Archive for ‘foreign policy’ Category
In a New Zealand Herald op ed I discuss Edward Snowden’s actions and their implications for New Zealand. It is possible that he may not be what he claims to be, but whether he is or not, there will be inevitable consequences for New Zealand stemming from his leaks.
There are several things to consider when digesting news about the recently signed nuclear limitation agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UNSC permanent members US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, with the EU as a mediator/facilitator). First, what is publicly announced about international agreements is not always all that is agreed upon. Often times what is not publicly disclosed is as or more important than the announced terms.
Second, actors given majority credit for an international agreement may not have been as decisive as they and their home media would like the public to believe.
Third, no agreement stands alone or occurs in a vacuum: other geopolitical and strategic considerations are bound to frame and influence the terms of the finalized compact.
The agreement between Iran, EU and six world powers on the conditions by which Iran would de-weaponize its nuclear research program in exchange for a temporary relief from international sanctions is a case in point. The agreement is for six months, with an eye to negotiating a more permanent contract at the end of that period. The 7 billion dollars in sanctions relief is not a huge amount by global standards, but significant in that it demonstrates the effectiveness of the sanctions regime imposed on Iran as well as its the flexibility of it (since it can be reimposed in the event Iran reneges on its promises).
The technical details are pretty straight forward: Iran agrees to suspend the enrichment of natural uranium (U238) beyond five percent and to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (U235). This is a step away from weaponization because most weapons grade U235 is enriched above 80 percent, which is relatively easy to produce if 20 percent enriched U235 is on hand. Most civilian nuclear energy programs use 3 to 5 percent enriched U235 fuel, thereby making weaponization more time consuming and costly. The agreement therefore does not interfere with Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for civilian power production.
Iran will also curb its use and purchase of centrifuges employed for said enrichment as well as suspend the heavy water reactor extraction methods used to produce plutonium. The entire Iranian nuclear complex will be placed under tighter international inspection controls.
The Western media has variously described the deal as a “US-Iran” or “Iran-Western” accord, but the importance of China and Russia should not be ignored. Both of these powers have friendly relations with Teheran and have supplied it with weapons and diplomatic support. They were not at the meetings in Geneva to serve as props for the US and UK. In fact, their presence in the negotiations should be considered to be decisive rather than incidental, to the point that they may have had a large say in the broader issues being bargained over that eventually sealed the deal.
What might those issues be? That brings up the larger geopolitical and strategic context.
Iran, as is well known, is a major patron of the Assad regime in Syria, currently engaged in a civil war against a Sunni opposition backed by the West and Sunni Arab states. The Assad regime receives funding, weapons and direct combat support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiia militia that serves as an Iranian proxy and power multiplier in the Levant. Assad also receives weapons from Russia, which has a naval base at the port of Tartus and which considers the Assad regime as its closest Arab ally.
Should Assad fall, not only Russia but more importantly Iran will lose a major source of power projection in the region. This would suit Israel and the Sunni Arab world, as Iran is seen as an existential threat by Israeli and Arab Sunni elites alike. Defeating Assad will pave the way for Israel to turn its military gaze more directly on Hizbollah, something that will not meet with much opposition from the West or the Sunni Arab elites. Israel is less concerned about the radical nature of a future Sunni government in Syria or the fragmentation of that country into sectarian enclaves, as the heterogenous rebel coalition now fighting Assad will be consumed by factional in-fighting that will limit its ability to project meaningful military force across its borders whether Syria as presently constituted remains intact or not. Sunni Arab elites will welcome a Sunni dominance in Syria as another bulwark against Shiia influence in the eastern Mediterranean, again, whether Syria retains its present boundaries or divides into smaller Sunni states.
