On intelligence oversight, a broader perspective.

The announcement that the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), Cheryl Gwyn, has convened an external Reference Group to discuss issues of intelligence agency oversight (specifically, that of the NZSIS and GCSB, which are the agencies under her purview) has been met with applause and controversy. The applause stems from the fact the Group is a continuation of her efforts to strengthen the oversight mechanisms governing New Zealand’s two most important intelligence collection and analysis agencies. The controversy is due to some of the persons who have accepted invitations to participate in the Group.

The Group is an unpaid, non-partisan collection of people with interest, expertise and/or background in matters broadly related to intelligence and security and their oversight. None are government employees, something that gives them freedom to speak frankly under the Chatham House rules established by the IGIS. The Group is a supplement to and not a rival of or substitute for the IGIS Advisory Panel, made up of two people with security clearances that have access to classified material and who can offer specific assistance on matters of operational concern. However, the Advisory Panel has had no members since October 2016.

The idea behind the Reference Group, which is modelled on a Dutch intelligence oversight counterpart, is to think laterally or “outside of the box” on matters relevant to intelligence oversight. Bringing together people from different backgrounds and perspectives allows Group discussions to gravitate towards areas of common concern, thereby eliminating personal agendas or extreme positions. And because the Group is made up of outsiders, it does not run the risk of becoming slave to the groupthink of agency insiders.

In contrast to the Advisory Panel, the Reference Group does not handle classified material nor discuss operational matters. Access to classified material or operational details is obviated by the fact that the Group’s focus is on the broad themes of accountability, transparency, organizational compliance and the balance between civil liberties (particularly the right to privacy) and the defense of national security as conducted by the lead intelligence agencies. These are matters of legality and propriety rather than operational conduct. And while similarly important, legality and propriety are not synonymous. Often what is legal is not proper and vice versa, and this is acutely the case when it comes to intelligence collection, analysis and usage. Since the IGIS does not oversea the NZDF and smaller intelligence “shops” such as those of the DPMC, Police, Immigration and Customs, the Group will only discuss issues relevant to oversight  of the NZSIS and GCSB.

Who are the members of the Group and why the controversy? The plurality of members are four public interest lawyers, three of them academicians and one an advocate for refugees. Two members are journalists. One is the Issue Manager for Internet NZ, one is the head of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, one is a former Russian diplomat now serving as the Director of the Massey University Centre for Defense and Strategic Studies (CDSS), one is an economist who chairs Transparency International New Zealand and one is a private sector geopolitical and strategic analysis consultant.

Concern has been voiced about the presence of both journalists as well as the refugee advocate and the loyalties of the former Russian diplomat (although he has held positions at a US security institution as well as the NZDF-funded CDSS). The thrust of the contrary views about these and some of the other participants is that they are untrustworthy due to their personal backgrounds, professional affiliations and/or ideological orientations. An additional reason given for opposing some of the membership is that they have been strong critics of the SIS and GCSB and therefore should be disqualified a priori.

Others believe that the Group is just a whitewashing, window-dressing or co-optation device designed to neuter previous critics by bringing them “into the tent” and subjecting them to “bureaucratic capture” (whereby the logic of the agencies being overseen eventually becomes the logic accepted by the overseers or Reference Group interlocutors).

The best way to allay these concerns is to consider the IGIS Reference Group is as an external focus group akin to a Town Hall meeting convened by policy-makers. Communities are made of people of many persuasions and many viewpoints, and the best way to canvass their opinions on a broad range of subjects is to bring them together in a common forum where they can debate freely the merits of any particular issue.  In the case of the Reference Group the issue of intelligence agency oversight and, more specifically, matters of institutional and individual accountability (both horizontal and vertical, that is, vis a vis other government agencies such as the judiciary and parliament, on the one hand, and vis a vis the government and public on the other); transparency within the limits imposed by national security concerns; and the juggling of what is legal and what is proper, are all set against the backdrop of respect for civil liberties inherent in a liberal democracy. These are complex subjects not taken lightly by those involved, all of whom have track records of involvement in the field and who, given the terms of reference and charter of the Group, are acting out of a sense of civic duty rather than for pecuniary or personal gain.

