Withdrawal from Echelon: a realistic watershed moment in intelligence reform or Left political posturing?

In light of the attention brought to matters of intelligence collection and analysis in recent months, it is entirely reasonable for the Greens and Labour to demand a fill inquiry into the organization, role and functions of the New Zealand intelligence community, including its responsibilities and obligations in international intelligence networks such as Echelon/5 Eyes and other less publicized arrangements. As the Kitteridge Report noted with regard to the GCSB and what the Zaoui case demonstrated in the case of the SIS, there were or are serious deficiencies in both agencies. These are as much if not more managerial than operational, but the truth is that a review of the entire intelligence community is overdue in light of the changing realities of intelligence gathering in the 21st century.

That is why the National government’s attempt to pass reforms to the 2003 GCSB Act that extend its domestic powers and scope of authority, coupled with the proposed Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill that would, among other things, force telecommunications firms to provide backdoor access to their source and encryption codes, needs to be delayed until such time a proper inquiry into the entire espionage complex is undertaken. Without full understanding of areas of strength and weakness in the system, it is impossible to knowledgeably address the proposed reforms in the way signals intelligence is gathered and used in and by New Zealand, much less how it should be balanced against rights to privacy and institutional accountability.

As part of the calls for the inquiry, some on the Left have proposed that a review of New Zealand’s participation in Echelon be undertaken. Some have gone so far to say that it could become another watershed moment such as that surrounding the 1985 non-nuclear declaration. Presumably the watershed would be occasioned by a withdrawal from Echelon.

As much as I think that a review of New Zealand’s role in Echelon is welcome, especially in light of the Kim Dotcom case and recent revelations about mass scale meta-data mining by the US National Security Agency (and the meta-data mining by the GCSB revealed by the Kitteridge Report), I think that it would be absolute folly to withdraw from Echelon. Changes in the terms and conditions of New Zealand’s participation in Echelon may be warranted, but a full withdrawal from the signals intelligence-sharing community composed of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and NZ seems foolish.

I will not reiterate here the early warning, big picture and deep insight benefits that NZ accrues from being an Echelon partner. What I will note is that it has been a partner in Echelon for more than three decades, and as such shares some of the most guarded secrets, both historical and contemporary, of the Anglophone intelligence community. This includes methods, technologies, locations and sources for signals intelligence collection as well as the content of specific subjects of interest.

The Echelon partners will take a very dim view of these secrets suddenly becoming insecure as a result of a NZ withdrawal from Echelon. No matter what assurances may be given or what phased devolution of responsibilities is proposed, they are bound to fret about classified Echelon information falling into hostile hands as a result of that decision. That will likely prompt a full scope defensive counter-response to minimize the possibility of damaging or sensitive material falling into the “wrong” hands.

That response will far outweigh the diplomatic estrangement caused by the non-nuclear declaration (which ultimately amounted to a freeze on bilateral military-to-military contacts but which did not alter intelligence sharing or diplomatic relations in any significant measure). The negative consequences of withdrawal from Echelon will be felt in the intelligence arena, but will also be felt economically, militarily, and most definitely cyber-electronically, and will not just come from the other 5 Eyes partners.

Under a Labour/Green government that decides to withdraw from Echelon, New Zealand might seek to hedge its bets by establishing intelligence sharing ties with the People’s Republic of China or Russia. The first would complement the economic re-orientation towards the PRC in recent years, whereas the latter would cultivate relations with a long-term and now resurgent Western adversary (which is now in the process of re-deploying submarines to the South Pacific for the first time in over 20 years). Either move would show a clear commitment to diplomatic re-alignment away from traditional partners and towards Eurasia, something that would nicely complement the primary geographic focus of NZ’s trade-oriented foreign policy (we should remember that NZ is in the early stages of negotiations with Russia on a “free” trade agreement).

For both Russia and the PRC, gaining access to Echelon data would be invaluable even if the remaining 4 Eyes are forced to completely overhaul their systems in order to limit the damage caused by a NZ “flip.” In fact, the repercussions from such an act might force NZ to seek the security protection of either great power. One assumes that for this to happen the NZ public will be comfortable with the shift in alignment.

