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In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the ethics and practicalities involved in the so-called “conflict industry.” It includes a discussion of the who and what of the “kill chain” and the implications of Rocket Lab’s position as a major US military logistical provider. You can find it here.

Clueless or cynical?

datePosted on 15:19, February 9th, 2021 by Pablo

So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.

This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.

Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.

Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.

in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.

Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.

The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.

For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.

Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?

Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.

Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?

Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?

NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.

NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.

Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.

When the blind lead the blind.

datePosted on 08:28, December 15th, 2020 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has been released and the verdict is mixed. Some are pleased that systemic failures were identified and acknowledged while others are disappointed that no single person or agency was held to account for those failures. The Muslim community, although given a prominent place in the RCI investigations and Report and offered direct apologies by the Prime Minister and heads of Police and the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), remains unsatisfied with the outcome even if it accepts the recommendations that derive from the Report (as does the government).

Under its terms of reference, the RCI investigation was very broad and very shallow. Because of its scope it eventually had to be extended a year beyond its original six month mandate and have its budget doubled. It was broad in the sense that it had to address the terrorist and his activities, the impact his actions had on the targeted community, the actions and inaction of State security agencies (not just those involved in counter-terrorism (CT) efforts) that contributed to the event and a host of extraneous factors considered relevant to the investigation (for example, European and US experiences with rightwing terrorism).

It was shallow in the sense that, even though it could have availed itself of powers of compulsion under oath under the Inquiries Act, it chose not to. Instead, the RCI engaged in a self-limiting investigatory approach where it was dependent on the voluntary cooperation of State entities and officials when it came to evidence provision and testimony. Because of concerns about national security, no government officials (other than agency heads) identified during the course of the investigation were publicly named and their testimony is to remain sealed for thirty years. Although available to security authorities, the terrorist’s evidence is permanently suppressed in order to avoid copy-cat behaviour. 

One view is that this was done to encourage honesty and candor on the part of witnesses with potential liability exposure, but it also meant that in terms of transparency and public accountability, the RCI was hamstrung from the start. A more cynical view has it that this covers up culpability and whitewashes the truth while absolving the guilty.

Others have written about the before and after-effects of the attacks on New Zealand’s Muslim community as well as the history of local white supremacists and rightwing extremists. The work of the RCI has been amply scrutinised. The Report itself has been dissected at length. Given that, here the focus is on the institutional deficiencies within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) that were uncovered by the RCI.

If one phrase sums up the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Report on the Christchurch terrorist attacks, it is “systemic failure.” The failure was institutional and individual, within and across New Zealand’s borders and involved errors of commission and omission.

The most salient finding is that there was a pervasive obsession with Islamic extremists within the NZ Counter-Terrorism community dating to 9/11. This myopic focus was shared by collection (operational) agencies, analytic agencies, oversight and coordination agencies, foreign partners, the governments and most politicians of the day. The media and the public, while largely unconcerned about the possibility of domestic terrorism, accepted the official line that after 9/11 and given events in the Middle East, Islamic extremism was the most likely threat to the Kiwi way of life.

The problem with this perspective is its lack of grounding in fact. Before and after 9/11, no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of any act of ideologically-motivated violence in Aotearoa. A couple of people have been arrested and imprisoned for possessing jihadist materials, a few have been detained for objectionable social media posts, some have been sent into de-radicalisation diversion programs and some have had their passports cancelled based upon fears that they would travel to the Middle East to join ISIS or al-Qaeda. Two have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East and one is languishing in a Syrian opposition jail. Back at home, at any given time, 30-35 people are monitored by the intelligence services because of their perceived jihadist sympathies. They may be inclined towards violence but as of yet none have decisively acted on their impulses. When it comes to contemplating acts of terrorist violence on NZ soil, would-be jihadists have been relatively few and far between, and all talk and no lethal action.

During the same timeframe, right-wing extremism world-wide grew bolder in terms of violent acts and larger in terms of numbers, starting with the mass murders perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Oslo in 2011 and accelerating after 2015 with murderous attacks in places like the US, UK and Germany as Daesh was defeated in Iraq and Syria and refugee flows increased from the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe. On-line white supremacist forums proliferated, as did the number of self-radicalised “lone wolves” who populated discussion groups focused on who, when and how to commit violence against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays, Arabs, Africans, and other perceived undesirables.

