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As part of the series of radio interviews I do with Mitch Harris on RadioLive on Wed nights, this week we decided to be a bit more free ranging than usual (since the normal focus of the radio version of the “Letters from America” series tends to concentrate on matters of US politics and society).  The issue of Chinese influence in NZ is getting a fair bit of attention as of late, and the pipe rupture causing shortages in aviation fuel and petrol supplies provides a basis for pondering the down side of N8 wire culture. And then there is Hillary blaming Bernie Sanders and the Russians for her loss last year while taking no responsibility for it, and Drumpf ranting incoherently at his first UN General Assembly speech. There was plenty to talk about. You can find the interview here.

Is he a spy?

datePosted on 07:48, September 14th, 2017 by Pablo

There is a fellow in NZ who once lectured at an elite foreign military school that trained military and civilian intelligence agents. His position required him to meet certain protocols and standards in order to receive a high level security clearance. In return for receiving that clearance and his lecturing on topics of interest to the intelligence community, he was privy to classified subjects and materials as well as being allowed to interact with the agencies from which his students originated.

His students learned foreign languages as part of their studies, combining that with training in the practical and operational skill sets required of them once they graduated and entered the field.

After leaving the military education institution, the fellow in question went on to work closely with the intelligence community in his country of origin, eventually taking a fairly senior position within the defense and intelligence establishment and continuing to consult with it even after his departure from active government service.

Some time after, he moved abroad and found his way to NZ, where he was hired as a lecturer in politics at the University of Auckland and settled into his adopted country by buying property and engaging in community servcie. He became fairly well known in political circles, wrote academic titles on NZ and comparative foreign policy and engaged with government on topics of common interest.

The question is: is this guy a spy given his past? Could he have come to NZ as an undercover “mole” ready to be sprung into service by his foreign masters after lying dormant for some time?

I ask because another former University of Auckland lecturer now in public service as a parliamentarian has found himself under some scrutiny after it was revealed that he also had lectured to intelligence agents at military educational institutions in his country of birth. It seems that there are questions as to whether he left that life behind him when he came to NZ even though his academic and community life in NZ broadly resemble that of the first individual mentioned above. But now the political knives are pointing at him.

It seems to me that the question about whether either individual is a spy reduces to two things. What were the cirumstances surrounding their emigration from their countries of origin, and what sort of security vetting was done on them before they took up residency and later, when one decided to enter public life?

In both cases security background checks would have been done as part of their visa appllication process. In both cases the University of Auckland would have presumably checked their academic credentials (which is an issue because the second fellow apparently fudged his academic credentials on his citizen application form, which makes one wonder if due dilligence was done on him by the UA prior to it recommending him, as an employment sponsor, to immigration authorities). For the individual who entered public service, more extensive vetting conducted by the SIS or an agency contracted by it would have examined the case a bit more in depth.

Based on what I know of the second case so far, the individual in question is no more a spy than the first guy is, and the first guy is clearly not. The problem for the second guy is that he comes from a country ruled by an authoritarian regime with neo-imperialist ambitions that is known to use its diaspora as a human intelligence collection network, where emigrants take out citizenship and settle into target countries but continue to report back to intelliigence authorities in their homelands. For his part, the first guy was more involved in his home country’s intelligence community prior to his arrival in NZ than the second guy apparently was (as far as has been reported), and the first guy’s home country has an extensive record of imperialism, including covert intelligence collection in NZ and elsewhere in the South Pacific that historically dwarfs that of the second guy’s motherland. Unfortunately for the second guy, his country of origin is not a NZ intelligence partner like the country the first guy came from, and in fact is a major counter-intelligence target for NZ security agencies.

So the question remains: can either or both of these guys be legtimately called a “spy” based on their backgrounds prior to arrival in NZ?

I ask because I am the first guy and I do not like being misidentified without cause (as I have been from time to time). It is unfortunate that my former colleague now stands accused (even if by insinuation) of something that he might not be based on assumptions about what he used to be. For his sake as well as that of NZ security, it is appropriate and necessary for the SIS or other NZ security agencies (not the government of which he is an MP) to issue a clarification on the matter now that the question has been raised in  public and there is a cloud over his career and reputation.

Deja Vu all over again?

datePosted on 15:26, July 2nd, 2017 by Pablo

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.