However, it has become increasingly clear that the leading rebel groups in Syria are led by al-Qaeda inspired jihadis who are as bad if not worse than the Assad regime when it comes to committing callous atrocities against civilians as well as armed opponents. They are people who do not have much regard for the laws of war and who have published videos of themselves gassing dogs using crude chemical weapons (which may have had something to do with the rush to reach agreement on removing Assad’s CW stockpiles in the midst of the civil war), and who have had to apologize for “accidentally” beheading a fellow Sunni rebel leader under the mistaken assumption that he was an Alawite or Shiia Assad supporter (all videotaped, of course). Their atrocities (as well as those of the Assad regime) are well documented in the propaganda war now raging on social media.
Jihadist government in Syria may not be an existential threat to Western, much less global interests, but it is the most visible. It would be the first and most important place outside of Afghanistan where Islamicists fought their way into power (Somalia does not count). That is a significant issue regardless of their actual military power because symbolism matters and diplomacy is as much about symbology as it is about substance.
Following Russia’s lead and over Israeli and Saudi protestations, Western powers have become very alarmed about a possible jihadi victory in Syria, and now see a weakened Assad remaining in power or as part of a brokered coalition as the lesser evil. Hence the previous Western moves to give material and technical assistance to the rebels have slowed considerably while calls for a negotiated solution grow louder. Not surprisingly and following on the success of the Iran nuclear accord, negotiations on the Syrian crisis are now scheduled for January in Geneva, and include the Iranians as interested parties along with those supporting the anti-Assad forces grouped in and around the non-jihadist Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army.
For Iran, this was the bargaining chip. It can agree to temporarily halt its nuclear enrichment efforts in exchange not just for sanctions relief but also in exchange for a reprieve for Assad. As things stood, its nuclear program invited massive preemptive attack and Assad’s fall spelled the end of its geopolitical influence. By agreeing to curtail its nuclear program to verifiable peaceful uses in exchange for a withdrawal of Western aid to the Syrian rebels and sanctions relief, Iran is able to buy Assad enough time to defeat the rebels, thereby maintaining Iran’s influence as a regional power while it re-builds its domestic economy unfettered by sanctions. Israel and the Saudis may not be happy about this, but their narrow interests have been shown to not be coincident with those of their Western allies on a number of strategic issues, Iran being just one of them.
Political scientists would call this the nested game scenario: within the public “game” involving negotiations between Iran and its foreign interlocutors lie other confidential or private “games” that are key to resolving the larger impasse over its nuclear program (Iranian involvement in Iraqi domestic politics might be another). These games are defined as much by those who are excluded as those who are involved in them.
All of this is speculation, and any “nested game” deal on Syria would be part of the non-public aspects of the agreement and therefore deliberately non-verifiable over the near term absent a leak. But there is enough written between the lines of the public rhetoric to suggest that this may be what is at play rather than a simple compromise on the limits of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is said that the who and when of diplomatic missions tells much about the disposition of the government sending them. If that is true, then consider this.
The most important annual Trans-Pacific diplomatic (APEC) meetings are being held in Bali this week. John Key and Tim Groser are there, once again pushing their trade-first (only?) agenda in the main sessions and back rooms.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is on a mission to Antarctica.
Since Antarctica has no diplomatic agencies on its soil, it seems odd that the foreign minister is headed that way in the absence of a treaty signing or other diplomatic event. His press release states that the visit, his first, is because he is the minister responsible for New Zealand’s Antarctic Affairs and that along with his visit to Scott Base he will head to the US base at McMurdo Sound. But there is nothing diplomatic on his agenda.
Mr. McCully is not a minister for anything scientific, so he is not discharging science portfolio responsibilities by visiting one of the research stations on the continent. Perhaps, as Minister of Sports and Recreation, he is looking into possibilities along those lines, especially since he was flown down on an Air Force plane along with 117 others plus the 11 person Air Force crew.
But if he is not engaged in anything other than a tour of the realm, why is he not with other Trans-Pacific foreign ministers in Bali? Is this the contemporary equivalent of the colonial practice of assigning diplomats in disgrace to a posting in Brazzaville? Is Antarctica New Zealand’s diplomatic version of the Mosquito Coast?
MFAT and National will say that he was superfluous to requirements in Bali (not exactly in that language) because the PM and Trade Minister are there. That tells us two things.
