Media Link: More GCSB weirdness.

I was interviewed on Radio NZ about the controversy surrounding the appointment of Ian Fletcher as GCSB director. I had to leave out a number of important points like the need for objectivity and political neutrality in intelligence operations, or how the PM could have had a surrogate reach out to Fletcher rather than get personally involved in his selection. Otherwise, the gist is here.

16 thoughts on “Media Link: More GCSB weirdness.

  1. Its interesting you bring it back to the dotcom case and call it the case that keeps on giving.
    Dotcom said late last year that he had the evidence that Key knew all about this well before he said he did. Dotcom said he wont release that until it comes out in court. Im wondering when that will be.

  2. The PM has already announced the the forthcoming report on the GCSB will recommend a significant overhaul. The thinking is that fresh blood will rejuvenate the place and clear out the dead wood. The assumption is that an efficient manager can do wonders in any organization, regardless of role and function.

    There are several problems with this view. Signals and technical intelligence gathering and analysis is a complex and sophisticated endeavor. The long-standing GCSB chief, Warren Tucker (now head of the SIS), is an electrical engineer by training. Bruce Ferguson was a pilot and head of NZDF before his appointment. Both men understood the electronic espionage business.

    Unless Fletcher was a covert spy during his many years in foreign civil service, he has no background in the technical fields upon which the GCSB depends in order to do it work. That leaves him dependent on others for his understanding how things are done.

    Matters of policy and the politics and legal aspects of cooperative targeting in the Echelon System may not need technical expertise but some background in the relevant fields might have made Mr. Fletcher a better qualified candidate. Or perhaps his expertise in trademark and copyright issues will allow him to shift the GCSB focus to economic espionage and counter-espionage. If so, that should be explained.

    Another problem is that the PM has said that an overhaul of the GCSB is forthcoming as a result of the internal investigation occasioned by the Dotcom fiasco, the report of which is to be released after he returns from China in mid April. Mr Rennie has said that Fletcher was brought in as a “change manager.” But Ian Fletcher was interviewed in July 2011 and formally appointed in late 2011. This came before the Jan. 2012 Dotcom raids (Dotcom arrived in August 2011 and was granted permanent residency in December 2011).

    One would assume that Mr. Fletcher was briefed about the Dotcom case as part of his transition into the Director’s role, which given his inexperience and the significance of the raids (US involvement, nature of the charges, use of electronic eavesdropping, etc.), would/should have happened at the time of his appointment–again, before the raid. It seems implausible that he would not have been briefed prior to the raid.

    That puts him in the middle of the Dotcom case. He may wish to pass the buck onto the now-ousted Deputy (then Acting) Director who oversaw GCSB involvement in the Dotcom operation. That is likely what the report will do, which will also provide Mr. Fletcher with a blueprint for his “change management.”

    If so, that underscores how reliant Mr. Fletcher is on his underlings for his understanding of what the GCSB can and can not do. These are the same people who are said to be suffering from low morale in wake of the Dotcom affair and who will be facing the dramatic organizational changes he will be charged with implementing.

  3. I suppose this Fletcher did work in the patent office but i agree with you unless he was also a spy i cant see what he adds to the table more than what that other guy from Britain who headed telecom, crashed the mobile network and went fly-fishing could do.

    No matter how Key tries to defend Fletcher, like you say he would of being briefed or he otherwise failed to ask. Importantly for me too Flether is also the person who applied to Key to have the suppression order put on it

  4. If the government is reluctant to place a career civil servant as the head of the NZDF, then it should have likewise seen the problem in appointing one to a spy agency. This is not your average government department.

  5. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with having somebody from outside the espionage community as head of a spy agency. Other countries have often done it, with few dramas. The issue is not that Fletcher is necessarily unqualified, it’s that it’s impossible to know because his appointment has been tainted by the whole shoulder-tapping thing.

    If the PM had sent a surrogate to suggest Fletcher take the job, it’d have been just as bad, though. Less likely to be detected, but not morally superior.

