Differentiating between democracy and republic.

Although NZ readers may not be that interested in the subject and in lieu of US Fathers Day missives (not celebrated in NZ), I thought I would lay out some brief thoughts on a political subject being debated in the US. It seems crazy but there seems to be some confusion on what a the terms “democracy” and “republic” mean.

There are (MAGA) right-wingers and conservative media commentators who claim that the US is a Republic, not a Democracy. They are either cynical or ignorant. The two are not antithetical. Democracy is a means of giving political voice, selecting political representatives and granting social (and often economic) equality. It comes from the Latin word “demos,” or polity.

Republics (from the Latin res publica) are a type of political governance where, unlike monarchies or other forms of oligarchical rule, leadership purportedly derives from or is delegated by the sovereign will of the people (which may/may not be voiced democratically). There are democratic republics and there are authoritarian republics, so the two terms–democracy and republic–while having different specific meanings, may or may not be overlapped when it comes to a given political framework.

In fact, as the old saying goes, any country with “democratic” in its name is likely not regardless of whether it has “Republic” in its title. For example, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is anything but. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) holds elections (in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)), but is certainly not democratic in the liberal (universal, free, fair and transparent elections) sense of the term. Argentina under its dictatorships remained a “Republica Federal.” In fact, Republics can be federal in nature, where political administration is decentralized and broken into constituent parts such as US or Brazilian states, or unitary in nature, where the central government has administrative jurisdiction over the entire country (as in NZ). In neither case does this necessarily involve democracy as a concept or practice. It is simply a type of governmental administration within given territorial limits, to which different types of political voice, representation and accountability are attached.

Again, democracy is about political expression and social equality; republic is about political organisation. The US was founded and has been broadened via much struggle and conflict as a democratic republic (first for some, eventually for all). The process involved two parallel processes that were not always congruent or synchronised, which consequently has led to repeated conflict (think Civil War and the Civil Rights movement). In fact, the broadening of “democratic” rights within the US over the years has produced backlash from small and large-R “republicans” who believe that the awarding of rights to previously marginalised groups and non-citizens somehow infringes on their existing rights (which assumes that “rights” are an indivisible pie where awarding some to one group means that other groups will lose their fair or previously allotted share). This has extended into discussions of “states rights” versus those accorded by US federal law, where advocates of the Republic versus Democracy designation argue against democracy because it interferes with State’s autonomy over their internal (political, economic and social) affairs. In this view, a US Republic leaves the issue of individual and collective rights to be decided by States under their own self-made laws. Democracy removes that prerogative by federal fiat, subjugating states to the dictates of a federal overseers (who in turn are seen as pawns or tools of nefarious elites). This view is deeply flawed, if not dishonest.

The “states versus feds” debate has been rehashed endlessly and largely settled as a matter of US constitutional law. Despite ongoing efforts by groups like the Federalist Society to redefine the relationship between the central government and states, it has never really been framed as a “Republic versus Democracy” issue. But in the hands of malevolent or ignorant actors, this adversarial distinction contributes to the false dichotomy between and binary juxtaposition of the two different but often compatible terms.

It would be a pity if the narrative that democracy is antithetical to being a republic begins to take larger hold in the US in the lead-up to the November elections. Perhaps some of those who espouse such a view really would prefer that the US become an authoritarian republic. But what the very presence of such views does show is that when it comes to fundamental concepts underpinning the US political order, there sure are a lot of misinformed if not downright stupid people out there–and plenty of others who wish to exploit their ignorance for myopic partisan gain.

Media Link: AVFA on post-colonial blowback.

Selwyn Manning and I discuss varieties of post colonial blowback and the implications its has for the rise of the Global South. Counties discussed include Palestine/Israel, France/New Caledonia, England/India, apartheid/post-apartheid South Africa and post-colonial New Zealand. It is a bit of a ramble but it raises some infrequently discussed points. You can find the episode here.

Te Pati Loco?

Normally I would not write about Maori issues. I may have been living in NZ for over 25 years but I do not feel that it is my place to opine because I am not an expert on Maori history and politics and do not speak Te Reo (because as anyone who seriously studies comparative politics will attest, foreign language proficiency is a bottom line requirement for scholarship in the field unless you only study countries and cultures that speak your mother tongue). Hence in the past I deferred to Lew to write about Maori issues here at KP, but since he has departed there is no one left to do so.