 

PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

What price for “friendship?”

datePosted on 13:34, May 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump’s classless lecturing of NATO leaders on the need to increase defense spending, and his subsequent refusal to endorse the alliance’s collective defense policy (“an attack on one is an attack on all”), should serve as a warning to New Zealand policy makers. Coming after his calls for Japan and South Korea to increase their defense spending less their security ties with the US be reviewed, Trump’s attitude towards US security alliances is a sobering reminder that New Zealand is not immune from his bullying.

Trump specifically wants US security allies to spend 2 percent of GDP on “defense.” The US currently spends 3.6 percent of GDP on military expenditures, including 14.5 percent of the federal budget. European Union countries spend 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent of GDP and central administrative expenditures, respectively, on defense. Overall, NATO countries spend 1.5 percent of GDP on their militaries, with only five member states (including the US) spending two percent or more. As for other US security partners, Australia spends two percent (and envisions future spending increases), South Korea spends 2.6 percent, Japan spends one percent and New Zealand spends 1.2 percent of GDP on defense (the same as Germany).

The 2 percent of GDP benchmark for individual member contributions to NATO’s defense was an aspirational goal first raised during the Cold War and periodically reaffirmed thereafter. In February 2017 US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the goal a requirement extended to non-NATO US security partners as well, warning that the US “would moderate its commitment” to them if they did not meet the threshold by the end of this year. This runs counter to the overall trend of the past decade, where with the exception of frontline democratic states like Estonia, Poland and South Korea, military expenditures have fallen throughout the liberal democratic world, terrorism notwithstanding (which cannot be fought by conventional military means anyway). In fact, the only regions that have seen increases in military spending over the last decade are the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, all active conflict zones dominated by authoritarian regimes.

Should Russia continue to encroach on NATO borders or hostilities between the West and China and/or North Korea increase, that might change, but the truth is that unlike the US most liberal democracies put the welfare of their subjects before war preparations, which means that they largely spend more on health, education and welfare as a percentage of central government budgets than the US does, while the US, in turn, spends more on “defense” than most of its democratic counterparts and, in fact, most authoritarian states as well (China, for example, spends 1.9 percent of GDP and 16 percent of central government expenditures on “defense”, while Russia spends 4.9 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively).

Contrary to what some US pundits allege, there is no free-riding and nothing parasitic about the contributions to collective defense of most NATO members and other US security partners–they are simply paying the amount that their priorities deem to be appropriate. The US wants to maintain its global military dominance in a world of rising new and old powers, so it spends more and wants those in its alliance networks to do likewise. But that does not mean that the latter could or should do so given their domestic priorities and threat environments. The “one size fits all” approach to collective defense does not account for the particular circumstances of individual countries, something that Mr. Trump fails to understand.

This is why New Zealand needs to prepare for pressure from the Trump administration on matters of mutual security. The Wellington and Washington bilateral agreements bind New Zealand to the US as a military ally in everything but name only. It is a first tier US intelligence partner given its membership in the “5 Eyes” signals intelligence collection alliance that includes Australia, Canada, the UK. It is a NATO associate. It is therefore likely that the US will demand that New Zealand “lift its game” to the 2 percent of GDP mark, especially given that Australia already has.

Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to New Zealand is a portent of things to come. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he once posed nude for a lady’s magazine and is an open advocate of torture as an interrogation technique, is slated to take up the post in Wellington by the end of this year, pending Senate confirmation. Given Mr. Trump’s advocacy of torture and his musing about re-opening the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site kidnapping and secret detention program, it is possible that Mr. Walker will be the bearer of bad news in the form of demands for New Zealand to increase security budgets to US satisfaction and toe the new line when it comes to extrajudicial approaches towards terrorism.

This pressure must be resisted. Although it can be argued that New Zealand’s strategic position and threat environment may not readily accord with its current security posture or spending (for example, by having an Army-centric military and limited blue water patrol capability in a maritime nation), it is also clear that New Zealand’s security interests do not uniformly coincide with those of the US and more importantly, the Trump administration approach to fundamental norms such as the Laws of War and Geneva Convention. Moreover, New Zealand’s trade position is more vulnerable than that of its larger military partners, which makes blind compliance with US security demands risky when these involve antagonizing economic partners such as China.

