Accusations that the NZDF may have been spying on journalist Jon Stephenson during or after he was in Afghanistan researching what turned into a series of very critical stories about the actuality of SAS operations in support of the elite Afghan counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) have sparked both public outrage and government backlash. Numerous media entities and civil libertarians have protested the alleged spying as an infringement on press freedom, with the story now picked up by the US press because Mr. Stephenson was working for a US based news service when the spying supposedly occurred, and the spying may have been carried out by US agencies.
It is early days yet in the development of the story, but there are numerous angles that if explored could lead to a can of worms being opened on the NZDF and NZ government as well as the US administration.Â More immediately, if what has been made public so far is accurate then there are some NZ-focused issues to ponder, which can be broadly divided into matters of short and long-term consequence.
The specific accusation is that NZDF obtained meta-data about Mr. Stephenson’s phone records from US intelligence sources while he was in Kabul. This meta-data included the phone numbers of those he contacted or who called him while in theater, which could be “mined” and subject to network analysis in order to create signal maps and flow charts of the patterns of communication between them as well as with Mr. Stephenson (what have been called signals meta-data “trees”).
Implicit in the original story by Nicky Hager is the possibility that the content of Mr. Stephenson’s conversations and possibly his emails were accessed by the NZDF, or at least by foreign partners who then shared that information with the NZDF.
This is the short aspect of the story. Mr. Hager believes that Mr. Stephenson was subject to an NSA signals trolling scheme akin to that done by the PRISM program, and that the NZDF may have requested that Mr. Stephenson be surveilled by the NSA as a result of Stephenson’s investigation but also because the NZDF could not spy on him directly. However, since the SIS and GCSB had officers on the ground in Kabul and shared workspace with NSA and CIA personnel, the possibility was raised that they were somehow involved in the electronic monitoring of Mr. Stephenson, either has initiators or recipients of the NSA meta-data mining of his communications.
This may or may not prove true. The government and NZDF flatly deny that any spying, whether by the NSA, GCSB or NZDF, was done on Mr. Stephenson. Mr. Hager claims to have evidence that NZDF personnel obtained Mr. Stephenson’s telephone meta-data (presumably he has at least been shown that data by the NZDF personnel who are his sources).
One of these versions is apparently false, although there may be a twist to the story that bridges the veracity gap between them.
Since Mr. Stephenson was in a declared conflict zone in which a multinational military coalition was engaged, he was inevitably subject to military intelligence collection. Military organizations and their various service branches maintain human and signals intelligence collection units that focus on tactical aspects of the conflict zone. That would, at a minimum, include canvassing local telephone and email networks for information on potential threats and contextual background. Such collection is designed to facilitate “actionable” intelligence: information that can be used to influence the political environment as well as the kinetic operations that occur within it.
It is possible that Mr. Stephenson’s phone records were collected by an ISAF military signals intelligence unit. It probably was that of a US military unit. That unit may have identified Mr. Stephenson as a New Zealander and passed his information on to one of the intelligence shops located at Bagram Air Force base or elsewhere for sharing with the NZDF as a professional courtesy and a “head’s up” on who Mr. Stephenson was involved with.
If this is true, then Mr. Hager’s NSA/PRISM/GCSB/NZDF spying scenario is wrong. However, the issue does not end there. The big questions are whether the NZDF requested that an allied military signals intelligence unit spy on Mr. Stephenson, or if not, what it did with the information about Mr. Stephenson volunteered to it by its ally.
If the latter is the case, then it is possible that the NZDF took no action because it either considered the information marginal to its intelligence concerns or improper for it to receive and use. That in turn could have led to the destruction of that meta-data after it was received.
On the other hand, if the NZDF requested said information about Mr. Stephenson from a military intelligence partner, that would make any subsequent meta-data record destruction an attempt to eliminate evidence of that request or the use to which the data-mining was put.
It should be noted that such spying in conflict zones is usual and to be expected by anyone operating with them, journalists and non-journalists alike. Moreover, it is perfectly legal as well as reasonable for the NZDF to share information with its military intelligence partners, even if it includes information about unaffiliated NZ citizens operating in conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed. Thus it would not have been unlawful for the NZDF to obtain Mr. Stephenson’s electronic meta-data whether it initiated its collection or merely received the results.
This extends to its use of the SIS or GCSB to assist in said collection, since the SIS is empowered to spy on NZ citizens and the GCSB was working in a foreign theater in which Mr. Stephenson was working for a “foreign entity” (McClatchy New Service), therefore making him a legitimate target under the 2003 GCSB Act. Whether one or both of these agencies was involved in the spying on Mr. Stephenson, should it have occurred, the eavesdropping could legally be conducted without warrant, again owing to situational circumstance.
However, just because something is legal does not make it right. This is where the long of the story comes into play.