Groups like Atomwaffen Division, English Defense League, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois moved from their keyboards to the streets. NZ was not immune to this phenomenon, with groups such as the Dominion Movement, Northern Front, National Front, White Defense League, New Order, Right Wing Resistance, and more recent off-shoots like Western Guard and European Students Association waxing and waning before becoming more visible and vitriolic over the last ten years (other violently-inclined groups have formed after March 15, including Action Zealandia). 

This suggests that post-2011 NZ counter-terrorism (CT) threat assessments should have incorporated the rising global trend of irregular right-wing violence. Yet in the period 2010-2019 right-wing extremism was mentioned only a handful of times in CT reports, most in reference to terrorist attacks overseas. When and where the possibility of a right-wing terrorist attack in NZ was mentioned, such as in a 2011 Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) report that the Oslo attack was a model for copycats and that New Zealand’s firearms regimes allowed for the legal purchase of military-style weapons with that intent, it was ignored by other agencies. Bureaucratic rivalries may have contributed to that.

The organization of the NZIC and the business model used by front line collection agencies made detection of non-Islamicist terrorist threats difficult. Collection agencies like the NZSIS and NZ Police operate on a “lead-based” and “customer” focused business model, in which the agencies react to tips about suspicious behaviour and frame their operations and analyses according to the perceived needs of their sponsors and patrons—primarily the government and foreign partners. The decentralised and siloed nature of the NZIC is another contributing factor to the failure to detect terrorist plots, whereby the alphabet soup of intelligence shops in areas like Customs, Immigration, MBIE and coordinating and analytic agencies like CTAG, the National Assessments Bureau (NAB), Security and Intelligence Board (SIB), Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee (CTCC) and a number of others compartamentalise and narrowly share classified information on a “need to know” basis.

There are no strong hierarchies in the chains of command linking the functionally-differentiated agencies within the NZIC, with various intelligence units answering to different ministers and seldom to each other. This led to duplication of functions and tunnel vision within the community. Although the NAB ostensibly serves as the lead agency in the decentralised NZIC organizational pyramid, vertical as well as horizontal accountability between NZIC members was and is limited.

Then there was the issue of emphasis. In terms of overall organizational focus, domestic terrorism was a secondary concern for the NZ security community in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks. Only 20 mentions of domestic terrorism were made during that period. The bulk of those referred to home-grown and returning jihadists.

The dysfunctional organizational arrangement and myopic mindset was compounded by the fact that there is little proactive or “over the horizon,” futures-forecasting strategic analysis within the NZIC’s component parts. Under extant funding models and given the security orientation of political masters and foreign partners, there was little incentive for intelligence shops to expend resources on discerning distant threats via strategic analysis or convincing political funders that the CT focus needed to be expanded in light of an emerging global right-wing extremist movement that uses the internet as a recruiting, radicalisation and irregular warfare tutorial platform.

This was obviously short-sighted and (still) leads to institutional lag when confronting the threat environment (whereby agencies play steep learning curve catch-up because their focus is on the last and not the next major threat). It also violates the basic professional requirement that threat landscapes be divided according to an objectively-determined differentiation between possible, probable, proximate, immediate and imminent threats upon which preventive measures can be predicated.

The Report repeatedly references Police and SIS complaints that they were under-resourced during the decade prior to the attacks, something that contributed to their inability to monitor right-wing extremism. The SIS reported that it had 225 personnel in 2013-14, of which 35-50 percent were engaged in security vetting and the rest in domestic and foreign espionage and counter-espionage functions, with only 4.5 full time equivalent staff dedicated to terrorism investigations. By 2019 the total staff had increased to 328 full time equivalents but the functional distribution remained the same. During the same period the SIS budget increased 245 percent, from $33,751,000 in 2007-08 to $82,843,000 in 2018-19. This does not include at least one dedicated cash injection of over $175 million provided by the National government in 2016-17 to the NZIC and excludes any “black budget” expenditures (most intelligence agencies carry off-the-books “black budgets” for particularly sensitive operations).

