Posts Tagged ‘Intelligence’
The slow drip feed of classified NSA material taken by Edward Snowden and published by journalists Glen Greenwald, Nicky Hager, David Fisher and others in outlets such as The Intercept and New Zealand Herald caused a stir when first published. Revelations of mass surveillance and bulk collection of telephone and email data of ordinary citizens in the 5 Eyes democracies and detailed accounts of how the NSA and its companion signals intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK spy on friend and foe alike, including trade partners and the personal telephones of the German prime minister and Indonesian president, caused both popular and diplomatic uproars. In New Zealand the outrage was accentuated by revelations about the illegal GCSB spying on Kim Dotcom and the government’s extension of its spying powers even after it was found to have operated outside its legal charter in other instances as well.
But now it seems that public interest in the issue has faded rather than grown. Revelations that the GCSB spies on Pacific island states such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga as well as Pacific French territories, followed by news that it spied on candidates for the World Trade Organisation presidency on behalf of Trade Minister Tim Groser (himself a candidate), has been met not with street demonstrations and popular protests but by a collective yawn by the public at large.
Why is this so?
It appears that the New Zealand public is weary of the death by a thousand cuts approach used by Mr. Hager and his investigative colleagues. Beyond the usual array of diversions presented by popular culture and media, the reason for this disinterest seems to lie in the fact that the information released to date is seen as trivial, uncontroversial and tediously never-ending. Take for example the reaction to the news that the UK spied on Argentina after the Falklands/Malvinas War and carried on until 2011. Numerous pundits asked whether that is surprising. What is the UK expected to do when Argentina remains hostile to it and has never renounced its territorial claims over the islands? Similarly, others have pointed out that since New Zealand is utterly trade dependent, why not try to advance Mr. Groser’s candidacy for the WTO job using surreptitious as well as diplomatic means? Likewise, is it news that Australia and New Zealand spy on small Pacific neighbours who depend on them for a significant amount of foreign aid and are being courted by the Chinese? Why not given the levels of corruption and intrigue present in the region?
This does not mean that there are no constitutional, diplomatic, security and trade concerns raised by the Snowden leaks coming into the public domain. My belief is that there is much to be alarmed about in the Snowden files and they should serve as a catalyst or window of opportunity for a thorough review of the NZ intelligence community and perhaps even a renegotiation of the terms and conditions of its participation in Anglophone intelligence networks.
But the way in which it has been presented to New Zealand audiences has induced fatigue rather than fervour. Add to that the government’s strategy of obfuscation, denial and attacking the motives, ethics and character of the journalistic messengers, and the result is a jaded public with little interest in spies or what they do and whom they do it to. Cast against a backdrop in which personal data and private information is already bulk accessed by private firms and a host of social media platforms with profit-maximising in mind, the general attitude seems to be one of unconcern about what the guardians of the public interest are doing in that regard. In such a climate the old Nazi refrain “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” resonates quite well.
Unless Mr. Greenwald, Mr. Hager and their colleagues have bombshells that they have yet to drop, it appears that like Mr. Dotcom’s much-hyped “Moment of Truth” last year, their efforts have fizzled rather than fired. For the sake of their credibility as well as the public good, it is time for them to stand up and deliver something of significance that transcends the Wellington beltway or if not, to walk away.
Should Mr. Hager and company opt to deliver a bombshell, they need to consider one more thing: what good purpose is served by revealing the foreign espionage activities of New Zealand and its closest intelligence partners? Even if it uncovers myriad spying efforts that have nothing to do with national security (and terrorism, that old canard), will it advance the cause of transparency and selectivity in intelligence operations and make some governments more responsive to public concerns about privacy? Will it curtail spying by the 5 Eyes partners or any other nation? Will it encourage whistleblowing on illegal government surveillance? Will it advance New Zealand’s interests in the world or force a reconsideration of its relationship with its security partners?
Or will it simply damage New Zealand’s reputation and relations with the countries that have been spied on? Given that New Zealand is the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners and is, indeed, almost totally trade dependent, the negative consequences of any potential backlash or retaliation by aggrieved states could be significant.
