Posts Tagged ‘Accountability’

Suggestions for the Intelligence Review Committee.

datePosted on 14:40, August 27th, 2015 by Pablo

Readers will know that I expressed my unhappiness with the composition of the Intelligence Review committee and my belief that, save some cosmetic changes, a whitewash of the NZ intelligence community (NZIC) could be in the offing. Although I spoke with several people who were making public submissions to the committee (the deadline for which has passed), I decided not to waste my time given the press of other business and likely futility of doing so.

To my surprise, a month or so ago I was invited to speak privately with the committee, which for those who do not know consists of Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy. The terms of reference for the committee are quite narrow on the face of it but I took the view that they can be interpreted more broadly in the context of the Review. The two major terms of reference focus on whether the legislative frameworks governing the New Zealand Intelligence Committee (NZIC, and GCSB and NZSIS in particular) “are well placed to protect New Zealand’s current future national security, while protecting individual rights; (and)..whether the current oversight arrangements provide sufficient safeguards at an operational, judicial and political level to ensure that the GCSB and NZSIS act lawfully and maintain public confidence.”

More specific matters subject to the Review include whether the 2014 Foreign Fighters Act should be extended or modified before its March 31 2017 expiry date; and whether the definition of ‘private communication’ in the GCSB legislation is satisfactory.

I decided that I would accept the opportunity to speak with Sir Michael and Dame Patsy in spite of my reservations about the Review process. Without going into the details of the meeting, here is some of what I outlined to them.

I started off by noting that much of the commentary about the NZIC was mistaken in its classification of the GCSB as the “foreign” spy agency and the NZSIS as the “domestic” spy agency. I pointed out that the proper classification was that the GCSB is the signals and technical intelligence agency (SIGINT and TECHINT in the parlance) and that the NZIS is the human intelligence agency (HUMINT). Both have domestic as well as foreign espionage roles, although these needed to be explicitly detailed in law and circumscribed as much as possible when it came to the domestic side of the fence.

I continued by stating that the Countering Foreign Terrorist Fighters Act needs to be abolished. People who commit violent crimes abroad, particularly war crimes and crimes against humanity, can be detained and/or charged under criminal law and extradited to face justice in the jurisdictions in which the crimes were committed. If that is not possible they can be tried by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This is true whether they are identified as individuals or as members of a group that commits atrocities. So long as there is evidence of involvement in criminal acts, there currently are means of ensuring they face justice without politicising the cause.

I said no to the idea of revoking their passports to prevent their return and noted that the presumption of innocence should apply to returning fighters who are not implicated in atrocities even if they were involved in foreign conflicts. I also noted that according to Western intelligence estimates, less than 50 percent of those who travel to fight with ISIS return alive, and of those the vast majority are too traumatised to consider committing acts of violence on home soil.

We had a lengthy discussion on what constitutes a “private communication.” The 2014 GCSB Act states that it  anything a person could reasonably expect to be public in nature, say a Twitter or Facebook posting or even email on providers such as Google or Yahoo that data mine their clients information for advertising purposes (all of which is voluntarily agreed to by clients under the terms of service, which is what they are required to tick off on before setting up an account). I feel that definition is too vague, broad and permissive when it comes to GCSB powers of electronic surveillance. My bottom line is that a private electronic communication is akin to a dinner table conversation: that which a person has a reasonable expectation will not be repeated or listened to by people outside of the immediate context in which it was made.  I noted that personal data mining for advertising purposes was a bit different than the State doing so for security purposes–especially when it does so without consent (since I doubt many people ticked a box allowing the GCSB or other intelligence agencies to monitor their private communications).

If the authorities cannot read our snail mail letters without a warrant or consent, I do not believe that they can read our electronic mail without such either. That still leaves the issue of meta-data and bulk collection, but as I have written before, I do not believe that the latter is equivalent to mass surveillance for technical as well as legal reasons.