It is less probable that other Western nations such as France or Germany would want to jeopardize their relations with the Echelon community by entering into an alternative signals intelligence-sharing arrangement with NZ. Perhaps rising powers such as India, South Africa or Brazil might want to take advantage of the window of opportunity, but that also seems unlikely.

That is why I believe that the speculation about an inquiry into the intelligence community resulting in a “watershed” NZ withdrawal from Echelon is poorly considered. Escaping international commitments of any sort is fraught in many ways, and in order to do so the benefits of reneging must clearly outweigh the costs. The decision must enjoy broad support and be politically sustainable at home as well as abroad.

In that light, the benefits of a withdrawal from Echelon are uncertain and the downside of withdrawing from such a long-term and highly sensitive international security commitment is too great and too obvious for such talk to be anything but ignorant or Labour/Green posturing in the build up to next year’s elections. If that is the case, it undermines the Labour/Green bid to have a full inquiry into NZ intelligence community reform because there will be little support outside of select party factions for a move to withdraw from Echelon, and any reform initiatives that include that possibility will not be taken seriously.

It would therefore seem best for the Greens (in particular) and Labour to stifle such speculation from within their ranks in order for their calls for a full inquiry into the NZ intelligence community be given due consideration. That still leaves much room for review, but has a better chance of garnering broad-based support than by continuing to entertain thoughts about watershed moments.

18 thoughts on “Withdrawal from Echelon: a realistic watershed moment in intelligence reform or Left political posturing?

  1. I think the idea of a Labour/Green government entering some kind of Echelon-like agreement with China, let alone Russia, is next to zero. The constituency that would be satisfied by an Echelon withdrawal would be just as angry at ‘selling our sovereignty’ to China or Russia as they would by the existing agreement.

  2. I agree Hugh. In framing my thoughts I decided to take the speculation about withdrawal at face value and ponder the options given the likely consequences and the increasingly Eurasian-centric, trade dominated foreign policy. Once that outline is drawn, it becomes clear that such speculation can be nothing more than idle chatter done, at best, for factional political purposes.

  3. At the moment, I doubt most New Zealanders will want to withdraw from Echelon. But the supreme dismissive arrogance of John Key and the whole bureaucratic establishment to public disquiet over intelligence gathering seems almost hell-bent on changing that.

    And then, yet again, the failure of our high handed and arrogant political elites to be bothered with trying to take the public along with them in matters of state security will create a situation where the elites will be in lockstep on one policy course to which the majority of the public will be opposed. The political/media elites will rely on elite consensus and its control of the establishment media to ensure the views of the majority of the population are suppressed. Maybe this wouldn’t matter if this was a one off, but from treaty settlements to constitutional reform to state security the reckless arrogance New Zealand political and media elites seem to be growing, and with it an increasingly impatient authoritarian intolerance of democratic dissent.

    And all the while our elite will have the temerity to sit around in the establishment media professing puzzlement at causes behind the rise and rise of the anti-establishment popular right.

    Such a situation cannot stand forever, and without change eventually there will be a breaking, probably in the form of a showdown between a Bolivarian populist government (which could nominally be either of the left or right) and the upper class elites which will certainly feature significant political violence. Then we can really welcome our entry to the third world.

  4. Thanks Sanctuary, for the thoughts. I cannot say that I see a Boliviarian option in NZ’s future but I do share your concern with the arrogance and contempt exhibited by NZ political and corporate elites. One thing that struck me about the “watershed moment” discussion is that it appears to signal a breakdown in consensus between Labour and National on some key aspects of foreign (intelligence and security) policy. But then it occurred to me that political opportunism rather than principled difference was more likely at play, so I discount the notion that there truly is a difference between the major parties on intelligence matters.

    After all, the 5th Labour government started the expansion of the post 9-11 security state. It was the 5th Labour government that ordered the Urewera raids (those who continue to maintain that it was strictly a Police led operation with no government involvement are naive or willfully disingenuous). It was the 5th Labour government that initiated the reapprochment with the US on military and security issues, and which volunteered troops to ISAF in Afghanistan. It therefore seems improbable that Labour suddenly developed an aversion to participation in the Anglophone intelligence sharing network. That leaves political posturing as the explanation for Labour’s indulgence of the watershed talk.

