Posts Tagged ‘Intelligence’
It must be the season for espionage scandals and potential threats. The NZ media has taken an interest so I get to play talking head.
Claims by Phil Goff that he was not briefed by Warren Tucker on the SIS Israeli backpacker investigation are remarkable because of what they imply. Not only is he suggesting that Tucker violated his statutory mandate to keep him, as Leader of the Opposition, fully informed of ongoing intelligence matters. His comments also raise the possibility that the SIS filters the information it provides to the Opposition Leader in a way that differs from that given to the government (and in this case provided incomplete information or none at all on a matter of importance). If true, the latter suggests that the SIS serves the government of the day rather than the national security interest at large, and that it “spins” the way it reports on intelligence matters in ways that cater to the government’s political necessities rather than based on objective assessments of the security and threat environment at any given moment. This is a violation of democratic principle.
The current National government would not be the first one to prefer that the SIS “spin” its reporting according to political necessity rather than fact. After all, the SIS did exactly that for the Fifth Labour government in the Zaoui case. Thus Goff’s indignation is a bit rich, although he may have a valid concern that the extent of spin and filtration in his briefs has exceeded the previous norm (recall that Don Brash, then Opposition Leader, said on radio that the case against Zaoui was thin, which suggests that he was getting honest briefings from the SIS at that time).
This is very troubling. If the SIS is, in fact, playing loose with its statutory obligations vis a vis intelligence briefings for the Opposition leader, it raises serious issues about its organisational accountability and transparency when answering to the elected officials (and public) to which it is responsible and to whom it ostensibly serves. This might not be unexpected in an authoritarian regime but it is absolutely anathema to democratic governance.
It is hard to see what political gain Phil Goff would achieve by attacking the credibility of a senior public servant such as Warren Tucker. Being an experienced politician, Goff would know that such a move would generate a backlash against him, including from quarters normally sympathetic to his views. Moreover, Goff has a considerable experience with intelligence flows given his previous roles as Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a fairly extensive professional history with Tucker himself. So, why did Goff do this? With no electoral advantage to be gained and plenty of downside to consider, why did he feel the need to turn what should have been the subject of a quiet discussion into a public fracas?
I suspect–without any inside knowledge–that his version of events is closer to the truth than that provided by Tucker. I suspect that when Tucker briefed Goff on March 14 as part of their regular monthly briefings he calculated it best not to bring up the Israeli case. The reasons were that Tucker would have noted that Goff was mired in the Darren Hughes affair and given Labour’s reaction to the previous Israeli spy scandal involving passport fraud in 2004, he might use the suspicion of more Israeli skullduggery as a diversion from the Hughes matter (and his handling of it). Since the SIS investigation of the Israelis was concluded by March 6, there was nothing to report other than that suspicions had been raised by the hasty departure of the three surviving Israeli tourists and that these suspicions were unfounded (I shall leave aside for the moment a number of questions that could indicate that there is more to the story than a mistaken suspicion).
Thus, it is possible that Mr. Tucker felt it wise, given National’s commitment to strengthen bilateral ties with Israel (including security ties), to gloss over or omit mention of the investigation during the March 14 meeting. That is not a cardinal sin and does not suggest impropriety so long as Mr. Goff was provided a full intelligence brief in writing. Goff claims that he was not provided such documentation. The SIS admits that there is no transcript of record of the meeting other than Tucker’s briefing notes (that is, the notes prepared before the meeting), something that not only violates standard bureaucratic procedure but also quite possibly the Public Records Act (I find it quite astonishing that the intelligence briefs are done on a one-on-one basis between the Director of Intelligence and the Opposition Leader without a third party transcriber of record, be it a secretary or someone nominated for that role by both parties). I could be wrong of course, but there are enough discrepancies in the SIS version of events to open room for such speculation.
The story gets weirder because the SIS maintains that Mr. Goff was also briefed on the matter on April 6, and then again on July 25 after the story about the Israelis broke in the press. Why the SIS would brief Mr. Goff on the matter on July 25 when it claims it had already briefed him twice is hard to understand unless Goff demanded a “please explain” meeting with Tucker after the revelations. Also hard to understand is why the SIS, under Tucker’s signature, would rapidly declassify its records of the March and April briefings as well as the summary of the investigation in order to provide them to a notorious right wing blogger who is, in fact, criminally convicted of breaching judicial orders regarding matters of privacy (in other words, the big fella is not known for his discretion or diplomacy when it comes to dealing with secrets). Not only is the rapidity with which the Official Information Act request from the blogger was answered quite astounding (5 working days from the request to the answer from Mr. Tucker, with the documents in question declassified the same day as the blogger’s OIA request), but it now seems that other outlets were denied or delayed in having their OIAs on the same matter answered, and that the SIS selectively requested that OIAs be sent to it on the subject couched in very specific language.