With regard to legislation, I suggested that the Search and Surveillance Act needs to be narrowed because it has been expanded too much as a result of post 9/11 hysteria. I also suggested that the GCSB Act be reviewed and narrowed with regards to its powers of domestic espionage. Although I have no real problem with its “Assistance” role when it comes to aiding the NZSIS or Police on home soil, and fully understand that the Act needed to be upgraded to cope with cyber espionage, crime and warfare, I believe that its powers of warrantless surveillance on NZ soil are too broad and intrusive. Narrowing the GCSB Act would still allow the GCSB to engage in defensive measures and counter-espionage with or without the help of its sister agencies, but it would prevent it from conducting offensive operations against NZ domestic targets without a warrant.

Most of what I had to say about legislation consisted of a proposal that the NZSIS Act be amended so that it is stripped of its domestic espionage and security vetting functions. Those should be moved to the NZ Police (who need to be resourced accordingly), since the Police already do much domestic spying and background checks. Perhaps even an FBI or MI5-type civilian domestic espionage agency could be created that answers directly to Crown Law if not the Attorney General (fully understanding the political nature of the latter). The reason for this proposal is that as things stand the NZSIS does foreign human intelligence gathering, domestic human intelligence gathering, counter-espionage and security vetting. An agency of 300 people (counting clerical staff) might be able to do one, perhaps two of these tasks adequately, but it simply cannot do all four anywhere close to efficiently or effectively. Since the type of signal and technical intelligence collected by the GCSB and its foreign partners can only paint part of any given intelligence picture, it behooves the NZSIS to complement that with an autonomous human intelligence capability that focuses on areas of foreign policy priority or concern. It is important to know about the context–as in culture, mores, norms, personalities, interests and attendant modes of behaviour–in which signals and technical intelligence is obtained, and that should be done independently by NZ in areas of priority interest (say, the South Pacific).

In terms of oversight I noted the gross inadequacy of the current “arrangements.” I suggested that there  needs to be better parliamentary and judicial oversight of the NZIC, and that this has to be proactive as well as retroactive in nature. If I was running the show I would leave the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IG) as the in-house executive branch oversight mechanism, perhaps by re-locating the IG office to Crown Law jurisdiction and out of the immediate control (via resourcing) of the NZIC and Prime Minister’s office (DPMC). I also have little issue with the current state of the Commissioner of Warrants and Minister of Intelligence and Security signing off on warrants.

Yet I spent considerable time explaining how important a division of powers is when it comes to intelligence oversight in order to avoid bureaucratic “capture” by the NZIC. I proposed that a dedicated parliamentary committee on Intelligence and Security be created, as an agency of parliament with its own permanent staff, that would have proactive and retroactive powers of compulsion under oath. This agency would serve as the non-partisan, apolitical support base for the Select Committee on Intelligence and Security comprised of politicians, and that the Select Committee include members from all parties that receive over 5 percent in the previous election distributed proportionally, with the PM serving as the tie-breaking vote.

Both the Select Committee and permanent staff would have the ability to investigate operational matters and scrutinise classified material rather than rely on unclassified summaries provided by the Directors of the GCSB, NZSIS and other intelligence shops like the NAB. This would require them to sign secrecy oaths but so be it–if they want to sit at the table that is the price the politicians will have to pay (the permanent staff of the committee will of course have been security vetted in order to receive clearance to handle classified material). I fully realise that all of this will cost money and encounter bureaucratic and political resistance, but I think it is very important to undertake these reforms in order to prevent the type of NZIC excesses that have brought us to the current moment.

In order to resolve disagreements  and arbitrate disputes between the NZIC, the IG and parliamentary committee on matters of lawful and unlawful NZIC activities, I suggested that an intelligence tribunal or juridical review panel be formed using High Court justices, QCs or other distinguished jurists. This would serve as the court of last recourse and final appeal on all matters pertaining to the legality of NZIC operations.

Finally, I reiterated my belief that Edward Snowden provided NZ with the opportunity to re-negotiate some of the terms of agreement with its 5 Eyes partners. These will not disrupt the core of the agreement, much less result in NZ’s exit from 5 Eyes. But it could allow NZ to withdraw from conducting front-line offensive intelligence operations against states that have great leverage on it, be it in trade or other areas vital to NZ’s well-being. Thus, for example, NZ could ask to not take the lead in spying on the Chinese in the South Pacific simply because if that were to be made public the Chinese would have to respond even if just to save face (and I believe that the need to respond involves a heck of a lot more than matters of national pride or “honour”). The PRC cannot retaliate to any punishing extent against the other 5 Eye partners given the strategic leverage these have relative to it. But little ‘ole NZ is very vulnerable on that score and could be an easy whipping boy for the Chinese should they want to get the message out that impudent small nations mess with it at their peril.