The IGIS does not need political or agency authorisation to construct such a Group, which has no statutory authority or bureaucratic presence. As a vehicle for interest intermediation on the subject of intelligence oversight, it serves as a sounding board not for the IGIS but for the people on it. In that light, the IGIS has called the Group’s discussion a “one-way street” where participants air their informed opinions about agenda items agreed to in advance and in which the IGIS serves as a discussion moderator and takes from it what she finds useful. Expected to meet two or three times a year over tea and coffee, the Group is not likely to tax the Treasury purse and could well deliver value for dollar in any event.

Critics of this exercise and other forms of interest intermediation or external consultation betray their closet authoritarianism because such concertative vehicles are mainstays of policy-making in advanced liberal democracies. Be it the tripartite wage negotiation structures bringing representatives of the State, labour and capital together (even at the regional or local level), to consultative boards and other social partnership vehicles that connect stakeholders and decision-makers in distinct policy areas, the use of interest intermediation is an integral feature of modern democratic regimes (for an example of the breadth of issues addressed by intermediation vehicles, see Kate Nicholls, Mediating Policy: Greece, Ireland and Portugal before the Eurozone Crisis. London: Routledge, 2015.). To argue against them because of who is represented or because they are seen as inefficient talkfests that are a waste of taxpayer money is just a cloak for a desire to silence broad public input and dissenting views in the formulation of public policy. That may have been the case under the previous government but no longer is the case now.

One of the thorniest problems in a democracy is the question of what system of checks and balances keeps the intelligence community proper as well as legal. As the most intrusive and sensitive of State activities, intelligence collection, analysis and usage must be free from reproach on a number of grounds—conflicts of interest, partisan bias, foreign control, illicit activity or criminal behaviour, etc.—and must be accountable and responsive to the public will. The broadening of consultation intermediators between the NZ intelligence community and the public is therefore a step in the right direction, and for that reason the Reference Group is a welcome contribution to the oversight authority vested in the IGIS.

References: http://www.igis.govt.nz/media-releases/announcements/establishment-of-igis-reference-group/


Disclosure: The author is a member of the Reference Group. The views expressed are his own.

36 thoughts on “On intelligence oversight, a broader perspective.

  1. Pablo, a very interesting post. Don’t you find, though, that discussing intelligence matters with people who are much less educated about them than you, such as these journalists, public lawyers or refugee advocates, is frustrating? I don’t want to impugn these people as amateurs or to suggest these career paths aren’t worthy in themselves, but I would think it is hard to have an even handed discussion with them when you bring pretty substantial specialist knowledge and experience and all they have is interest and (hopefully) a willingness to listen. It seems like this group would spend so much time educating its members that even in a best case scenario it will take years to reach the level of expertise where it can actually contribute as a group (not ruling out individual contributions, such as your own blog, but that’s another matter).

    Wouldn’t this Group be more effective if everybody on it had a similar level of expertise to your own?

  2. Erewhon:

    One of the virtues of the Group is that it is not made up of insiders but people who have keen interest in issues of privacy, transparency, government accountability and the like, some with great (and even comparative) legal expertise. This moves the discussions away from a secrecy- or security-centric view and towards a more democracy-oriented paradigm. That is, rather than get bogged down in the details of how to keep secrets and how to go about obtaining them, the focus can shift to what should be labeled “secret” and what is proper conduct in the pursuit of obtaining it.

    The focus of the Group allows it to concentrate on issues of institutional and individual responsibility as opposed to the nuts and bolts of intelligence collection and analysis. The Advisory Panel, should it ever be reconstituted, can deal with the latter.

    But what is most important, at least to me, is a review of the oversight mechanisms and legal framework governing the activities of the SIS and GCSB. There has been a fair bit legislative reform governing the NZIC in recent years, but these have had the effect of expanding agency powers rather than circumscribe them. In some cases that may be justified but as of yet the intelligence oversight regime is limited to what the IGIS can do, and even if its powers have grown in recent years they still fall short of the type of robust oversight that will help curb “excesses” and deter “mistakes” from happening.

    Hence my agreement to participate and respect for the others who have done so.

  3. You claim the group is non-partisan. That’s a joke, right? I mean there are a few people on that group who are completely partisan.

  4. Nick:

    The Group aggregates people of a number of views and ideological dispositions. That makes it non-partisan as a whole even if some individuals may hold partisan views (i.e. be attached to a political party line). As I wrote in the post, the fact that the group has a variety of views promotes moderation and non-partisanship in its collective pronouncements.

  5. Many thanks for taking a reasoned approach to this. Your reply to the person suggesting only those who have your level of understanding of these issues was thoughtful and much appreciated. To suggest only those who understand the services should sit on the committee is a little disrespectful to the level of intelligence of the people named, and their ability to grasp new ideas. Thanks again for a reasoned summation and response.