If we recall that the leak to the press of the Israeli investigation came from within or close to the SIS itself, and we add to it the normal reticence of spies to engage in public arguments with politicians about their business, and then factor in the selective provision of OIA data to sympathetic outlets, all on top of Mr. Goff’s claims, then we cannot but begin to suspect that the SIS is heavily politicised in what it does, does not operate as a neutral and apolitical source of intelligence flows, and in fact is behaving in ways that are inimical to democratic oversight and control over the national security apparatus. If true, the politicisation of the SIS (or at least its leadership) is a sign of institutional atrophy as well as bias, and worse yet, is a stain on the professionalism and integrity of those who work in the clandestine services. This is kiss of death type of stuff because foreign governments and New Zealand’s intelligence partners will have noted the deeper implications of the row between Goff and Tucker, something that will influence the way in which they approach matters of intelligence sharing with the New Zealand government.
There is much more to the story but let’s just say that this controversy once again raises serious issues about the SIS role, its integrity, and its ability to serve the public in a neutral and objective fashion without political influence or bias. Whatever Mr. Goff’s motivations, his outcry has raised fundamental questions that will not easily be swept away or silenced, and have the potential to drag Prime Minister Key into the fray (because Mr. Key is Minister for Intelligence and Security and thus Mr. Tucker’s nominal “boss,” and if it turns out the SIS has massaged its briefs or played with its documentation after the fact, then Mr. Tucker’s position becomes untenable–and perhaps criminally liable).
I tried to cover some of these points in an interview on TVNZ’s “Breakfast” show, which if nothing else shows that amid the celebrity sightings, gossip-mongering and general inanity of morning television there is still some room for the occasional serious discussion: http://tvnz.co.nz/breakfast-news/paul-buchanan-warns-sis-stoush-5-59-video-4339934/video
Over the weekend the SST published a story about a NZ-born wanna-be jihadi turned NZSIS informant. I have some knowledge of the larger story behind the SST piece, with combines elements of the fantastic with the plausible. One of the plausible allegations is that the NZSIS and NZ Police spy on mosques. We should not be surprised.
Even before 9-11 it is quite possible that the NZSIS and/or GCSB were involved in monitoring suspected Islamic radicals with NZ connections. Several al-Qaeda operatives have been reported to have visited NZ (allegedly using business visas) and others–such as the Yemeni flat mate of one of the 9-11 hijackers–have allegedly entered using student visas.
After 9-11 and the Madrid and London bombings, a full court press was employed by Western intelligence agencies and their allies to ferret out home grown jihadis and Islamicist sympathisers. This broad sweep approach led to a number of excesses with regard to the detention of innocents and others deemed guilty by association, of which the Zaoui case is just one local instance. The focus on jihadism also gave agencies like the NZSIS a new lease on life after the post-Cold War doldrums, something that provided it with an incentive to increase its intelligence flows to larger liasion partners such as the US, Australia and the UK. That includes reporting on the movements of suspected jihadists and sympathisers at home.
Regardless of the realities of the jihadist threat scenario in Aotearoa (which by all accounts is negligible), both the NZ government and its security apparatus had –and have– a vested interest in keeping that focus alive, as it is a guarantee for better funding for intelligence agencies, increased legal authority covering intelligence-gathering operations, and close working relationships with larger allied intelligence patrons. Counter-terrorism, in other words, is a gravy train for the intelligence and security community.
Not all of the focus on potential Islamicists in NZ is illusory. One of the Urewera 18 is a well-known pro-Palestinian activist who has spoken of his interest in fighting the occupiers in Gaza. He associates with others connected to groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine who openly express (at least within their own circles), support for the jihadist cause and other forms of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist armed resistance. There are a number of Somalian refugees who have been suspected of harboring jihadist sympathies and the resident Muslim community, at around 35,000 strong, is believed to contain more than a handful of people with extremist views. Afghans, Algerians, Iraqis and Iranians have all come under scrutiny by local law enforcement. None of this means that any of the above-mentioned are intent or capable of committing terrorist acts on NZ soil or abroad. What I am simply saying is that it is an open secret that they are being watched.
More broadly, the Muslim community has internal political divisions that have resulted in charges and counter-charges of radicalism, reports to the police and even the deporation of at least one “radical” cleric. These machinations provide fertile ground for intelligence operators.
This is the backdrop to NZSIS and Police mosque-spying. It is well known that these agencies use paid and unpaid informants as well as undercover agents to monitor domestic groups of other dissident persuasions such as environmentalists and anti-free trade campaigners. It should therefore be no surprise that they would want to do the same in the Muslim community, and that they would focus on major community meeting places in order to do so.
