The decision by SIS Director General WarrenÂ 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.Â
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, Â it was unaware of the Israeli contract assets and their sayanÂ (local Jewish liaison) Tony Resnick (who procured the identity of the individual in whose name the fraudulent–but official–passport was toÂ Â be issued, and who escaped to Israel before Â 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 Â 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.