  6. @Tracey: It’s not a matter of intelligence, it’s a matter of expertise. Somebody might be more intelligent than a surgeon, but it doesn’t follow that I would rather they did surgery on me than a surgeon.

    I don’t mean to disrespect these people as individuals, I am sure they are all very accomplished in their chosen fields. It’s just that the field they are active in in this instance isn’t their chosen field. I am no more comfortable with a journalist making decisions about intelligence than I am an intelligence official deciding what should and shouldn’t be published in a newspaper.

  7. Surely you jest in saying this group is “non-partisan”, in fact you couldn’t find a more partisan group if you tried. Where the conservative voices on the panel?

  8. Cam:

    Please read my reply to Nick K above. There are people in the Group with conservative views on matters of intelligence and security and/or who do not adhere to any particular party line. So the concern about Lefty or partisan bias is unwarranted. What unites the Group members is their keen interest in matters of intelligence oversight.

  9. The liberal interpretation of the Reference Panel would be that the security services want to come closer to the public, open channels of communication with their critics, and expose themselves to different ideas, perspectives, and ways of doing things.
    An alternative explanation, which is only subtly different, is that the services are looking to increase their influence in the state and become more active in the formation of government policy, while disarming their critics within the media and the community.
    On the evidence available to date the balance of probabilities has to favour the second explanation. David Fisher has been a conduit for leaked intelligence information provided by either the SIS or disaffected agents. The security services have much to gain by keeping him close. Paul Buchanan knows the security intelligence business, is an acute observer, and occasionally troublesome critic. Best to keep him on side as well. Nicky Hager is something of an enigma, but we can be fairly sure that if he accepts the role then he also at least accepts that a security service is necessary and justified. On the reference panel he can be watched, and if necessary, won over. Hager has already appeared as an independent voice on NATO sponsored panels sitting alongside SIS operatives and the security services have clearly determined that he is someone that they can work with. Cheryl Gwyn, the Trotskyist Inspector-General of the security services, has political clout with leftist intellectuals such as Hager and Buchanan and that influence can be expected increase with their appointment to her reference panel.
    So my reading is that this move will be “good” for the security services (even if commenters such as Erewhon, who suggests that only intelligence community insiders should sit on the panel, fail to appreciate its essentially political purpose). But it will not be so good for the New Zealand public as the media and the left become more closely drawn into the security services web.
    Pablo acknowledges this interpretation, while discounting it for reasons which he explains in his post. However he fails to recognise or acknowledge that the reference panel takes the security services another step along the way to being a political force in its own right, putting its case directly to the New Zealand public rather than through the responsible minister as has normally been the case in the past. This politicization was foreshadowed in the notorious “security chiefs” memo to Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little and if everything is to make sense, we need to look at the formation of the Reference Panel in the light of that memo.

  10. Geoff:

    As usual your analysis is thoughtful and measured. But I will have to disagree with you because I believe that you give the agencies in question, particularly the SIS, too much credit for thinking strategically and politically over the medium term. I cannot speak for others on the panel but my impression is that the agencies reacted very poorly to the decision to convene the Group and may be working to undermine it via contacts in the conservative media and blogosphere.

    The hard fact, as far as I can ascertain, is that those in the Group have a sincere interest in issues of intelligence oversight and accountability. The operative phrase is “legal AND proper,” and everyone appears to understand the perils of bureaucratic capture.

  11. “commenters such as Erewhon, who suggests that only intelligence community insiders should sit on the panel”

    That is not what I said. I said people with expertise should sit on the panel. You don’t have to be an insider to have expertise, nor have expertise to be an insider for that matter.

  12. “This politicization…”

    How can one talk about the ‘politicisation’ of the intelligence services? They are innately political in their basic function. One might as well talk about the ‘politicisation’ of Parliament.

  13. In reply to Erewhon. I was referring to the “intelligence community” in the broadest sense of anyone who has expertise and engages in discussion with others having a similar level of expertise. However I acknowledge that individuals with professional expertise can stand outside the “intelligence community”. Usually that implies that they have been ostracized for political non-conformity, which is a common enough phenomenon across the professions in this country and it would be interesting to have a renegade SIS officer, for example, sitting on Ms Gwyn’s panel.
    I agree that the security and intelligence services normally perform a political function. However it is assumed that they should not be overtly political, campaign for a particular foreign policy, or lead, rather than follow, government policies in general. Yet the security and intelligence services were able to dictate at least one significant administrative measure to the previous National-led government, and have made serious efforts to dictate foreign policy to the current Labour-led government. None of this may be entirely new, but it indicates a security-intelligence apparatus which is flexing its muscles in an arm-wrestling competition with elected government.