However, in light of the recent carkoi and protests organised by Te Pati Maori (TPM) in response to the Coalition of Cruelty’s budget, I thought I would touch briefly on a matter of Te Pati Maori praxis. I was dragged into the debate about the protests when I noted on social media that the use of the term “strike” to characterise the direct action was done in error or for dramatic effect since “strike” is codified in employment law as a collective withholding of labour services by employees from employers in the context of workplace disputes. If the labour service withdrawal is called by collective agents and follows the procedures for engaging in such action (giving notice, etc.) then it is a strike “proper.” if it is done by individuals or groups of workers without collective authorization, then it is a “wildcat” strike that may be deemed unlawful by employment courts. A general strike is a labour service withdrawal across economic sectors done for economic and/or political purposes, which is difficult because it requires unity of purpose and action by employees working in different productive areas, which in turn requires agreement between union agents and agent/principal agreement in every union on the action. That is a big ask.

Taking a day off from work to go to a protest, be it by using paid, unpaid or medical leave or no leave at all is not a strike no matter what one calls it. Workers assume the employment risks associated with such actions. Employers can weigh their responses according to the law and their relationship with employees. That could even include giving people the day off or paying them overtime to stay on the job, among other options. Again, the nature of the relationship between boss and worker outside of the legal framework can influence an employer’s response for better or worse.

I figured that since I have written two books and a dozen or so scholarly articles about comparative labour relations, including the subject of strikes and State responses to working class collective action, that my neutral if pedantic observation about the proper use of the term “strike” would be as unremarkable as it was incontrovertible. I was wrong.

To be sure, the use of the term “strike” in the Te Pati Maori protest literature, which explicitly references it as a display of Maori economic power, lent itself to the view that Maori were going on strike. As such, right-wingers seized on the term to call for employer retaliation against those who joined the protests. There was much agitation on the Right about violations of contract (individual or collective) and the penalties that should be levied. The PM weighed in with the comment that workers should be careful about striking and that strikes should be done on weekends because that way they would not be as disruptive.

Besides the fact that a PM should know the difference between a strike and a protest (rather than cynically feed into the “strike” narrative), it is pretty rich for him to suggest that strikes are best done on weekends. As I said on social media, by that logic we should take our holidays on weekends as well. The whole point of strikes, protests, demonstrations and other types of direct action is precisely to be disruptive of the status quo as given in defence of a cause or to air grievances. A protest without disruption is like an army without a fight, full of rebels with causes but no stomach for consequences. Protests and strikes are about assuming collective and individual risk. The risk may be large or small depending on circumstance, but in one way or another it hangs over acts of “unauthorised” direct action in most every instance.

Having said all of that, I understand the call to strike in the Te Pati Maori literature as using the original sense of the term, which means “to deliver a blow.” The protest was organised as a symbolic blow against the reactionary anti-Maori thrust of the Coalition of Cruelty’s policies. It was not about Maori labour service withdrawals per se.

For my troubles in clarifying what is and what is not a strike and how the term was misused in the call to action by both supporters and opponents of the protests, I was called condescending, paternalistic, pompous, a lightweight, and best of all, a “racist c**t,” the latter by a lady who surely must kiss her mum and perhaps children with that mouth. As I wrote to her, she must be fun to be around.

All of that aside, I then got the pleasure of watching Te Pati Maori leaders speak in and outside of Parliament on the subject of the protest and much more. Although Ms.Ngarwera-Packer presented her views coolly, her counterpart Mr. Waititi was at his bombastic, hyperbolic best, taking the tradition of Marae oratory to a level that even that tax-funded weiner-tugger Shane Jones cannot match. He threw out gems such as “if Maori are 60 percent of the prison population then (we) deserve 60 percent of the Corrections budget,” a feat of logic so extraordinary that it would be akin to saying that NZ should pay the PRC, Russia and rightwing extremists most of the intelligence budget because they are the ones being spied on. To be frank, I have always found Mr. Waititi to be a bit of a buffoon and charlatan, but then again, that is probably the old Pakeha racist codger in me doing the assessment (I have been characterised as such before).

Which is why I paused to reflect on my reaction to his rants. Others have already noted the hypocrisy of TPM being funded by taxpayers and gaining prominence via “Pakeha” procedures and institutions. They have noted with alarm the seditious rhetoric of Mr. Waititi’s wife, the daughter of none other than that paragon of indigenous resistance, John Tamihere (although Mr. Tamihere’s management of the Waiparera Trust, for whatever its faults, was first rate during the pandemic and is widely respect in the West Auckland community). Now the TPM is calling for a separate Maori parliament, presumably to run in parallel to the “Pakeha” parliament and be equal to it. I am not sure how it will be funded and what outcomes it hopes to achieve, but it provides some food for thought about political alternatives even if it has a snowball’s chance in hell of materialising while the current government is in power.