That is why the issue is important. The thrust of the most recent revelations have moved beyond domestic mass surveillance and into the realm of traditional inter-state espionage, which is not confined to the activities of the 5 Eyes partners and is an integral, if unspoken necessary evil of international relations. Given that the focus of the Snowden material is solely on 5 Eyes spying and not on its counterespionage efforts or the intelligence operations of other states, could it not seem to the general public to be a bit one-sided and deliberately injurious to continue to unveil only what NZ and its partners undertake by way of signals intelligence collection (as some in government and supportive of it have insinuated)?
In the end, will ongoing revelations about New Zealand foreign espionage serve the public interest and common good? Or will it have the opposite effect?
And will average Kiwis care either way?
A short version of this essay appeared in the New Zealand Herald, April 10, 2015.
Posted on 08:35, January 20th, 2015 by Pablo
The post 9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, mostly if not exclusively of the Islamic-inspired sort. In most liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of better security. Some have gone so far as to speak of a “war” on terrorism, arguing that Islamicist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.
Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Seeing terrorism as the latter allows those who practice it to be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.
There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the State will not fall, political society will not unravel and the social fabric will to tear. But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the sucker ploy.
As an irregular warfare tactic terrorism is a weapon of the militarily weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. It has a target, a subject and an objective. Here is where the sucker ploy comes into play. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets are designed to lure democratic states into undertaking security measures out of proportion to the real threat involved. The weaker adversary commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case from Western liberal democracies. The overreaction victimises more than the perpetrators and legitimises their grievances. In doing so, the democratic state plays into the hands of the terrorist objectives by providing grounds for recruitment, continuation and expansion of their struggle. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.
The sucker ploy has been at the core of al-Qaeda’s strategy from the beginning. Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the entire West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to undemocratic security checks, to include mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, the Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated. That serves to confirm the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with all of the Muslim world, which bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a groundswell of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.
The US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one pretext for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating in its midst at the time. It does now.
After the possibility of staging spectacular large scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western counter-measures, al-Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the on-line magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadis born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called “lone wolf” attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using their local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.
In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State have provided recruits with the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home in the event that they survive the foreign adventure (although less than 50 percent of them do). With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the Islamic State ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al-Qaeda, that leaves plenty of returning jhadis to be concerned about.
Shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities–all of these present soft targets with significant symbolic value where a relatively small criminal act of violence can generate waves of apprehension across the larger population, thereby prompting a government overreaction as much in an effort to calm public fears as it is to prevent further attacks. The range and number of these targets makes guarding all them very difficult, and if the perpetrators plan in secret and maintain operational secrecy up until the moment of engagement, then they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defense against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access to not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used to untoward ends.
Although it risks detection because of the coordination and numbers involved, one variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called “swarm” attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, thereby causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker’s capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military–ostensibly used for external defense–is often called in, thereby giving all the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.
The evolution of terrorist tactics notwithstanding, if we strip away all the ideological gloss what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise. The response required is therefore more police than military in nature, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation amongst nations. The legislative response should be not to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values regarding the freedoms of speech, assembly and movement.
What is not needed but unfortunately has been the majority response in the West, is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.
Worse yet, such measures are not entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis (the work of a lone mentally ill individual with delusions of Islamic grandeur who was out on bail for sexual crimes and accessory to murder) and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown (Australia, the US and France have very strong antiterrorism measures, to include the Patriot Act and NSA/FBI mass surveillance in the US, overtly authoritarian security legislation dating back to the Fifth Republic in France–which was a response to the Algerian Crisis of 1958– and increasingly hard anti-terrorist legislation in Australia).
There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering, sharing and operational procedures in order to combat the terrorism threat. The main impediment to that has not been a public lack of cooperation or the inadequacy of extant criminal law (which needs regular upgrading in any event due to the evolution of crime–for example, 30 years ago cyber security and cyber crime were not issues that needed to be covered by law). Instead, it has mainly been due to inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies and a lack of international cooperation on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China). Given advents in telecommunications technologies, there has to be a priority focus on social media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties, and without militarising the response to the point that it gives all the appearances of cultures at war.
It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. These involve a host of socio-economic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics related to them (such as the question of assimilation of migrants, minority youth unemployment etc.). But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law to treat it not as a special type of (political) crime but as just the violent acts of criminal conspirators.