  14. @Geoff: Wouldn’t you say Pablo is a member of the “intelligence community” as you have defined it – yet he is clearly not a tool of the status quo? Surely it’s not impossible to imagine other such people existing?

    As for what you have described as the “politicisation” of the intelligence services, it is nothing but the status quo. Intelligence input into political systems of the sort you have described is as old as WW2. Like it, dislike it or feel neutral about it, you can’t claim it is a novelty.

  15. There is a state security-intelligence apparatus which is subject to a discipline, albeit with the usual incidence of internal factional and personal conflicts. Then there is an intelligence community, which comprises the apparatus itself, and various academics and private providers who are not specifically subject to the organizational discipline of the state security-intelligence apparatus. The “security” side is tasked with protecting the status quo within the apparatus of state, while the “intelligence” side is tasked with observing and analyzing political changes and developments. So there are different functions, one to maintain the status quo (“tool of the status quo” if you really want to employ that phrase) and the other to understand and manage change. Pablo is, by implication, a member of the intelligence community which serves the latter role.
    Politicization is not in itself novel, though there are novel aspects to the current politicization, and it is definitely not “business as usual”. There is a fuzzy line which the security-intelligence apparatus sometimes strays over. In this case it has not just strayed, but boldly jumped over the line.

  16. Ms Gwyn says that the essential purpose of the group is to assist her to determine whether security-intelligence operations are legal and proper. Yet that is the function of her own office. She is there as a salaried statutory officer for exactly that purpose. Why does she need a reference group? There are members of the group who are competent to give advice on the lawfulness of an operation (Dr Nicole Moreham, John Ip, Thomas Beagle, Deborah Manning and possibly others). But will the IGIS be relying on their unpaid informal advice if or when it comes to a specific complaint? No, she will not. She will, in that event, either make her own determination (she is after all a trained lawyer) or seek the opinion of one of the other lawyers on her staff. Will the IGIS be giving the Group an overview of the kinds of operations conducted by the security-intelligence agencies so that the Group may make general observations on their legality or otherwise? No, she will not. She will not do anything which would gratuitously expose the operations of the security-intelligence agencies to the sight of the general public. So at no time will the determination of whether operations are legal be put to or left with the Reference Group.
    The question of whether an operation is “proper” will be within the purview of the group, but to decide that one does not need to have legal or intelligence expertise. A Professor of Philosophy specializing in morals and ethics, or even a minister of religion would fit the bill better than a Professor of Law. Having said that, the Reference Group consists of erudite individuals who are as capable as any other New Zealanders of determining what is or is not “proper”. They will do that, but only after a case has come before the public, at which point every man and his dog will have formed an opinion on propriety, and the opinions of the Group, while learned, will be largely redundant.
    The Group members themselves may assume that they were appointed based on their concerns (for human rights, rule of law and so on) and their expertise (principally in state intelligence, law and international security). Yet such expertise seems hardly required to do what Ms Gwyn is asking of the Group. She will not be asking them to determine policy, strategy or tactics for the SIS or the GCSB. Their concerns are real, but they will have no particular opportunity to give effect to those concerns. The outcomes will entirely depend on Cheryl Gwyn.
    So what else, apart from expertise and concerns, does the Group have in common? More to the point, what is the one thing that the members of the Group have in common? In a word, it is influence. They are people whose opinions one reads in the New Zealand Herald, whose voices are heard on RNZ National, who publish books and academic papers and conduct public seminars. That is why Ms Gwyn has appointed them to her Reference Group.
    Cheryl Gwyn cut her teeth in the Socialist Action League. Her strategy there was to become part of a cadre which infiltrated organisations or institutions to become a dominant presence (in the Marxist lexicon this strategy goes by the name of “entryism”) and then work towards establishing a “broad front” or “united front” which would extend the influence of the cadre by its association with respected or influential individuals and groups. She is following the same strategy as Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Gwyn wants the SIS to have an overtly political role, and the Reference Group is her way of extending political influence through the media. She may say that the flow of information will be one way but that is nonsense. She will not be present as a mute cardboard cutout. She will be asking questions, listing agenda items, steering the Group in particular directions, planting the seed for New Zealand Herald articles, blog posts and academic papers. She will be controlling things. This is her game and the rest of us will only be pawns or spectators.

