Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Confronting executive branch excess.

datePosted on 12:16, October 14th, 2015 by Pablo

Recent court victories by Jane Kelsey and Jon Stephenson have vindicated those who have long complained about the culture of excess that permeates the National government’s cabinet. Excess and abuse of authority preceded the current government but this one has taken the practice to art form. It has resulted in allegations of corruption and behaviour such as that outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, and it has compromised the integrity of the DPMC, GCSB, NZDF, Ombudsman and SIS in doing so. If it did not openly encourage, at a minimum it facilitated managerial excess in agencies “overseen” by a variety of ministerial portfolios. The combination of ministerial and managerial excess–executive excess, to re-coin the phrase–is malignant in a liberal democracy.

Apparently the courts, or perhaps better said, two High Court judges, have caught on to the problem. Although the reasoning of the judge that forced the Stephenson settlement has not been made public, the judge in the Kelsey versus Groser case made abundantly clear that the “unlawful” behaviour exhibited by Groser and his staff included the Office of the Ombudsman as well as abuse of process. Likewise, the settlement of the Stephenson case involved not only a payment but a retraction and statement of regret by the NZDF as an institution, rather than by the command officer who was the subject of the defamation lawsuit. That suggests that more than one individual and branch of government may have had a hand in slandering Mr. Stephenson. Yet no independent review of their actions has been done.

There are other instances where the independence and integrity of reviewing agencies have come into question. Think of the Police Complaints Authority and the skepticism with which its findings are held. Think of past findings (such as during the Zaoui case) by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Think of the way Crown Law has behaved in several high profile politically charged cases. Although adjustments have been made to some oversight agencies like the IGSI and not all oversight agencies are uniformly compromised, there appears to be a necrosis spreading across the system of institutional checks and balances in Aotearoa.

Those who regularly submit Official Information Act (OIA) requests will already know that the process is routinely abused, especially but not exclusively by security services. Delays beyond the mandated time frame for response are common. Censoring of material prior to release is common. So is the Ombudsman’s practice of upholding decisions to withhold or censor material on broadly defined national security grounds. Cynics might say that is a case of one hand washing the other. Others might go further and say that the problem is systemic rather than random and occasional. However skepticism is voiced, there is a sense that when it comes to the Ombudsman and other oversight agencies, they are more about whitewashing than honest scrutiny.

This again raises the issue of politically neutral, independent and transparent oversight. I have written a fair bit on the need for independent oversight of intelligence agencies above and beyond the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Commissioner of Warrants and current Select Committee on Intelligence and Security. I have not written about the problems with the Office of the Ombudsman and treatment of OIAs. But it should be clear by now that when it comes to democratic oversight of executive departments and those that lead them, New Zealand is hollow at its core.

Readers may recall that I have written about horizontal and vertical accountability in the democratic state. This academic concept finds real meaning in this case. Beyond the problem of vertical accountability in a country where electoral preferences are the subject of poll-driven media manipulation by government PR agents, elite cronyism is the norm and where civil society organisations are weak in the face of that, there is a serious lack of horizontal accountability in New Zealand. Agencies such as the Ombudsman that are entrusted with overseeing the behaviour of politicians and senior state managers  are seemingly subordinate (or at least submissive) to them. With some notable exceptions, when it comes to executive excess even the courts appear to have become as much instruments as they are arbiters of government policy and behaviour.

The first question that has to be asked is when does ministerial skirting or manipulation of the rules rise to the level of criminal offence? Is the complicity of more than one government entity (say, MFAT and the Ombudsman) in circumventing or obstructing OIA requests a trigger for a criminal investigation?  If not, what is? If so, who prosecutes the offence given current institutional arrangements?

There are a number of reviews and investigations of government agencies already underway. There are Royal Commissions on matters of policy. Private prosecutions are possible. Constitutional experts may know the answer, but I wonder if there also is an overarching investigatory body or process with legal authority that can look into the system of institutional (horizontal)  accountability and oversight mechanisms currently operative in the country. I ask because from where I sit the system looks broken.

Some questions about the Stephenson case.

datePosted on 13:53, October 3rd, 2015 by Pablo

Although it has been shamefully underreported by major media outlets in NZ, war correspondent Jon Stephenson has won his defamation case against the NZDF by forcing a settlement that involves significant compensation and an admission by the military that its defamatory statements about Mr. Stephenson were indeed untrue. It remains to be seen if the Prime Minister will do the same, since he opined at the time the controversy erupted over Mr. Stephenson’s internationally recognised article “Eyes Wide Shut” in Metro Magazine (May 2011) that Mr. Stephenson was, to paraphrase closely, “unstable” as well as “unreliable.” That has been proven to be false and Mr. Key knew at the time he uttered his comments that they were untrue. Let us be clear: Mr. Stephenson may be driven, but unlike his main accusers when it comes to reporting on the NZDF he is by no means unreliable or a liar.