The nearly $50 million operational budget increase and 100 staff added during the half decade leading to the attacks was not reflected in SIS CT operations, so the question begs as to whether it was not so much the lack of resources that impeded improvement in that operational area but a maldistribution of resources within it that contributed to the SIS failure to detect the threat emerging from the extremist Right. After all, it dedicated between a third and half of its staff to vetting security clearance applications. Assuming that clerical staff occupy five-ten percent of personnel numbers, then the amount of people dedicated to domestic espionage (including CT), foreign espionage and counter-espionage within the SIS is remarkably low for a front-line intelligence agency. The political priority given to counter-terrorism efforts by governments during the years after 9/11 and emergence of ISIS in Europe make it hard to fathom that only 4.5 equivalent full time staff were dedicated to CT efforts in 2014, and that the same distribution of personnel continued even with the 50 percent increase in staff by mid-2019.

The NZ Police also claim to have struggled with resources for intelligence work in general and CT work in particular. Citing shortfalls, the Police stopped investigating right-wing extremism in 2014 and no reports on the subject were issued until 2019 (after the attacks). The intelligence wings of the Police were said to be lightly staffed and spread over a number of issue areas that went well beyond CT concerns. Both the National Security Group (NSG)  and Security and Intelligence Group (SITG) claimed to not have enough resources to engage in the type of strategic intelligence assessments that would have made early detection of right-wing extremists easier. In 2010 the National Intelligence Centre employed 53 staff out of a total complement of 11,890, then 63 in 2012 and 52 in 2013 with similar total numbers, while in 2018 “International and National Security” functions employed 357 out of 12,467 staff (organizational changes made for different staffing statistic categories in Annual Reports after 2017). 

Even with the changes in statistics measurements that incorporated other liaison and analysis duties, it is clear that staffing of Police intelligence operations remained fairly constant and even rose slightly towards the end of the period covered by the RCI Report. It was therefore not a major impediment to CT operations per se. Instead, it appears that the allocations of resources within the intelligence branch were directed to areas other than CT, again, consistently throughout the years and paralleling the operational priorities of the SIS. Funding for additional CT staff at the national level was approved in 2018, but the problem remained that, to quote the Report, the “New Zealand Police had generally viewed right-wing extremism as more of a public order issue than a potential terrorist threat” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 30).

There is no mention in the Report of whether Police intelligence received information about violent right-wing extremists during the course of undercover operations targeting criminal gang activities such as drugs or weapons dealing (so-called “street crimes”). Yet, although no information on right-wing extremists was reported at the national level after 2014, “(w)e (the RCI) were also provided examples from the National Security Investigations Team of leads related to right-wing extremism that met the risk threshold and were pursued.” (Part 8, Section 6.5 paragraph 36). In other words, there were leads coming from somewhere about right-wing extremists and they were pursued, but nothing more is known about them (at least as far as the public record is concerned).

The “lack of interest” problem regarding right-wing extremism was compounded by the fact that tactical intelligence leads are mostly developed by each Police District, and during the time period in which the killer was planning and preparing apparently no leads on violent right-wing extremists were developed by the intelligence shops based in Dunedin and Christchurch, much less elsewhere. Instead, at both the district and national levels, in terms of strategic as well as tactical assessments, the NZ Police focused CT efforts on detecting and disrupting the plans of Islamicists (and had some success with that).

Even so, the NZ Police did allocate intelligence resources to monitoring some non-Islamicist groups. During the period covered by the Review, which came in the wake of the infamous Urewera Raids, the Police followed intelligence leads and conducted operations against environmental, animal rights and anti-1080 activists along with the ‘normal” business of providing intelligence for non-ideologically motivated criminal investigations. This is worth noting because terrorism involving lethal mass attacks is most likely to be ideologically rather than criminally motivated (following the logic that criminal activity is a form of commercial rather than advocacy enterprise and public violence is generally bad for business). Amongst ideological activists in NZ, environmental and other Leftist groups are less prone to supporting terrorism to advance their goals than either aspiring jihadists or right-wing extremists (including so-called “eco-fascists” involved in anti-1080 campaigns). And yet they received more attention from the intelligence services than neo-Nazis did, and CT efforts remained focused on would-be jihadists.

