Spy Fatigue.

The slow drip feed of classified NSA material taken by Edward Snowden and published by journalists Glen Greenwald, Nicky Hager, David Fisher and others in outlets such as The Intercept and New Zealand Herald caused a stir when first published. Revelations of mass surveillance and bulk collection of telephone and email data of ordinary citizens in the 5 Eyes democracies and detailed accounts of how the NSA and its companion signals intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK spy on friend and foe alike, including trade partners and the personal telephones of the German prime minister and Indonesian president, caused both popular and diplomatic uproars. In New Zealand the outrage was accentuated by revelations about the illegal GCSB spying on Kim Dotcom and the government’s extension of its spying powers even after it was found to have operated outside its legal charter in other instances as well.

But now it seems that public interest in the issue has faded rather than grown. Revelations that the GCSB spies on Pacific island states such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga as well as Pacific French territories, followed by news that it spied on candidates for the World Trade Organisation presidency on behalf of Trade Minister Tim Groser (himself a candidate), has been met not with street demonstrations and popular protests but by a collective yawn by the public at large.

Why is this so?

It appears that the New Zealand public is weary of the death by a thousand cuts approach used by Mr. Hager and his investigative colleagues. Beyond the usual array of diversions presented by popular culture and media, the reason for this disinterest seems to lie in the fact that the information released to date is seen as trivial, uncontroversial and tediously never-ending. Take for example the reaction to the news that the UK spied on Argentina after the Falklands/Malvinas War and carried on until 2011. Numerous pundits asked whether that is surprising. What is the UK expected to do when Argentina remains hostile to it and has never renounced its territorial claims over the islands? Similarly, others have pointed out that since New Zealand is utterly trade dependent, why not try to advance Mr. Groser’s candidacy for the WTO job using surreptitious as well as diplomatic means? Likewise, is it news that Australia and New Zealand spy on small Pacific neighbours who depend on them for a significant amount of foreign aid and are being courted by the Chinese? Why not given the levels of corruption and intrigue present in the region?

This does not mean that there are no constitutional, diplomatic, security and trade concerns raised by the Snowden leaks coming into the public domain. My belief is that there is much to be alarmed about in the Snowden files and they should serve as a catalyst or window of opportunity for a thorough review of the NZ intelligence community and perhaps even a renegotiation of the terms and conditions of its participation in Anglophone intelligence networks.

But the way in which it has been presented to New Zealand audiences has induced fatigue rather than fervour. Add to that the government’s strategy of obfuscation, denial and attacking the motives, ethics and character of the journalistic messengers, and the result is a jaded public with little interest in spies or what they do and whom they do it to. Cast against a backdrop in which personal data and private information is already bulk accessed by private firms and a host of social media platforms with profit-maximising in mind, the general attitude seems to be one of unconcern about what the guardians of the public interest are doing in that regard. In such a climate the old Nazi refrain “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” resonates quite well.

Unless Mr. Greenwald, Mr. Hager and their colleagues have bombshells that they have yet to drop, it appears that like Mr. Dotcom’s much-hyped “Moment of Truth” last year, their efforts have fizzled rather than fired. For the sake of their credibility as well as the public good, it is time for them to stand up and deliver something of significance that transcends the Wellington beltway or if not, to walk away.

Should Mr. Hager and company opt to deliver a bombshell, they need to consider one more thing: what good purpose is served by revealing the foreign espionage activities of New Zealand and its closest intelligence partners? Even if it uncovers myriad spying efforts that have nothing to do with national security (and terrorism, that old canard), will it advance the cause of transparency and selectivity in intelligence operations and make some governments more responsive to public concerns about privacy? Will it curtail spying by the 5 Eyes partners or any other nation? Will it encourage whistleblowing on illegal government surveillance? Will it advance New Zealand’s interests in the world or force a reconsideration of its relationship with its security partners?

Or will it simply damage New Zealand’s reputation and relations with the countries that have been spied on?  Given that New Zealand is the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners and is, indeed, almost totally trade dependent, the negative consequences of any potential backlash or retaliation by aggrieved states could be significant.

That is why the issue is important. The thrust of the most recent revelations have moved beyond domestic mass surveillance and into the realm of traditional inter-state espionage, which is not confined to the activities of the 5 Eyes partners and is an integral, if unspoken necessary evil of international relations. Given that the focus of the Snowden material is solely on 5 Eyes spying and not on its counterespionage efforts or the intelligence operations of other states, could it not seem to the general public to be a bit one-sided and deliberately injurious to continue to unveil only what NZ and its partners undertake by way of signals intelligence collection (as some in government and supportive of it have insinuated)?

In the end, will ongoing revelations about New Zealand foreign espionage serve the public interest and common good? Or will it have the opposite effect?

And will average Kiwis care either way?


A short version of this essay appeared in the New Zealand Herald, April 10, 2015.

6 thoughts on “Spy Fatigue.

  1. Here is a general rule: spying against the powerful or those who attempt violence is legitimate, spying against the relatively powerless is illegitimate.

    Whole population surveillance is excessive and seems to me to be not that useful either.

  2. Paul aren’t you providing a catch 22 argument here: if you report spying activities there might not be reform because boredom. If you don’t report activities, there might not be reform because who knows about it?

    Also how much is the drip feed a reality of analysing lots of documents, and that newspaers want a series of stories, not a king hit.

  3. Good questions Andrew.

    I think the way to square the circle is to be judicious and selective about what material is realised into the public domain. Snowden admitted to John Oliver that the NYT release of information about specific anti-terrorism operations was a mistake because it compromised the safety of those involved in them. It is therefore possible to release information about activities that are clearly stretching the permissible limits of foreign intelligence gathering (say, delving into the personal histories of Pacific opposition leaders’ relatives or abetting murder of peaceful political activists) without publishing that which may be legitimate and essential for the protection of national interests. That includes restraint in revealing sources, locations and methods.

    Both the notion of “permissible” espionage and “national interests” are, of course, a matter of definition, which is precisely what the upcoming parliamentary review of the NZ intelligence community should focus on among other things.

    As for the drip-feeding. I am of two minds on that. On the one hand I appreciate that Greenwald, Hager and co. have thousands of documents to analyse and that takes time. On the other hand, because it does, I am inclined to think that once collected and analysed the major revelations can be published over a shorter timeframe, or grouped into a subject series–say, commercial, diplomatic and security related information–that illustrates where the 5 Eyes (and the GCSB) have exceeded their charters or at least what is permissible or defensible.

    That way the material can speak for itself and not allow suggestions of anything other than the interest in transparency and probity in the conduct of intelligence agencies being the motive for the publishing of classified material.

    I have great respect for Greenwald and Hager’s work but am concerned that they are being cast as traitors and villains because of the way the Snowden material has been handled and disseminated in the public domain.

  4. Yes James, the silence was covered down here to the point that John Key said that the Koreans did not give a “monkey’s …” about the spying. That may be true with regards to public expressions of displeasure, and the FTA was going to be signed anyway, but I would imagine that the Koreans would privately be a bit discomfited by the revelation.

    OTH, South Korean intelligence is a “third party” partner of 5 Eyes so they may well have known about the spying all along and were either cool with it or alerted their candidate to the monitoring (as Groser seemed to imply when dodging questions about the matter).

  5. I have a vision, that Keystored and and trigger indicated NZ meta data from full take is analysed at the back of some Canadian Mountie office in the suburbs of Ottawa by half a dozen old ladies, who as they have a cub of tea, and break out in the Internationale and secretly all hold the rank of Colonel in the GRU>

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