I wrote the following as a comment over at The Standard but feel that it is worth sharing here:

“I suspect that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unethical behaviour of the NZDF and political leadership in this affair. Remember that there is a MoD involved and the respective ministers then and now (Coleman and Brownlee). There are more officers involved than retired generals Rhys Jones and Mateparae, some who currently hold senior positions within the NZDF. There is the behaviour of Crown Law to consider. There is the slander on Jon’s character uttered by the PM.

I can only hope that the terms of the settlement do not prevent Jon from publishing more details of his case, including the way in which the legal process unfolded, the obstacles to discovery encountered, and the extra-curriculars surrounding them.

Whatever happens, for once in a long time one of the genuine good guys won. Were it that other members of the press corps (Nicky Hager excepted) had the integrity and courage exhibited by Jon both in the field as well as on the home front.

Kia kaha Jon!”

Beyond what I have written above, there are some other questions that arise from this saga.

For example, in 2013 Nicky Hager revealed that the NZDF electronically spied on Mr. Stephenson in 2012 using NSA, GCSB and SIS assets while he was in Afghanistan. At the same time an internal Defense manual was leaked to the media that identified “certain investigative journalists” as hostile subversion threats requiring counteraction because they might obtain politically sensitive information (one does not have to have much imagination in order to figure out who they are referring to). In parallel, reports emerged that NZDF officials were sharing their views of Mr. Stephenson with Afghan counterparts, referring to him in the same derogatory terms and implying that his work was traitorous or treasonous.

Taken together, both the spying on Mr. Stephenson and the characterisation of him passed on to NZDF Afghan allies can be seen as a means of counteracting his reporting. But if so, what national security threat did he really pose? Is politically sensitive information necessarily a threat to national security or is merely a threat to the political actors being reported on? Is intimidation part of what the NZDF considers to be proper counteraction when it comes to journalists plying their trade in a war zone? And since any counteraction or counter-intelligence operations had to be cleared and authorised by the NZDF and political leadership, were both of the types used against Mr. Stephenson authorised by then NZDF Chief Lieutenant General Richard Rhys Jones and/or Mr. Key? They deny doing so but if that is true, who did and how was it passed down the chain of command to the field commanders in Afghanistan (because, at a minimum, the order to “counter” Mr. Stephenson could be construed as illegal and therefore challengeable–but it never was).

Leaving aside the legitimate role of independent journalism in a democracy in holding policy makers–including military leaders–to account, what does it say about the NZDF that it sees such work as subversive? More alarmingly, if the reports are true, what exactly did the NZDF leadership hope to accomplish by telling Afghans, while Mr. Stephenson was in Afghanistan, that he was a threat to them?

Then there is the issue of the lie. General Rhys Jones claimed that, contrary to what was written in his story, Mr. Stephenson never visited the base in which the Crisis Response Unit (to which NZ SAS were attached) was located and did not talk to its commander. That was a direct challenge to Mr. Stephenson’s journalistic integrity. Mr. Stephenson sued for defamation and during the first trial (which bizarrely ended in a hung jury) the NZDF and Rhys Jones himself admitted that Mr. Stephenson’s version was true.

So why didn’t the trial stop right there? The moment the truth of Mr. Stephenson’s story was admitted by Rhys Jones, it was supposed to be game, set and match to the journalist. But instead the Crown spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars continuing to litigate in that trial and then the follow-up court process that was ended by the recently announced settlement. Why so?

The answer to the last questions seems to be that, like in the Zaoui and Urewera 18 case, the Crown prefers to bleed its adversaries emotionally and financially even when it knows that it can not win. This death by a thousand cuts approach, courtesy of the taxpayers largesse, is as unethical as it is cynical and undermines the belief that justice in New Zealand is blind and universal.

There are many other questions that need to be answered about the treatment of Mr. Stephenson. Is it true that media outlets were pressured to not accept his work on penalty of getting the cold shoulder from the government? Did NZDF officials physically threaten Mr. Stephenson in New Zealand? Did the intelligence services spy on Mr. Stephenson above and beyond what was reported by Mr. Hager, both at home and abroad, and are they doing so now, and on what grounds if so? Did NZDF and/or MoD and/or PMDC and/or Crown Law officials conspire, either solely or together,  to cover up, obstruct, alter, destroy or otherwise impede the release of evidence to Mr. Stephenson’s lawyers at any point in the legal proceedings?