  17. Geoff:

    In this instance your cynicism outweighs your insight. From my viewpoint there is much more to the constitution of the Group than what you describe. Plus, your continued aspersions cast on the IG reflect poorly on your judgement of who she is and what her goals are in the present context.

  18. Well, there is a lot we don’t know about Cheryl Gwyn and I doubt that she will ever make a full and frank statement about the course of her career from the Socialist Action League through the Whakatu Freezing works and Chapman Tripp to the office of IGIS. There is a lot to explain, and it doesn’t help much to have others of a similar political persuasion assure us that she is a “good sort”. If you know more about Cheryl Gwyn, tell us and I may revise my opinion.

  19. OK, now you are being boorish, conspiratorial and unpleasant. I will take that into consideration from now on.

  20. Ok, I was wrong to prejudge the possible outcomes from the IGIS Reference Group. I will try to keep an open mind from here on, and see how things evolve.

  21. Pablo
    Pleased to see your name among those named, I think you are a valuable addition. I also think the Group is a good idea so take the comments below with that in mind. The way I see it the approach is to get moral and ethical policy framework advice rather than determine whether operations are acceptable.
    Nick K is absolutely right that the composition is heavily left loaded but it is imbalanced in other ways. There are lawyers, academics and journalists. Only New Zealand could include ex Russian and ex USA foreign/defence service rep’s for balance. Just missing China.
    There is no retired general or someone with armed services experience, there seems to be nobody formerly with the NZ intelligence services. There is no current or former politician. As Geoff suggests there is nobody from Philosophy.
    Are Chatham House rules right? Are the members subsequently handcuffed from speaking out where they disagree with government policy.
    It seems to me that the IGIS RG could be very dangerous if used to drive a wedge between NZ and other Five Eyes partners. They provide our security and have done for the last 100 years. The Group as formed is not balanced.
    If it was a far more balanced non operational forum that was provided some level of information that Joe Public did not get with the clear understanding that members could break Chatham house if they felt strongly enough it might have more value. As constituted it seems like it will be used as an excuse to drive a very left wing policy agenda. Witness Peters/Ardern behaviour over Russia/Syria/chemical weapons and NK FTA. Russia used chemical weapons in a Five Eyes partner country. We failed to support them as they failed to support us over Rainbow Warrior. That does not make for a secure country with strong ties to other liberal market democracies.

  22. Thanks Phil,

    For the interesting comment and welcome back to the forum. I remain puzzled about why you and others keep on referring to the RG as “left-leaning” when in fact only one member is clearly on that side of aisle and one other is a former Labour Party staffer (and human rights advocate). The law profs, ex-diplomat, civil liberties advocate and IT specialist are not known for their lefty views, and everyone knows that although I may lean social democratic on issues of domestic policy I tend towards realism in foreign and international security affairs.

    I understand your concern about not having ex-military, intelligence or politicians. But as I mentioned in the past there is already an advisory body that represents those with intel or military backgrounds and who have clearances (even if unstaffed at the moment). The IG is working to have that group up and running again and has spoken of how helpful it has been in the past. So there is a forum for those “on the inside.” Plus, if we consider the track record of the insiders (ex-military or judges) who have held the IG post before the current incumbent, it is poor in many respects, to include being captive to the internal logics of the agencies themselves. The specific intent here was to bring in “outsiders” without strong partisan identification or internal ties. By design that rules ex-politicians as well as former military and intelligence officers out. The ex-Labour staffer is not known to be overtly partisan and in fact became a household name by standing up to the Clark government over the Zaoui case (which was about intel agency overreach and human rights, not Left or Right). So to my mind the RG is what is supposed and intended to be. It might have been made larger but at least one person declined to participate as far as I know (and adding more members simply makes the group unwieldy).

    I am not sure what a philosopher would bring to the table. Discussions of Aristotle, Plato or Socrates’ interpretations of “just” intelligence operations? The application of lifeboat strategies and lesser evil approaches to intelligence oversight? Do Rawlsian principles of justice apply to intelligence oversight? Are there ethical limits in a business built on secrets? How many intelligence agents can dance on the head of a pin? I do not mean to be flippant (well, OK, I do), but issues of oversight are legal, political, practical as well as ethical, and the group clearly has the expertise to address all of these.