This re-negotiation does not preclude from NZ doing defensive spying and counter-espionage against any state or non-state actor. But it keeps NZ out of the line of fire of aggrieved large powers should the nature and extent of 5 Eyes espionage continue to be publicly exposed thanks to the Snowden material.

The response of the committee was polite but succinct: the last suggestion was beyond their terms of reference.


Accountability versus Acceptable Corruption.

datePosted on 16:08, September 4th, 2014 by Pablo

During the 25 years I was in academia I wrote a fair bit on the subjects of democracy and democratisation, both in theory and in practice. I continued in that vein in some of my blogging on this site, including the 5 part series on  deconstructing democracy in 2009. As part of my ruminations, I have delved from time to time into the subject of democratic accountability, specifically its vertical and horizontal dimensions, both of which are absolute requirements for the health of liberal democracy. Among other things and contrary to what some pundits might say, my understanding of the two dimensions of democratic accountability is what allows me to state categorically that dirty politics such as that practiced by the National Party’s vicious wing is not inherent to democracy

Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of the governors to the governed. The signal feature of this dimension are elections of those who govern, but also include the ability of the electorate to demand review, recall or sanction of non-elected officials such as those in the judiciary and civil service if and when their actions become to egregious or are ignored by the other branches of government. There a variety of methods with which to do so, but that requires a degree of horizontal accountability as well. In any event vertical accountability is aided by a robust, critical and independent media that draws public attention to what otherwise might be quiet indiscretions by those in office.

Here is where horizontal accountability comes in. Each branch of government is formally accountable to the others. In the event of malfeasance in one branch the other branches have a right and indeed duty to independently investigate any potential wrong doing. They must maintain a degree of institutional autonomy in order to do so, because otherwise they cannot exercise the degree of inquisitorial independence that is required for transparency and integrity to obtain.

It is this dimension where New Zealand appears deficient, and the proof of that is the inquiry that the Prime Minister has ordered into Judith Collins use of a public servant’s personal information. In this case the PM gets to frame the terms of reference of the inquiry, and has done so in way that assures that Collins will be exonerated. In political circles this might be called narrowing the focus to what is strictly illegal, but in common parlance it is known as acceptable corruption.

The inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the SIS into the hasty OIA release of sensitive SIS documents to a blogger linked to the government is more independent and therefore more transparent and honest, assuming that the IG does her job correctly.

But the problem remains that horizontal accountability in NZ is nowhere what it should be. Parliamentary committees are dominated by the government and often have limited inquisitorial powers. Crown Law has, time and time again, adjusted its prosecution priorities to accord more closely with government interests (recall the time and cost of the Zaoui and Urewera prosecutions, both of which ultimately reduced to far less than the government initially alleged). Some judges are said to lean politically one way or another when it comes to examining government behaviour.

Less we think that this overly friendly relationship between government and prosecutors be exclusive to National, let’s remember that the two prosecutions cited above began (and in Zaoui’s case ended) under the 5th Labour government.

Some say that the lack of a written constitution impedes the full exercise of horizontal accountability in NZ. Perhaps that is so but I also think that it is a product of habitual practice in a small country, where the political elites are for the most part a relatively small club that play by their own informal rules as much as they do by the law. Those in government are given fairly broad license when it comes to how they account for their actions to the other branches. Those in opposition wait for their turn in office to do the same. The judiciary and public bureaucracy publicly maintain their independence but at a senior level they play close attention to the interests of the government of the day.

Voters give a veneer of vertical accountability to the status quo by turning out for elections. Their susceptibility to spin and deflection makes them targets of the dirtier machinations of politicians, and in the absence of genuine horizontal accountability counter-weights that is all that is needed to govern. In such a context governance is all about bread and circus, or in the NZ case, pies and rugby. The fact that National has not suffered much in pre-election polling pretty much confirms this truth.