  6. The shoulder tapping aspect is just a red herring. The problem with the Dotcom case (and certainly quite a few others) is that the legal advice was wrong. Dotcom’s status was such that the GCSB were not supposed to spy on him. It has nothing to do with knowing how inteligence networks operate or similar such matters. I dont know if Fletcher was involved in the interpretation of the legal status or not – but it seems that an inability to read a pretty simple regulation was the essence of the matter – not a lack of understanding about how MI6 works……..
    As is so often the case with senior managers going wrong – its not very complex. Its almost always that they ignored some very basic aspect.

  7. I really do not wish to enter into a back and forth with Hugh, but I would like to know what “other countries have quite often” appointed non-qualified people to top intelligence jobs? That may be true for some backwards dictatorships, but I do not believe that it is true for advanced democracies or authoritarian regimes.

    Even in the US, where top level appointments are very political, candidates for CIA, NSA and DIA directorships are required to have some prior experience in intelligence matters (for example, membership on House or Senate select intelligence committees, if not employment in agencies in which classified information is handled).

    Of course I only worked with such agencies at some length in the past so am most likely just feeding a nostalgia rush, whereas Hugh must have some deeper knowledge of how intel shops currently work. That is why I would like to know who those “other countries” are.

    As for a surrogate being the same as the PM directly shoulder tapping Fletcher. No. There must be an appearance of impartiality or distance, so Rennie himself could have made the call and that wold have been OK. If a National Party MP had made the call that could be seen as a friendly suggestion.

    The PM did not even have to conduct a search to appoint his chosen candidate, which makes me wonder why tax dollars were spent on the short-listing exercise if it was just a means of giving the appearance of competitiveness to the search. That seems to be a waste of tax payer money for appearance’s sake. And let us remember that this “change manager” was appointed before the Dotcom raids/scandal, so clearly the change train had been set in motion long before the raids and the inquiry report that is about to be made public.

    The point is not about moral superiority but about avoiding apparent conflicts of interest. Had Key just said that he appointed a highly respected old friend with a sterling CV to effect change within the GCSB, that would have been the end of the story.

    The question is how does an inexperienced change manager effect change in an intelligence agency with complex technical tasks? After all, signals and technical intelligence is more than cyberespionage, hacking and counter-hacking, so a background in patents, trademarks and copyrights may not cover the intricacies of the agency role. Perhaps being a close advisor to Tony Blair when he lied the UK into an unprovoked war of choice may be the requisite experience Mr. Ky was looking for.

    My other question is whether any applicants (initial or short-listed) were former or current NSA. MI6, ASIO or other allied country signals intelligence officers. There are no prohibitions on foreign nationals assuming such jobs so long as they pass the security vetting and obtain residency with an eye to citizenship. Their experience at these larger partner agencies would be very helpful in reorganizing the GCSB. Were any such folk even considered?

  8. ‘ I would like to know what “other countries have quite often” appointed non-qualified people to top intelligence jobs? That may be true for some backwards dictatorships, but I do not believe that it is true for advanced democracies or authoritarian regimes’

    .Well, Pablo, here are some examples:

    Erard Corbin de Mangoux, head of La Piscine, was previously employed as a Departmental Prefect and Maritime Commissioner before he got his current job. His predecessor, Pierre Brochand, was a career diplomat.

    Leon Panetta’s only experience with intelligence before he became CIA Director was that he sat in on intelligence briefings when he was Clinton’s Chief of Staff. This was extensively commented on when his appointment was progressing through Congress, but he got the job, and is generally agreed to have performed well.

    John Sawers, current head of MI6, was an ambassador and diplomatic advisor in Downing Street.

    Kim Seung-kew, head of the National Intelligence Service from 2006-2007, was a former public prosecutor and Minister of Justice.

    Hector Icazuriaga, Secretary of Intelligence in Argentina, is a former provincial Governor.

    Mikhail Fradkov, head of the SVR, is a former Director of the Federal Tax Police.

    And so on and so on. I’m sure they didn’t all perform flawlessly, but I’m not sure the record of professional intelligence agents is necessarily far superior.