On the international relations front it confirms that New Zealand’s foreign policy is dominated by a trade fixation (fetishism?) that has come to dominate all other aspects of New Zealand’s diplomatic endeavor. In spite of Mr. Key’s posturing at the UN with regard to UN reform, weapons non-proliferation and multilateral intervention in search for votes for a Security Council temporary seat next year, the hard fact is that New Zealand’s diplomatic ranks have been purged, one way or another, of arms control and non-proliferation specialists, climate change and human rights experts and many other senior diplomats whose primary expertise lies outside the realm of trade. They have been replaced by younger, less costly and more narrowly focused trade zealots (many riding on Groser’s coat tails) whose knowledge and experience in other diplomatic fields is comparatively thin.
This has been accompanied by out-sourcing lead responsibility for intelligence sharing and security assistance negotiations to the GCSB, SIS and NZDF, which is one of the reasons, in concert with the trade fixation, that New Zealand’s foreign relations have taken a distinctly schizophrenic look under National (trade with the East, defend with the West, even if the PRC and US are on a collision course for supremacy in the Western Pacific).
One might respond that spy agencies and armed forces should cut their own deals with foreign counterparts, since it is their business after all. But that is precisely why diplomatic intercession is required–securing the national interest is a long-term game played on many fronts that is not reducible to bureaucratic self-interest, making friends amongst foreign counterparts, or currying immediate favor. It is a fluid balancing game rather than a static one-off opportunity, which is why allowing spooks and uniforms to dictate the terms of engagement on matters of intelligence and security is less than ideal. That is particularly so when the ministers in charge of security and intelligence as well as military affairs are less than conversant with the nature of the operations they are responsible for and where there is no independent oversight of their decisions regarding the conduct of those operations.
Likewise, trade zealots need to have their single-minded obsession with neo-Ricardian prescriptions tempered by those who understand that the world is not solely dominated by trade balances and import/export quotas, tariffs, licensing and the other minutiae of cross-border economic interaction. Important as these are, they need to be considered in relation to other areas of diplomatic endeavor so that coherence, congruence and continuity in foreign affairs can be achieved and maintained. The latter is important for no other reason than it helps establish and maintain a nation’s reputation as a global actor.
New Zealand’s reputation as a global actor has transformed under National from that of an independent and autonomous honest broker into that of a wheeling, dealing “free” trading operator that hedges its bets by cozying up to the world military superpower. It remains to be seen how tenable this position will be over the long-term.
On the internal front McCully’s Antarctic junket offers proof that he is an outcast within his own party, a pariah best unseen and unheard. He has no significant allies in the Collins or Joyce factions of the National caucus and no real friends elsewhere. He has no discernible influence on foreign policy, serving more as a spokesperson and chief of ceremony. The weeks before his trip to the frozen continent he was flitting about the US and Caribbean, visiting the America’s Cup before heading to the UN for some meeting and greeting, then onto bilaterals with Caribbean counterparts. Prior to that he was at the Pacific Island Forum in the Marshall Islands, preceded by trips to Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, Melanesia and the Cook Islands and Africa and the Seychelles. He presented many gifts to a variety of dignitaries from far-off lands and wore colorful shirts as much as he did suits. He did little hard negotiating.
That is a lot of time spent abroad during times when parliament is sitting, particularly when the bulk of the trips were for more symbolic than significant purposes. Come to think of it, when was the last time he answered a question in the debating chamber? I may have missed it but he does seem conspicuous by his absence.
In effect, McCully has been given a comfy sinecure to ensure that he stays away from his own caucus and steers clear of involvement in the “real” business of foreign affairs, that being trade. This neuters him in terms of the internal politics within National as well as with regard to foreign policy making (which is now the province of Groser and his minions). This is a variation on the theme used by Labour with respect to Winston Peters, when he became a Foreign Minister not in cabinet who spent a similar amount of time as McCully does exploring the far–and nicer–reaches of the globe. Except Antarctica.
