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Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Reasons to mistrust our spies (and their masters) in 2017

Dr Bryce Edwards.

On the surface, it’s been a good year for New Zealand’s state surveillance agencies. Compared to previous years they’ve garnered less negative media coverage and political examination. Yet appearances can be deceiving, and looking back over the year, there are plenty of reasons to suggest the spies deserve much greater scrutiny and questioning. Likewise, the politicians responsible for them don’t come out of the year very well. 

The Latest criticisms of the SIS

Perhaps the brightest note in the spy sector this year has been intelligence watchdog Cheryl Gwyn. As Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, she has just released her annual report. And the good news is that it applies some serious heat to the NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS), indicating that Gwyn and her revamped office is playing a robust role in overseeing the spies.

That’s why today’s Dominion Post editorial gives her fulsome praise: “In effect she is the public’s only real watchdog over the spies. Parliament’s Intelligence Committee lacks her power; the politicians who act as the ministerial overseers of the services habitually become captive to them and have never told the public anything of use. Democratic society owes Gwyn a debt of gratitude” – see: Watchdog bites the SIS for acting illegally.

The editorial refers to Gwyn’s criticism of the SIS for first illegally accessing private information gathered by Customs, and then for being uncooperative in her investigation into the matter. The story is covered well by David Fisher in his article yesterday, Spies ‘unlawfully’ accessed data then refused to talk about it properly – oversight body.

Fisher explains that “Our spies have broken the law accessing Customs and Immigration data and have resisted explaining to the intelligence oversight body why they have done so.” He quotes Gwyn complaining that “I found the agency was reluctant to engage with my office on the substantive issues”, and that the SIS had shown “some reluctance about disclosing its own internal legal advice” on the illegal spying, which was “contrary to the clear words of the legislation and longstanding practice”.

Tracy Watkins also covers the issue and points out that “This is not the first time the country’s spy agencies have been under the spotlight over the lawfulness of their monitoring of systems” – see: SIS criticised by government watchdog over ‘unlawfully accessing’ information. Watkins’ article also details the number of interception warrants the SIS used during the last year, and it highlights the various reports on contentious spying issues Gwyn is expected to release in the near future.

Not much comment has been published on these latest revelations. But today’s Dominion Post editorial says the “result is that another shadow has fallen over the reputation of the SIS.” The newspaper characterises the report as “a clear rebuke by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and raises a number of concerns”. It says “Gwyn is right to call the spies out on this matter and to alert the public to their unlawful activities and their apparent reluctance to face the music.” It expresses concern that the spy agencies are inevitably drawn towards breaking the rules.

Such law-breaking is untenable in a democracy, according to long-time spy critic No Right Turn who calls for the politicians to bring them into line, because otherwise “it is simply not safe for our society to have spies. Parliament needs to put its foot down: either SIS cooperates completely with IGIS, or they get defunded and eliminated. Because their legitimacy depends on being seen to uphold our rights against the spies, by ensuring that the latter follow the law” – see: The SIS breaks the law again. The blogger suggests that oversight mechanisms to keep the spies honest, simply aren’t working.

Spy agency briefings to the Government

Last week’s Briefings to the Incoming Ministers, included documents from the spy agencies, and David Fisher reported on how initially the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) report contained a mysterious redaction, that was later removed – see: A little less danger? Deadly threats to New Zealand fall. Fisher says: “The briefing initially mentioned only three threats and blocked out the concern around regional stability. The intelligence agencies lifted the redaction after it was pointed out they had already made that secret public.”

According to blogger Martyn Bradbury, the initially-redacted “instability in the south Pacific” threat, is actually code for the threat of China – see: What the censored GCSB report said and why they tried to hide it. Bradbury’s point is backed up by the fact that the GCSB report also warns that New Zealand has been the victim over the past year of “attempts to access sensitive government and private sector information, and attempts to unduly influence expatriate communities”.

On a related topic, there are new revelations out today about our security agencies and their role in dealing with apparent threats from the Chinese state – see Matt Nippert’s GCSB and SIS table China’s influence at Five Eyes meeting.

Another part of last week’s briefing report that caught the eye of the No Right Turn blogger was the statement that the agencies didn’t want to give their regular briefings in ministers in the Beehive, due to the lack of security there: “The GCSB and SIS want Ministers to trek down to Pipitea House for classified briefings, rather than giving them in the Beehive. Who goes to who shows who works for who, so basicly they’re saying they’re more important than our elected government. The inconvenience will also deter such briefings, potentially impacting on oversight of both our spy agencies and the intelligence warrant system. The alternative – appropriate secure facilities in the Beehive – is never suggested” – see: Merry BIM-mas!

Edward Snowden vindicated; John Key caught out

The most important surveillance politics story of the year was the one that received the least attention. Two weeks ago, David Fisher reported an important update on the allegations made by Edward Snowden back in 2014 about the New Zealand Government developing a “mass surveillance” programme with the codename “Speargun”. At the time this was revealed in Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” meeting, the then Prime Minister, John Key, responded by saying that the programme never went ahead as he personally had it cancelled because it was “too broad” in its surveillance of the population.

Fisher continued to pursue the story, and was finally given more details about the Speargun programme’s development, which showed that John Key had only cancelled it when officials informed him that Snowden knew about it – see: John Key, mass surveillance and what really happened when Edward Snowden accused him of spying.

Fisher reports: “new documents show development of Speargun continued after the time he had said he ordered a halt – apparently because the scheme was “too broad”. Instead, they show Speargun wasn’t actually stopped until after Key was told in a secret briefing that details were likely to become public because they could be in the trove of secrets taken by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

The whole article is worth reading, because it raises plenty of important questions. Unfortunately, there was very little media coverage of these revelations. Along with the Herald, Newshub was one of the few media outlets to give it much attention – see: Edward Snowden alleges ‘cover up’ over mass surveillance in New Zealand.

The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire was aghast at the lack of interest in what he says should be a “bombshell”: “On the face of it – and Key has not yet responded to Fisher’s request for comment – this is dynamite. If the then prime minister, who had promised to resign if he were found to have presided over mass surveillance of New Zealanders, did indeed only kibosh the project after he got wind that it could be exposed in Snowden leaks, he has gravely misled the New Zealand public” – see: Today’s big NZ story that you probably missed, aka a victory for bullshit and delay.

Manhire believes the lack of media coverage is not only an indictment of the media and public’s short attention span, but can also be explained by the lack of interest in the political parties in pursuing the topic: “Nor is there an opposition for this. The government minister now responsible, Andrew Little, hasn’t replied to Fisher’s requests for comment. It’s less straightforward, of course, to assail the security agencies when you’re at their helm. The National opposition are hardly going to start interrogating the government over whether the former PM Sir John Key was bullshitting New Zealand.”

The No Right Turn blogger shares some similar concerns, and on the issue of political accountability, says: “Andrew Little is refusing to comment. In a situation where the previous government has been conclusively shown to have deceived us about spying, I think he owes us a little more than that” – see: Key lied about mass-surveillance.

Other leftwing bloggers have also been quick to celebrate the revelation, and to condemn the lack of media coverage of the issue – see Martyn Bradbury’s Revisiting the Moment of Truth and the realisation we were lied to and Steven Cowan’s Letting John Key get away with it. For a contrary view, see David Farrar’s The Speargun beatup.

Finally, the biggest spy conspiracy looks to remain under wraps – see Matt Burrow’s news report, GCSB refuses to provide proof Bill English is not a rock.

MIL Analysis+Reportage – EveningReport.NZ