    The Chatham House rules are appropriate because it allows members to speak freely within the forum without fear of external repercussions. In the first meeting we did in fact speak very freely and frankly. The rules basically are that we can make public comment about our own views and general topics of discussion but cannot speak or quote what other members say. Sounds fair to me.

    Also remember that the IG set this group up without input from the government. She acted independently and the first the government heard about it was in the run-up to the first meeting. So there is no agenda, Left wing or governmental, other than to address issues of transparency and oversight (again, nothing operational is on the menu). From where I sit the RG is a good sounding board for interested parties with specific interest in and knowledge of the issues involved in democratic oversight of intelligence collection and analysis (to include intel sharing and its use for political or partisan purposes). So it a welcome addition.

    I agree with you about the Labour/NZ First foreign policy (I do not mention the Greens because they play the role of neutered lapdogs in this arrangement). I have written my critique previously so no point in re-hashing it here, but whatever they are, the motivations for its current stance could do with some better justification.

  23. The Group does not purport, and does not need to represent a cross-section of New Zealand society. Nor does it actually need to have a balance of political opinion. It will not assess or define threats to the state. For example it will not have a voice in whether China, the Russian Federation, Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, Shia state Islamism, revolutionary Marxism or Family First should be classified as threats to the state. It will not help to determine the extent or nature of New Zealand’s intelligence collaboration with foreign powers. Therefore the left versus right argument seems irrelevant. It should make no difference if the members of the Group were drawn entirely from either the “left” or the “right”.
    If the ISIG did lean more towards the left in making her appointments, it would have been done with careful consideration of purpose and consequence. She and the Directors-General did not set up the Reference Group on a whim. The Group will act as a sounding board (and alarm bell) for the ISIG and as a means of expounding security-intelligence interests to the wider community in an era when the security chiefs have decided to give public voice to their own political viewpoint. The interests, concerns and expertise of the Group are all relevant to that purpose.
    One remaining question is whether this initiative is helpful or inimical to democracy. In an old style democracy, the security intelligence services are, or should be, responsible to the elected government, through a minister of the Crown. However Peter Fraser seems to have been the last Prime Minister to have called the Special Branch/SIS to account (which he did for excellent reasons). Since then New Zealand governments have given the security services carte blanche (Warren Tucker was allowed to run the SIS with reckless disregard for the law, democratic freedoms and civil peace) and all questions were met with the bland response that “The government does not comment on security matters”. Added to that, in New Zealand there has been a general trend away from Ministerial responsibility in all spheres of government and society. So in effect there is no ministerial oversight of the security services, and it could be argued that any kind of oversight, such as that arguably provided by the Reference Group, must be better than nothing at all.
    However that argument may be challenged on four grounds. First, because the Reference Group will be just one more excuse for the government not to assume responsibility for its security services. Second because it will be a secret forum. Third because appointments are entirely at the discretion of the ISIG. Fourth because it adds influence to the already existing power of the security services and gives the security services an overtly political role in which they can promote policies to the public while bypassing the normal democratic structures.
    It is evident that whether the Group will be helpful or inimical to democracy will largely depend on its membership, which in turn depends on the choices of the Inspector-General. The initial appointments appear unobjectionable but we need to consider what protections exist to prevent a present or future ISIG from changing the composition of the Group over time in ways which would make it a mere tool for promoting the political agenda of the security chiefs. This is the danger of non-democratic institutions which may be benign or malign depending entirely on the personal character and commitment of the person or persons in charge and we need to remember that a focus group or group of experts convened by a democratically elected politician is very different in principle to a group of people of influence brought together by state security chiefs acting in concert.
    However, because New Zealand “democracy” is so deeply flawed and compromised, I see little possibility of the security services being subject to democratic oversight and control by elected politicians. The only option on the table is a Group of influential people convened by the security chiefs. That Group may cause the security services to check and restrain their political ambitions, or it may, on the other hand, give the security services the influence they desire to advance those ambitions to greater heights.
    One thing that the Group can do to increase public confidence is to conduct their deliberations openly. Given that no classified information will be put before the Group, and that all its members are public intellectuals who know how to choose words well, there is no justification for secrecy.