  9. Hugh:

    Do you not realize that in all of these instances with the exception of Argentina, they required handling sensitive intelligence before appointment to the spy job? BTW, Panetta was on the House Intelligence Committee before he joined Clinton’s inner circle, both of which required intimate knowledge of intelligence affairs and very high security clearances.

    Perhaps, contrary to public statements, Mr. Fletcher does have past experience with intelligence matters, even if as a consumer of such while in his various public service jobs. That still leaves open the question as to whether he has any technical competence in SIGINT and TECHINT. Unlike a Minister, who relies on the department heads or CEOs, both spy agencies require proactive knowledge of their craft on the part of the Director.

    Perhaps Mr. Fletcher is another Richard Woods, albeit wrapped in a different cloak.

  10. You’re right about Panetta, I actually didn’t know he’d been in Congress at all, but with the others, I think my point stands. While they might have had some incidental contact with the intelligence world, it was very far outside their core experience. I would think a public prosecutor or maritime commissioner’s contact with the intelligence world would be almost minimal, and that the experience they would bring to a subsequent appointment would be almost zero.

    In every other government department, specific technical expertise with the matters the department deals with is only a nice-to-have. When I worked for the DIA, our Director was a former orchestra Director. He performed very well, despite having almost zero knowledge on the specifics of gambling policy or identity documents or citizenship processing before entering the role.

    Now of course the argument can be made that intelligence agencies are different and special, that technical expertise in intelligence matters is harder to access for a non-specialist and that prior experience is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.

    I’m sceptical of this. Almost every field has people making this claim – I view it simply as a matter of attempted supplier capture. It’s quite natural, those with technical knowledge will tend to believe that their knowledge is a valuable commodity, both as a way to tell themselves they’re important and as a way to promote themselves.

    But if it were true, if the intelligence field did require experience more than other fields, there would be a clear parallel between expertise and success. Panetta may not have been totally without intelligence expertise, but he had considerably less than his predecessor. The same was true of Mikhail Fradkov – he was widely derided inside the Russian intelligence community as a ‘tax inspector’ when he became SVR Director, but the agency scored many successes under his tenure. The dire predictions of those claiming the need for specialist knowledge, in both cases, did not pan out.

    I would actually argue that with intelligence agencies we should be erring in the direction of less, not more, supplier capture. One of the biggest risks in the management of intelligence agencies is that they will become unaccountable and even hostile to the civilian populations they are intended to protect. If their leadership is closed to those who do not have technical experience – and, of course, the acculturation to the internal values of the intelligence community’s microculture that inevitably accompanies that expertise – this risk gets much, much higher.

    (Of course, appointing non-technical experts who are the personal designates of the politicians-in-charge brings almost exactly the same risk, which is why I’m opposed to Fletcher’s appointment. His status as the PM’s designate is very worrying, and this is why, for me, the method by which the PM shoulder-tapped him is very much secondary to the fact of the shoulder-tapping)

  11. Hugh:

    Your point about supplier capture is well taken, but in the case of the GCSB I think that some background in SIGINT and TECHINT is required. That could come from outside the GCSB, which is why I mentioned applicants from foreign allied agencies such as the NSA.

    I found it interesting that Key, in his follow up comments about Fletcher’s appointment, said that military experience was not a requirement, but omitted mention of an intelligence background.

  12. I think its becoming pretty obvious in the light of the report this morning that the GCSB has been breaking the law for at least a decade – that in the case of the NZ GCSB that those who were running the place – presumeably of military or similar background – are as incapable of reading fairly simple laws as anyone else.
    Apparently breaking the military law, the privacy law (which isnt really that bad being such a terrible law anyway) and various other regulations.

  13. Barry:

    Warren Tucker, a civilian electrical engineer, ran the GCSB from 1999 until the mid to late 2000s (he worked his way up through the GCSB ranks, so was with the agency for nearly two decades). He is now the Director of the SIS. make of that what you may.

  14. The question of appointing non-experienced people to top posts in government agencies/ministries/departments is interesting — and selectively applied. When was the last time that a non-economist was appointed to lead Treasury?

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