Posts Tagged ‘intelligence and security’

Familiarity becomes Contempt.

datePosted on 12:41, December 5th, 2012 by Pablo

Johns Key’s answers to the “mystery” of the US Air Force executive jet parked at Wellington during Hobbit mania gives us a good indication of his attitude towards the public and the press. Although the plane was misidentified several times by reporters as a private plane, it is in fact part of a fleet of US Air Force transport aircraft that are used regularly to fly high level politicians and bureaucrats to foreign meetings. The make, model, livery, insignia and identification number would have been readily recognizable to plane spotters, so Mr. Key was correct in saying that there was no secret to its visit. It was how he answered the question of who the visitors on the plane were that gives an indication of his current mindset.

His initial response is that he did not know who was on the plane or the purpose of its visit. He said he may have seen the name of a visitor on a piece of paper but could not recall it. As Minister of Intelligence and Security that would seem to be an odd thing to say, especially since it played (now apparently purposefully) on the “brain fade” impression he developed as a result of his forgetfulness about the Dotcom/GCSB illegal espionage case.

What is puzzling is that he could have said any number of things: that he did not discuss intelligence and security matters in principle; did not discuss “quiet” visits by foreign (US) officials as a matter of policy; did not discuss the visits of foreign intelligence officials; or that he could not confirm or deny the presence of any such on NZ soil. It would be the same if he refused to comment on military matters citing operational security (but where again, he obfuscates and prevaricates rather than just offer a straight answer or refusal to comment). He could have said any of these things and the story would have died.

Under a second day of questioning he admitted that the plane carried a high-ranking US intelligence official to meetings with NZ intelligence officials and that the meetings involved counterparts from other foreign intelligence agencies. He denied these were meetings of the Echelon/5 Eyes partners even while saying that they hold regular meetings in NZ, the latest in July or February (depending on which version of his recollection one chooses to believe).

This comes at a time when the 5 Eyes community have been rocked by a major spy scandal in Canada, where a naval intelligence officer sold highly sensitive tactical and strategic signals intelligence data to the Russians for five years before his arrest in early 2012 (which would require the adoption of a number of sanitizing and preventative counter-measures throughout the network). It comes after the obfuscations and weirdness surrounding the GCSB involvement in the Dotcom case (which may well have started before Dotcom arrived in NZ because the NSA–the lead agency in the Echelon network–was already monitoring Dotcom prior to his arrival and would have likely asked that the GCSB continue the surveillance after he crossed the border). It also comes at a time when Huwaei is under scrutiny by the Echelon partners for its possible involvement in Chinese signals intelligence collection efforts, which are focused on the West in general and 5 Eyes countries in particular.

Under the circumstances  a visit by senior 5 Eyes counterparts to discuss matters of common concern would not be unusual or untoward, if nothing else as an information-sharing exercise or so that they could get their ducks in a row on matters of institutional or public interest.

Thus the question begs as to why Mr. Key did not just refuse to comment citing matters of national security but instead opted to play dumb and incompetent, thereby heightening initial interest in the story?

My belief is that he has general contempt for the public’s intelligence on matters of foreign affairs and security, and that he believes the masses are not interested in the subject anyway. But his focused contempt is of the press or at least non-submissive members of it. His brain fade act is more than simply lying. It is the deliberate winding up of the press over matters that, while not inconsequential, are relatively routine or non-controversial but which he can successfully cover up so that press inquires are frustrated needlessly. In other words, he is taking the piss out of the media.

He has similar contempt for those who oppose or question his policies. He recently said that anti-TPP activists should be ignored (even though these include a large number of distinguished subject experts, academicians, politicians and former and current trade specialists). This adds to his list of those that should be ignored, including mining safety experts, environmental scientists, Maori rights activists and asset sales opponents.

The point is that as Minister of Intelligence and Security Mr. Key could respond to questions about  intelligence and security in an authoritative manner that does not compromise either while demonstrating his command of the portfolio. That he choose not to do so and instead pleads memory loss and disinterest in these two vital components of national security suggests that he is doing so either because he really is clueless and out of his depth on intelligence and security or, more likely to my mind, he is deliberately doing so just to wind up his “enemies” in the press while dismissing detractors in civil society against a larger backdrop of public disinterest.

He is also being contemptuous of those who serve under him in critical national security roles because his feigned ignorance leaves those leading intelligence and security agencies hanging out to dry in the event that something in their purview but under his ministerial watch goes sour. Truth be told, by the terms of his ministerial portfolio he is briefed regularly and exactly on all matters of intelligence and security. Either that, or the institutional edifice of security in NZ is praetorian, something that I doubt its security partners would accept, much less agree to.