My sincere hope is that the settlement agreed to by Mr. Stephenson and NZDF does not preclude the former from writing about his experiences with the NZDF, both in Afghanistan and during the trials. Hopefully he will be able to answer some of the questions I have posed above. I say this because something stinks about the way this affair has been handled at the highest levels of government, which is not only a stain on the individuals involved but a direct affront to basic tenets of liberal democracy.

Go The Donald!

datePosted on 15:25, September 1st, 2015 by Pablo

I am lucky to be able to vote in the US as well as NZ, and very much relish the opportunity in both countries. In the US I am registered as a voter in Florida, which is a closed primary state. “Closed” primary states are those in which a voter has to declare a party preference prior to the primaries in order to vote in them. For years before and after I established a residence in Florida I listed my political affiliation as “Independent,” something that allowed me to choose a primary to vote in the “open” primary states where voting preferences did not have to be declared prior to primary season (they only have to be declared and ticked off on the day at the balloting station). In 2008 I decided to switch my declared affiliation to Democrat so that I could vote in the Florida Democratic Party primary given that not only were Obama and Hillary running for president, but there were races for the US House, Senate and local seats that needed to see Republicans defeated.

This year I am going to switch affiliation to Republican. Why? Because that way I can vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary in the hope that he makes it to the GOP National Convention next July. It has been a very long time since either major party has had a brokered convention where several candidates are in the running for the presidential nomination, and should The Donald survive until then the craziness will be well and truly on. Since he is totally unqualified to be dog catcher much less president and unelectable in the general election, it is my sincere hope that he hangs in all the way to the convention and either becomes the GOP candidate, determines who is, or runs a third party candidacy after losing out in the convention to one of the others. The only thing better would be for Kanye to join that gaggle of fools and trolls but, alas, he is going to wait until 2020 to run.

Already The Donald has become to the GOP what Miley Cyrus is to pop muzak: a wrecking ball. The Republican National Committee must be choking on their Cohibas (illegal until the recent diplomatic reopening with Cuba) and dying a slow death every time he speaks or when they read the polls. Because let us be clear: Trump appeals to the stupidest, xenophobic, economically illiterate, racist, bigoted, misogynist, white cultural supremacist elements in US society. He follows in a long line of populist demagogues that extends back through Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, George Wallace and Huey Long.  He may purport to speak unvarnished truth but in fact what he says is most often non-sensical rubbish that fails to address reality much less the intricacies of democratic governance with a division of powers: he is going to “do the deal” with whomever; most Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; he will “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” (along 1,900 miles of topographically challenging terrain that includes numerous sensitive ecological zones and wildlife corridors); he will deport “illegals ” and their “anchor babies,”  (all 14 million of them); he will simultaneously confront China, Iran and Russia; he will make the US military “great” again so that no one will “mess” with it (forgetting that the US spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined–US$610 billion or 20 percent of US federal spending and 3.7 percent of GDP–and still has people “messing” with it); he will provide better women’s health care in spite of gutting Planned Parenthood and removing health care for “alien” women because he “cherishes” women in general (ignoring the fact that two of his wives were not citizens when he married them). Everyone in politics but him are incompetent or idiots. His speeches are endless repeats of these and other inane mantras interspersed with self-congratulatory self-praise and personal insults directed at his rivals, all other politicians and anyone who disagrees with him.

The truth is that he has no plan, has no policy agenda, has no friggin’ clue what it is like to deal with the complex issues that confront the US. And that is why the rednecks and dimwits like him. He makes the hard seem easy.

What is great about this is that he is forcing the other GOP candidates to respond to him, and they have stepped up to the plate in predictable style. Among other gems, Ben Carson (the neurosurgeon) says homosexuality is a choice because men go to prison straight and come out gay; Scott Walker just suggested that building a 3,987 mile wall on the Canadian border is worth looking into; Jeb Bush wants to abolish Planned Parenthood and believes that the invasion of Iraq “turned out well;” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio want walls and deportations even though they are children of recent immigrants who were legally documented after, not before their arrivals. They all claim that the US military and its veterans have been crippled by Obama even though it was Bush 43 who ordered them into two simultaneous wars while cutting back veterans benefits as well as the budget for post-combat trauma rehabilitation. They all claim that ISIS is an Obama invention even though it was Dubya’s purge of Saddam’s army that provided the leadership material for what became ISIS’s fighting forces. They all oppose gun control and climate change science and all support hacking, fracking, drilling and spilling regardless of environmental consequence. They all oppose abortion and gay marriage even if some of their past records indicate otherwise. The list of idiocy goes on but should not surprising given that Rick Perry, Rich Santorum, Mike Huckabee and several snivelling weasels remain in contention.

As things stand now, the GOP primary is a circus. There may not be any juggling or animal acts, but there sure are a lot of clowns, and The Donald is the ringmaster. Even if the number of viable candidates drops to 2 or 3 by the time of the GOP convention, it will be Trump who sets the Right’s narrative for the general election. Yippee!