It can be argued that this is politics as usual, in the form of one hand washing the other in the interest of political stability. Indeed, all of this is perfectly acceptable, except that it is also perfectly, albeit not by legal definition, corrupt. But what is wrong with a little acceptable corruption amongst political friends so long as the public does not care and there are no real institutional checks on what they do so long as they do it quietly?

I could be wrong on this and John Key is just being a jerk when it comes to the terms of the Collins inquiry.  But something tells me that the rot runs much deeper, and it will not stop should he and his nasty pack of party colleagues be voted out of office later this month.

Analysis Link: Democratic intelligence oversight.

datePosted on 16:09, May 3rd, 2014 by Pablo

The Snowden revelations have brought to the fore the issue of oversight and accountability on the part of intelligence agencies in democracies. In this analytic brief I outline ideal type principles and practicalities of democratic intelligence oversight. The idea is to offer a conceptual basis for understanding how democratic intelligence oversight should work with an eye to promoting practical reforms to that end.

Trust in spies.

datePosted on 16:54, April 24th, 2013 by Pablo

A recent TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed that 32 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, 32 percent had much or complete trust in those agencies, and 33 percent were lukewarm either way (with 3 percent undecided). That means that 65 percent of respondents were less than strongly trusting of New Zealand’s spies. This is a remarkable degree of public skepticism of intelligence organizations in a democracy.

The Prime Minister has said that the New Zealand intelligence community has to work hard to regain public trust. He is wrong, or is just being politically polite.

Unlike agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Police, Fire Service, Health Boards, WINZ and Education, which provide direct goods and services to the public and which depend on public trust in order to operate efficiently (notwithstanding the well-known problems afflicting at least some of these “direct provision” agencies), the intelligence community need not concern itself with expressions of public trust. That is because the service that intelligence agencies provide as ostensibly commonweal organizations (i.e. ones that serve the universal public interest), although for the general good in the last instance (at least theoretically), is not provided directly or even openly. Instead, the intelligence agencies answer to the government of the day as the representative of the public will and provide their collection and analysis skills to the government for the national good as defined by their charter and the government’s interpretation of it.  They do not need the public’s trust in order to operate efficiently because most of what they do is away from the public eye.

Thus, in the first instance, the trust of the government is what matters for the spies. In this the intelligence community has an advantage because politicians elected into government are generally not conversant with intelligence matters and therefore are susceptible to espionage agency “capture:” the information that the spies provide gives the political elite a privileged window on the world, so they are most often reluctant to critically dispute the view.

More importantly, New Zealand’s intelligence sharing partners must have strong levels of trust in its spies. Without that, New Zealand’s access to allied intelligence sharing may suffer because foreign partners will be reluctant to risk placing sensitive information in the hands of untrustworthy people. The saving grace for New Zealand’s spies is that the years of relationship-building with its intelligence partners could allay the latter’s fears of incompetence or unprofessionalism on the part of the former.

On the other hand, even long standing relationships can be damaged by breaches of trust. This could well be the case in the wake of the Dotcom scandal, where the case against the internet magnate is crumbling in light of disclosures of illegal warrantless wiretapping by the GCSB (which makes evidence collected by those wiretaps inadmissible). Between the GCSB’s failures to follow its own basic protocols with regards to eavesdropping requests from sister agencies, coupled with the over the top nature of the raids on Dotcom’s residence (which included the presence of armed FBI agents and the detention of women and children by armed police), it is unlikely that any NZ judge will grant the US extradition request. That means time and resources spent by the US and NZ on pursuing the case against Dotcom will be for naught.  The GCSB failings are bound to be noted by New Zealand’s intelligence partners, who will wonder about the assurances given by the GCSB and Police (and more than likely the SIS) that their course of action would not be subject to legal challenge or public scrutiny.

The bottom line is one of vertical and horizontal accountability. In democracies, governments are held accountable by the electorate (expressed both individually and collectively). That is the vertical dimension of accountability. Under that government, public agencies are accountable to each other via a system of checks and balances. That is the horizontal dimension of democratic accountability, which is used to cultivate the public trust that is key to vertical accountability.