  24. @Geoff: I have to say I find your continual raising of Cheryl Gwynn’s socialist past quite irksome, not least because you refuse to actually lay out a theory, just continuously hint at “questions”. This is a tactic much beloved of the alt-right, so I really suggest you desist. Not least because the idea that Cheryl is simultaneously some kind of Marxist sleeper agent (the only real inference I can get out of your dogged but-what-if-isms), but the idea that her Marxism somehow means she is going to be a fanatical monarchist and imperialist. Again, I am reminded of the worst ideological sub-basement of the alt right where incessant blather about “pro-corporate Marxism” is considered to have intellectual currency. Frankly I think the fact that Pablo is as considerate to you as he is speaks incredibly well of his temperament.

    As an aside, for the record, I know Thomas Beagle personally, and it is my opinion he will contribute nothing of value to this group. I won’t be more specific because I don’t want to reveal my identity.

  25. Well, we may never know whether Thomas Beagle will “contribute nothing of value”, not least because the proceedings of the Group will be secret. In any case, it is unfair and unhelpful to make anonymous and non-specific criticisms of a member of the Group.
    Erewhon argues that “questions” are a “tactic much beloved of the alt-right” and adds “therefore I suggest you desist”.
    However people will always ask questions, particularly when governments tell them things that do not seem to make sense, and while you can drive the questions underground, ultimately you cannot suppress the human desire to know the truth.
    The question of how a revolutionary Marxist could end up with access to the most highly classified information in the New Zealand security-intelligence apparatus does deserve an answer – not just repeated warnings to “desist”.

  26. Geoff:

    Your continued and erroneous use of the term “revolutionary Marcxist” when referring to Ms. Gwyn needs to stop. Unless she was involved in armed struggle somewhere with the purpose of overthrowing the State (and many of those struggles are legitimate and justified), then the characterisation is bogus. And to Erewhon’s point, the idea that she may not have moderated her views over the years is unrealistic as well given her career trajectory.

    The broader point, now that another person’s name has been brought up, is not so much the personalities involved as the relative agency and focus of the Reference Group as a whole. If the Group can act effectively in promoting oversight reform, then the merits and demerits of the participants is of much less consequence than the final result.

  27. “Erewhon argues that “questions” are a “tactic much beloved of the alt-right” and adds “therefore I suggest you desist”.”

    Misquoting me so blatantly is a pretty low tactic, and it’s not even effective, because what I actually said is just one post up.

  28. PS: I don’t really expect anybody to take my views re: Mr Beagle as gospel because I can’t be specific. I just felt I had to say it for the record.

    I do agree, though, that the group’s effectiveness depends on more than just the qualities of any one member – this is why my high estimation of Pablo doesn’t necessarily translate into a high estimation of the group’s potential.

  29. 1. I am sympathetic to the view that an organisation or group should only be called “revolutionary” if they actually carry through or make a credible attempt at effecting a political revolution. The intelligence community may prefer to categorise the Socialist Action League and similar organisations as “subversive” rather than “revolutionary” and I am willing to go along with that.
    I used the term “revolutionary” because that is how the SAL described itself and I normally respect the way that individuals and groups choose to identify themselves. For example Philip Ferguson, a former member of the SAL, and sometime commenter on this blog, says “In the 1970s and into the 1980s the three main political groups on the revolutionary left in New Zealand were the (pro-Peking and then pro-Tirana) Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), the pro-Peking (and then more independent) Workers Communist League (WCL) and the (Trotskyist) Socialist Action League (SAL), which was the New Zealand section of the Fourth International, the ‘world party’ of socialist revolution’ established by Trotsky and his supporters on the eve of World War 2”. I am open to any evidence that the SAL description of itself as “revolutionary” was “erroneous” and “bogus” as suggested by Pablo but meanwhile will continue to assume that it was made in genuine good faith. I am also assuming that any member of an organisation such as the SAL genuinely subscribes to its aims and objectives but again I am open to evidence to the contrary in the case of Ms Gwyn.
    Actually, to me personally “revolutionary” has no bad connotations, whereas “subversive” does. However for the purposes of the discussion on kiwipolitico, I am willing to drop the descriptor “revolutionary” in favour of the intelligence community’s preferred term.
    2. I am not so comfortable with Erewhon’s gratuitous remarks regarding Thomas Beagle which will do nothing to promote harmony and stability within the Group.
    3. I apologize for misquoting Erewhon’s comment “This is a tactic much beloved of the alt-right, so I really suggest you desist.” as “….therefore I suggest you desist” but I assume that I got the general sense right, and that Erewhon wants me to desist from asking questions.

