The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attacks has begun its work. This represents an extraordinary moment in which to examine the mechanics of the event, i.e., how it was planned and prepared, who may have been involved beyond the perpetrator, the timeline that led him to the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre on that fateful afternoon on the Ides of March, and who dropped the ball when it came to preventing the attacks.
The inquiry represents an opportunity to uncover the systemic, institutional and individual errors that together combined to produce a catastrophic intelligence failure on the part of New Zealand’s security authoritiesâ€”not just the Police but the dedicated agencies that together make up the larger New Zealand domestic security community. These include the SIS and GCSB as lead intelligence agencies but also intelligence â€œshopsâ€ in places like Customs and Immigration, all of whom failed to see or ignored warning signs in the accused’s movements in and out of the country during the last five years and who may have been organizationally blind to or dismissive of the threat that he represented to New Zealand society.
The inquiry is needed because the Christchurch terrorist attacks represent the worst act of ideologically-motivated non-state violence in New Zealand’s history. March 15 was not a normal day in Aotearoa and it should not serve as a baseline for a â€œnew normalâ€ in the country. A fully transparent and in-depth investigation into the acts of commission and omission that contributed to its terrible success should be of utmost priority.
The two commissioners, Sir William Young and Jacqui Caine, a former High Court Justice and diplomat, respectively, have seven months in which to conduct the investigation and return their findings. These will include the details of what they uncover as well as recommendations for remedies and future action. Their terms of reference include provisions for consultation with the NZ Muslim community and others who have a civil society stakeholder’s interest in the inquiry. The scope of the inquiry is broad, and includes examination of all potential contributors to the chain of events leading up to March 15.
However, there are causes for concern that suggest that the Commission’s work might be hamstrung from the beginning
First, there is the short time frame. Seven months is an inadequate period in which to conduct a thorough investigation into all of the contributing factors. That is complicated by the accused terrorist’s trial being held concurrently with the inquiry, with the Crown’s case overlapping with and mirroring the work of the Commission. Rather than separating the inquiry’s two investigative streamsâ€”one focused on the killer’s actions prior to the attacks using evidence from the trial and the other focused on broader factors that contributed to the successful execution of the attackâ€”the inquiry will have to do both simultaneously while the trial runs in parallel (and perhaps beyond the December 10 deadline for the Commission to present its report). Assuming that the Commission will not be sharing evidence with the Crown while the trial is underway, this could limit the scope of the its work.
The second concern is the lack of intelligence-related experience and limited powers of the Commissioners in a context of official secrecy. Although well-respected in their fields, neither Sir William or Ms. Caine have experience with intelligence collection and analysis. They undoubtably have been consumers or evaluators of intelligence reporting in past roles and they certainly are able to keep secrets. But that may not be enough to resist push-back or â€œbureaucratic captureâ€ by the agencies they are charged with investigating. This is facilitated by the Terms of Reference and its Minute One (â€œProcedures for gathering Information and Evidenceâ€), which outline why most of the Commission’s work will be done in private on national security grounds. This is permitted by Section 15 of the Inquiries Act 2013 and justified by Clause 10(3) of the Terms of Reference and Section 202 of the Intelligence and Security Act 2017.
The agencies that have been granted secrecy include the SIS, GCSB, Police, Customs, MBIE, DPMC, Justice, MFAT and the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. No foreign derived information will be revealed in public. A blanket ban has been placed on identification of employees of these agencies whose names turn up in the investigation. In practice, that means that there will be no public accountability for those who may have contributed to the attacks via incompetence, bias or myopia. More broadly, the move to secrecy means that whatever skeletons are uncovered will remain buried away from public view.
The Commissioners do not have powers of compulsion or the ability to veto an agency’s decision to withhold classified materials. That leaves them at the mercy of those they are investigating when it it comes to access to sensitive data, even if what is â€œsensitiveâ€ about the data is not related to national security but to the reputations and orientation of individuals and institutions.
This is not unusual: security agencies under the spotlight often resort to a â€œget out of jailâ€ card in the form of claiming that open discussion of their actions will compromise sources and methods that are vital for ensuring national security. But the truth that needs to be uncovered in this instance does not involve national security secrets but the derelictions, biases or pressures that might have contributed to the failure to detect and prevent the attacks.
Efforts to limit the openness of the inquiry and the accountability of those that are its subjects must be resisted. The Commissioners need to have powers to compel documents, data and answers from those in positions of authority within the NZ security community and they need help from experienced intelligence overseers when doing so. The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security is one such person, assuming that there would be no conflict of interest involved (since the IGIS has no operational role and hence would not have been part of the command chain that failed to detect and prevent the attacks). A panel of experts with the IGIS, an IGIS representative, or another retired official as chair would be a good compromise option between utter secrecy and full transparency.
A third source of concern lies in the staffing and budget allocated to the inquiry. At $8.2 million the allocated budget is adequate only if it goes towards the investigatory aspects of the inquiry and not public relations or administrative expenses. The Department of Internal Affairs is the host agency of the Commission, so it will be its staff that does most of the logistical footwork underpinning its work. Here again the question of expertise and powers afforded investigators remains an open question.
Another potential problem is the nature of the Commission’s victim outreach program, called the Muslim Community Reference Group. Divisions have emerged over who and how many people should be included in this advisory body. Concerns have risen that self-proclaimed community â€œleadersâ€ are being shoulder tapped for official interlocutor roles without proper consultation with their purported constituents. This may be due to expediency given the time constraints operative, but it also follows a historically “thin” approach to stakeholder consultation by the NZ State, where what passes for outreach has traditionally been more symbolic than substantive.
Either way, the process of establishing the Reference Group augers poorly for the representative transparency or inclusiveness of the process, something that is acknowledged in the Commission’s Minute One. Plus, the relationship between the Reference Group and the investigation streams is unclear at best but, given the veil of secrecy wrapped around the inquiry, is likely to be little to none.
Finally, the scope of external input into the inquiry, while theoretically extensive, appears destined to be limited in nature. Few invitations have been issued to civil society stakeholders to testify before the Commission, no public meetings have been scheduled and no written submissions solicited (although all have been promised). Along with the mantle of secrecy, this will limit the amount of public review and consultation. That skews the investigation in favour of those under scrutiny.
In effect, on paper the terms of reference for the Commission look thorough and broad. In reality, its work could well be stunted at birth. With limited experience and powers on the part of the Commissioners, a lack of pertinent expertise to help them, unrepresentative liaison with the victims, limited budget and staff and statutory permission for the agencies under investigation to restrict public knowledge of their actions, both the transparency of the inquiry and its ability to identify sources of accountability are compromised.
It is therefore incumbent upon the Commissioners to broaden stakeholder participation in the inquiry, strengthen the Commission’s powers of compulsion, and extend the deadline for submission of its report. It is within their powers to do so even if a court challenge to secrecy clauses in the Inquiries and Security and Intelligence Acts is required. The question is, will they? At the moment that prospect looks unlikely.
UPDATE (June 14): The killer has just plead not guilty to 51 counts and denies being the Christchurch terrorist. His trial date is set for May 4 next year and scheduled to last 6-12 weeks. The nearly year-long delay in bringing him to trial means that the Royal Commission will have done its work and issued its report six months prior to the trial. What that means for the execution of justice and the content of the Commission’s report is unclear but at a minimum it removes court testimony under oath from the inquiry. Given what I have outlined above with regards to secrecy and the inability of the Commissioners to compel testimony under oath or the surrendering of classified material, the lack of access to court testimony and evidence weakens the inquiry even further.