Although its threat environment (including terrorist threats) is far less menacing than that of its major security partners, New Zealand has adopted antiterrorist and search and surveillance legislation that is more appropriate for the threats faced by India or Pakistan than by a small isolated democratic island state. Other small democracies outside of Europe like Costa Rica, Portugal or Uruguay have not seen the need to adopt such legislation, and Uruguay in fact has accepted released Guantanamo detainees for re-settlement. Thus the question begs as to why New Zealand has chosen to privilege security over freedom when the threat environment does not warrant it? So far, in spite of crying wolf about the spectre of home grown jihadists and returning foreign fighters, the New Zealand authorities have not provided any concrete evidence of plots or other indicators of terrorists at work that would justify the expansion of what is now a full-fledged security and surveillance state.
One can only hope that as part of the forthcoming intelligence agency review an honest discussion of terrorism and other threats can be had so that perspective can be gained and the proper response undertaken. That may well mean rolling back some of the security legislation passed during the last decade while refining specific provisions of the Crimes Act and attendant legislation so that the balance between security and civil liberties can be re-equilibrated in more even fashion.
For an interesting take on the subject, here is an article by a US security academic with clear pro-establishment views.
In a New Zealand Herald op ed I discuss Edward Snowden’s actions and their implications for New Zealand. It is possible that he may not be what he claims to be, but whether he is or not, there will be inevitable consequences for New Zealand stemming from his leaks.
The Parliamentary Select Committee hearings on the Bills to amend the 2003 GCSB Act and 2004 Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act have begun this week. There is much interest in the hearings not only because of the content of the Bills under consideration, but also because they are open to the public. The cast of characters scheduled to present is as colorful as it is deep: Kim Dotcom, the CTU, the Law Society, Internet NZ and several telecommunications firms are among those representing.
Even so, some of the public discussion surrounding the proposed reforms has been stunningly stupid. In recent weeks the Herald featured two editorials supporting the proposed changes. The first claimed that the changes would help prevent a Boston Bombing scenario (a claim that the Prime Minister has parroted; Winston Peters prefers to use the train station bombing hypothetical). That ignores the fact that US intelligence agencies could not do so even with their massive meta data-mining schemes and a tip from Russian authorities. Nor could they prevent the Fort Hood massacre even though the perpetrator was in regular email contact with an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen prior to the shooting.
Worse yet, the Prime Minister and others such as this editorial writer make it seem as if counter-terrorism is the primary function of intelligence operations. It is not. Traditional inter-state espionage, no matter what the technologies used, remain the major part of intelligence work. The counter-terrorism angle provides a convenient fig leaf for the expansion of intelligence networks and the scope of their authority, but in reality occupies a relatively small amount of intelligence resources and attention. This is particularly true for countries that are not on the front lines of the so-called “war on terrorism.”
The second editorial, by a supposed former intelligence officer, claimed that those who oppose the Bill are scaremongers and uninformed, even though the Law Society, Internet NZ and several other professional groups have registered their opposition on legal as well as technical grounds. The author also asserted that because civil servants drafted the proposed changes, we should accept them in good faith. Yeah right.
I beg to differ. There is clearly a need to “tidy up” the legal framework governing GCSB activities on home soil because under the current Act the role of the GCSB in domestic espionage is murky. But civil libertarians and privacy rights activists have legitimate reason to oppose the GCSB Bill in its present form.
The Bill expands the terms and conditions under which the GCSB can engage in domestic espionage, including reasons that have nothing to do with national security and for agencies unrelated to it. Those responsible for issuing the warrants under which the GCSB would “assist” domestic agencies would be those who currently do so, in a cross-signed fashion in the case of spying on New Zealand citizens and residents. If the targeted entity falls under the foreign intelligence collection mandate of the GCSB (which targets “foreign entities,” in New Zealand, including private firms as well as diplomatic missions), warrantless intercepts can be authorized even if they extend to New Zealanders.
In light of past excesses and mistakes it is evident that leaving warrant issuance to the Prime Minister and a retired judge (the Commissioner for Security Warrants) is pure folly even when done in combination. These are the individuals who were on watch during the Dotcom raid and, in the case of the Prime Minister, claimed ignorance after the fact as to how and why the GCSB became unlawfully involved in it.
