I get taking a stand on principles but…
So the Intelligence and Security Bill has passed its first reading in Parliament with a majority supporting it (106 votes to 15) and now goes back to select committee for further work.
The two parties who did not vote for it were the Greens and Peter Dunne (United Future).
For myself, I have read the Cullen/Reddy report that spawned the bill (170 pages), the bill itself and the all-important Regulatory Impact Statement (70 pages), followed the progress of the bill as it moved through the various layers of government and related agencies as well as talked with several of those who will be directly affected by it, should it go through, and itâ€™s a rare day that I find myself in genuine agreement with John Key and the Government on a matter such as this.
Historically I have not been a fan of the Squirrels (one of the unofficial names used in Wellington for the intelligence services in general*), not because I do not believe they have a function in New Zealand but because my dealings with them though my currentÂ and previous work inside government has been a relatively vexing process and dueÂ to the fact that I don’t believe that these agencies remain fit for purpose in the modern world (I am an advocate of intelligence reform). Â Also because there is something about a high security clearance that often makes people inflate theirÂ own self-importance simply due to having said high security clearance and these agenciesÂ output seeming to have lessÂ to do withÂ the actual security of NZ and more to do with supporting US hegemony though the Five Eyes agreement (also known as the â€œAnglo Saxon white peoples business empire protection clubâ€).
Donâ€™t get me wrong, I have severalÂ good friends and acquaintances in the squirrels, and there are many smart and dedicated souls slaving away for the greater good whose work will never be acknowledged but most of these agencies should have been shut down and replaced with something new and better a long time ago (something the report mentioned but was outside the scope of the report itself).
Unfortunately the mystique of intelligence work, as detailed by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks in The CIA and the cult of Intelligence (and many other books**), is something that remains by virtue of people being dazzled by the idea of such work being something like a James Bond movie or by the fallacy that because something is a secret it therefore makes it special and those people that handle such material are therefore also special.
In the end the work is the same as that in many government departments but with a blanket of secrecy draped over it. Squirrels go to work, sit at desks, write reports and do many of the same things that other civil servants do. Much of the work is as mundane as that of other bureaucrats in government because they are bureaucrats also.
Itâ€™s also an atmosphere which can includeÂ a preference for ex-military intelligence personnel over talented staff already in house and a club like atmosphere in senior management characterized by the most venal examples of patch protectionism*** I have ever seen.
In my previous work the easy answer to dealing with squirrelly issues was to work around it rather than try and get them to do anything about it and it is worth relating the mechanics of such an issue to give readers an idea of how bloody obstinate these agencies can be to change or doing anything about problems or issues that exist simply because it would highlight their own failings.
In my previous role in government, my small team dealt with one of the squirrel agencies on a regular basis as part of our work processing and assessing risk cases. The process went something like this: We got a case, we assessed the case for risk using our standard measures and if certain criteria were met we then sent the case off to the appropriate section of the squirrels for comment (sometimes more than one). We then waited for that comment to come back and once it did we would complete the process and make a decision in regards to the case and the identified risk.
The problem was that once we sent the file off to the nutty clubhouse for comment it was the equivalent to throwing the file into a black hole or some sort of temporal vortex.
Once it went in there was no reliable way to predict when it was going to come out, it could be a few days, a week, a month, several months, six months, a year or in the most drawn out instances, well over a year and attempts to find out what was going on were usually met with the blank wall of secrecy.
And when I took over the team I soon found that the black hole was a real problem for our work simply because we did not know when a case was going to come out of the black hole and hence we could end up with half of the files in our cabinets waiting for the Squirrel Nutkin seal of approval and our workflow slowing down and often grinding to a halt while we waited for a result.
So being a solutions not problems sort of person I spent several months politely trying to get the fury rodents responsible for the black hole to give some time frame or indication of what was going on and soon found out that my counterparts on the other side were as over worked as much as myself and they themselves were beholden to processes much larger which were dictated to them by bigger rodents several pay grades above theirs (or my) own.
So I got my manager to arrange a meeting with their manager and we put forward a simple business case to improve the process by putting in place some simple workarounds in the form of queue streams (high and low priority) and more effective communications to enable the Stygian depth of the hole to slightly less opaque.
It was a sound proposal, would have required almost no extra effort by themselves (as we would have done most of the grunt work) and had demonstrable benefits for both parties. There was no risk of information leakage or any security being breached. All we were doing was fixing the mechanics of a process that was clearly broken.
But did squirrel management accept even one smidgen of our proposal? Noooooo, they did not and their reasons for refusing the proposal? They did not have any, they simply refused to do anything or say anything further on the matter.
So in the end I re-organised the entire process at our end to speed up all work before and after we flung the file into the back hole and made sure that our management were well aware of why time frames for files were dragging out so we could point to us having done all we could when the inevitable complaints came rolling in about â€œthe status on these 23 files being on hold for more than six monthsâ€.
Sadly if this was an isolated example I would not be writing about it here but itâ€™s not; time and again myself and others I have spoken with have had nothing but praise for the hard working individuals inside the shadow tailed services and lots of scorn and derision for their senior management and their archaic and byzantine practices simply because its “secret”.
And if my previous example is a bit too esoteric for the reader let me give a much clearer and more concrete example of the problem: Security Clearances.
For many people who work in government a security clearance (confidential, secret, top secret, top secret special, super- top secret, Umbra, grey alien etc) is a standard requirement for their job and these clearances range across government departments, many of which people might not imagine would need one (The Ministry of Education being a good example).
