So much for intelligence community reform.

It turns out that nearly 5 months after getting re-elected, the government has decided on the composition of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Besides himself as Chair of the ISC, the Prime Minister gets to select two members from the government parties and the Opposition Leader gets to select one member from opposition parties.  In both cases the respective Leaders are expected under Section 7 (1) (c,d) of the 1996 Intelligence and Security Committee Act to consult with the other parties on their side of the aisle before selecting the remaining members of the committee. The language of the Act is quite specific: “c) 2 members of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Prime Minister following consultation with the leader of each party in Government: (d) 1 member of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Leader of the Opposition, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, following consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party.” (1996 ISCA, pp. 6-7).

Not surprisingly the government has nominated two National MPs, Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Justice Minister Amy Adams, for membership on the ISC. It is not clear if ACT, the Maori Party and United Future were consulted before their selection. What is more surprising is that Andrew Little nominated David Shearer and did not consult with opposition parties before making his selection. While Shearer is a person with considerable international experience and has been a consumer of intelligence (as opposed to a practitioner) during his career, Mr. Little has been neither. In fact, it can be argued that Mr. Little has the least experience of all the proposed members when it comes to issues of intelligence and security, which means that he will have to lean very heavily on Mr. Shearer if he is not not be overmatched within the ISC.

Moreover, in past years Russell Norman, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters have been on the ISC, so the move to re-centralise parliamentary oversight in the two major parties represents a regression away from the democratisation of representation in that oversight role. Since these two parties have been in government during some of the more egregious acts of recent intelligence agency misbehaviour (for example, the Zaoui case, where intelligence was manipulated by the SIS to build a case against him at the behest of or in collusion with the 5th Labour government, and the case of the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom and his associates by the GCSB in collusion or at the behest of the US government under National, to say nothing of the ongoing data mining obtained via mass electronic trawling under both governments), this does not portend well for the upcoming review of the New Zealand intelligence community that this ISC is charged with undertaking.

The Greens have expressed their disgust at being excluded and have, righty in my opinion, pointed out that they are the only past members of the ISC that have taken a critical look at the way intelligence is obtained, analysed and used in New Zealand. But that appears to be exactly why they were excluded. According to John Key,  Labour’s decision was “the right call” and he “totally supports it.” More tellingly, Mr. Key said the following: “A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process. I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground” (my emphasis added).

In other words, Russell Norman took his membership on the ISC seriously and did not just follow along and play ball when it came to expanding state powers of search and surveillance under the Search and Surveillance Act of 2012 and GCSB Act of 2014.

That is a very big concern. Mr. Key believes that the “right” outcomes (which have had the effect of expanding state espionage powers while limiting its accountability or the institutional checks imposed on it) need to be produced by the ISC when it comes to the legal framework governing the intelligence community. Those who would oppose such outcomes are not suitable for membership, a view with which Andrew Little seems to agree.

This is so profoundly an undemocratic view on how intelligence oversight should work that I am at a loss for words to  explain how it could come from the mouth of a Prime Minister in a liberal democracy and be tacitly seconded by the Leader of the Opposition–unless they have genuine contempt for democracy. That is a trait that W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard shared as well, but what does that say about the state of New Zealand democracy?

Mr. Little has given his reason to exclude Metiria Turei of the Greens from ISC membership as being due to the fact the Mr. Norman is stepping down in May and Mr. Little wanted “skills, understanding and experience” in that ISC position. Besides insulting Ms. Turei (who has been in parliament for a fair while and co-Leader of the Greens for 5 years), he also gave the flick to Mr. Peters, presumably because that old dog does not heel too well. As for Mr. Dunne, well, loose lips have sunk his ship when it comes to such matters.

The bottom line is that Mr. Little supports Mr. Key’s undemocratic approach to intelligence oversight. Worse yet, it is these two men who will lead the review of the NZ intelligence community and propose reform to it, presumably in light of the debacles of the last few years and the eventual revelations about NZ espionage derived from the Snowden files.

As I said last year in the built-up to the vote on the GCSB Amendment Act,  I doubted very much that for all its rhetorical calls for an honest and thorough review process that led to significant reform, Labour would in fact do very little to change the system as given because when it is in government it pretty much acts very similar to National when it comes to intelligence and security. If anything, the differences between the two parties in this field are more stylistic than substantive.