The definition of threat to national security under which the GCSB would act is too nebulous and broad to prevent mission creep into common law enforcement and encroachments on individual and group privacy. For example, under the proposed legislation the GCSB could assist the Department of Primary Industries to spy on environmental activists on behalf of fishing, logging or mining interests if their protests were deemed injurious to the economic well-being of the nation, which can be construed as a threat to national security under current definition of the term.
The oversight mechanisms proposed by the Kitteridge Report are a veneer on what currently exists. Even if bolstered by a Deputy and some additional clerical staff and funding, the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security is simply too dependent and too powerless to effectively serve as the overseer of the New Zealand intelligence community. Absent effective independent oversight such as that which could come by making the Inspector General’s office a Department of Parliament responsible to a Parliamentary Committee with powers of compulsion under oath, the room for unaccountable manipulation of intelligence flows and analysis remains great.
The Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) BIll that accompanies the GCSB Bill is more draconian than similar legislation under the US Patriot Act. It compels telecommunications companies to provide access to their source and encryption codes (that is, provide warrantless access before the fact to private accounts when no threats are evident). It authorizes GCSB espionage operations without the consent of affected private entities as part of its “information assurance and cyber assurance” function, which is designed to safeguard a broadly defined information infrastructure consisting all forms of telecommunications emissions, systems and networks. In other words, one way or another the GCSB would have the ability to surreptitiously monitor all New Zealand based telecommunications regardless of whether or not they involved clear threats to national security.
Since New Zealand is not a major target of inter-state cyber espionage or in the so-called war on terrorism, that is an overreach. India, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Canada, Germany and many other democracies who arguably are much more at risk for espionage and terrorism do not have such legislation. In most the separation of foreign and domestic espionage is made quite clear in law, with the latter carried out mostly by the Police, national gendarmes or local investigative agencies with help from foreign-focused intelligence agencies only in the most exceptional circumstances (even then, agencies like Interpol exist as the first line of recourse used to facilitate international crime investigations).
What is the problem in requesting voluntary telecommunications company cooperation with national security investigations, particularly when they are clearly focused on clear and present threats? What telecommunications provider would refuse such a request, especially if issued under warrant specifying the reasons? If such a system works for the countries mentioned above, why can it not work here?
The official presumption in the T(ICS) bill that telecommunications firms need to be compelled rather than be allowed to voluntarily cooperate with intelligence agencies on matters of national security says more about the disposition of the government than it does about that of the firms involved.
By expanding the GCSB’s domestic “assistance” role in two capacities (information assurance and cyber security to public and private entities as well as technical assistance to sister agencies), the proposed changes run the risk of deviating it from its main foreign signals intelligence and counter-cyber espionage efforts. It will add a further burden to it’s already stretched staff of analysts, engineers, linguists and cryptographers. Since increased funding and recruitment are circumscribed by the present climate of fiscal austerity, it does not appear likely that resources for the GCSB will be increased commiserate with the increase in its domestic assistance authority.
Interestingly, the GCSB and T(ICS) Bills were proposed soon after issuance of the Kitteridge Report on the GCSB, which was driven by the unlawful electronic monitoring of Kim Dotcom and associates by that agency. Given the level of detail in the Bills, that suggests that they were drafted before Ms. Kitteridge’s findings and recommendations were finalized. This contradicts the government’s claim that the Bills came in response to the findings of that report.
In a world in which threats are increasingly “intermestic” or “glocal” in nature and in which the boundary between national law enforcement and international security is increasingly blurred, there is reason to adjust the legislative apparatus governing the role, scope and functions of the New Zealand intelligence community, including its international commitments. At present the GCSB and sister agencies appear rudderless, unsure of who and what purpose they serve, much less how they should prioritize their essential responsibilities.
This is why a full inquiry into the New Zealand intelligence community is needed before any reforms are made to its legal architecture, especially given that the last review of New Zealand intelligence operations occurred in the 1970s.
