A recent TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed that 32 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, 32 percent had much or complete trust in those agencies, and 33 percent were lukewarm either way (with 3 percent undecided). That means that 65 percent of respondents were less than strongly trusting of New Zealand’s spies. This is a remarkable degree of public skepticism of intelligence organizations in a democracy.
The Prime Minister has said that the New Zealand intelligence community has to work hard to regain public trust. He is wrong, or is just being politically polite.
Unlike agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Police, Fire Service, Health Boards, WINZ and Education, which provide direct goods and services to the public and which depend on public trust in order to operate efficiently (notwithstanding the well-known problems afflicting at least some of these “direct provision” agencies), the intelligence community need not concern itself with expressions of public trust. That is because the service that intelligence agencies provide as ostensibly commonweal organizations (i.e. ones that serve the universal public interest), although for the general good in the last instance (at least theoretically), is not provided directly or even openly. Instead, the intelligence agencies answer to the government of the day as the representative of the public will and provide their collection and analysis skills to the government for the national good as defined by their charter and the government’s interpretation of it. Â They do not need the public’s trust in order to operate efficiently because most of what they do is away from the public eye.
Thus, in the first instance, the trust of the government is what matters for the spies. In this the intelligence community has an advantage because politicians elected into government are generally not conversant with intelligence matters and therefore are susceptible to espionage agency “capture:” the information that the spies provide gives the political elite a privileged window on the world, so they are most often reluctant to critically dispute the view.
More importantly, New Zealand’s intelligence sharing partners must have strong levels of trust in its spies. Without that, New Zealand’s access to allied intelligence sharing may suffer because foreign partners will be reluctant to risk placing sensitive information in the hands of untrustworthy people. The saving grace for New Zealand’s spies is that the years of relationship-building with its intelligence partners could allay the latter’s fears of incompetence or unprofessionalism on the part of the former.
On the other hand, even long standing relationships can be damaged by breaches of trust. This could well be the case in the wake of the Dotcom scandal, where the case against the internet magnate is crumbling in light of disclosures of illegal warrantless wiretapping by the GCSB (which makes evidence collected by those wiretaps inadmissible). Between the GCSB’s failures to follow its own basic protocols with regards to eavesdropping requests from sister agencies, coupled with the over the top nature of the raids on Dotcom’s residence (which included the presence of armed FBI agents and the detention of women and children by armed police), it is unlikely that any NZ judge will grant the US extradition request. That means time and resources spent by the US and NZ on pursuing the case against Dotcom will be for naught. Â The GCSB failings are bound to be noted by New Zealand’s intelligence partners, who will wonder about the assurances given by the GCSB and Police (and more than likely the SIS) that their course of action would not be subject to legal challenge or public scrutiny.
The bottom line is one of vertical and horizontal accountability. In democracies, governments are held accountable by the electorate (expressed both individually and collectively). That is the vertical dimension of accountability. Under that government, public agencies are accountable to each other via a system of checks and balances. That is the horizontal dimension of democratic accountability, which is used to cultivate the public trust that is key to vertical accountability.
In New Zealand there is very little horizontal accountability between the intelligence community and other parts of government, to include parliament and the judiciary (and perhaps even the executive in specific instances). This makes its agents (to include the GCSB and SIS) even less vertically accountable than in most liberal democracies, where oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms are much better developed.
As a nation-state New Zealand is also accountable to its diplomatic and security partners. That is another facet of horizontal accountability, writ large. New Zealand’s foreign partners must have trust in its diplomatic, military and espionage agencies in order for their mutual relationships to prosper. So long as they do,Â domestic trust is of secondary importance. But for that to happen, New Zealand’s intelligence community must be able to deliver on what it promises, which means that it must offer iron-clad guarantees that its activities will not be the subject of contentious public or political debate that can jeopardize ongoing intelligence collection and analysis operations
Thus, on the one hand, the poll results are not as worrisome for the government as may appear at first glance. So long as the New Zealand intelligence community and its component parts have the trust of its allies, then it will suffer no harm as a result of the public loss of faith in it. But should foreign partners come anywhere close to exhibiting the flat bell curve of trust that characterizes the results of the TVNZ survey, then New Zealand could well find itself excluded from at least some of the sensitive intelligence flows that are the ostensible reason for its participation in the Echelon/Five Eyes network, to say nothing of the wider intelligence community of which it is part.
As for the domestic side of the equation: a nation of sheep is led by the sheep dog. Â The sheep dog is the government, of which intelligence agencies are part. The shepherd is the institutional system of checks and balances that govern intelligence gathering and analysis, to which the government of the moment is subject. Absent such effective oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms, sheep are always at the mercy of an unrestrained and unaccountable dog.