When the subject of the two percent threshold was raised earlier in the year, former Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee dismissed the notion that New Zealand would raise its spending in response to US demands. It remains to be seen if his assurances will hold over the longer term. As it stands, New Zealand’s spending on intelligence and security, including the NZDF, has increased over the last decade and is high when compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Current spending priorities are on cyberdefense, counter-terrorism and equipment upgrades for conventional forces. These can all be addressed for less than two percent of GDP.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s remarks to NATO and the G7 Forum, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel warned Europeans that they could no longer rely on the US on matters of security and trade, and that they needed to look to themselves when determining their fate. New Zealand needs to heed that advice. One way of demonstrating resolve in the face of US pressure is to declare Mr. Walker persona non grata in light of his support for torture and the emerging Trump security doctrine. The opportunity to do so arrives next week in the person of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will be on his first official visit to NZ. Declaring  Mr. Brown unwelcome may result in some diplomatic discomfort, but if New Zealand is to maintain its reputation as an honest broker and independent actor in international affairs, it is a small way of demonstrating that when it comes to its security the price of partnership is not up for negotiation.

A shorter version of this essay appeared as an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, June 2, 2017.

“You can’t handle the truth!”

datePosted on 15:07, April 4th, 2017 by Pablo

Well, no one should have been surprised that the government opted to not convene an inquiry into the allegations made in the Hager/Stephenson book Hit and Run. It preferred to let those accused “investigate” themselves and come up with an exoneration, then let the PM bad mouth the authors while wrapping himself in pseudo-sentimentality about the impact the accusations had on military families. SOP from National and the NZDF, especially in an election year.

Even though they may have forced a delay in ascertaining the truth as to what happened that August night in Afghanistan, they may have set themselves up for a bigger fall, albeit one that will cost taxpayers far more than if the inquiry had been done under the aegis of the Solicitor General, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security or some other reputable and independent local jurist. That is because if a state refuses to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by its troops, then that bumps up the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC can be petitioned to open an investigation and launch prosecutions against those suspected of war crimes if a state refuses to do so, and that may eventually be the case here.

The government strategy at this point seems to be to refuse an inquiry and force interested parties to make a case under the Inquiries Act, in the courts under one or more Acts, or in international bodies like the ICC. That is expensive and time consuming, so those willing to challenge the NZDF’s self-exoneration must be well resourced and prepared for a lengthy legal battle. In the meantime crucial evidence may disappear, sources for the allegations may change their minds out of fear of reprisal, material inducements for non-cooperation with investigators may be offered–no one should be so naive as to think that those under potential scrutiny would not stoop to such things.

The government is also clearly banking on political pressure for an independent investigation waning rather than increasing in the weeks and months ahead. It is confident that political parties will focus on the election and the media will move on to other things over the next few news cycles and that the claims will be forgotten by the public in short course. There are grounds to believe that it may be correct in these assumptions, but that depends on how interested parties feel about matters of truth and accountability in public institutions such as the military.

The government could well be daring the likes of Rodney Harrison QC, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod, who are representing the survivors of the alleged attacks and who successfully represented Ahmed Zaoui against the then-government’s mischaracterisation and detention of him as a dangerous terrorist, to take the case to the ICC. That is because although New Zealand is a member of the ICC, the US is not. Since the US Army provided the close air support for the raids and is implicated in the killings of civilians in the Hit and Run narrative, this means that a key part of any investigation–US complicity in the killing of innocents–will not receive US support or cooperation. In fact, the US is not a member of the ICC precisely because it does not want to see its soldiers or the authorities who command them ever face prosecution in The Hague. And without US participation, the presentation of the NZ side of the story would be incomplete at best, and thereby not a full account of what went down that fateful night. It is hard to mount an investigation or a prosecution, much less secure a conviction, without the participation of one of the principles involved. For a case to stand up in court a partial account of events is simply not enough without corroboration by others involved in the actions in question. This may be true for NZ courts as well as the ICC.

Even so, I am not sure that banking on US non-membership in the ICC is a winning strategy even if it adds to the costs and delays involved in establishing the truth and achieving justice for those needlessly harmed without cause. Refusal to participate in an ICC investigation could be worse for NZ’s reputation than agreeing to it and finding out that not all was as depicted by the NZDF version of event–even if war crimes were not committed.

The bottom line is that the government appears to be running scared with its quick acceptance of the NZDF clean up job. One video from a US helicopter and the NZDF report on the raid–a chronicle of events that leaves numerous questions unanswered, as pointed out by Selwyn Manning in the previous post–is all that it took to convince PM Bill English that all was hunky dory that night. Given that there were likely to be multiple camera angles and audio communications recorded during the raid by both the NZSAS as well as US forces for after-action de-briefings, the fact that just one served to convince the PM of the veracity of the NZDF account leaves me with only one simple conclusion with regard to Mr. English. In the words of Jack Nicholson playing a Marine Colonel under investigation for covering up a homicide at the Marine detachment stationed at Naval Base Guantanamo in the movie “A Few Good Men:”

YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

Guest Post by Selwyn Manning – Editor of EveningReport.nz.