And we have paid for all of it.
The merit of a proposition can be judged by the strength of the argument in support or defense of it. In the case of the proposed changes to the GCSB and TICS Acts, the government’s argument has basically reduced to claims that terrorists will strike if the bills do not pass, perhaps even using weapons of mass destruction. More than an argument in favor of the bills, it is a sign of desperation on the part of a government unwilling to level with the public on its real intent.
To begin with, counter-terrorism is a very small part of what intelligence agencies do. Ninety percent of intelligence collection and analysis, to include its sub-set of electronic espionage and counterespionage, is focused on traditional corporate, diplomatic and military intelligence gathering. That is true for the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence network and even more so for countries that are not on the front lines of the so-called War on Terrorism.
Yet countering “terrorism” has become the buzz word used by politicians to justify the expansion of the security apparatus in all its forms, to include the militarization of police functions and extension of powers of search and surveillance. It is the fig leaf that covers a multitude of sins perpetrated by the state in the name of national security.
This is an important point because as nasty as it is, terrorism is not an existential threat to any established state, much less a consolidated democracy. Viewed objectively, it can be properly seen is a crime of violence most often carried out as an irregular warfare tactic for ideological reasons. In the hands of non-state actors it is a weapon of the militarily weak that cannot be used regularly and systematically against a broad array of targets in the face of state enforced counter-measures. Although impossible to eliminate in its entirety, especially in its small cell or lone wolf application, this type of terrorism (i.e. in John Key’s airport bomb hypothetical) is a type of criminal violence best handled by the police using the intelligence made available by human as well as signals and technical intelligence agencies.
That may or may not involve electronic eavesdropping of a targeted sort. What is not needed to counter terrorism is blanket adoption of draconian security laws that restrict individual and collective freedoms, including the right to privacy. Oppressing the majority out of fear of an extremist few is counter-productive for no other reason than doing so plays into the hands of the aggressor.
In any event New Zealand is not on the front line of the War on Terrorism. Its threat environment is different than that of Australia, the UK and the US. It is more akin to (yet less than) that of Canada, and it is telling that Canada has resisted moves to closely align its domestic intelligence gathering powers with that of its Northern Hemisphere partners. The Canadians well understand the hierarchy of threats confronting them, and in light of that have shied away from the type of legislation currently being proposed in New Zealand.
If anything, the Canadian government knows that closer public alignment with the US and UK on security issues invites greater risk of attack from those engaged in armed conflict with them. It also understands that what irregular threats exist for Canada, they are more likely to be internal and related to domestic policy issues than external in origin or manifestation. New Zealand is similar in both regards.
What this means is that the specter of terrorism raised by John Key is a dark chimera that has little connection to New Zealand’s real threats, but which is used to defend the passing of security legislation that is more appropriate for the threat environment in Pakistan or Yemen than that of the South Pacific.
In recent years cyber espionage has become the predominant form of signals intelligence threat, to include that in New Zealand. The focus of attention of Five Eyes and other signals intelligence agencies is increasingly on fiber optic cables, routers, switches and the computers that use them, as opposed to radio and satellite intercepts (even if the latter remains a priority for Echelon). In pursuit of effective counter-measures, the Echelon partners have developed sophisticated labor-savings software such as PRISM and XKeyscore that filter the first cut on zillions of bytes of electronic data (the so-called meta-data), thereby making it easier for human analysts to target specific communications based upon keywords, phrases and usage patterns.
This mass trawling through personal as well as institutional electronic communications is indeed efficient, and not problematic for countries under non-democratic rule, but poses a problem for liberal democracies where the right to privacy and presumption of innocence go hand-in-hand as the bedrocks of citizenship.
Cyber espionage in New Zealand is mostly but not exclusively perpetrated by foreign state and non-state actors seeking to access sensitive corporate, political and security information. This includes back-door access via personal computers and electronic devices into work computers of targeted sectors. Since New Zealand has the most porous internet security of the Five Eyes partners and because its economic and political decison-making elite is relatively small in comparison, it is considered to be the weak link in the network by adversaries and allies alike.