It looks like the US media has decided to sit back and watch the circus unfold. Fox News tried to undermine him in the first debate that it aired, but his nasty personal attacks on the female panelist only strengthened his support among the troglodyte crowd and has forced Fox to backtrack and give him coverage as the Party favourite. All other outlets are content to watch the train wreck proceed while offering the mediocre tedium that passes for informed analysis by the usual spectrum of pundits. As a result, the GOP favourite, Jeb Bush (or “Mr. Low Energy,” as The Donald calls him) has seen his coverage slip to the sidelines along with the other yokels. Likewise, for all of the Fox News chest beating, Hillary Clinton is getting a general pass by the press because her sins are run of the mill when it comes to DC politics and her campaign is about practicable policy, not theatrics.

The key to the outcome will be seen in January when the first GOP primaries are held. If The Donald does well in them he will be hard to stop. So the RNC has to find a way to do him in either before then or to go all out nuclear on him should he prevail in Iowa or New Hampshire. That is when the questions about his draft dodging, drug use, association with organised crime, commercial racism, trust fund baby status, adultery, academic record embellishment and a host of other peccadilloes and not-so-small sins will find their way into the mainstream media. But even then he may be too big a juggernaut to derail in time for the GOP to coalesce around another candidate who may stand a chance in the general election.

I cannot begin to express how delighted I am to watch this unfold. The Donald may well force the GOP to split into two, with the Tea Baggers on one side and the corporate sponsors on the other.

Either way, he is single-handedly killing the US Right as a unified political force.

For that I have one thing to say: Go The Donald!

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.


The hall echoed with the sound of apathy.

datePosted on 16:50, August 7th, 2015 by Pablo

I attended the Auckland public meeting on the Intelligence Review organised by the NZ Council on Civil Liberties and a coalition of activist groups under the “Get Smart” banner. The idea was to encourage the public to join in submitting a “People’s Review” of the NZ intelligence community that would go beyond the rather narrow terms of reference of the formal Review undertaken by Michael Cullen and Patsy Reddy. The meeting was held in a inner suburb library hall at 6:30 on a Thursday night. It had the makings of a stirring call to popular participation and civic action.

Counting myself, a total of ten people showed up to listen to the speakers and debate issues relevant to the Review. The speakers spoke about the evils and sins of the CIA, GCSB and SIS at home and abroad, about the dangers of recent expansions of spy agencies powers and related legislation such as the hastily passed foreign fighters bill, and about the patently bogus questions asked on the public submission forms for the Review (such as asking if people felt that the government should protect them from terrorism). But truth be told, the empty hall echoed with the sound of apathy. Not so much from those of us who attended and spoke, but from those who did not.

In any event it was a pretty dreary and dispiriting affair. Nowhere to be seen were those who championed Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” or the voluminous clouds of conspiracy-mongering that went with it.  From what I could tell, there was no one from UNITE, MANA, Internet Party, GPJA or any other activist group other than the Communist League. The usual assortment of Left pundits and party progressives, from the bombastic to the erudite, were nowhere to be seen. It was so bad, even Penny Bright did not show up.

I was told that meetings in Christchurch and Wellington were better attended, but from the looks of the Auckland gathering the issue of how, why and when the NZ intelligence community does what it does is no longer of import to local chattering classes, much less the fair minded among them.

I sure hope that I am wrong. I suggested at the meeting that a two pronged approach to the Review needed to be undertaken. On the one hand, the broad questioning of the intelligence community outlined in the terms of the People’s Review is necessary for framing the larger counter-narrative to the official lines spun upon us about the value and benefits of NZ’s intelligence operations. On the other hand, detailed, sophisticated and technical submissions sharply focused on the terms of reference are needed to prevent Cullen and Reddy from claiming that no practicable or actionable information was obtained from the submissions. I offered some thoughts on the need for better intelligence oversight mechanisms and how they could pave the way for further reforms of the intelligence community and legal frameworks governing it.

My comments were preceded by those of a fellow who spoke of spying on Maori at TVNZ. I was followed by a fellow from the Communist League. At that point it was time to take my 18 year old cousin in law back to dinner because even his eyes were rolling in the back of his head.

If this meeting is symptomatic of the state of the NZ Left, then it is well and truly  screwed. Or perhaps it is just a Jafa thing.