It was therefore not just a lack of resources allocated to CT efforts within the Police, SIS and other agencies that impeded the detection of right-wing terrorist threats. Instead, it was the lack of priority given to them that contributed to the systemic intelligence failure. Intelligence work done by the Police and the SIS involve at their core human intelligence collection. That essentially means boots on and ears to the ground, which in turn is an issue of trained staff dedicated to the task on the one hand, and objective threat recognition on the other. In spite of the evolving threat landscape in the decade prior to the Christchurch attacks, CT staffing numbers remained small and steady, with low emphasis placed on non-Islamicist threats. When they were, the objects of scrutiny were not from the extremist Right.

The GCSB was exonerated of any culpability in enabling the attacks. That is because, according to the Report, it basically serves as a foreign signals intelligence agency and only engages in domestic espionage when tasked to do so under warrant by a NZ partner agency. In the decade before March 15 it was never tasked by the SIS, Police or other security agencies to monitor right-wing extremists.

Although it exposes the disorganization and biases of the NZ intelligence apparatus when it came to CT prior to March 15, the Report claims that these systemic failures did not contribute to the attacks because the killer’s operational security made discovering him a matter of “chance.” That, in spite of reports about his peculiar behaviour at a gun club, his social media rants and use of IP addresses associated with extremist views and weapons purchases, his drone surveillance of the al-Noor mosque and his stockpiling of military-style weapons and ammunition (which are attributed to deficiencies of the firearms licensing regime and failures by vetting authorities to discharge their duties properly). The dots were there to be connected but, according to the RCI, only by chance could they have been.

That has the makings of a Tui ad.

What is clear is that foreign intelligence partners and domestic intelligence agencies saw right-wing extremism as a low priority local law enforcement issue, not a pressing national security threat. In spite of some brief warnings and occasional mentions, the NZ Police and SIS did not see violent right-wing extremism as posing an imminent danger to society and other frontline agencies did not screen for it in their threat assessments. Instead, the security community prioritized the domestic aspects of  the so-called “War on Terror” (sic). Local politicians supported and funded that approach, which was generally given low priority because domestic terrorism was, in spite of the anti-jihadist fear-mongering of the Key government, a secondary concern in the NZIC collective assessment  of NZ’s threat landscape.

With the overall likelihood of domestic terrorism downplayed and jihadist threats over-emphasized within potential domestic terrorism scenarios, when it came to local right-wing terrorism the NZIC was not just looking the wrong way—it was not looking at all. Instead, for political and operational reasons the CT focus could and would not see terrorist threats beyond those rooted in Islam. Even though the domestic terrorist threat landscape changed in the years after 9/11, the NZIC was disinclined to move beyond threat assessment parameters that supported the anti-jihadist narrative. That is why the it failed to see the danger coming from the extreme Right.

More than “chance,” it was these institutional deficiencies, both in outlook and organization, that wound up costing people’s lives.

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Spinoff, December 15, 2020.

Ready to be let down.

datePosted on 15:32, November 30th, 2020 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on the Christchurch terrorist attacks has tabled its report with the Governor General and Minister of Internal Affairs. The Report will be introduced to parliament and released to the public before Christmas. In the lead up to its release the office of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet consulted with a number of people, myself included, on how to go about managing the release. My advice was for the heads of the security agencies mentioned in the Report–the SIS and Police in particular–to front-foot the release because there was much skepticism that the Report would be anything but a whitewash and cover up. I mentioned that if systemic, institutional as well as individual failures, biases and blindness were not mentioned then the Report would be seen as exactly that. Other people suggested deeper engagement with immigrant ethnic groups, Maori, and being as transparent as possible.

Alas, the latter does not look like it will happen if early word about the Report is true. Remember, by its terms of reference the Report’s public findings and recommendations will not identify government officials mentioned in it. Nor will it contain information that is deemed sensitive on national security grounds. So, along with other limitations that I mentioned in an earlier post about it, the RCI was hamstrung from the start.