In New Zealand there is very little horizontal accountability between the intelligence community and other parts of government, to include parliament and the judiciary (and perhaps even the executive in specific instances). This makes its agents (to include the GCSB and SIS) even less vertically accountable than in most liberal democracies, where oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms are much better developed.

As a nation-state New Zealand is also accountable to its diplomatic and security partners. That is another facet of horizontal accountability, writ large. New Zealand’s foreign partners must have trust in its diplomatic, military and espionage agencies in order for their mutual relationships to prosper. So long as they do, domestic trust is of secondary importance. But for that to happen, New Zealand’s intelligence community must be able to deliver on what it promises, which means that it must offer iron-clad guarantees that its activities will not be the subject of contentious public or political debate that can jeopardize ongoing intelligence collection and analysis operations

Thus, on the one hand, the poll results are not as worrisome for the government as may appear at first glance. So long as the New Zealand intelligence community and its component parts have the trust of its allies, then it will suffer no harm as a result of the public loss of faith in it. But should foreign partners come anywhere close to exhibiting the flat bell curve of trust that characterizes the results of the TVNZ survey, then New Zealand could well find itself excluded from at least some of the sensitive intelligence flows that are the ostensible reason for its participation in the Echelon/Five Eyes network, to say nothing of the wider intelligence community of which it is part.

As for the domestic side of the equation: a nation of sheep is led by the sheep dog.  The sheep dog is the government, of which intelligence agencies are part. The shepherd is the institutional system of checks and balances that govern intelligence gathering and analysis, to which the government of the moment is subject. Absent such effective oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms, sheep are always at the mercy of an unrestrained and unaccountable dog.


One thing has become clear after the revelations of multiple New Zealand intelligence agency failures, malfeasance and incompetence over the past few years. That is what happens when there is no effective oversight on, or accountability by those agencies. As things stand the Prime Minster is the sole oversight on New Zealand’s intelligence community. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee is a toothless wonder that gets semi-regular general briefings on intelligence matters (at a rate of less than once a month), and the inspector general (IG) of intelligence–the person who is supposed to independently investigate the actions of the intelligence community–is currently a geriatric former judge who has the equivalent of a .5 full time employee and whose office and resources are provided by the agencies he is supposed to independently assess. His predecessor, another retired judge, resigned under a cloud brought about by the Ahmed Zaoui political asylum  case, where the Security Intelligence Services (SIS)  was shown to have clearly manipulated analysis of intelligence flows derived from foreign partners and the IG demonstrated bias in favor of  the SIS version  of events prior to releasing his findings.

Add to that the fact that the IG has limited powers of investigation and a parliamentary committee that cannot be told about operational matters and has no powers to subpoena or authority to force testimony under oath, and what you have is a recipe for institutional “stretch:” the tendency of institutions to exceed and play loose with the rules, laws and regulations governing their charter in the absence of effective oversight and accountability. That has become glaring apparent in recent weeks.

The problem is somewhat mitigated when the Prime Minister is a hands-on type of manager who is knowledgeable about intelligence matters, to include methods of collection and analysis. Although it raises the possibility of PM misuse of intelligence flows for political purposes, it does have the merit of forcing intelligence officials to be accountable to someone. However, if the PM is disinterested, ignorant or laissez-faire in managerial approach to intelligence matters, then the possibility of intelligence agency institutional stretch becomes quite real, as we have now seen.

Given the revelations about the GCSB and prior instances of SIS “stretch,” the time is now perfect for a reform of the intelligence oversight apparatus. Although the PM can and should remain as the minister for intelligence and security, the parliamentary committee needs to be granted effective and binding oversight authority that includes powers to investigate operational issues and force intelligence agency officials of all ranks  to respond under oath to questions about the how, when and why of specific intelligence matters. Likewise, the Inspector General’s position needs to be expanded into a three person panel that includes a mix of people with experience in handling sensitive information and knowledge of how intelligence collection and analysis works, and who answer to and are resourced by parliament rather than the PM and SIS, respectively.

