It turns out that the Prime Minister was briefed about the Dotcom surveillance by the GCSB in February 2012, not in September 2012 as Mr. Key has previously asserted. It also turns out that the eavesdropping began before the late 2011 timeframe offered by the government and repeated in Inspector General Paul Neazor’s report on the unlawful nature of the GCSB’s involvement n the Dotcom case. Since 2009, shortly after National assumed government, there have been at least three other cases involving the GCSB that may be of dubious legality. The official story admits that the legal advice given to the Police and the GCSB with regards to Dotcom’s residency status was wrong. Apparently neither the Police or GCSB checked with Immigration, Customs or other agencies about the issue (or if they did, they received either erroneous advice or ignored the correct advice given).
Mr. Key says that the briefing in February 2012 was about the general roles and capabilities of the GCSB, and that Mr. Dotcom’s photo came up as part of a laptop slide show presentation. That is curious. One would assume that Mr. Key would have received such a briefing as part of the transition to and early days of his first government, and that he would consequently have an idea of GCSB functions well before February 2012. It would be astounding if no such briefing took place during his first term as Prime Minister, and it would be only slightly less astounding if he required a remedial or follow-up briefing in February 2012, which just happened to be less than three weeks after the Dotcom raids.
More plausible would be that the briefing in February 2012, as the government returned to business after the summer holidays, was a status report on ongoing GCSB operations. One would presume that the slide show presentation was done to bullet point the main thrust of those operations as well as the targets and methods involved. The Dotcom case would have been one of them.
The question begs as to whether not only is the Prime Minister’s memory faulty, but whether he is competent on matters of security and intelligence. If he needs a remedial general brief about the GCSB role and functions and/or cannot distinguish between an operational status update and a general brief after nearly four years in office, then he clearly is not up to the task of providing effective oversight of the intelligence apparatus. Nor, it would seem, is his cabinet, which presumably would have prepped him on the nature of the visit to the GCSB headquarters in February 2012 and provided him with detailed questions on the operations in question. One of them might have been with regard to Mr. Dotcom’s residency status and the legality of GCSB surveillance in that case.
It would seem that, to paraphrase an observation about Sarah Palin, he has a singular intellectual disinterest in matters of security and intelligence, and that disinterest is shared by his closest advisors. Contrast that with his real interest in tourism (of which he is minister), the foreign film industry (for which his government changed NZ law in order to accommodate the conditions demanded by one foreign investor) and privatization and asset sales schemes of various sorts.
The bottom line is that John Key is to intelligence oversight what the captain of the Costa Concordia is to maritime safety–both asleep or otherwise engaged while in command.
The Dotcom case is the unhappy gift that keeps on giving. The media and the opposition are peeling away the layers of obfuscation that make up the bulk of the government’s version of the story. There is surely more unflattering revelations to come.
Fundamental issues of accountability and oversight have been raised by the Dotcom case, not only with regard to the substance of the charges against him and the way in which the Police, Crown and GCSB conducted themselves, but with regard to the general conduct of New Zealand intelligence agencies (the SIS has had its own share of embarrassments in that respect).
With a parliamentary security and intelligence committee devoid of effective oversight powers, an Inspector General of Intelligence whose independence and authority are tightly circumscribed and a prime minister who is either incompetent or disinterested in security and intelligence matters, or whose managerial style is to allow sensitive government bureaucracies to operate with near total independence wedded to an absence of institutional accountability (which can be vertical or horizontal, with both being needed for effective democratic oversight of intelligence and security agencies), the Dotcom case may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to state agencies playing loose with the law.
That matters only because adherence to the rule of law is considered to be one fundamental measure of the quality of democracy. The core of that measure is that the State adhere to the law as much if not more than its citizens. Given the revelations in the Dotcom case, which follow on other instances of intelligence agency malfeasance (e.g. the Zaoui beat-up), New Zealand has found itself sorely wanting.