  5. Forgive me my ignorance on matters involving security intelligence, but could the watershed moment referred to… have more to do with some internal changes (perhaps managerial) to the way New Zealand engages with the ‘5 eyes’ countries rather than a withdrawal from Echelon?

    A withdrawal is not going to happen. I find it impossible to believe that the leadership of both political parties – Labour in particular – are seriously contemplating such a move. The notion is more likely coming from a small fringe group who, as you say, are indulging in political posturing and they can be readily discounted.

  6. Anne: There is a legitimate need to review the terms and conditions of NZ’s involvement with Echelon as well as the way in which the NZ intelligence community is organized and operates. That is what an inquiry should focus on. I agree that the chances of a withdrawal from Echelon are almost zero, which is why any talk of such coming from the Green/Labour side undermines the validity of their other concerns.

  7. Echelon didn’t help us find out about the Rainbow Warrior or the Israeli passport scandal.

    I think we’re better protected against any real threats by old-fashioned policing. I’d suspect that the only information we get from the US is that which they consider it in their interests for us to have, and they’d still pass that on (or release it publically).

    NZ should transition to being a declared neutral state, like Ireland or Iceland, and stop playing at being part of the American’s club. Sure, they’d fume for a few years, but they’d settle down – it’s not like we’re pointing nukes at them.

  8. Rich: The declared neutrality option is an interesting one and well worth public debate. It would obviously need to take into consideration the costs and benefits of such a move, to include the diplomatic, economic, geopolitical and security ramifications and repercussions that it would entail. That could be a complex equation.

    Echelon did not stop the Boston Bombers, the Bali bombers, the Madrid Bombers or the London bombers, and it certainly did not stop 9/11. It can not stop Lone Wolf or small-cell attacks if the perpetrators have any notion of operational security. Its main focus, and what has been lost in the coverage of the PRISM/Snowden revelations, is on traditional inter-state espionage even if it has added counter-terrorism to its duties.

    I agree that better policing, human intelligence and counter-intelligence work is what it is most required, but as a complement rather than a substitute for signals and technical intelligence sharing with larger partners.

  9. l_f:

    Although I can see the need to “tidy up” the legislation that covers when, how and why the GCSB can assist other domestic agencies in an era in which transnational threats and cyber crime is prevalent, the current Bill is not suitable in its present form. It awards too much latitude and discretion in the issuance of warrants pursuant to national security upon which GCSB involvement can be authorized and has too little oversight of the process involved in the issuance of those warrants. It does not specify the agencies to which assistance can be rendered and under what conditions (leaving open the possibility that any agency can receive such assistance for reasons that do not have to do with threats to national security). It leaves it to two people (the PM and yet another retired judge) to issue warrants whereby the GCSB can involve itself in domestic signals or cyber espionage. In other words: too broad, too loose, too opaque and too lacking in oversight and accountability to be an effective governance framework for domestic signals and cyber espionage.

    It also commits the GCSB to a more regular and likely increased role in domestic security, which detracts from its core missions of monitoring foreign signals and countering foreign cyber and signals espionage. Given that it has a total complement of 290 people, that could force more work on staff that in turn can lead to a diminishing of performance standards in one or more areas.

    And even if it could handle its added responsibilities while performing its other tasks, the proposed legislation will not enhance its ability to counter threats such as the Boston Bombers, who even the NSA/PRISM/Verizon meta-data trawl could not detect (or Fort Hood shooter Major Hassan, who was in email and phone contact with the American al-Qaeda leader in Yemen prior to his attack). So the PM was being idiotic, ignorant or disingenuous in specifically suggesting that the proposed Bill could help prevent such types of attack.

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  11. @rich: Just for the record, Iceland is a member of NATO. It is not a declared neutral state. You might be thinking of Sweden or Finland (although neither state’s ‘neutral’ status stopped it from significant intelligence collaboration with NATO during the Cold War).