The inquiry could well start with exploring what New Zealand’s threat environment consists of now and in the near to medium future, including proximate and distant threats of a physical (environmental and epidemiological), economic, military, diplomatic and criminal nature. It could then turn to outlining the specific meaning of “national security” in light of these threats (with the balance between minimalist and expansive definitions of national security needing to be debated and precisely defined).
It might consider how current policy decisions or orientations can set the stage for the emergence or facilitation of future threats (such as by trying to play off trade and security relations with competing great powers as a form of hedging or strategic balancing act). Having done that, it could proceed to review the way in which the intelligence community operates so as to offer prescriptions for its better tailoring to the threat environment extant and foreseeable.
Much has happened since the last intelligence review, both in terms of the nature of national security threats as well as the technologies they employ and those used to counter them. It is therefore prudent to pause and review how New Zealand intelligence operations are conducted rather than rush to pass legislation that retroactively exculpates past unlawful behavior by the GCSB while expanding the reach of those who authorized it.
A short version of this essay appeared in the New Zealand Herald on July 2, 2013 under the title “GCSB bill going too far too fast.”
Now that the Kitteridge and Neazor reports have been tabled, discussion can more fully proceed to the issue of intelligence oversight. The government has proposed bolstering resources for the Inspector General of Intelligence, and adding a Deputy Inspector General to what until now has been a one man shop. That is a step in the right direction, but it falls very short of the mark when it comes to robust, independent intelligence oversight mechanisms. Here I outline one way of achieving them.
Currently the IG is dependent on the NZSIS and GCSB for resources and cooperation and answers to the Prime Minister. That puts him at the interface between politics and operational matters in a chain of responsibility, which reduces his freedom of action.
The IG’s office should be strengthened in terms of staff and moved to become an agency of parliamentary services. It will answer to the Parliamentary Committee on Security and Intelligence, although its staff and funding source will be independent of the Committee. The Committee will have powers of compulsion under oath that allow it to force intelligence managers to release operational details or classified information to it upon request. It would meet at least once a month and receive scheduled classified briefs from the directors of the SIS and GCSB as well as senior managers in the DPMC handling intelligence flows. At any time the Committee would be able to order the appearance in special session of officials from the Police, Customs, Immigration, Treasury and other agencies that employ intelligence collection and analysis services.
All of this would require that the staff of the committee as well as that of the IG have security clearances akin to those of personnel employed by the agencies being overseen. That will require background checks and security vetting of staff. Members of the Committee would be required to sign secrecy oaths under penalty of law.
The transition from the current ineffectual oversight mechanisms to something more effective will take time and money. It will therefore be resisted not only by the agencies being overseen (who naturally will be discomfited by increased scrutiny from agencies unattached to the Prime Minister). It will also be opposed by political sectors focused on cost-cutting, quick results, or maintaining the current system because of the weight of institutional legacies and/or advantages it gives governments when it comes to the interpretation and implementation of intelligence priorities. But it is certainly worth doing.
The time is opportune for change. The sequels to the Dotcom case have exposed serious problems in the political management of intelligence issues as well as deficiencies in the conduct of intelligence operations. The government has proposed significant changes to the 2003 GCSB Act, particularly section 14, that will have the effect of strengthening the GCSB’s powers of internal (domestic) surveillance at the behest of other agencies–foreign and domestic. The justification for this rests on the increasingly transnationalized nature of security threats, whereby the intersection of local and international crime, foreign corporate and political espionage, irregular warfare networks and non-state actors makes much more difficult precise definition of what constitutes a domestic as opposed to foreign intelligence concern. These are grey area phenomena, and the response cannot be given in black and white.
I agree that the security threat environment has changed and is much more “glocal” or “intermestic.” I agree that it requires statutory revision in order to better account for the changing nature of intelligence operations under such conditions. What I am proposing here is a parallel revamp of oversight mechanisms that promote more independence, transparency, accountability and compliance at a time when the scope of intelligence agency authority is being redefined and expanded well beyond traditional espionage operations.
The issue is worth debating and therefore should be the subject of a larger inquiry such as proposed by Labour and the Greens. If nothing else the Kitteridge and Neazor reports can be used as the starting point for a more thorough discussion of the role, functions and purview of NZ intelligence agencies given the changed nature of the threat environment and the equally compelling need to maintain a better measure of democratic accountability than has heretofore been seen.
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.