  30. Geoff:

    On your main point. I understand that many groups call themselves “revolutionary,” but most–especially in capitalist democracies–are more of the armchair or Chris Trotter variants rather than the real deal. I say this because a revolution, properly conceived, is defined as a form of violent mass collective action that contests sovereignty and then overthrows the ruling regime, gains control and occupies the State apparatus (after fighting it as the sovereignty contender), and then proceeds to embark on parametric change of the economic, social and political orders. There are variants as to how this occurs, the contestation and tension-release models being the most common, but the key defining feature is that the change of regime occurs via bottom-up violence.

    This prevents the sort of reform mongering that allows elites to buy off, co-opt and appease their challengers (particular leaders of the revolutionary masses). It is this reform-mongering capacity that has successfully allowed bourgeois democracy to survive for so long–it makes incremental material and political concessions to the masses and uses cooptive strategies to bring otherwise revolutionary leaders into the system as given–but they never touch what Gramsci called “the essential.”

    The latter is precisely the situation the groups you mention found themselves in, and which proves that they were not truly revolutionary in nature.

    To be clear: Any political group that calls itself “revolutionary” must be prepared to fight, and in fact must prepare for it. Otherwise it is nothing more than an anti-establishment or anti-status quo group masquerading as the real thing. In fact, having the word “revolutionary” in a democratic context is akin to all of those autocratic regimes that call themselves and their countries the “Peoples Democratic this and that,” e.g. the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and assorted African nations with one of both words in their names.

    This is not to discount what Gramsci and his neo-Gramscian followers, assorted EuroMarxists, Frankfurt School theorists and the leaders of the Colour Revolutions in Eastern Europe saw as the feasibility of making revolution without violence. But truth be told, none of these movements resulted in true revolutionary change. Sure, control of the means of production shifted hands and forms of political representation were changed, but in terms of societal values and behaviours much remained as before, including racism, anti-semitism and assorted other authoritarian and ascriptive pathologies that have now reappeared on the scene in many places (often under the guise of neo-populism or alt-right movements). So, IMO, true revolutionary change did not occur, and at least part of that may be due to the fact that these regime changes lacked the cathartic impact of a violent struggle for power. The Middle Eastern transitions are variations on that theme and worse, but since I have written about them in these pages before I will leave that discussion aside for the moment.

    Anyway, I do not think that Ms.Gwyn and her cohort were genuine revolutionaries. As for them being “subversives,” well, that is in the eye of the beholder. But I agree, if the beholder is the State, then perhaps these NZ anti-establishment groups were indeed “subversive,” presumably in the same way that direct action environmental groups and anti-trade activists are currently seen by the SIS and Police as subversive of the duly constituted order.

    Which makes me think that perhaps Ms. Gwyn is a Gramscian after all and understands that in a war of position it is in the trenches of the State where incremental revolutionary change happens most effectively, albeit subtly because it works on the terrain of consciousness rather than in the field of kinetic manoeuvre. However, I would be surprised if that is what she had in mind when constituting the Reference Group.

  31. Thanks Pablo. That is a coherent and reasoned argument which makes things clearer for me.
    Mention was made of Chris Trotter. In many ways Chris sounds like the better sort of mainstream media columnist. He is articulate, urbane, “balanced” and like other mainstream columnists he seems to stand aloof from the crowd (for example he rarely if ever directly engages with commenters on his blog), but he courageously puts out radical ideas or adopts a “revolutionary” persona in appropriate not-too-serious circumstances (as when breaking into song). He has much in common with his one-time collaborator the late Bruce Jesson. A penetrating mind, a way with words, a successful career as an independent journalist and a personality which is hard not to enjoy. Bruce left no political legacy in the form of an organisation or permanent change in our political institutions, and the same may be true of Chris. Yet our country and our people are richer for having people like Bruce and Chris among us. If their only “revolutionary” achievement was to make us start to think clearly and objectively about nation and state, that would be enough.

  32. Erewhon:

    I decided to drop the original reply to Geoff and a subsequent reply to you because there is no sense in stirring this particular pot. Onwards and upwards, as they say.

  33. I have mentioned a couple of individuals from the New Zealand left, one living and one deceased, who I admire and respect, and I would like to think that Erewhon could do something similar. Relationships based on esteem, respect and love are the only ones that can take us “onwards and upwards”. Attitudes of indifference, contempt or hatred may appease some craving from the dark side of the soul, but they will not lead to growth and empowerment.

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