To be sure, I have not read either the findings or the recommendations so can do nothing other than speculate about them. But what I have read so far is this: the evidence from the killer as to how he planned the attack will be suppressed forever because it constitutes a “how to” primer for murderous copy-cats that identifies exploitable holes, flaws and deficiencies in NZ’s counter-terrorism defences and the advantages and opportunities presented to him by the wider context in which he planned and prepared the attacks. Moreover, the names of government officials mentioned in the Report will not only be redacted from the public version, but will be suppressed for thirty years, again on national security grounds.

Already, word has leaked that the Report will note how the firearms purchase and vetting regime failed in this instance due to legal loopholes and human folly. This was always going to be an easy way out for the State because after the attacks the government immediately pushed through law reforms governing certain types of firearms such as those used during the massacres (now being challenged by rightwing parties and groups), while blaming officers on the low end of the Police totem pole for not properly doing firearms license background checks absolves the higher-ups of any complicity in the matter. Nothing about systemic or institutional biases, failures or blindness is to be found in that sort of blame game.

Needless to say, some are not happy with these developments. Both the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) and Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) have expressed serious concerns about the suppression order’s impact on issues of transparency and accountability by the agencies and individuals whose actions or inaction may have contributed to the events of March 15, 2019. This is notable because the RCI remit specified that the views of the NZ Muslim community should be given great consideration, to the point that a special Muslim Reference Group was set up to advise the Commission (although its advice was non-binding on the RCI).

Now, in the wake of the news about the selective long-term suppression of findings, both FIANZ and IWCNZ have released their submissions to the RCI. These include lengthy expositions about the myriad ways in which the Muslim community has been stigmatised, harassed, surveilled, vilified and attacked since 9/11 in the NZ media and society, and about how government agencies were indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the community as a whole, systematically ignoring the community’s very specific details of hate-based violence directed at them and repeated appeals for help. These submissions noted the government’s focus on Muslims as potential jihadis, including so-called “jihadi brides” and the infiltration of their houses of worship and community activity centres by agents of the State.

The submissions were extensive and well-documented, using everything from international to local human rights legislation and witness testimonies to provide proof that the global “War on Terror” had a very real, disproportionate and negative impact on NZ Muslims regardless of their affinity for extremism (it should be noted that no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of an ideologically-motivated act of violence in NZ before or after 9/11. Two individuals have been jailed for having jihadist literature, a couple of converts have been killed in drone strikes abroad and the bumbling Pakeha jihadist remains imprisoned in Syria).

Meanwhile white supremacists in NZ organised, recruited, trained and encouraged each other on line, including threats against local Muslims. Yet they apparently were either not considered to be sufficient enough of a threat to warrant closer official scrutiny, or the security community had other priorities, or, as has been said repeatedly by various sources, the killer “flew under the radar” in the build up to the attacks because he had no association with local neo-Nazi communities (oh, and he was Australian). He had no enablers, no accomplices, no acquaintances–no one at all who, in spite of his travels to conflict zones and expressed hatreds, had a clue of what he was planning to do. There was no warning.

Yeah, right.

That NZ’s two leading Muslim organisations have now come out with what were originally non-public submissions detailing what in retrospect were obvious alarm bells is an indictment of the RCI and proof that fears of a whitewash may turn out to be justified.

Others are not as pessimistic. Some believe that the RCI will recommend throwing what amounts to “blood” money at the victims, their families and the Muslim community in general while engaging in a “whole of government approach” (the new bureaucratic buzzphrase, apparently) to the problem of ethnic, religious and/or race-based extremism and violence in Aotearoa. Some think that although names and evidence will be suppressed, behind closed doors action will be taken to hold decision-makers to account. There is a belief that the RCI will in fact fulfil its duty and detail the systemic and institutional failures that contributed by commission omission to the attacks. I am not so sure.

