Johns Key’s answers to the “mystery” of the US Air Force executive jet parked at Wellington during Hobbit mania gives us a good indication of his attitude towards the public and the press. Although the plane was misidentified several times by reporters as a private plane, it is in fact part of a fleet of US Air Force transport aircraft that are used regularly to fly high level politicians and bureaucrats to foreign meetings. The make, model, livery, insignia and identification number would have been readily recognizable to plane spotters, so Mr. Key was correct in saying that there was no secret to its visit. It was how he answered the question of who the visitors on the plane were that gives an indication of his current mindset.
His initial response is that he did not know who was on the plane or the purpose of its visit. He said he may have seen the name of a visitor on a piece of paper but could not recall it. As Minister of Intelligence and Security that would seem to be an odd thing to say, especially since it played (now apparently purposefully) on the “brain fade” impression he developed as a result of his forgetfulness about the Dotcom/GCSB illegal espionage case.
What is puzzling is that he could have said any number of things: that he did not discuss intelligence and security matters in principle; did not discuss “quiet” visits by foreign (US) officials as a matter of policy; did not discuss the visits of foreign intelligence officials; or that he could not confirm or deny the presence of any such on NZ soil. It would be the same if he refused to comment on military matters citing operational security (but where again, he obfuscates and prevaricates rather than just offer a straight answer or refusal to comment). He could have said any of these things and the story would have died.
Under a second day of questioning he admitted that the plane carried a high-ranking US intelligence official to meetings with NZ intelligence officials and that the meetings involved counterparts from other foreign intelligence agencies. He denied these were meetings of the Echelon/5 Eyes partners even while saying that they hold regular meetings in NZ, the latest in July or February (depending on which version of his recollection one chooses to believe).
This comes at a time when the 5 Eyes community have been rocked by a major spy scandal in Canada, where a naval intelligence officer sold highly sensitive tactical and strategic signals intelligence data to the Russians for five years before his arrest in early 2012 (which would require the adoption of a number of sanitizing and preventative counter-measures throughout the network). It comes after the obfuscations and weirdness surrounding the GCSB involvement in the Dotcom case (which may well have started before Dotcom arrived in NZ because the NSA–the lead agency in the Echelon network–was already monitoring Dotcom prior to his arrival and would have likely asked that the GCSB continue the surveillance after he crossed the border). It also comes at a time when Huwaei is under scrutiny by the Echelon partners for its possible involvement in Chinese signals intelligence collection efforts, which are focused on the West in general and 5 Eyes countries in particular.
Under the circumstances Â a visit by senior 5 Eyes counterparts to discuss matters of common concern would not be unusual or untoward, if nothing else as an information-sharing exercise or so that they could get their ducks in a row on matters of institutional or public interest.
Thus the question begs as to why Mr. Key did not just refuse to comment citing matters of national security but instead opted to play dumb and incompetent, thereby heightening initial interest in the story?
My belief is that he has general contempt for the public’s intelligence on matters of foreign affairs and security, and that he believes the masses are not interested in the subject anyway. But his focused contempt is of the press or at least non-submissive members of it. His brain fade act is more than simply lying. It is the deliberate winding up of the press over matters that, while not inconsequential, are relatively routine or non-controversial but which he can successfully cover up so that press inquires are frustrated needlessly. In other words, he is taking the piss out of the media.
He has similar contempt for those who oppose or question his policies. He recently said that anti-TPP activists should be ignored (even though these include a large number of distinguished subject experts, academicians, politicians and former and current trade specialists). This adds to his list of those that should be ignored, including mining safety experts, environmental scientists, Maori rights activists and asset sales opponents.
The point is that as Minister of Intelligence and Security Mr. Key could respond to questions about Â intelligence and security in an authoritative manner that does not compromise either while demonstrating his command of the portfolio. That he choose not to do so and instead pleads memory loss and disinterest in these two vital components of national security suggests that he is doing so either because he really is clueless and out of his depth on intelligence and security or, more likely to my mind, he is deliberately doing so just to wind up his “enemies” in the press while dismissing detractors in civil society against a larger backdrop of public disinterest.
He is also being contemptuous of those who serve under him in critical national security roles because his feigned ignorance leaves those leading intelligence and security agencies hanging out to dry in the event that something in their purview but under his ministerial watch goes sour. Truth be told, by the terms of his ministerial portfolio he is briefed regularly and exactly on all matters of intelligence and security. Either that, or the institutional edifice of security in NZ is praetorian, something that I doubt its security partners would accept, much less agree to.
If Mr. Key is not clueless on intelligence and security matters, then the “spy” plane response and his other actions show that along with being contemptuous of those who may seek to hold him to account, he is arrogant, irresponsible, disloyal, mean-spirited and vindictive as well. To which can be added one more trait that has emerged in Mr. Key as of late: callous narcissism.
When asked recently what he was the most sorry for over the last year, he answered that it was the failure to convince the public of the benefits of the mixed ownership model. He was not as sorry about the deaths of five NZDF troops in Afghanistan, or the needless deaths and continuing failure to retrieve the bodies of the Pike River miners, or the ongoing debacle that is the Christchurch reconstruction process, nor about the leaks of private information by government agencies or the unhappy disputes with Maori over treaty settlement issues (in fact, he made no mention of these). Instead, he most laments the failure of a pet economic project to gain public traction in 2012.
That may not be surprising, but it sure is contemptible.