Suspecting the Spies.

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:

14 thoughts on “Suspecting the Spies.

  1. This is all very speculative, Pablo. It is just as likely that Goff deliberately leaked this pseudo-scandal and then tried to cover this up by feigning ignorance when it blew up in his face and started to attract interest in the leak, rather than the “scandal”.

    Given Goff’s current track record, I would think this is a fairly plausible scenario.

  2. Mac, I’ve been hard on Goff for this, bc the file note released to Whale appeared to be the end of it. But since the SIS has now stated that no evidence of such a briefing exists — in apparent contradiction of the file note — it’s all a bit more murky.

    The most crucial thing is to get a solid determination of the facts. We need to know who is right. Uncertainty is the worst possible outcome for everyone, except the person whose account is most false.


  3. I’m still suspicious of this coming to light Just as Key landed in the USA for a visit which would culminate with a meeting with the POTUS. It seems almost certainly like a calculated attempt to distract media attention away for what was a significant event for the PM in election year. Who would be the main beneficiary of that.

    MacDoctor is onto it; all roads lead to the Goffice.

  4. Thank-you Pablo for an informative overview of this strange affair. Having taken a close interest since it broke about two weeks ago, one thing is clear to me. Phil Goff did not receive a proper briefing on what happened, nor was he shown any briefing papers at the time. I find it perplexing that a person of Dr Warren Tucker’s calibre would, of his own free will, withhold information from Phil Goff that he (Goff) was entitled by law to be given. Yet that appears to be what happened. I think there is indeed an ‘element’ in this story that has yet to be uncovered.

  5. The SIS has now admitted that it has no record of Goff acknowledging receiving information on the Israelis (or in other words, that it has no records of the briefings where this information was supposedly discussed). This is clearly an SIS effort to put the matter to rest while saving face. It is pretty clear that both sides realise the implications of what I have posted about and have decided to draw back in order to continue business as usual. The larger issues of SIS oversight and accountability remain unaddressed.

  6. Were I to request anything under the OIA it would be: When did the SIS first discover that there had been a leak into the information of the 22 February 2011 incident and do they know who it is and what are they going to do about it?

  7. Treetop:

    I am sure that the SIS is working hard to find the leaker. I have seen suggestions on a right-wing site that Goff is the leaker and this was all done to make Key look bad during his trip to the US (is he back yet or still holidaying in Hawai’i?). That sort of partisan rubbish obscures the bigger issues of accountability and oversight that are the real concern.

  8. I expect that the SIS have recovered police documents to do with the 22 February 2011 incident. Up to now I have heard nothing from the commissioner of police about police being suspicious. (Change of police commissioner in April 2011).

    Does the commissioner of police meet with the SIS?
    Was the commissioner of police briefed by the SIS and if so when?

  9. Treetop:

    If what you suggest is true, then Goff was briefed, but not by Tucker. Which explains Goff’s self-righteous indignation. It also reaffirms my point about the larger issues.

  10. Rightly or wrongly, my impression was that Goff had received no briefing of any substance from anyone. Something might have been ‘flicked past him’ back in March, but his demeanour at the time the story broke in the Southland Times suggested to me he knew very little more than the rest of us. If that is correct then his fury was understandable.

    I note you don’t mention Netanyahu in your post, but I am curious about his phone-call to Key on the day of the earthquake. I am sure he would be concerned for the safety of Israeli nationals, but he has a staff of some many dozens who would be capable of making any necessary inquiries on his behalf. After all, if John Key and Phil Goff are “very busy people” then Netanyahu is a very, very very busy person. I make no accusation because the phone call may have been exactly as portrayed ie. a concern for the welfare of Israeli nationals caught up in the quake.

  11. Anne:

    I think that what TT is suggesting is that Goff may have been unofficially briefed by someone with knowledge of the SIS investigation. If so he chose to remain silent during the Tucker briefings rather than ask about the Israelis (already knowing the situation), and waited for the story to break before becoming indignant. This raises another set of questions about the relationship between politicians and security managers.

    If Key is true in saying that Netenyahu tried to phone him several times but only got through once, that could be just to offer condolences and USAR help (esp. given that israelis were among the victims). That is SOP between many govt leaders at times of disaster so I am inclined to accept key’s word on this one (if there was more than one conversation between the two leaders, then that would raise questions as to the subject).

  12. Pablo
    Thanks for your response. Listening to Goff on Nat radio the morning the story broke gave me the clear impression he had been kept in the dark. Having said that, it’s possible he did pick up something in advance of the story appearing in the S.T. but, in my view, that would have been all.

    There are few pollies who can be fully trusted, but I knew Goff quite well once and he never struck me as being into false theatrics.

  13. My comment 7 August 2011 at 16.50: I would like to see any documentation confirming that Tucker told the police commissioner and then I would like to see if the information would be released to me within 5 working days. The police computer was checked out to see if this was hacked and Collin’s office may also have been informed.

    I am trying to establish how Tucker informs those whom the Act specifies to be informed.

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