Be it by groups such as Anonymous or by state agencies such as Chinese military intelligence (and there are many others), it is estimated that New Zealand computer networks are probed dozens of times a year (at least as far as what has been publicly admitted by the government). Thus the interest in increasing the GCSB’s cyber-securty function in order to bolster the defensive aspect of local cyber intelligence (targeted hacking of foreign networks being the offensive side).
The hard fact is that cyber espionage and counter-espionage is the newest and increasingly most pervasive form of spying and is here to stay, so New Zealand has to lift its game in that field of play.
This is the real reason why the Bills have been introduced. The trouble is that they contain a very strong offensive aspect to them, in part owing to the blurred nature of cyber espionage that does not conform easily to the foreign versus domestic dichotomy traditionally used to partition internal from foreign intelligence gathering. Threats now are seen as “glocal” or “intermestic,” and thus offensive cyber intelligence operations are run side-by-side with domestic counter-intelligence (defensive) work. That includes meta data mining on home soil, and the sharing of that data with Echelon partners.
Rather than honestly reveal the true reasons why the amendments to the GCSB and TICS Acts are being proposed, the National government has resorted to the old canard about terrorism. It may be doing so because it is undiplomatic to point out that its second largest trade partner has been accused by New Zealand’s strongest security and intelligence partners of being the source of most cyber attacks on their respective and shared computer networks. It may be doing so because it assumes that most people simply do not care about issues of security and intelligence, and it might be right. But whatever its rationale, its proposals are way over the top given the realities of New Zealand’s position in world affairs and its history as a democratic polity.
There is much more that is wrong with the New Zealand intelligence community–the lack of effective and independent oversight, the political manipulation of intelligence flows, the overly broad definition of national security and threats to it being foremost amongst them. It is therefore not surprising that in the very framing of the debate about the GCSB and TICS Bills, the government has resorted to bluster and fear-mongering rather than outline the real thrust of its changes.
That is a pity. Had it done so it might have been able to reach a compromise on cyber security more appropriate for a small liberal democracy on the periphery of the major conflicts of our times. However, as things stand New Zealand is about to be saddled with a cyber-security apparatus apparatus more similar to that of Singapore than those of Belgium, Norway or Uruguay.
That pretty much says it all about how National views the world.
Selwyn Manning has done a Q&A with three individuals who have different and at times conflicting views of the GCSB and TICS Bills, although all three are critically opposed to the bills in their present form. One is a strategic analyst, one is an internet entrepeneur and one is an IT lawyer. John Key may dismiss them as uninformed, politically motivated or holding some hidden agenda, but their differing takes on the issue may make for some food for thought for KP readers.
The Q&A can be found here.
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.
Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.
I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).
But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.
It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).
The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.
While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.
There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.
Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.
The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.
Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.
I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.
Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.
I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.
Hence my disappointment.
A recent TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed that 32 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, 32 percent had much or complete trust in those agencies, and 33 percent were lukewarm either way (with 3 percent undecided). That means that 65 percent of respondents were less than strongly trusting of New Zealand’s spies. This is a remarkable degree of public skepticism of intelligence organizations in a democracy.
The Prime Minister has said that the New Zealand intelligence community has to work hard to regain public trust. He is wrong, or is just being politically polite.
Unlike agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Police, Fire Service, Health Boards, WINZ and Education, which provide direct goods and services to the public and which depend on public trust in order to operate efficiently (notwithstanding the well-known problems afflicting at least some of these “direct provision” agencies), the intelligence community need not concern itself with expressions of public trust. That is because the service that intelligence agencies provide as ostensibly commonweal organizations (i.e. ones that serve the universal public interest), although for the general good in the last instance (at least theoretically), is not provided directly or even openly. Instead, the intelligence agencies answer to the government of the day as the representative of the public will and provide their collection and analysis skills to the government for the national good as defined by their charter and the government’s interpretation of it. They do not need the public’s trust in order to operate efficiently because most of what they do is away from the public eye.