KP Note: The issue of what the NZSAS did or did not do in Operation Burnham, a 2010 raid in Afghanistan that became the subject of the controversial book Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, must not be buried and forgotten by the next news cycle. The issues at stake go to the core of democratic civil-military relations: issues of accountability, transparency and civilian oversight of the armed forces. In the following guest post veteran journalist Selwyn Manning (formerly of Scoop and among other things co-founder of 36th Parallel Assessments) dissects the NZDF response to the allegations in the book and takes a close look at some important discrepancies in the official version of events. Readers are encouraged to carefully consider what he has uncovered.

There’s an overlooked aspect of the New Zealand Defence Force’s account of Operation Burnham that when scrutinised suggests a possible breach of international humanitarian law and laws relating to war and armed conflict occurred on August 22, 2010 in the Tirgiran Valley, Baghlan province, Afghanistan.

For the purpose of this analysis we examine the statements and claims of the Chief of New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), Lieutenant General Tim Keating, made before journalists during his press conference on Monday March 27, 2017. We also understand, that the claims put by the Lt. General form the basis of a briefing by NZDF’s top ranking officer to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Bill English.

It appears the official account , if true, underscores a probable breach of legal obligations – not necessarily placing culpability solely on the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) commandoes on the ground, but rather on the officers who commanded their actions, ordered their movements, their tasks and priorities prior to, during, and after Operation Burnham.

*******

According to New Zealand Defence Force’s official statements Operation Burnham ‘aimed to detain Taliban insurgent leaders who were threatening the security and stability of Bamyan Province and to disrupt their operational network’. (ref. NZDF rebuttal)

We are to understand Operation Burnham’s objective was to identify, capture, or kill (should this be justified under NZDF rules of engagement), those insurgents who were named on a Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) that NZDF intelligence suggested were responsible for the death of NZDF soldier Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating, Chief of New Zealand Defence Force.

When delivering NZDF’s official account of Operation Burnham before media, Lieutenant General Tim Keating said:

    “After the attack on the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT), which killed Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, the NZPRT operating in Bamyan Province did everything it could to reduce the target profile of our people operating up the Shakera Valley and into the north-east of Bamyan Province.

“We adjusted our routine, reduced movements to an absolute minimum, maximised night driving, and minimised time on site in threat areas.

“The one thing the PRT [NZPRT] couldn’t do was to have an effect on the individuals that attacked Lieutenant O’Donnell’s patrol. For the first time, the insurgents had a major success — and they were well positioned to do so again.”

For the purpose of a counter-strike, intelligence was sought and Lt. General Keating said: “We knew in a matter of days from local and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) intelligence who had attacked our patrol [where and when Lt. O’Donnell was killed].”

The intelligence specified the villages where the alleged insurgents were suspected of coming from and Lt. General Keating said: “This group had previously attacked Afghan Security Forces and elements of the German and Hungarian PRTs.”

The New Zealand Government authorised permission for the Kabul-based NZSAS troops to be used in Operation Burnham.

“What followed was 14 days of reliable and corroborated intelligence collection that provided confirmation and justification for subsequent actions. Based on the intelligence, deliberate and detailed planning was conducted,” Lt. General Keating said.

Revenge, Keating said, was never a motivation. Rather, according to him, the concern was for the security of New Zealand’s reconstruction and security efforts in Bamyan province.

As stated above, Operation Burnham’s primary objective was to identify, capture or kill Taliban insurgent leaders named in the intelligence data.

We know, from the New Zealand Defence Force’s own account, Operation Burnham failed to achieve that goal.

Read the rest of this entry »

After doing the radio interview linked to in the last post, I was approached by the nice people at The Spinoff to write a short elaboration on what I discussed on air. Here it is.

Media Link: Some thoughts on “Hit and Run.”

datePosted on 13:13, March 30th, 2017 by Pablo

I have done a fair share of media interviews about the Nicky Hager/Jon Stephenson book “Hit and Run.” Needless to say, the claims in the book are damning of the NZDF, although I believe that the criticism is more focused on the command leadership rather than on the troops involved in the operation that is the subject of the book. In any event, this is a an interview I did with radio New Zealand on the matter.

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

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