The only real obstacle to such espionage is the lack of “passable” Muslims within the NZ intelligence community (which is not as white as many may think–it has plenty of Pacific Island and Asian officers). Thus it is quite plausible that the NZSIS and Police would seek to recruit from within the local Muslim community, exploiting personal grievances, political rivalries, financial difficulties and general disaffection as a means of gaining leverage on or winning the trust of potential informants.
The pity, of course, is that an entire community is being placed under surveillance because of the perceived “threat” that emanates from within it. No such monitoring appears to have been done to detect IRA sympathisers amid the local Catholic community or in synagogues to detect Israeli agents (at least two of which are now known to have been recently operating in NZ). It is the misfortune of the NZ Islamic community to be caught up in a larger game in which they are mere pawns.
At the end of the day the mosque-spying program is not surprising, nor should it be. It is just a manifestation of what intelligence agencies do, and to be frank, most non-Muslim Kiwis would probably expect that the NZSIS and Police keep tabs on suspected domestic Islamicists. What is surprising is the ineptitude of the whistle-blower’s NZSIS handlers, who rather than provide him with a secure income and better cover dropped him like a bad habit once his services were deemed to expendable. At a minimum they could have exchanged a monetary pay out for a non disclosure agreement. But they did not, leaving an aggrieved former informant on the streets with no restriction on what he can say. Unless he is a complete fantasist that the NZSIS and Police had no relationship with beyond an initial set of assessment contacts (at which point he was deemed to be unreliable), the handling of this informant has been slipshod.
That, in the spy trade, is a an own-goal of epic proportions because, unless his story is complete fiction, the informant has knowledge of sources, methods and operational focus–all of which could well be on its way to being made public in the near future.
The options for the NZIS are to ignore the informant’s claims and hope that he shuts up and goes away, to attempt to denigrate him as a story-teller (to include using third parties for said purposes), to intimidate him, even if via the Police or private agencies (which appears to have already occurred since he claims that Police have raided his home after he went public and that a detective has informed him that his SST revelations could result in charges), and as a last resort, silence him with extreme prejudice. Since the latter is a Mossad rather than NZSIS forte, it will be interesting how the rest of this story plays out because at least some of the informant’s claims have been corroborated.
One thing is certain: the mosque spy campaign and domestic anti-jihadist project have taken a blow and it will now be much harder for local intelligence agencies to obtain information on any real Islamicist threats that may exist on local shores. Because even if this individual is a liar, that does not mean that there are not others working as informants along the lines he has outlined, who will therefore be the subject of much closer scrutiny by their co-religionists as a result of this story.
As promised the latest “Word from Afar” column at Scoop focuses on the 2008-2009 NZSIS annual report. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there are a few nuggets of information about its work amid all the PR jargon and managerial double speak. Check it out here.
It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.
The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM. It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.
Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated
In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).
This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.
Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.
I must confess that this one has me stumped. In her joint press conference with Murray McCully today, Hillary Clinton said that the US would resume intelligence-sharing with NZ as a sign of the strengthened security ties between the two countries. It might have been a slip of the tongue, but McCully seemed unfazed and the comment was made as part of her prepared remarks, so it appears that the mention was deliberate. But what does it really mean? The US and NZ already share signal intelligence streams via the Echelon network, which has two collection stations on NZ soil. The NZSAS has a least one officer seconded to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (as well as NZSAS liaison officers designated to MI-6 in the UK, ASIO in Canberra, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the French DGSE). The CIA more than likely has a station officer in Wellington (most likely a political (affairs) officer). These connections presumably are already involved in intelligence sharing. So what gives?
Since I am not privy to the decision-making involved, let me just speculate on what this announcement may mean. A few weeks back word slipped out that NZ had intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Then the NZSAS were deployed there (to Kabul, as it turns out, in a counter-terrorism and CT training role rather than their previous long range patrol and reconnaissance role, which is an interesting story in itself). Putting these two lines together, I suspect that what Mrs. Clinton was alluding to was a resumption of tactical intelligence sharing between US and NZ forces in theater (rather than first report back to their respective superiors at home and allow the bosses to determine what gets shared). This would obviously be of priority in Afghanistan, but frees up US and NZ intelligence collectors to share information throughout areas of mutual interest such as the Western Pacific Rim. On the latter, subjects of mutual interest could include Chinese intelligence and military activities in the region (as alluded to in the Scoop series I linked to last month), money laundering and arms trafficking, organised crime activities (which would also be shared with INTERPOL), as well as leadership analysis and political and economic trend forecasts.