Loansharking Greece and odious debt.

datePosted on 10:57, July 7th, 2015 by Pablo

I do not purport to be an economist nor would I ever want to be. Theirs is a world of implicit assumptions and pseudoscience that only a brave few have challenged from within. However, theirs is also a discipline that in theory and practice can shape the fate of millions, which is why I pay more than casual attention to them. Thus it is that I came to ponder the financial situation in Greece, a place that I lived in in 2010 at the start of its downward slope towards the current moment (my wife has researched and written on matters of Greek political economy and I have an interest in Greek civil-military relations, so our stay was mutually beneficial). Here is my non-expert view of things.

When lenders charge interest on principal loaned, they prefer to have the interest paid rather than the principal. This loan repayment rationale, which is true for states, firms and individuals, keeps the debtor beholden to the lender so long as the principal remains unpaid. Over time, the interest accrued can well exceed the amount lent, which is perfectly fine from the lenders point of view but keeps the debtor permanently saddled in a cycle of interest payment unless the debtor earns additional income (revenue) that can be directed towards paying down the principal. Short of a lottery win, a pay raise or new sources of revenue, debtors on relatively fixed incomes are locked into the cycle of debt.

Greece is in that situation. Until 2008 it was servicing the interest payments on its debt to international lenders (mostly the European Central Bank, various national banks and private investors). Then the international financial crisis of 2008-09 hit, which had nothing to do with Greece per se but which drove up interest rates. With a stagnant economy and flat tax revenues, Greece quickly found itself unable to make interest payments and, in a dramatic revelation, announced in 2010 that it had been systematically underestimating its fiscal deficit in order to maintain interest payments on its debt at a sustainable rate. At that point many private investors dumped their Greek debt holdings and the IMF assumed a significant portion of them as well as some of that accrued by European public banks.

The Greeks were subsequently offered two “bailout” loans that allowed them to continue to pay the interest on their debt, which together with the principal now amounts to nearly 250 billion Euros. With interest set at approximately 4 percent annually, the figure is set to reach the half trillion euro mark in a few years. Even if interest rates were capped at zero, it is estimated that it would take Greece 81 years to repay the amount currently owed.

There are several questions arising from the Greek debt. Why, since the interest paid is now more than the principal borrowed, does not the ECB and IMF put a cap on the debt? Why did investors continue to offer loans to Greece when it turned out that the Greeks were fiddling the books, and that neither the principal or the repayment loans ever trickled down to the general public in terms of public goods and services? Why does it expect the Greek population to pay via austerity for the risky borrowing of Greek elites and the even riskier lending of European banks?

Asking the Greek people to shoulder the burden of austerity–in a country with 30 percent general unemployment and 50 percent unemployment for those under 30, with a massive brain drain of educated professionals, porous borders and deep cuts to public sector salaries, pensions and basic services–is akin to forcing the children of crack addicts to starve and swab floors in order to pay for the rehab treatment of their parents. And the outcome is just as uncertain.

Let’s look at it this way. Capitalism is about assuming risk for higher reward. In the financial world, the riskier the investment the higher the interest paid on it. And just like quick finance and pawn shops are located in poor rather than rich neighbourhoods, high interest bonds are issued on “risky” countries with poor credit ratings and histories of financial instability. For “courageous” investors riding the line between high interest and junk bonds, the rewards for so-called bailouts are great. But the downside of a default is that they will have to wear losses, just as many ill-advised investors have to.

Greece is one such high risk place and those who lent to it knew this from the beginning.

With that in mind is is easy to see that the behaviour of the “troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) can be (and has been) likened to loansharking and needs to be treated as such. When people seek debt relief from loansharks, banks or credit card providers, they arrange to repay a capped sum and a payment schedule is established. The alternative is bankruptcy, which leaves the creditor with nothing. Although suboptimal from the lender’s point of view, the capped payment alternative is better than nothing.

When it comes to states, the decision to cap debt is a political decision, not a financial one. That is because the stability of states is more important than the returns on risky investment, especially when ample returns have already been received, many creditors are no longer at risk and demands for future returns put state stability at peril. In the case of Greece there is a twist, in that the referendum on whether to accept austerity was the first political iteration in a multi-step process. Now that the Greeks have refused more austerity, it is the turn of the EC to make a political decision of its own.

Let’s be clear: this is not a Greek crisis; it is a crisis of European finance capital. The demand for more Greek austerity is not about servicing the debt but about humiliation, punishment and deterrence of others who might dare to do the same.

The people who should seek answers are those who invested in the agencies that undertook the high risk lending strategies that have brought us to this moment. The people who are responsible for the crisis are not average Greeks but suits sitting in fancy offices in Athens, Brussels, Frankfurt and London. They are the ones who took the risk on Greece and they are the ones who need to be held to account.