It could be that the pre-public release of selected aspects of the Report is being done by officials to prepare the ground for its full release (by lowering expectations from the non-Muslim community), or has been done by someone on the inside who is not happy with the Report. Either way, it has set up a situation where the truth will be obscured by official shading of what can be publicly known.

The bottom line is this. Long term evidence suppression is valid based on national security concerns about revelations involving sources, methods, evidence of capabilities/vulnerabilities and sensitive foreign relationships. Invalid reasons for suppressing names and evidence involve efforts at face-saving, whitewashing or cover ups of individual and/or institutional malpractice, incompetence, bias, blindness or negligence.

From what has been released so far, there is reason to presume that the Report will tilt more towards the latter than the former, and as a result New Zealand will have missed its moment of opportunity to address and remedy what were the “whole of government” failures that contributed to the darkest day in its modern history. Instead, it might well turn out to be the official equivalent of a lump of Xmas coal delivered to the cause of official transparency and accountability.

That would be a shame.

Setting them up to fail?

datePosted on 14:55, November 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

There has been some excitement about the naming of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister and Peeni Henare as Defense Minister in the new Labour cabinet. At first glance neither one appears to have much experience or background in the portfolios that they are now responsible for, but Mahuta is the first female (and Maori) Foreign Minister, complete with a moko kauae. Henare, first elected in 2014, has been Minister for Civil Defense during the last year and half. He is also Minister of Whānau Ora. They comprise part of a cabinet that is considered to be one of the most diverse in NZ history and have received global attention as a result.

Mahuta first entered parliament in 1996 on the Labour list, then was elected in 1999 to the Te Tai Hauauru seat (beating Tuku Morgan), then transferred and won the Tainui/Hauraki-Waikato in 2002. She has been re-elected ever since and made a run for the party leadership in 2014. She was Minister for Customs, Youth Development, Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment from 2005-2008 during the 5th Labour government and prior to her appointment as Foreign Minister was Minister of Local Government and Maori Development in the 6th Labour government (the first of which she retains). While in Opposition she served as the Labour spokesperson for Maori Affairs, Education, Energy and Conservation. She is also Associate Minister of Trade and Export Growth, Environment and Housing.

After 24 years in parliament, Mahuta surely knows her away around the Beehive and the domestic policy scene. But questions remain about her and Henare’s suitability for the positions they have been given. The breakdown of the questions goes something like this:

The symbolism of diversity is a powerful thing. However, beyond its symbolic value diversity in cabinet is a laudable goal only if it is accompanied by substance. The latter is defined as competence, background or experience in the policy areas for which the appointee is responsible, or the ability to learn fast. Diversity without substance is a cynical form of tokenism because it rewards those without merit in order to engage in empty symbolism as a PR tactic. It also sets up the appointees for failure if s/he is out of depth or is unable to overcome resistance from inside and outside of the Ministries for which they are responsible. That in turn serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about the ethnic, religious, racial or other groups to which they belong.

A big problem for ministerial neophytes of any persuasion is that they run the risk of bureaucratic capture by the agencies that they ostensibly oversee. Bureaucratic capture is a phenomenon where career bureaucrats surround a Ministerial appointee with everything from puffery and flattery to stonewalling and sandbagging in order to get the new leader to absorb and accept institutional logics as his or her own. This may include the “baubles” of office: getting to play with big boys toys in the case of Defense, and jetting off to exotic lands in the case of Foreign Affairs. All courtesy of the taxpayer. The syndrome is familiar.

Another problem is bureaucratic resistance or shunning. This phenomenon is when career bureaucrats endeavour to resist policy initiatives and change instigated by the new appointee by diluting or subverting the message within the institutional maze (which the new Minister is unfamiliar with), or simply ignore directives that do not suit or run contrary to their entrenched interests until the initiatives are dropped. This is an all-to-common problem in the intelligence and security field, where cadres of so-called “old boys” work hard to prevent real effective institutional reform from happening so long as they feel that the status quo works for them. The resistance to reform is less visible in Foreign Affairs because of the arc of modern diplomacy (multi-faceted, involving a variety of actors and subjects), but it remains in some institutional niches nevertheless.

