security organizations at a time when new threats — both at home and overseas — are emerging.

The exhibition explores the age-old challenge of balancing the needs of national security and human rights.

The display at Western Sydney University asks whether students who took part in a May Day march in Australia in 1966 or women involved in the anti-conscription ‘Save Our Sons’ movement were really a threat to the country.

“Whether it is 1901, 1950, 1970 or now you can see in each case this tension between national security and individual and community rights and liberties, but also the potential for influence of politics onto national security," says Leanne Smith, the director of the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University. "It certainly raises a lot of the questions that you could have in a contemporary conversation around national security and human rights today.”

Among several case studies on display is one of the most dramatic episodes in Australia’s Cold War history. In 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected. He had passed a file on Soviet activities in Australia in return for cash and political asylum. Petrov and his wife Evdokia had been working as spies, but feared they would be killed if they went back to the Soviet Union a year after the death of the dictator Joseph Stalin.

Also on display at the exhibition in Sydney are gadgets used by Australian spies, including recording equipment hidden in radios, cameras hidden in books and letters written in invisible ink.

Curators say the display gives visitors an opportunity to look at the real stories of espionage ‘behind the gloss of make-believe.’

Australia has six main intelligence agencies, including the Australian Security Intelligence Organization. Its work is often compared to the FBI in the United States or Britain’s MI5.