Unfortunately the process of getting a security clearance is often loooooong and sloooow which means that most people will start their jobs without the clearance the job description says they need. Now this is not an issue in itself because many clearances (such as a low level Confidential) have a minimal risk or exposure associated to them that the choice has been made to get the person into the role and proceed towards the clearance in due time. A reasonable workaround in such circumstances.
In other cases all manner of people have been in roles with all manner of documents and information with all manner of security levels passing across their desk and not a security clearance to their name in sight.
My favorite example of this is a previous manager I knew who handled a range of sensitive material but who never had the appropriate security clearance until her last week on the job and it was believed this was given to her only so it could be said that she had held the appropriate clearance rather than actually having been genuinely vetted. Nothing more than a box ticking exercise.
And again this is not an isolated incident; I have seen and herd all manner of similar stories from others in government. Much of it is due to limited staff and massive workloads so vetting has to be prioritized but still clearances donâ€™t get given in the right circumstances.
So itâ€™s with these thoughts in mind that I find myself reading through the Cullen/Reddy report and nodding in agreement with much it recommends and then continuing to nod my head when the government decides to take on most of these proposals with the new bill.
Will the new bill fix the technicalÂ problems noted above? No it wonâ€™t but as the report notes there is a serious fracture in the rules and regulations the various agencies use and how they work together and by having one system for both (as the new bill only really affects the SIS and GCSB with the NAB tabbed in on the side and does not affect the Police or the scoundrels in DDIS at all) with tighter rules for warrantsÂ things willÂ actually improve all round by virtue of clarity around the rules and unification of output.
I wonâ€™t be going into the bill much further here as I intend to discuss it in greater detail in another post afterÂ it has been though a few select committees and the current issues have been worked out.
What I want to look at today is why the Greens are so opposed to the intelligence services in general and I have used my examples of some of the genuine issues with the squirrelly systems to illustrate that changes are needed but it seems that the Greens are not opposing the bill for any practical reasons.
The truth is that the Greens are opposed to the squirrels and their activities mostly on principle AND by having been subject to the intense scrutiny and machinations by sections of the squirrels in the past (and possibly even today). Such treatment would have left a rather bad feeling which is all fine and dandy but a rather strange position in this case because there are genuine issues with the squirrels which this bill could fix and it appears that the Greens are being blinded by principles rather than seeing the situation for what it is, in short principles before pragmatism.
As I noted in my Green Party post a few months back no other party in parliament would have had the level of monitoring and infiltration, in modern times, than the Greens. In the Cold War it would have been Labour and there are stories about party members (including Norm Kirk before he became PM) being watched, monitored and bugged by the SIS which when compared to the known behaviors of similar services elsewhere (MI5 in England) are more than likely to be true.
Also the traditional position of such parties is to oppose expanding the powers of the security apparatus so no surprises there. But if the Right has an ideological blind spot when it comes to social policy and viewing people and society as nothing more than crude inputs for their half-baked economic models then the Left often fails to see the very real Hobbsian argument for a strong state actor and that security is a key aspect of such a state. Hoping that we can all just get along or wishing to impose some sort of communal security arrangement ignores that security risks are real and few if any nations are immune.
So is it just really personal and the Greens canâ€™t see that the bill might actually reign in the behavior of the squirrels rather than letting them of the leash leading to a wholesale expansion of their power (ie spying on Kiwis)?
Certainly if this rather testy exchange between Metirei Turei and IG Christopher Finlayson is to be believed, as while Finlayson has all the personality and people skills of prison camp commandant this would be one of those rare times where I can see that Tureiâ€™s questions are just point scoring and grandstanding rather than genuinely about the bill and Finlaysonâ€™s frustration and droning out the same answer again and again are entirely justified.
Then again, we expect our Green party candidates to hold and believe certain ideological positions just as much as we would expect National party members to be all for the Neo-Liberal death march to prosperity for the ultra-wealthy at the expense of all others; and the ideological position of the Greens is defiantly opposed to the intelligence services.
Which leaves me in a curious position as I usually like the policies of the Greens, ideology or not, and I myself do have issue with much of the structure and behavior of the security services in NZ but after having picked over the bill and related documents I see that the recommendations of the report are in generally sound (centralization of rules, tighter oversight and protections and clearer definitions) albeit with the need (as identified by Labour) to tighten up some of the details in the select committee process (clearer definition of â€œNational Securityâ€ and around the levels of warrant/safeguard etc).
But thatâ€™s the details, the bill in and of itself will actually do a lot to bring the services around and in line as well as make them fully part of the public service (and subject to all that being in the public service means) but for some reason the Greens are not going to go for it and for once I find myself onside with John Key and National and genuinely wondering why the Greens hate the squirrels so much?
For those with the time I recommend reading the report (itâ€™s very easy to read and was deliberately written that way as well as defining the issues in clear and simple terms) along with the related documents.
I do get that there are probably deeper concerns if you dug into the Greens on this issue but thatâ€™s not how itâ€™s coming out in the media and their website also has little to say beyond their opposition to the bill and such matters.
If the Greens oppose the Squirrels for personal reasons I get that and also I support their being back on the ISC (Intelligence and Security Committee) despite Keyâ€™s protestations that their opposition makes it pointless to be there (I believe a dissenting opinion is a useful thing to guide the discussion not matter how contrary) but their voting against it, while a principled stand, really does little and ignores the opportunity that the bill presents to fix part of the problem they are moaning about.
*-So called after a 1960’s cartoon about a squirrel that was also a spy (here)
**-Decent Interval, The Big Breach and Spy Catcher being some other good works which highlight these issues.
***-As seen by myself and related to me through friends and acquaintances inside the wire. For whatever reasons such behavior seems to occur a lot more in the intelligence, risk and compliance spaces than elsewhere in government.