In Foreign Affairs and Defence there is the additional problem that newly appointed Ministers must immediately engage with foreign interlocutors. Many of these foreign diplomats and military officials have great experience and often a considerable degree of cynicism when addressing areas of mutual interest. They very often have different cultural backgrounds, different ideological motivations, different economic interests and different ways of conceptualising the international order (say, being realist rather than idealist or constructivist in perspective). Without the shared cultural and ideological referents common to home, Ministerial neophytes thrust onto the world as the senior faces of NZ face formidable challenges unlike those found domestically.

The questions about Mahuta and Henare are therefore driven by concerns about their experience and competence when confronting these realities, and about whether their domestic experience can immediately translate into the skillset required to effectively engage both the internal (bureaucratic) and external (foreign interaction) aspects of their jobs.

Not surprisingly, some of the responses to those asking these questions have been to accuse them of being racist. That could well be true for some people, but the knee jerk, reflexive defensiveness of these reactions simply serves to obscure the reality of tokenism and overlook incompetence in the event that it does occur.

More reasoned rebuttals focus on Mahuta’s long career in parliament and the range of portfolios she has held over the years. Although Henare has a much shorter parliamentary career, he is seen as a competent quick learner in the areas in which he has previously been given responsibility. So the reasoning goes that even if they do not have deep experience in military-security matters and foreign affairs, both Mahuta and Henare are well equipped to rapidly get up to speed on their portfolios.

Beyond that, there is the domestic political side of the appointment equation to consider. Mahuta and Henare represent important Maori constituencies that Labour seeks to retain as a support base. Henare comes from a distinguished military lineage, so the symbolism of his appointment bestows mana on his office and in the eyes of many of his troops. Mahuta, known as “The Princess” in some circles, is Maori royalty. This might prove very useful when engaging Pacific Island nobility on matters of regional and mutual concern, and her familiarity with pomp and circumstance makes her a natural for ceremonial occasions when representing the State.

Other assessments of the appointments are mixed. There is a line of thought that posits that, on the one hand, the Mahuta appointment is a way of getting a long serving, important yet underwhelming MP out of the way via a golden parachute into a glamorous job while on the other hand a young, up-and-coming Maori MP is given his first shot at playing with the Big Boys. If they do not pan out, this reasoning holds, then no harm done because others will be running the show in any event.

That dovetails with the belief that PM Ardern is going to be the de facto Foreign Minister, using the leverage of her global celebrity to advance major NZ initiatives on the world stage while Mahuta works on what a knowledgeable friend of mine calls the “mice and rats” of foreign affairs. Mahuta will also be a visible indigenous symbol of the multicultural and polyethnic nature of NZ society. So, while Ardern does the heavy lifting in things such as climate change, non-proliferation and bilateral relations with the likes of the PRC and US, Mahuta can provide the ceremonial face of NZ diplomatic representation to the global community.

For Henare the issue is simple: translate his generally well-regarded work in Civil Defense into an understanding of the logistics and operational requirements of complex service organisations such as the MoD/NZDF that operate under relatively tight budgetary constraints and with significant institutional shortcomings when it comes to personnel, material and overall force readiness, and which recently have (in the case of the NZDF) suffered some serious incidents of professional and personal misconduct within both senior and junior ranks. That notwithstanding, much of what the NZDF does under MoD policy directives IS civil defense, be it in terms of disaster relief, humanitarian interventions and emergency engineering and transport. So the experience he has gained in his previous portfolio, even if relatively short, should well suit him for his new role. More to the point, none of this will interfere with how the NZDF leadership see and approach the world around them.

The most jaded idea being advanced is that, regardless of whether they are competent or not, both of these politicians will be the subject of bureaucratic capture. Senior managers and careerists in Mfat and MoD and NZDF will in fact run these agencies largely unimpeded by their respective ministers, who will cut ribbons, shake hands and bestow honours instead. A “Yes Minister” scenario will prevail, if you will.

Not all the reaction to these appointments has been negative or questioning. Many at home and abroad are celebrating the diversity represented in the new Cabinet and the individual achievements of Mahuta, Henare and their non-Pakeha, non-straight and/or female colleagues. The era of the straight white male in politics is seen as coming to an end, with NZ leading the way.