Mr. Hager also revealed the existence of an NZDF operations manual, apparently drafted in 2003 and revised in 2005, that included at least “certain investigative journalists” along with hackers, foreign spy agencies, ideological extremists, disloyal employees, interest groups, and criminal organizations in the category of “subversive” threats (although it remains unclear as to when that particular passage was added to the text and who authored and authorized it). The definition of subversion was stretched to include those whose activities could undermine public morale or confidence in the government and NZDF. This included “political” activities deemed inimical to the NZDF image or reputation.
Whether it was included in the original version or added some time later (perhaps very recently), that definition of subversive threats is astounding. The language used borrows directly from the lexicon of the Pinochet dictatorship and Argentine Junta. It completely ignores the concept of press freedom in a democracy, which is premised on the autonomous separation of the media and the military as institutions. It lumps in so-defined subversive threats with physical threats to operational security in the field. That makes those identified as subversives enemies rather than adversaries, which allows them to be treated accordingly.
The wording of the passage about subversive threats in this manual says more about those who drafted it and the NZDF leadership that allowed it to become doctrine than it does about any real threat posed by journalists to the NZDF or government. Being embarrassed by critical reporting is not akin to being shot at. Even if written in the fevered years immediately after 9/11, the authors of that passage (and presumably others in the manual) display an authoritarian, anti-democratic mindset that is fundamentally inimical to democratic civil-military relations and, for that matter, democratic military professionalism.
Chris Trotter has noted that the NZDF, as a military organization, is authoritarian in nature and thus inherently un-, if not anti-democratic. I respect his view but disagree to an extent. Virtually all social organizations are hierarchical in nature–families, churches, private firms, unions, schools, bureaucracies, political parties and yes, the armed forces, police and intelligence agencies. That makes the egalitarian bases of democratic political society unlike virtually all other forms of social organization.
In other words, we are socialized in a hierarchical world and it is democracy as a political form that is the unnatural outlier.
Even so, although hierarchy can and often does tend towards authoritarianism, in democracies social organizations that are hierarchically constructed bow to the egalitarian meta-logic that posits that in their political interactions they are bound by notions of mutual respect, independence, corporate autonomy and non-interference. That is, they practice at a meta-level what they do not at the macro or micro-levels: in their interactions with each other groups forgo the hierarchical disposition that characterizes their internal governance.
This is important because the NZDF field manual that Mr. Hager exposed and whose existence is now confirmed by the government displays an authoritarian mindset and operational perspective that transcends the necessary hierarchy of NZDF organization. The NZDF is not inherently authoritarian because it is hierarchical in nature, but because, if the spying allegations are correct in light of the manual’s language about threats requiring military countering, its leadership displays an authoritarian disposition when it comes to things it finds objectionable, including pesky reporters (I shall leave aside Mr. Trotter’s remarks about military allegiance to the Queen rather than government or citizenry, although I take his point as to where its loyalty is directed and the impact that has on its transparency and adherence to democratic norms).
In sum: Consider what the manual says with regards to subversive threats in light of the well-publicized NZDF attacks on Mr. Stephenson’s professional and personal integrity that resulted in the defamation trial recently concluded (attacks that could well fit within the “counter-intelligence operations” recommended in the manual). Add in the claims by Mr. Stephenson that a senior military officer uttered death threats against him (the subject of a police complaint in 2011 that was not actioned). Factor in the NZDF admission in the defamation trial that it tracked Mr. Stephenson’s movements along with the possibility that the NZDF did acquire and utilize Mr. Stephenson’s telephone communications records in a capacity other than to detect tactical threats to units in theater. Further include Mr. Hager’s findings in his book Other Peoples Wars, in which the NZDF was seen to disregard government instructions regarding its conduct in foreign theaters and collaborated extensively with US intelligence (both military and civilian) in places like Bamiyan in spite of its repeated denials that it was doing anything other than building schools and roads in that province.
The conclusion?Â In light of this sequence of events it is very possible that the NZDF Â has systematically operated in an unprofessional and anti-democratic fashion for at least a decade, and particularly with regard to Mr. Stephenson.
This is a serious matter because it gives the impression that the NZDF has gone rogue (assuming that the governments of the day were, in fact, unaware of the language in the field manual or of the alleged spying). Rectifying this institutional anomaly is important. How to do so is critical.
It is not enough to blame the previous government and retired NZDF commanders for the manual, then excise the offending passage while maintaining that no NZDF records of spying on Mr. Stephenson exist. Instead, the NZDF leadership during this time period needs to be held accountable for allowing anti-democratic attitudes and practices to take root within it and, if need be, action needs to be taken against those who authorized the language of the manual and/or the spying if it happened. Only that way can confidence in NZDF accountability and commitment to democratic principles be restored.
In order for any of this to happen, yet another inquiry needs to be launched. Given the debates about the GCSB and TICS Bills and ongoing concerns about Police and SIS behaviour, that says something about the state of New Zealand’s security community at the moment.