Posts Tagged ‘oversight’

Confronting executive branch excess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving intelligence oversight.

datePosted on 14:35, May 22nd, 2013 by Pablo

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.


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.