If Mr. Key is not clueless on intelligence and security matters, then the “spy” plane response and his other actions show that along with being contemptuous of those who may seek to hold him to account, he is arrogant, irresponsible, disloyal, mean-spirited and vindictive as well. To which can be added one more trait that has emerged in Mr. Key as of late: callous narcissism.

When asked recently what he was the most sorry for over the last year, he answered that it was the failure to convince the public of the benefits of the mixed ownership model. He was not as sorry about the deaths of five NZDF troops in Afghanistan, or the needless deaths and continuing failure to retrieve the bodies of the Pike River miners, or the ongoing debacle that is the Christchurch reconstruction process, nor about the leaks of private information by government agencies or the unhappy disputes with Maori over treaty settlement issues (in fact, he made no mention of these). Instead, he most laments the failure of a pet economic project to gain public traction in 2012.

That may not be surprising, but it sure is contemptible.

 

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.

More questions about the Dotcom spying case.

datePosted on 12:48, October 4th, 2012 by Pablo

It turns out that the Prime Minister was briefed about the Dotcom surveillance by the GCSB in February 2012, not in September 2012 as Mr. Key has previously asserted. It also turns out that the eavesdropping began before the late 2011 timeframe offered by the government and repeated in Inspector General Paul Neazor’s report on the unlawful nature of the GCSB’s involvement n the Dotcom case. Since 2009, shortly after National assumed government, there have been at least three other cases involving the GCSB that may be of dubious legality. The official story admits that the legal advice given to the Police and the GCSB with regards to Dotcom’s residency status was wrong. Apparently neither the Police or GCSB checked with Immigration, Customs or other agencies about the issue (or if they did, they received either erroneous advice or ignored the correct advice given).

Mr. Key says that the briefing in February 2012 was about the general roles and capabilities of the GCSB, and that Mr. Dotcom’s photo came up as part of a laptop slide show presentation. That is curious. One would assume that Mr. Key would have received such a briefing as part of the transition to and early days of his first government, and that he would consequently have an idea of GCSB functions well before February 2012. It would be astounding if no such briefing took place during his first term as Prime Minister, and it would be only slightly less astounding if he required a remedial or follow-up briefing in February 2012, which just happened to be less than three weeks after the Dotcom raids.

More plausible would be that the briefing in February 2012, as the government returned to business after the summer holidays, was a status report on ongoing GCSB operations. One would presume that the slide show presentation was done to bullet point the main thrust of those operations as well as the targets and methods involved. The Dotcom case would have been one of them.

The question begs as to whether not only is the Prime Minister’s memory faulty, but whether he is competent on matters of security and intelligence. If he needs a remedial general brief about the GCSB role and functions and/or cannot distinguish between an operational status update and a general brief after nearly four years in office, then he clearly is not up to the task of providing effective oversight of the intelligence apparatus. Nor, it would seem, is his cabinet, which presumably would have prepped him on the nature of the visit to the GCSB headquarters in February 2012 and provided him with detailed questions on the operations in question. One of them might have been with regard to Mr. Dotcom’s residency status and the legality of GCSB surveillance in that case.

It would seem that, to paraphrase an observation about Sarah Palin, he has a singular intellectual disinterest in matters of security and intelligence, and that disinterest is shared by his closest advisors. Contrast that with his real interest in tourism (of which he is minister), the foreign film industry (for which his government changed NZ law in order to accommodate the conditions demanded by one foreign investor) and privatization and asset sales schemes of various sorts.

The bottom line is that John Key is to intelligence oversight what the captain of the Costa Concordia is to maritime safety–both asleep or otherwise engaged while in command.

The Dotcom case is the unhappy gift that keeps on giving. The media and the opposition are peeling away the layers of obfuscation that make up the bulk of the government’s version of the story. There is surely more unflattering revelations to come.

Fundamental issues of accountability and oversight have been raised by the Dotcom case, not only with regard to the substance of the charges against him and the way in which the Police, Crown and GCSB conducted themselves, but with regard to the general conduct of New Zealand intelligence agencies (the SIS has had its own share of embarrassments in that respect).

With a parliamentary security and intelligence committee devoid of effective oversight powers, an Inspector General of Intelligence whose independence and authority are tightly circumscribed and a prime minister who is either incompetent or disinterested in security and intelligence matters, or whose managerial style is to allow sensitive government bureaucracies to operate with near total independence wedded to an absence of institutional accountability (which can be vertical or horizontal, with both being needed for effective democratic oversight of intelligence and security agencies), the Dotcom case may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to state agencies playing loose with the law.

That matters only because adherence to the rule of law is considered to be one fundamental measure of the quality of democracy. The core of that measure is that the State adhere to the law as much if not more than its citizens. Given the revelations in the Dotcom case, which follow on other instances of intelligence agency malfeasance (e.g. the Zaoui beat-up), New Zealand has found itself sorely wanting.

 

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