What I could not have foreseen was that Labour would drop all pretence of bringing a critical mindset to the review and instead join National in a move to limit the amount of internal debate allowable within the ISC at a time when it finally had an important task to undertake (in the form of the intelligence community review).

As a result, no matter how many public submissions are made, or how many experts, interest groups and laypeople appear before the ISC hearings, and how much media coverage is given to them, I fear that the end result will be more of the same: some cosmetic changes along the margins, some organisational shuffles and regroupings in the name of streamlining information flows, reducing waste and eliminating duplication of functions in order to promote bureaucratic efficiency, and very little in the way of real change in the NZ intelligence community, especially in the areas of oversight and accountability.

From now on it is all about going through the motions and giving the appearance of undertaking a serious review within the ISC. For lack of a better word, let’s call this the PRISM approach to intelligence community reform.

LINK: The Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996.

17 thoughts on “So much for intelligence community reform.

  1. With the toothless report of the IGIS into the role of the intelligence services being used for political purposes last year having been sidelined, denied and then ignored by John Key, and now this, it is truly time to despair.

    There seems evidence aplenty that the intelligence services are being used to reinforce the status quo and undermine any challenge to the establishment. With the critical role on the ISC not going to a third independent party there is little chance that any true debate on further expansion of the State’s powers to intrude into citizen’s lives will take place.

    Neither will there be any scrutiny of the role such agencies play in providing information to the forces intended to go up against Islamic State. There needs to be transparency around these activities so that the citizens of New Zealand can see what part we are already playing in this military action.

    That Andrew Little’s decision to appoint Shearer rather than a member from a third party like the Greens or NZ First was also illegal speaks volumes about the lengths to which they will go to exclude those who don’t tow the line and agree with a programme of intelligence services power expansion driven by a neo-conservative ideology.

  2. Pablo

    You touched a nerve when you mentioned John Key’s underlying anti-democratic instincts. A couple of years ago, when JK was on an official visit to China, and the GCSB issue was blowing up, he gave a speech at the NZ Embassy in Beijing where he called the NZ press muppets and basically said he wished he had the press control mechanisms (i.e repression) that were available to the Chinese government (CCP). Audrey Young and Fran O’Sullivan were in the audience that evening, amongst a couple of 100 NZ’ers, and yet this unprecedented speech went unremarked and unreported. If Muldoon had said such a thing on an overseas trip, in a totalitarian regime’s capital, there would have been national outcry. So what is up with NZ, and NZ’s leadership? Why do we care so little for democracy and freedom? Any thoughts?

  3. Pingback: Labour’s Betrayal Continues « The Standard

  4. Jonas:

    That is astonishing. Both for JK’s comments as well as the apparent under-reporting on them (I note Stan’s rejoinder). Shame on him in any event.

    I am undecided as whether Mr. Key is a closet authoritarian at his core, or whether he sees himself as efficient and cannot be bothered with all the to and fro of democratic politics. But even if it is the latter it shows a fundamental ignorance of how democracy works. By design it is supposed to be based on compromise, give and take, and mutual second best outcomes.

    That may appear to be inefficient to those who do not understand the principle, but is in fact what gives legitimacy and value to the system as a whole. The trade off between “efficiency” and representation/transparency/consensus is not zero-sum in nature.

    In a way JK’s comments remind me of those of Henry Kissinger when the latter was in office, where he continually complained about the inability to get things done because of the interference of the press, congress, etc. The irony is that HK was a refugee from Nazi Germany, which certainly was efficient when it came to “getting things done.”

  5. Pingback: Metiria Turei – challenging the old boys Surveillance State Club | Edge Times

  6. You just have to get real Pablo, we want to be secure, and f**k off Islam. and we need a system that vwill achieve that. I absolutely recognize your hopes, but they will not be fulfilled, there will be a war.
    An ordinary man like me wishes his wife would come back to him.

  7. I understand why Little did what he did. He knows that he is neophyte on matters of intelligence and security and wanted a trusted ally beside him as a mentor. He may have had some respect for Norman, but even if he did he was undoubtably wary of Turei inheriting his seat on the ISC given her colourful past and relative lack of experience on matters of intelligence and security. As for the future Green male co-leader, he would not want a bar of any of them.

