Withdrawal from Echelon: a realistic watershed moment in intelligence reform or Left political posturing?
Posted on 15:34, June 20th, 2013 by Pablo
In light of the attention brought to matters of intelligence collection and analysis in recent months, it is entirely reasonable for the Greens and Labour to demand a fill inquiry into the organization, role and functions of the New Zealand intelligence community, including its responsibilities and obligations in international intelligence networks such as Echelon/5 Eyes and other less publicized arrangements. As the Kitteridge Report noted with regard to the GCSB and what the Zaoui case demonstrated in the case of the SIS, there were or are serious deficiencies in both agencies. These are as much if not more managerial than operational, but the truth is that a review of the entire intelligence community is overdue in light of the changing realities of intelligence gathering in the 21st century.
That is why the National government’s attempt to pass reforms to the 2003 GCSB Act that extend its domestic powers and scope of authority, coupled with the proposed Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill that would, among other things, force telecommunications firms to provide backdoor access to their source and encryption codes, needs to be delayed until such time a proper inquiry into the entire espionage complex is undertaken. Without full understanding of areas of strength and weakness in the system, it is impossible to knowledgeably address the proposed reforms in the way signals intelligence is gathered and used in and by New Zealand, much less how it should be balanced against rights to privacy and institutional accountability.
As part of the calls for the inquiry, some on the Left have proposed that a review of New Zealand’s participation in Echelon be undertaken. Some have gone so far to say that it could become another watershed moment such as that surrounding the 1985 non-nuclear declaration. Presumably the watershed would be occasioned by a withdrawal from Echelon.
As much as I think that a review of New Zealand’s role in Echelon is welcome, especially in light of the Kim Dotcom case and recent revelations about mass scale meta-data mining by the US National Security Agency (and the meta-data mining by the GCSB revealed by the Kitteridge Report), I think that it would be absolute folly to withdraw from Echelon. Changes in the terms and conditions of New Zealand’s participation in Echelon may be warranted, but a full withdrawal from the signals intelligence-sharing community composed of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and NZ seems foolish.
I will not reiterate here the early warning, big picture and deep insight benefits that NZ accrues from being an Echelon partner. What I will note is that it has been a partner in Echelon for more than three decades, and as such shares some of the most guarded secrets, both historical and contemporary, of the Anglophone intelligence community. This includes methods, technologies, locations and sources for signals intelligence collection as well as the content of specific subjects of interest.
The Echelon partners will take a very dim view of these secrets suddenly becoming insecure as a result of a NZ withdrawal from Echelon. No matter what assurances may be given or what phased devolution of responsibilities is proposed, they are bound to fret about classified Echelon information falling into hostile hands as a result of that decision. That will likely prompt a full scope defensive counter-response to minimize the possibility of damaging or sensitive material falling into the “wrong” hands.
That response will far outweigh the diplomatic estrangement caused by the non-nuclear declaration (which ultimately amounted to a freeze on bilateral military-to-military contacts but which did not alter intelligence sharing or diplomatic relations in any significant measure). The negative consequences of withdrawal from Echelon will be felt in the intelligence arena, but will also be felt economically, militarily, and most definitely cyber-electronically, and will not just come from the other 5 Eyes partners.
Under a Labour/Green government that decides to withdraw from Echelon, New Zealand might seek to hedge its bets by establishing intelligence sharing ties with the People’s Republic of China or Russia. The first would complement the economic re-orientation towards the PRC in recent years, whereas the latter would cultivate relations with a long-term and now resurgent Western adversary (which is now in the process of re-deploying submarines to the South Pacific for the first time in over 20 years). Either move would show a clear commitment to diplomatic re-alignment away from traditional partners and towards Eurasia, something that would nicely complement the primary geographic focus of NZ’s trade-oriented foreign policy (we should remember that NZ is in the early stages of negotiations with Russia on a “free” trade agreement).
For both Russia and the PRC, gaining access to Echelon data would be invaluable even if the remaining 4 Eyes are forced to completely overhaul their systems in order to limit the damage caused by a NZ “flip.” In fact, the repercussions from such an act might force NZ to seek the security protection of either great power. One assumes that for this to happen the NZ public will be comfortable with the shift in alignment.
It is less probable that other Western nations such as France or Germany would want to jeopardize their relations with the Echelon community by entering into an alternative signals intelligence-sharing arrangement with NZ. Perhaps rising powers such as India, South Africa or Brazil might want to take advantage of the window of opportunity, but that also seems unlikely.
That is why I believe that the speculation about an inquiry into the intelligence community resulting in a “watershed” NZ withdrawal from Echelon is poorly considered. Escaping international commitments of any sort is fraught in many ways, and in order to do so the benefits of reneging must clearly outweigh the costs. The decision must enjoy broad support and be politically sustainable at home as well as abroad.
In that light, the benefits of a withdrawal from Echelon are uncertain and the downside of withdrawing from such a long-term and highly sensitive international security commitment is too great and too obvious for such talk to be anything but ignorant or Labour/Green posturing in the build up to next year’s elections. If that is the case, it undermines the Labour/Green bid to have a full inquiry into NZ intelligence community reform because there will be little support outside of select party factions for a move to withdraw from Echelon, and any reform initiatives that include that possibility will not be taken seriously.
It would therefore seem best for the Greens (in particular) and Labour to stifle such speculation from within their ranks in order for their calls for a full inquiry into the NZ intelligence community be given due consideration. That still leaves much room for review, but has a better chance of garnering broad-based support than by continuing to entertain thoughts about watershed moments.