Thus, in the first instance, the trust of the government is what matters for the spies. In this the intelligence community has an advantage because politicians elected into government are generally not conversant with intelligence matters and therefore are susceptible to espionage agency “capture:” the information that the spies provide gives the political elite a privileged window on the world, so they are most often reluctant to critically dispute the view.
More importantly, New Zealand’s intelligence sharing partners must have strong levels of trust in its spies. Without that, New Zealand’s access to allied intelligence sharing may suffer because foreign partners will be reluctant to risk placing sensitive information in the hands of untrustworthy people. The saving grace for New Zealand’s spies is that the years of relationship-building with its intelligence partners could allay the latter’s fears of incompetence or unprofessionalism on the part of the former.
On the other hand, even long standing relationships can be damaged by breaches of trust. This could well be the case in the wake of the Dotcom scandal, where the case against the internet magnate is crumbling in light of disclosures of illegal warrantless wiretapping by the GCSB (which makes evidence collected by those wiretaps inadmissible). Between the GCSB’s failures to follow its own basic protocols with regards to eavesdropping requests from sister agencies, coupled with the over the top nature of the raids on Dotcom’s residence (which included the presence of armed FBI agents and the detention of women and children by armed police), it is unlikely that any NZ judge will grant the US extradition request. That means time and resources spent by the US and NZ on pursuing the case against Dotcom will be for naught. The GCSB failings are bound to be noted by New Zealand’s intelligence partners, who will wonder about the assurances given by the GCSB and Police (and more than likely the SIS) that their course of action would not be subject to legal challenge or public scrutiny.
The bottom line is one of vertical and horizontal accountability. In democracies, governments are held accountable by the electorate (expressed both individually and collectively). That is the vertical dimension of accountability. Under that government, public agencies are accountable to each other via a system of checks and balances. That is the horizontal dimension of democratic accountability, which is used to cultivate the public trust that is key to vertical accountability.
In New Zealand there is very little horizontal accountability between the intelligence community and other parts of government, to include parliament and the judiciary (and perhaps even the executive in specific instances). This makes its agents (to include the GCSB and SIS) even less vertically accountable than in most liberal democracies, where oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms are much better developed.
As a nation-state New Zealand is also accountable to its diplomatic and security partners. That is another facet of horizontal accountability, writ large. New Zealand’s foreign partners must have trust in its diplomatic, military and espionage agencies in order for their mutual relationships to prosper. So long as they do, domestic trust is of secondary importance. But for that to happen, New Zealand’s intelligence community must be able to deliver on what it promises, which means that it must offer iron-clad guarantees that its activities will not be the subject of contentious public or political debate that can jeopardize ongoing intelligence collection and analysis operations
Thus, on the one hand, the poll results are not as worrisome for the government as may appear at first glance. So long as the New Zealand intelligence community and its component parts have the trust of its allies, then it will suffer no harm as a result of the public loss of faith in it. But should foreign partners come anywhere close to exhibiting the flat bell curve of trust that characterizes the results of the TVNZ survey, then New Zealand could well find itself excluded from at least some of the sensitive intelligence flows that are the ostensible reason for its participation in the Echelon/Five Eyes network, to say nothing of the wider intelligence community of which it is part.
As for the domestic side of the equation: a nation of sheep is led by the sheep dog. The sheep dog is the government, of which intelligence agencies are part. The shepherd is the institutional system of checks and balances that govern intelligence gathering and analysis, to which the government of the moment is subject. Absent such effective oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms, sheep are always at the mercy of an unrestrained and unaccountable dog.
Media coverage of trade negotiations in the Asia-Pacific have largely overlooked the strategic perspectives underpinning different countries’ approaches to the subject. In this analytic brief I outline some of the issues involved, to include potential problems when different strategic outlooks are juxtaposed.
Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.
John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.
Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.
I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.
The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.
Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner? If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.