Unchecked executive oversight of intelligence agencies is prone to what might be called the authoritarian tendency (by which elected executives assume quasi-dictatorial powers of managerial control), and is in fact the mark of many authoritarian regimes. This avoids the system of checks and balances that is not only a hallmark of democratic political systems, but of their institutional component as well. The issue, as the intelligence community well knows, is about triangulation: there needs to be at least three independent (if overlapped) sources of critical institutional scrutiny for information or oversight to be validated (which are manifest in policy or administrative decisions).

That system of institutional checks and balances is what provides oversight and promotes accountability within public bureaucracies as a whole. Such accountability is horizontal–between different public agencies such as the judiciary and security apparatus–as well as vertical (where public agencies answer to political authorities separated into legislative and executive components). The institutionalized oversight aggregate mitigates against public agency stretch and political manipulation.

Having one individual, whatever his or her persuasion with regard to issues of intelligence collection, analysis and political impact (something driven by the political context of the moment, including  the relationship between government and opposition and the  personal and partisan implications of any given decision regarding security and intelligence) is, in a democracy, antithetical. In mature democracies policy decisions are not individualized; they are institutionalized and subject to effective oversight.

This is simply a matter of democratic good practice. Effective, independent oversight not only keeps intelligence agencies honest and prevents institutional stretch. It reassure the voting public that the larger common interest, rather than narrow political, diplomatic or corporate concerns, are served by the intelligence and security agencies charged with defending the commonweal.

Len Brown shows how it’s done

datePosted on 09:23, June 16th, 2010 by Lew

I don’t know much about Manukau mayor and Auckland Supercity mayoral candidate Len Brown, but this I do know: the guy has fire in his belly, and is prepared to stand and be judged by the authorities and his constituents.

This speech (audio, or edited video here if you can get it to work) is old-fashioned public-sphere politics — both rhetorical and substantive — done properly. He admits misusing his council credit card, calls in the highest authority in the land to investigate it, and says let the cards fall as they may.

This is an object lesson on accountability and due process for Chris Carter. Two senior progressive politicians, both fighting for their political lives over the same issue, and two radically different approaches. Where Carter has recoiled from public scrutiny and repeately refused to take any responsibility for his wrongdoing, Brown has done the opposite, calling for the highest standard of oversight and demonstrating that he will accept its outcome. He has both appealed to the values and culture of liberal democracy in asking that assessments be made on the substance of the allegations against him, and appealed to liberal democracy’s civic institutions to provide the best possible basis for that judgement.

Win or lose the election, Brown has acted with integrity and demonstrated his commitment to democracy, and as far as that goes, he’s already beaten Carter hands-down. But even in terms of electoral advantage, he has played a huge liability into a potential — depending on what the A-G’s investigation shows up — advantage. While such heartfelt contrition is a poor substitute for not having done wrong in the first place, the electorate likes a candidate who is prepared to stand up and be counted like this, and moreover, it tends to like a candidate whose commitment to the job is as strong as Brown’s clearly is. So this mayoral race just got interesting.


Progressive bills and freedom of information

datePosted on 09:22, February 17th, 2009 by Anita

No Right Turn is running a wiki for the development of Progressive bills, it’s a great opportunity to figure out some progressive possibilities and get them happening. So if there’s any way you’d like to make NZ more progressive, and you can imagine it being achieved through a private members bill this is the place for you! :)

I”m currently struggling with how to improve our freedom of information legislation, the Mexican model has some real possibilities, but it’s not as easy as one might hope.

My goal is two fold, firstly to extend the amount of information made available (extending it to Parliament and so on) and secondly to make it harder for agencies to game.

My experience with OIAs is that some agencies are lovely, when others require chasing, more chasing before they provide incomplete and overdue responses (at which point the Ombudsmen can sort it out), but it makes a mockery of the current rules, and is unreasonably time and energy intensive. I’m not sure whether legislative change would fix it, or whether a fundamental cultural change is required

The principle underpinning freedom of information is that it’s our information and our government; and that transparency increases justice, fairness and accountability, yet many agencies behave as if they have a right to secrecy and evasion. What would change the attitude?