The SIS burlesque

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.

10 thoughts on “The SIS burlesque

  1. Lots in this post and it have lots of things to say in response :) One of them is …

    At least in my lifetime no-one has ever explained to us why we need an SIS and what one would do. Perhaps they’ve forgotten that the Cold War was a long time ago and the reds-under-the-beds fear has nearly passed from living memory.

    Tucker needs to figure out a way to start at the very beginning, why do we need an SIS? That way if we are convinced we need one the rest will be easier. Of course he risks finding out that he can’t convince us, or at least can’t convince us of the need for an SIS which does what the current one does.

    Until then it will remain, a shadowy bureaucratic structure whose spying has been (and probably continues to be) a massive intrusion into the lives of my friends and family, an organisation which only make it into the news for embarrassing mistakes and the persecution of people who seem pretty blameless.

    Why would we need a one of those?

  2. I think some real question should be asked whether or not we need them. I don’t think we do. In the very least to get the ball rolling their budget should be drastically cut and spent on something more worthwhile.

  3. I believe the SIS spend most of their time vetting staff for jobs in senior government, defense and intelligence positions. That seems like something worth doing, although you do have to wonder how competent SIS are at carrying out this role.

  4. Danyl Mclauchlan writes,

    I believe the SIS spend most of their time vetting staff for jobs in senior government, defense and intelligence positions.

    It’s hard to know, their estimates and annual report are stunningly lacking in detail. How do they get away with not having the appropriation broken down by output class? (Not to mention so much waffle about all the minutiae)

    Also, and while I’m having a grizzle, where’s their 2007-2008 Annual Report?

    This is part of their problem, I look for information which is usually completely available for other departments and it’s just not there. It’s possible they’re spending their entire $33.7 million on security vetting (would it be worth that to you?), but it’s possible they spend $3.7 million on that and the other $30 million on Something Else Entirely.

  5. I believe that it is naive in the extreme to question the utility of having an agency such as the SIS. Intelligence gathering–collection, analysis and dissemination–is vital for any government simply because it is a knowledge-generating process. The more you know, the better you can respond to things; “knowledge is power,” etc. Think of it as an early warning system or telescope on “over-the-horizon” threats. Although it may be hard for some to believe, there are real threats even in supposedly benign places like NZ, threats that may be more economic than physical, and which may be more internal than external (although that is a matter very much open to debate and one to which I do not necessarily subscribe). But the existence of a threat environment cannot be discounted.

    The real issue is whether intelligence agencies are making accurate threat assessments and delivering dispassionate, politically unbiased information to decision makers based upon a professional approach in which data is collated and assessed from a number of intelligence streams by people with expertise in designated areas of interest.

    That is where the NZSIS appears to have been, and may still be falling short. It clearly politicised the intelligence gathering process under the fifth Labour government. Because it has foreign intelligence, domestic intelligence and counter-intelligence responsibilities, it appears to do none of those tasks very well. I could note that besides the events I mention in the post, the SIS was caught off-guard by the 2006 Fiji coup, the Solomon islands unrest, the Tongan riots–all in a region in which it ostensibly has major intelligence collection responsibilities. It appears to spend an inordinate amount of time, money and effort looking for domestic threats when they are few and far between, then inflates the threat potential of the actors that they do monitor. Its counter-intelligence capability is suspect, to say the least. If anything, the Government Communications and Security Bureau could teach the SIS some lessons about professionalism, which perhaps is why Mr. Tucker was brought over from his previous position as head of the GCSB (as it is clear that a decision has been made to revamp the SIS). I have written about this previously over at Scoop on more than one occasion so will not belabor the point any longer. Threats (and opportunities) exist, thus we need intelligence agencies to identify them. The issue is how and why they do so.

    As for the vetting of people for sensitive government jobs–that is a small part of what the SIS does, and if it were to be a large part of the agency’s duties then it would be worth considering its elimination (since the Police can do that, and in fact could assume a much larger role in domestic intelligence gathering if it were not for the fact that the Police have serious institutional and cultural problems of their own which advise against such a move).

    I have long been perplexed as to why many on the Left simply reject the utility of intelligence gathering out of hand. Just because the CIA, MI5, ASIO and other intel agencies have misbehaved does not mean that a) the importance of intelligence gathering is undermined; or that b) New Zealand intelligence agencies cannot conduct themselves in a professional, non-partisan manner (as they should). But as things stand, that is exactly the question behind the post–is the SIS fulfilling its obligations in a professional manner in accordance with democratic principles of accountability, or is it a rogue agency that “spins” intelligence and invents threats for its own bureaucratic reasons as well as to favour the interests of its (purported) political masters?

  6. Pablo – But if we already have the SIG doing the same job – collecting the emails of, following the sex lives of and dating of hippies need we have both?

    or is it a rogue agency that “spins” intelligence and invents threats for its own bureaucratic reasons as well as to favour the interests of its (purported) political masters? Yes.

  7. QtR: No. I believe the SIS should get out of the domestic intel business entirely, but also believe that the Police intel branch suffers from much of the same institutional culture issues as those of the SIS. The only way to remedy that is for public and parliamentary attention be placed on these agencies as part of a broad demand for (better) accountability and less bias in their operations. However, I fear that it is not in the NZ political culture to do so.

  8. Pablo writes,

    I believe that it is naive in the extreme to question the utility of having an agency such as the SIS. Intelligence gathering–collection, analysis and dissemination–is vital for any government simply because it is a knowledge-generating process. The more you know, the better you can respond to things; “knowledge is power,” etc. Think of it as an early warning system or telescope on “over-the-horizon” threats.

    The question for the SIS is what intelligence should they collect and for what purpose. At the moment their purposes are not terrible clear to the public and the intelligence we know they’ve been collecting seems inappropriate to most reasonable purposes.

    I was surprised when I realised that DPMC sponsor Security in the Government Sector (SIGS), and that much of the actual analysis of SIS sourced international information is done by EAB (also within DPMC). I wonder to what extent that means the SIS is supposed to just be a data collector for DPMC. I also wonder about the sense of having some of that within DPMC. Is there a historic rationale that I just don’t know?

    Part of my problem with domestic intelligence gathering is that I just don’t know which agency I’d trust to do it. The Police and the SIS have both blotted their copybook, who is left that the public could be expected to trust to spy on us in an ethical and appropriate way?

  9. Ah yes, the EAB. It supposedly just does external intel assessments based on inputs from the SIS, GCSB, MFAT, NZDF Immigration etc. They are only 30+/- people in the EAB and they are virtually unknown. Then there is the CTAG (Combined Threat Assessment Group)–not be confused with the Police CTTAG (Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group)–which has reps from all of the above agencies and meets regularly to share info and develop broad-based near and medium term threat assessments for the PM. One would have to think that the CTAG was involved in assessing what was going on in the Ureweras, which would be a source of concern (I wrote about this in a trilogy on the Oct 15 raids published in Scoop in late 2007 [1], [2], [3]). The recruitment, qualifications and training of EAB analysts is a secret. But they do not collect information and do not have a domestic role. That is why the SIS is the centrepiece of the NZ intelligence system, as it has a hand in every pot.

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