  12. I think what the debate needs is some more information about precisely what benefit NZ receives, if any, directly from being a member of Echelon.

    There are lots of nebulous claims about Important National Security work, but it is unclear precisely what that means. What *useful* information does NZ really get that we couldn’t just get from our overseas diplomatic officers trawling the cocktail circuit?

    The only real benefit seems to be the indirect one of being seen to be in the American camp. Which is potentially not seen as beneficial at all by some countries that we interact with, i.e. China.

  13. Given the propensity of the DGSE to leak like, well, a damaged ‘swimming pool’, is it your contention, Pablo, that neither MI6 nor the NSA/CIA had the slightest idea that the French were about to stage a “black op” against Greenpeace in New Zealand?

    If so, then it is difficult to calculate the value Echelon adds to NZ’s security.

    On the other hand, if our “allies” knew what was coming and didn’t see fit to warn us, then justification for remaining a party to the UKUSA Agreement becomes an even harder sell.

    Wouldn’t it be more straightforward to simply draw people’s attention to the fate of the Whitlam Government after it toyed with the idea of shutting down Pine Gap?

    Isn’t it true that the UKUSA Agreement is a bit like the Hotel California?

    “You can check-out any time you like/ But you can never leave.”

  14. RJL: I agree that a bit more information about the benefits received from being an Echelon partner would be helpful. That is one reason why I support a full inquiry on the NZ intelligence community before modifying any existing legislation, and why I think that the role of the GCSB in Echelon needs to be reviewed and debated along with a review of the functions and focus of other NZ intelligence agencies as well as the lack of (and need for) robust independent intelligence oversight mechanisms.

    The quality of NZSIS HUMINT overseas is poor and its scope is quite limited, and NZ diplomatic reporting is not that much better when it comes to security matters and threat assessment, so I am not sure that trawling the diplomatic cocktail circuit can compensate for a withdrawal from Echelon. In terms of getting a read on the threat environment and early warning of developing international events, diplomatic talk is cheap; intercepts of classified communications are better, direct confidential access to decision-makers is best.

    The question of the day is where the GCSB-managed intercepts are focused: near or far abroad (and to what extent at home)? State or non-state actors? Military, diplomatic or commercial? “Friendly” or “unfriendly” entities?

    I do believe that trying to be first-tier intelligence and security partners with the US while becoming increasingly reliant on trade with the PRC is untenable over the long term.

    Chris: I would not be surprised if the French ran the operation undetected by other great powers since it did not negatively affect those power’s interests at the time and reaffirmed the view that it is unwise to trifle with so-called strong states. Let us remember that those were different geopolitical and strategic “times” and the utility of Echelon for NZ today cannot be reduced to its action or inaction in that particular case.

    Drawing the parallel with the Whitlam government is slightly more appropriate (but still a stretch, since the current CIA ability to orchestrate the toppling of a current NZ government is minimal at best, and the Cold War logics that surrounded the Whitlam government’s fall no longer obtain). In any event my concern is more on the foreign implications of a withdrawal rather than domestic consequences.

    And yes, it is a bit like Hotel California. Presumably the service is better.

  15. While our elite diplomatic cocktail drinkers might have a limited scope; what do we really need to know? What existential security threats to NZ is the GCSB defending against? Our big problems seem to revolve around properly filling out the paperwork for meat exports. It’s not clear that Echelon is much help there.

    Also it perhaps speaks volumes about the focus (or competency) of our intelligence community that Ploughshares Aotearoa, and TV3 (twice!) have managed to plan and execute “attacks” on Waihopai station.

  16. RJL:

    Although there is a bit of a Cold War legacy air about Echelon and the NZ eavesdropping stations, being part of that network may accrue greater dividends than are immediately apparent (for example, diplomatic support on issues of primary concern to NZ). Again, this is worth public discussion because as you have said before, at this point it is not clear what those benefits may be.

    The intrusions at Waihopai are not the fault of the intelligence operators but of the (I believe private) security services that were contracted to guard the facility. Neither the electronic perimeter defences or on-site human security appear to be up to the task of guarding a top secret facility, something that no doubt has been raised by the Echelon partners in the wake of the events you mention.

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