This does not absolve Greeks from their own mistakes. Certainly the culture of entitlement and the pervasive corruption in Greek society needs to be addressed. But here again, this was well known to foreign creditors at the time they lent money to Greece, and for all the everyday petty corruption in Greece involving phantom war veterans and people faking disabilities, it is the Greek political-economic elite who elevated institutional corruption to an art form. Syriza proposes to confront them as well as the lower-level scams but in order to do so it must show that it can negotiate a debt payment agreement that puts the interests of average Greeks first.

There is a way out of the imbroglio that can leave Greece in the EU without undergoing more austerity punishment. In international law there is a concept known as “odious debt.” Odious debts are those that are incurred by governments that do not go to their stated purposes or are ill-gotten from the onset. Under international law, odious debts are the responsibility of the incurring parties and are not the responsibility of their successors. As such, they do not have to be serviced by others if the responsible parties cannot be made to pay.

One can argue that the debt incurred by pre-Syriza governments from 1999-2008 fall into the odious debt category and should be forgiven as such. If anything the political parties in government during the time the debts were incurred can be sued for repayment (these being the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) and New Democracy (ND)). Whatever happens, it is clear that Greece has not seen the purported benefits of the loans incurred by previous governments (to include the now abandoned or derelict Olympic facilities) but it has paid more than its fair share of interest on them. By any reasonable measure the remaining debt is now odious.

In the end this is a cautionary tale with minor and major sub-plots. The minor plot is about sustainable debt and the limits of debt relief. The major plot is about the perils of political union. The EU needs to understand that how it addresses the minor plot will determine the conclusion of the major one.

Bonus read: Although I do not agree with some of his observations, Brian Easton has a nice short piece on the Greek situation here.


Crowdsourcing opportunity: The 5th Eye.

datePosted on 14:13, June 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I had the opportunity some time go to be interviewed by the one of the director/producers of the documentary “Operation 8″ for a forthcoming film about the GCSB and its role in the 5 Eyes signal intelligence network. These good people are part of the grassroots network that attempts to keep those in power accountable to the folk they supposedly serve, and while I may not agree with them on a number of issues I have no doubts about their sincerity, commitment and interest in the common good.

In order to finish the new documentary, titled “The 5th Eye,”  there is a crowdsourcing effort underway that is well worth supporting. The details are here. Besides information about donating, there is a short video trailer included on the page as well as updates and other valuable information. By all means check it out and help this film on its way to fruition.

If you support truly independent film-making in Aotearoa, this is an excellent opportunity to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk.

So, it turns out that the much vaunted review of New Zealand’s intelligence community is going to undertaken by Michael Cullen and corporate lawyer  Patricia Reddy. Both are consummate Wellington insiders and Ms. Reddy has no apparent experience in dealing with intelligence matters.  She is, however, the Chair of the NZ Film Commission and sits on a number of boards so obviously must be the best person suited for the job. For his part Mr. Cullen has been a Deputy Prime Minister and sat on the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee that among other things did nothing when Ahmed Zaoui was falsely accused of and detained for being a supposed terrorist by the SIS. It is clear he knows how bread is buttered.

The terms of reference for the review cover two main areas: the legislative framework governing NZ intelligence agencies; and the mechanisms responsible for overseeing them.

I have serious doubts that as constituted this review panel will do little more than maintain the status quo on both agenda items. I believe that the review panel should have incorporated more people, including people from outside the Wellington “beltway” and some drawn from overseas. As things stand the review has all the makings of yet another exercise in whitewashing under the guise of critical scrutiny. I hope not, but am not holding my breath in any event.

I outline my thoughts in this Radio New Zealand interview.

For those interested in the terms of reference of the “review,” they can be found here.

Guest Post by Kate: Human Rights are Universal.

datePosted on 08:42, May 8th, 2015 by Pablo

On returning this week from his trade mission in the Middle East, John Key stated on Breakfast TV that countries such as Saudi Arabia have views of human rights that are “different” from our own, justifying the government’s decision to exclude human rights issues from any trade agreement that New Zealand is able to secure in the region. That is putting it rather mildly. Saudi Arabia has one of the consistently worst human records in the world. While the mainstream media is quick to focus in on a discriminatory gender regime that bans women from driving and requires them to be covered from head-to-toe, such problems pale in comparison to the treatment of the foreign workers who make up at least a third of the country’s population, or the torture, imprisonment, and death sentences handed down to Christian converts, human rights workers, activists, journalists, and other critics of the ruling elite. Unlike the distinctly Saudi approach to gender relations, it is difficult to see how the Saudis themselves could seriously attempt to justify such severe human rights abuses in religious or cultural terms.