    I do not think that he saw the Greens as lethally toxic and decided to shaft them in order to curry public favour. I would bet that 95 percent of the voting public do not know what the ISC is nor care about it in any event. Nor would the majority know about the upcoming review of the intelligence community and again, relatively few will care.

    This was not about courting voters, it was about narrowing the range of voices in the ISC so as to form a basis of understanding with National (which does see the Greens as toxic) with regard to the upcoming review.

    The claim that Norman was using his seat on the ISC to “score political points” strikes me as disingenuous given that was first appointed in 2009 and never breached the confidences that he was entrusted with. I would have throught that Turei would have taken the same approach–critical, probing, but not beyond the institutional boundaries as given.

    Incidentally, Amy Adams was the Minister of Communications when the Huawei controversy arose, and she was completely unaware that Australia had banned it from its critical IT tenders and that the US and Canada had placed restrictions on where it could invest (which means that 3 of the Five Eyes partners had serious reservations about Huawei’s bonafides, with the fourth partner, the UK, having to do a costly forensic audit of systems installed by Huawei because backdoor bugs were found riddled throughout them). In other words, Adams was clueless about signals intelligence concerns even though she was responsible for NZ’s telecommunications. Yet she gets a seat on the ISC.

    Let’s be very clear: although there may have been compelling partisan logics to Little’s decision, the complete abandonment of democratic principle in favour of partisan calculations when it comes to intelligence oversight makes it clear that for Mr. Little democratic politics is instrumental rather than substantive.

    In other words, for him it is about winning the game, not the integrity of it.

  8. Pablo, would it really matter if Little went through the process and came to the same conclusion. What we are seeing here is a critical separation of Green and Labour. And bloody good show.

  9. Paul:

    There were options in terms of diversifying the committee. Since Key was not going to do that, it was left to Little to do the right thing and pick Winston if he sincerely doubted Turei’s competence (Dunne is simply not trustworthy after his leak of classified material to Vance).

    Winston can be a pain in the rear but would not rock the boat too much, plus he would offer a critical eye on mass surveillance issues (albeit gleaned from the very limited information that the intelligence agency directors choose to share with the committee). His prior experience serves him well in this regard.

    The point is that the entire oversight structure needs to be revamped and the committee constituted under the 1996 Act needs to be disbanded and replaced with something more effective. Having more critical views on intelligence matters, rather than just playing along and accepting what the intel agencies tell the committee is actually a step forward towards effective democratic oversight. That is not going to happen under the current membership.

  10. Pablo you say above [07.44]
    ” I am undecided as whether Mr. Key is a closet authoritarian at his core, or whether he sees himself as efficient and cannot be bothered with all the to and fro of democratic politics. But even if it is the latter it shows a fundamental ignorance of how democracy works. By design it is supposed to be based on compromise, give and take, and mutual second best outcomes.”

    How the f***.. can you compromise on matters of security. Pablo? Its not an agenda item for a bunch Green poof jerk communists. I would like to have seen Winston on this Committee , Key will eventually take the punishment for this arrogance that he said would never infect the Government.

  11. It is ferocious, Pablo, over at Kiwiblog and the Stranded as you will know. I wonder if there is any way we can get Peters on this security Committtee. I have decided to write to leader of Labour Andrew Little and say my light weight piece. Peters should be inside the Security Committee, he received about 9% of votes. Not my vote, I went Conservative. But you are right. This thiong is bigger than the board of Directors of the New Zealand State

  12. Yes Paul, the principle is more important than the partisanship. But I doubt that will sway anyone in the two major parties.

    Incidentally, some of the debate on the deployment to Iraq was pretty good, IMO. Little is still playing politics and Key is still dissembling, but there were some flashes of insight and thought in the commentary.

    On a personal note I hope that you can sort out your home difficulties. Been there and done that so I know that it is not a pleasant moment and wish you the best.

  13. I wrote to Andrew Little, Pablo, but that side do not often respond to me, especially casually on facebook ..
    Thanks for your comment above, Some many days of life months even, are hard :
    I don’t like this its two points to you and none to me, this isn’t going well.

  14. I do have integrity brothers , I do have.
    Good, I like this its two points to Pablo and one to me.
    He thinks I am soft in head but you wait .
    I claim one point here.I am coming back
    I believe in our Country Pablo , I am a patriot , and I want to see my Country strong, and I can help.
    Who would have thought that a little man like me could do anything

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *