Trust in spies.

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.  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.  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, 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.  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.


22 thoughts on “Trust in spies.

  1. Pingback: The Daily Blog Watch Wednesday 24 April « The Daily Blog

  2. It is pretty obvious to anyone with eyes to see that our intelligence services are a bunch of pro-US stooges with to much time on their hands and cavalier in their approach to the law as it applies to them. Bluntly, they break any law they think isn’t as it should be then rely on secrecy, deception and lies dressed up as “national security” to get away with it. The whole lot of them are quite uesless and a gigantic waste of taxpayers money, the police would do a better job catching internal criminals and I can’t see why millions of my taxpayer dollars should be spent on the GCSB just so we can spy for the Americans – the US should pay for that, or shut it down.

  3. Sanctuary: I’ll take that as a vote of no confidence in the spies and count you among the 32 percent with no or low trust.

  4. Absolutely! Our professional “security” forces have been foreign sycophants and incompetent donkeys overseeing the local lions since Godley’s day.

    The only time you can trust a New Zealander in a security organisation to be competent is when he or she is a conscripted citizen.

  5. That makes for some interesting questions. The TVNZ results showed that people who tended to vote for National were more inclined to have stronger trust in spy agencies, whereas those who tended to vote for Labour were more likely to exhibit lower trust levels.

    I wonder if that split would remain the same if Labour were in government.

    I wonder if people’s trust in spy agencies was based on their belief in the competence of these agencies, or whether those who trusted more tended to take the issue of competence on faith, whereas those who trusted less were more focused on actual demonstrations of (in)competence.

    I wonder if attitudes towards espionage in general, and the US relationship in particular, colored peoples respective levels of trust, where those with negative views of espionage and the US being less trusting than those with positive views of both spies and the US.

    I pose these questions because the relationship between public agency competence and public trust may not be as straight forward as one might think in the case of “indirect provision” agencies such as intelligence organizations, especially when these operate in secret. No where is this more apparent than in the US, where intelligence failures such as those prior to 9/11 and the Boston bombings have not shaken the majority’s trust in the non-military security apparatus, to include the CIA, NSA and related agencies.

  6. I have an enduring memory from around 2003 of the ‘Last Word” in an attempt to understand the reasoning behind some of the decisions appearing to be being made by our administration.

    My “opponent” was working inside one of our intelligence agencies at the time and had recently completed a special training session at a location close to Washington DC.

    After some tooing and froing around the sense of NZ getting involved in what I still believe was senseless move to invade Afghanistan given the history of other ‘invasions’ during the last 2000 or so, I made a comment which went along the lines of: “Haven’t your bloody tacticians read the history of previous attempts to subdue the Afghani populas?”

    His answer was: “Why should they? We have better weapons now. What happened in the past has no bearing on the future of that bunch of ill-educated peons.”

    My answer was to ask if he could truthfully count the number of so-called military successes the US military had had in the last 100 years.

    His response: “Truth has many flavours … it depends on our political masters.”

  7. watapratt:

    The reification of technology by some sectors of the US intel and military community has never ceased to amaze me. It as if they have entirely forgotten about the element of will. This is seen in the promulgation of the so-called “effects based” strategy whereby the intended outcome determines the nature of the mission and the forces used to that end regardless of what the opposition looks like.

    Although that sounds great on paper it ignores the simple fact that what is intended in war and what the outcome eventually is are more often than not two very different things, and technology cannot alter that fact (Iraq is a good example). In vogue in the late 1990s and early 200s, it has now been downplayed in light of the cold hard realities of the wars that have been recently fought.

    Even so, the trend continues. Besides the fact that SIGINT and TECHINT have superseded HUMINT in US intel circles, the HUMINT side has been side-tracked into para-military activities (including drone strikes) that detract from the intelligence gathering functions that are ostensibly the core function of the CIA.

    The problem is captured in a conversation I had with a senior CIA analyst about Cuba when I worked on such things. He explained to me at great length how SIGINT allowed the US to listen in to Fidel’s bathroom activities and his pillow talk with mistresses, all done to determine how well the bearded one was functioning as a geriatric (this was before Fidel got sick).

    Yet when I asked him about the disposition of the younger cadre of officials who would inherit the post-Castro regime, he had nothing to say beyond what was publicly known. Moreover, he confessed that all of the US HUMINT collectors operating in Cuba under Reagan, Bush 41 and early in the first Clinton administration turned out to be Cuban double agents.

    Technology can help in many areas but not always when it comes to issues of motivation, will power, support and commitment. Continued faith in technology has it own perils and could well be the Achilles Heel of modern war fighters in technologically superior countries confronted by irregular non-state armed actors in asymmetrical low intensity conflicts that are not confined to fixed geographic areas.

  8. While I agree that public distrust in intelligence agencies is earned, and I’d like to see them being more trustworthy, I’m not sure I want them to be more trusted.

    I’m splitting hairs to a degree, but what I mean is, I think that given what intelligence agencies are and the nature of their work, a certain level of distrust is healthy. Even the most exemplary intelligence agency with the most robust respect for democratic process is going to operate out of the public eye, and that naturally generates a level of distrust.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’d rather live in a country where there’s little trust for intelligence agencies than one where there’s a high degree.

    (As an aside, I’m not sure NZ is such an outlier in the high level of distrust of our intelligence agencies – for instance, a recent poll revealed that 13% of Americans hold the CIA responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s.*)


  9. Hugh:

    That 13 percent you cite is below those who believe in angels and intelligent design and on a par with those who believe 9/11 was a conspiracy, bigfoot exists, there was no lunar landing, aliens landed in Roswell and are kept at Area 51, and Elvis still lives.

    But it is significant, it its own way.

  10. @Pablo: True, but I’m guessing that if 13% of people believe the CIA invented crack cocaine, probably a substantially larger number distrust the institution, even if they don’t attribute such flagrantly fantastic feats to it.

    Any comment on my other point?

  11. Thanks for the excellent synopsis Pablo. I’m still trying to come to grips with the whole intelligence gathering apparatus and how it operates. My own view is that the US has had too much influence on our local spies and that the Dotcom debacle is ample testament to that…

    I should like to know your views on the suspiciously obtuse behaviour of Prime Minister, John Key who, despite his protestations to the contrary, appears to have taken more than a passing interest in this affair and over a much longer period of time than he is willing to admit. I refer in particular to his ‘meetings’ – both in NZ and the US – with Warner Bros. personnel (and goodness knows who else) and the surreptitious appointment of GCSB Director, Ian Fletcher.

  12. Hugh: I see your point about retaining a healthy dose of skepticism, which is why effective oversight and compliance mechanisms are an absolute necessity.

    Anne: I agree with you that Mr. Key s less than honest about what he knows, what interests he favors, and who he listens to when seeking advice. With his background that is to be expected.

  13. @Pablo: Yes, oversight is necessary, but I feel that public distrust is a fallback – general democratic accountability can provide a check when oversight fails (and no matter how robust, their is always the possibility of oversight failing). I say this because your article seems to be taking public distrust as a sign that something is wrong. Something definitely -is- wrong, but even if the oversight was functioning effectively, I would hope distrust would still be high.

  14. Hugh:

    The basis of political stability is majority consent to a specific form of rule. Consent is in part derived from the trust of the population in government. That trust can be implicit or explicit, direct or indirectly given depending on the nature of government action.

    In democracies the public usually implicitly trusts what spies are doing because, in the main, what the spies are doing is not directed at them. Therefore, they do not explicitly tie trust in spy agencies to consent in government.

    In NZ that is seemingly not the case.

    I ascribe to a Ronald Reagan’s axiom when it comes to government and its agencies: trust but verify. Since NZ has no real mechanisms by which the behavior of intelligence agencies can be scrutinized, much less verified, the fact that people continue to consent to the status quo is puzzling to me. But then again, I was not raised in a nation of sheep.

  15. @Pablo: Do you believe NZers are a ‘nation of sheep’?

    What’s your opinion of the position of Inspectorate-General of the SIS? Is it potentially effective, or does it need to be scrapped and replaced with a different office? It looks pretty robust on paper – what’s wrong with it? I’ve noticed that not only the office itself but even discussion of it seems to be totally AWOL in the current situation. Of course the Inspector-General doesn’t seem to have any jurisdiction over hiring and firing, but the current discussion has gone beyond that specific point.

  16. As an addendum, I’ve been trying to find information to show that in most democracies, people trust their intelligence agencies. I’ve had difficulty finding anything except for that CIA-cocaine stat, which as you said, is at best an outlier.

    But I will say that when I think of democracies like the USA, the UK, France and Italy, that if people -do- trust their intelligence services, that’s not something to be celebrated.

    And also, come to think of it, how can you point to the low levels of trust in the GCSE and then say that New Zealand is a ‘nation of sheep’? Either we trust the GCSE too much, or not enough… it can’t be both simultaneously.

  17. Hugh:

    I believe that most Kiwis are by and large very passive when it comes to things political. This makes them easy to manipulate and/or ignore.

    The IG is a retired judge (read: elderly) completely dependent on the SIS for resourcing (to include office space and things such as telephone and photocopying costs), has a 20 hour per week secretary, is reliant on the directors of the GCSB and SIS for the provision of information and answers to the PM. This makes him more of a facade than an effective oversight mechanism.

    The Kitteridge Report made several recommendations with regard to the IG that the PM has accepted. These are a step in the right direction (such as expanding the pool of IG candidates and increasing the IG’s resources), but does not go far enough in making it an independent oversight mechanism. The IG needs to be removed from the PM’s authority chain and given powers of compulsion, neither of which is currently being considered.

    The TVNZ poll displayed a peculiar bell curve in that both the low trust and high trust respondents were identical (32 percent), with 33 percent indifferent or lukewarm. Although I see that as 65 percent having less than strong trust in the NZ intel community, the PM has read it as 65 percent having some level of trust in it. Given the egregious violations of law and ethics displayed by the GCSB and SIS (in the Zaoui case, among others) in recent years, that would confirm the sheep thesis. To wit: if the PM is correct in his read, then no matter what the intel community does outside of its charter, the law or professional ethics, a majority of people still have some faith in it.

    That could be because of ignorance, indifference, misplaced loyalty or personal interest in spies, but overall it spells submission rather than consent (which, as I have written at great length about both professionally and on this blog, must be given actively and repeatedly on several socio-economic and political dimensions).

  18. Dave: It seems that his sin was to point out that the threat assessments done by the SIS are exaggerated, and that biosecurity is the primary source of potential threats, not terrorists or Chinese spies.

  19. Hugh: If you are referring to biosecurity being the primary source of threats to NZ, I would say that it is partially so. I think that corporate and signals espionage are serious problems, as are violations of the EEZ by state and non-state actors. Domestic self-radicalized ideological extremists, not all of them Muslim, are also potential threats. Not having seen the disputed report and given the official wall of silence surrounding the case, it is otherwise hard to discern where the US analyst stepped on sensitive bureaucratic toes.

  20. I haven’t seen it either, but based on the commentary on it I’ve seen, I think it plays down most of the things you’ve just mentioned.

    Not that one can’t disagree with the censorship while still disagreeing with the conclusions being censored, of course.

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