What is especially surprising about the Prime Minister’s statement is that, if he genuinely believes that Saudi Arabian understandings of human rights are “different” rather than simply wrong, this would put him far over on the fringes of moral philosophy into the cultural relativist camp. This is a space occupied only by academic extremists who have followed the logics of social constructionism to their absolute and final conclusions (i.e. there is no such thing as truth, which makes it rather hard to speak truth to power as many of these theorists seem to want to do), or a small minority on the extreme right, which proposes that liberal values can only ever be achieved in supposedly superior Western cultures. Sticking to this line of argument means that anything whatsoever can be justified in cultural terms to the point where, essentially, nothing practised by any society at any point in history can be criticised at all. What strange company for a Mr. Moderate who usually tries to avoid coming to any conclusions that could undermine his apparently undying popularity to be found in.

Furthermore, this is not the generally shared understanding most reasonable people have of these issues. In fact, New Zealand, along with just about every other country in the world, is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the horrors of World War Two and aimed at establishing a basic set of rights and liberties that countries should do their very best to uphold. Least it isn’t clear from the title of the Declaration, most of the world believes that human rights are universal, Mr. Key, not particular.

Saudi Arabia, by the way, does not accept these principles, rejecting the Declaration on the grounds that guaranteeing freedom of religion would be detrimental to the country’s own traditions, and that its own version of Islamic law supposedly upholds a higher threshold of human rights than this or any other international agreement. By far the more important point, however, is that New Zealand is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration, which not only obligates us to ensuring that we uphold basic human rights within our own borders, but also to promote human rights abroad.

Yet when it comes to trade agreements, the explicit approach adopted by both recent centre-right and centre-left governments has been to exclude human rights from the negotiating agenda. This puts us at odds with the other members of the international “club” we belong to, to use another of the Prime Minister’s terms. Based on academic research, the World Trade Organization states that about 75 percent of contemporary trade agreements include human rights clauses, whether binding or non-binding, driven largely by the human rights promotion agenda of Canada, the European Union, and yes, the United States. It obviously cannot be assumed that these clauses always lead to substantive improvements in human rights outcomes, but they are a start.

The real reason behind both National and Labour’s exclusion of human rights concerns from the negotiation of trade deals is two-fold. Firstly, to state the obvious, New Zealand is very small in global terms, and thus cannot exercise much leverage over larger countries in the Asia and the Middle East. When countries are dependent on us for aid, absolutely do we try to influence human rights, most notably in the Pacific (which also occasionally invokes issues of culture and human rights that I don’t intend to get into here). Realistically, if we are to incorporate human rights concerns into our trade relations framework, this might more successful if done through multilateral arrangements—yet is it difficult to see human rights becoming a major concern of the kind of multilateral trade deals that New Zealand has wedded itself to, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Secondly, the bipartisan approach reveals not only a deep ideological commitment to free trade that is not necessarily shared by other developed countries, in which the influence of large protectionist interest groups often moderates that stance, but a rather naïve belief that trade deals and trade relationships can be separated from everything else. Despite good empirical and historical evidence that trade cannot be viewed independently from other aspects of foreign policy, we do this with regard to our security relations, in which government officials cannot see the long-term problem emerging out of the contradiction between an Asia-oriented trade policy and a Five Eyes-oriented security one, and we also apparently do it when it comes to more noble causes.

So herein lies the hypocrisy not only of our current leadership, but all those sectors of our community who stress trade above all other national goals. We tend to have a rather rosy view of our country not only as an independent voice in the international arena, but as a progressive force in the big wide world. We ban nuclear ships and we save whales. We were the first to give women the vote and at least some of protested against the Springbok Tour. We think we deserve a seat on the Security Council because we are nice (alternatively, to carry on the theme, there are those who no doubt think it will help us out on the trade front). Not caring—or pretending not to care— about the worst instances of human rights abuses, however, not only threatens to undermine this aspect of our national identity, but undermines both our reputation and potential as a global player that punches above our weight on moral issues.

Fear-mongering by frauds for fame and fortune.

datePosted on 16:40, April 20th, 2015 by Pablo

So the Herald on Sunday published an article by a business lecturer from some obscure university in the UK (now apparently visiting at Auckland University) in which she claims that NZ is a  “sitting duck” for an attack on a shopping mall (I will not link to the article because the fool does not deserve any more attention). She compares the NZ terrorism risk level to that of the US, UK an Australia and says that we should emulate them when it comes to mall security, to include bag and ID checks before entering. The Herald on Sunday then followed up the same day with an editorial and a couple of other articles hyping the terrorist threat in NZ.

I will not go over the levels of idiocy marshalled up in this sorry excuse for reportage. Instead I will rephrase a comment I left over at The Standard:

 …(T)he lecturer who penned the scare-mongering hysterical piece has no demonstrable experience with terrorism or counter-terrorism, much less the broader geopolitical and ideological context. She makes a false comparison with the US and UK, acting as if the threat environment here is equivalent to those of these countries and Australia, and states that NZ should emulate them when it comes to mall security. That is simply not true.