Perhaps that is true but it is not for me to say. Along with being called a racist for having broached some of the afore-mentioned questions on social media as well as being labeled a member of the Pakeha international relations and security community (I have to plead guilty to that one), I am loathe to tread further into the minefield that is identity politics in Aotearoa. Moreover, since I focus on matters of international and comparative polities and security, I cannot offer a knowledgeable opinion about appointments made to domestic-focused portfolios or about which of the scenarios outlined above is the closest to the truth. It seems likely that there is a mix of factors and reasons involved in these appointments, both opportunistic and sincere.

All I can hope for is that both of the new ministers are not being set up to fail and that even if their learning curves are steep, that they succeed in gaining command of the important instruments of State that they have been directed to lead. Time will tell.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

Thought for the day: On terrorist entities.

datePosted on 14:49, September 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

Now that he has been convicted and sentenced, including on a charge of committing a terrorist act (to which he admitted guilt), the Christchurch killer has been designated a “terrorist entity” by the government, using provisions of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Designating the killer as a terrorist entity means that his assets can be seized, his (online/other) fans can be prosecuted as terrorist supporters and creating funding platforms for his legal appeals or other reasons are now punishable offenses. No GoFundMe pages for him, it seems, and racists will need to think twice and tread carefully when they sing his praises in any forum (which should make certain NZ rightwing blogs a bit more careful when moderating comments)..

This is a smart move on the government’s part. Although the intent of the 2002 legislation was clearly directed at Islamicists and the various fronts and support networks that aided their armed campaigns, the use of the legislation in its first instance–both in successfully charging the killer with a terrorist offence and in designating him as an “entity” so that others could not easily provide support or encouragement to him or other like-minded people–is a well executed step that in principle demonstrates that the law can be applied in a balanced fashion regardless of the ideological cause being espoused.

But the test of this balance remains to be seen. Imagine if Tame Iti and his ragtag assortment of activist friends had been charged and convicted of terrorist offences because of their Urewera shenanigans (which was the original intention of the Clark government). Would they have been designated as “entities” so that others of similar mind could not legally offer them or their various causes emotional and material support? What about environmental or animal rights militants, who are often labeled as “eco-terrorists” by rightwing politicians and media and the commercial outfits that the activists oppose? What about anti-1080 activists, who have shown a penchant for intimidation and violence? Or the Sea Shepard Society, which Japan has designated as a terrorist group (and pirates) because it has used direct action tactics against whalers in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere?

The old saying “one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero” comes to mind here. The label can be applied to anyone who, under the broad definition of “national security” in New Zealand legislation, causes “harm” to the national economy, social order or reputation regardless of whether they used violence in pursuit of their objectives. Accordingly, the use of the term “terrorist” has been stretched by politicians, media mouthpieces and corporate and/or interest groups to cover a variety of non-murderous people agitating for a wide range of causes.

That is why the use of the term “terrorist” and the designation of terrorist entities must be done under strict guidelines and in the most extreme of circumstances. While international designators are helpful–say, in labelling Daesh as a terrorist entity or NZ expats clearly identified as having participated in its genocidal activities as terrorists–it remains for the Crown to rigorously scrutinise the criteria by which people and groups are placed in such categories. That must be objective, factually-based and proportionate to the harm committed. Above all, it must not be left to the government of the day, less partisan opportunism rear its ugly head in the application of justice.

The Christchurch killer made it easy on the Crown–and on the security agencies that allowed him to slip under the radar when planning and preparing the attacks–when he pleaded guilty to all charges. The sentencing was heavy on drama and pathos but the outcome was foretold and inevitable. The post-sentencing designation of the killer as an entity was an adroit touch. But one wonders if that designation should have come from the court at the time of sentencing rather than from the government after the sentence was handed down.

In any event, the first successful application of terrorism charges and terrorist entity designations is a salutary milestone in NZ jurisprudence and security affairs, but it is not without its potentially negative implications in future circumstances. That should be the guiding (or better said, self-limiting) principle in any future consideration of their use.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

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