More broadly, what this means is that NZ is returning to the US fold on security matters. If Australia is the US sheriffs deputy in the Southern Hemisphere, NZ under National is positioning to become the deputy’s adjunct. What is different is not just the extent of the bilateral cooperation involved, but the fact that the Ozzies make no bones about their belief that their middle power aspirations are tied to the US mantle, whereas NZ has carefully cultivated an image of being a neutral and honest broker in international affairs. With this revelation, that image is bound to be altered, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of closer security relations with the US (which I do not necessarily object to based on the principle of necessity) may translate into to a loss of mana, reputation and prestige in the eyes of the larger international community. Perhaps the diplomatic community is jaded enough to understand that pragmatism requires that NZ play all sides of the fence, that “it has to do what it has to do,”and that its rhetorical lip service is a mere cover to its real, pro-US orientation (I touched on this in the previous post titled “John Key Rides the Fence”). However, I wonder how the Chinese, Malaysians, Iranians and Arab trading partners will feel about this revelation, to say nothing of European partners who have trusted NZ to speak to truth to power on issues as varied as non-proliferation and environmental sustainability. Although Mrs. Clinton was at pains to laud NZ’s role on the latter two subjects, it remains to be seen what (negative or positive) spill-over effects may occur as a result of this closer bilateral security relationship, or, as National will undoubtably argue, whether the issue of intelligence sharing is safely “compartmentalized” and thereby insulated from the broader foreign policy direction of the National government. In three years we should know, but by then the consequences, good or bad, will be inescapable.
The decision by SIS Director General Warren Tucker to authorise release of decades-old secret files on activists, unionists and academics is a welcome, albeit small step towards instilling a culture of accountability and transparency in that agency. But the documents released are at best no more than of personal interest to the individuals involved and historians of the Cold War era (as they show the anti-communist paranoia of the times), and at worst a diversion from SIS activities in more recent days. It is all titillation, with the real items of interest left to the imagination.
For example. We still do not know why indigenous and anti-globalisation activists have been targeted since the 1990s (including the Urewera 17); why the SIS was unaware of the presence in New Zealand of a the Yemeni student pilot (and associate of some of the 9/11 conspirators) until alerted by (of all people) Winston Peters (who got his tip from a flying school manager months after the student pilot began his training); why, even though it is responsible for counter-intelligence matters, it was unaware of the Israeli contract assets and their sayan (local Jewish liaison) Tony Resnick (who procured the identity of the individual in whose name the fraudulent–but official–passport was to be issued, and who escaped to Israel before the SIS was even aware of the operation (which was discovered by a low-ranking Immigration officer who notified the police, who set up a sting on the assumption it was a simple criminal matter)). We do not know why Mr. Tucker’s predecessor decided to concoct a worse-case picture of Ahmed Zaoui in order to justify his detention without charges for nearly two years–a picture that proved to be false and which forced the government to abandon its attempts to prevent Zaoui from settling in NZ after spending millions of dollars on Crown lawyers vainly trying to make the case against him (and then allowed the previous Director General to walk away with a golden handshake and another high level government job). We still do not why, in 2005, the SIS claimed that the greatest threat to NZ came from “local jihadis” akin to those in London and Madrid, but then a year later dropped any mention of local jihadis in favor of the claim that foreign intelligence agencies operating on NZ soil were the primary focus of its attention–this despite the fact that no “jihadi” arrests were made and no plots were disrupted, or the subsequent fact that, in spite of repeated defector claims that Chinese intelligence works with ease in NZ engaging in industrial and political espionage as well as monitoring Chinese expat dissidents, nothing other than computer security upgrades appears to have been done in response (and no Chinese spies have been arrested, or if they were, were quietly deported in contrast to the Israeli case). We still do not know why the SIS attempted to smear its critics when confronted on issues of policy, politics and threat assessment (the Zaoui case is illustrative), when in fact that criticism is ostensibly a democratic right of all citizens ( a smear campaign that may well have included the deliberate and selective planting of false information in order to subsequently discredit the outlets that published it). In sum, by giving us old news the SIS avoids the hard questions about what it is doing now, or at least more recently.
The point is simple: it is great that Mr. Tucker has started to open up his agency to public scrutiny. On that score he is to be commended and encouraged. But he needs to do more. He needs to shorten the time window before secret files can be made public (say, ten years). He needs to address the SIS’s failures and explain what he proposes to do to remedy them, as well as why its expanded powers and organizational reach is justified (after all, the SIS has seen its budget almost double and its personnel increase by a third since 2001). He does not have to compromise any ongoing operations or past associations should the interest of national security require continued secrecy. But if public confidence in the professional competence of the SIS is to be maintained (or restored), then he needs to come clean on the why and how of the SIS’s spotty track record as well as how it proposes to embrace the intelligence challenges of the next decade. In order to do so, he may need a signal from the government, and for that to happen the government needs to have an understanding of the intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination process. That remains to be seen, no matter what Mr. Tucker’s good intentions may be. After all, good intentions are not enough to change a dysfunctional institutional culture, and that appears to be precisely what Mr. Tucker inherited.