Moreover, just because al-Shabbab carried out one successful mall attack in Kenya and called for others in the US, UK and Canada does not mean that they have the capability of doing so anywhere else. In reality, those calls have gone unheeded and security authorities in those states have not appreciably increased their warnings about attacks on malls as a result.

Let us be clear: no mall in the US (and the UK as far as I know) requires bag and ID checks in order to go shopping. So the claim that they do is a lie. I mean, really. Can you imagine the reaction of the average US citizen to being asked to produce an ID before being allowed into Walmart or any one of the thousands of malls that exist in the US? Heck, they might pull out a firearm and say that their name is Smith and Wesson!

Anyway, the costs of of engaging enhanced security measures will be prohibitive for many businesses and even if adopted will be passed on to the consumers, which in turn could drive away customers in an age when they can shop on line. So it is not going to happen. The use of CCTV, coordination with local security authorities and hiring of private security guards suffices in the US and UK, so it surely can suffice here.

I will leave aside the democratic principles at stake, one of which is that you do not restrict the freedom of movement of everyone on the pretext of stopping a potential act of mass violence. And even if you were do do so, who is to say that evil doers would not switch targets to, say, transportation hubs or entertainment districts in downtown areas. Are we going to then go on to lock down every place where people congregate? Lets get real.

In sum, what we got from the Herald was an article that used a false comparison from someone who is clueless but who somehow got interviewed by a rube reporter as if she was an expert in order to justify a call for a hysterical and impractical overreaction, which the Herald then used to write a fear-mongering editorial that contradicts what our own intelligence agencies are saying about the risk of terrorist threats on home soil. Geez. Perhaps hyping up security and sacrifice in the lead-in to the Anzac Day commemorations has something to do with it?

There is only one indisputable fact when it comes to terrorism and NZ. Joining the fight against IS/Daesh increases the threat of terrorist attack on Kiwis and NZ interests, not so much here at home but in the Middle East where IS/Daesh has a broad reach. Although the Gallipoli commemorations will likely not be affected due to the security measures put in place by the Turks (who do not fool around when it comes to security), the risks to individual or small groups of Kiwis in the ME–say, tourists, aid workers, diplomats or business people– are increased as a direct result of NZ involvement in the anti-IS/Daesh coalition. The emphasis should be on their safety, not on that of local malls.

An absolutely wretched effort by the Herald.”

The problem is bigger than the Herald going overboard with its scare-mongering in the build up to the Anzac Day commemorations. Since 9/11 we have seen the emergence of a plethora of security and terrorism “experts” (including a few here in NZ such as the poseur who featured in the Herald article) as well as an entire industry dedicated to “countering” extremism, terrorism and a host of other potential or imaginary threats. Likewise government security agencies have pounced on the spectre of terrorism to justify expansion of their budgets, personnel, powers and scope of search, surveillance and detention.

There is, in effect, an entire terrorism growth industry hard at work conjuring up threats and scenarios not so much as to safeguard their fellow citizens but to enrich themselves via fame, fortune or power. In this they are abetted by a compliant when not reactionary and sensationalist media that does not bother to fact check the claims of many of these fraudulent experts (such as the Fox News contributor Steve Emerson, who falsely claimed that there are non-Muslim “no go” zones in the UK and France, or the charlatan Rohan Gunaratna, who claimed that there were jihadi cells in NZ ten years ago without ever having visited here, and who has now had to pay serious money in damages for defaming a Tamil community group in Canada).

Together, these various branches of the terrorism industry work to mutually profit by promoting fear and distrust while curtailing the rights of the majority in the ostensible interest of securing against the potential harm visited by a purportedly violent domestic minority. And they are selective when they do so: notice that all the hype is about Islamic extremists when in fact a large (if not THE largest) amount of political violence in Western societies, including NZ, is meted out by white, Christian extremists. Yet we do not hear dire warnings about neo-Nazis and white supremacists even though they have a proven track record of politically or racially motivated violent acts.

“Esoteric pineapples,”a commentator on the Standard thread that I made my remarks on, provided this very useful and informative link on the phenomenon. Read it and weep.

It is a sad day that NZ’s leading newspaper stoops to this type of tabloid rubbish. Shame on them. But at least it seems that many of its readers are not taken in by the ruse, which augers slightly better for informed debate on the true nature of the NZ threat environment.

PS: For the record, I do not consider myself to be a terrorism or security expert. I have a background in counter-insurgency, unconventional warfare and strategic analysis among other things, and have written extensively on those and other topics. But I have largely been pigeon-holed in the NZ media as one or the other in spite of my repeated requests to be identified correctly, which is another example of shoddy journalism.

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