The proposal is interesting in part because one of the features of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) democratic system like that in NZ is that it allows small, narrow-focused or single issue parties to get elected and press their interests within parliament, using coalition-building and vote-trading as a means of doing so. The ACT and Green Parties started out this way and have now widened their political appeals beyond their original core policy platforms. Whether that is for better or worse is for others to decide, but the general thrust for both of them was to start narrow and then widen their platforms via the incorporation of other agenda items and constituencies. ACT has gone with the gun rights crowd, incels and racists; the Greens have gone with identity issues, animal rights and rainbows. Both have had success by doing so. NZ First has done something a bit different, using malleable nationalist populism as a vehicle for Winston Peter’s political aspirations. To his original xenophobia and self-loathing Maori appeal (to blue rinse Pakehas), he has now added anti-vaccination conspiracy weirdness and slavish “anti-woke” corporate bootlicking to the party repertoire. Like the broadening shifts undergone by ACT and the Greens, it has served his party well and allowed it and ACT to become the tail-wagging rump ends of the Coalition of Cruelty dog.

Te Pati Maori is a different kettle of fish. Gone are the days of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, who tried to play the centrist–some might say assimilationist–parliamentary game.They supported both Labour and National-led governments while confining themselves to practical pursuit of “reasonable” goals, that is, objectives that could be achieved by and within the system as given. Truth be told, the Maori Party record was mixed at best, but one thing that did come out of its emergence on the political scene is that outside of Maori-related issues (say, rural health and lower-income welfare support), it had zero to little impact on NZ government policy. The “big” policy decisions were made by Pakeha-dominated parties, including things like foreign and defence policy (I wrote about the Maori Party’s lack of consequence in NZ foreign policy other than on international indigenous affairs in this scholarly article).

Today’s Te Pati Maori is different. More than a just a party name change, it is overtly anti-Establishment and “progressive” in orientation (whatever “progressive” means to them, which may not be what other “progressives” think that they are). As the proposed Maori parliament suggests, TPM rejects the system as given. That is why it uses the word “strike” without regard to the Pakeha convention known as Employment Law. It’s spokespeople openly speak of “revolution” and government overthrow even if it is unclear what they actually mean when they use those terms. What is clear is that TPM is more about political theatre and symbolic politics than delivering tangible policy outcomes to and for their constituents. If anything, its marginalization within the political system has increased along with its militant rhetoric and actions. It might be too early to tell, but the carkoi protests could be seen in that light: as a lot of bluster and fanfare but no tangible impact or results to show for them. In fact, the response from most other parties was to either lambaste or shrug and ignore Te Pati Maori’s antics. Time will tell if the impact of the protests are more subtle and longer-term in nature but for the moment TPM stands alone, seemingly barking into the wind.

Again, that got me wondering as I stopped to check my white privilege. Am I being unkind to TPM? Or am I just another racist cracker bleating about the rise of a righteous and strong indigenous voice?

I found my answer in Gramsci. It occurs to me that, because TMP often refers to its actions and rationales in neo-Marxist terms with a smattering of Paulo Freire, Franz Fanon and Norm Chomsky thrown in, that Te Pati Maori sees itself waging a war of position within the “trenches” of the NZ Pakeha State. That is to say, it is working from within to disseminate its “counter-hegemonic” vision and policy prescriptions in civil and political society. Its focus is on grassroots organising, starting with Maori and reaching out from there into other “progressive” communities such as those grouped under the Green and Left Labour banners. It is not worried about converting the old Pakeha elites or engaging in parliamentary compromises because, as the recent census shows, Maori are growing in demographic numbers while Pakeha are declining. Given the structure of MMP, that growth can translate into increased seats in whatever parliament they chose to stand in, and given the youth appeal that they presently feel that they have, time is on their side. Along with forging alliances within the Labour and Green parties, unions and other civil society organisations, TPM is using a long-game strategy where what it is doing now sows the seeds for its successes down the road.

They may not be so loco after all.

So what to make of Te Pati Maori? Are they just nuts (as the term “loco” implies)? Are they communists, extremists and separatists as Winston First and Tugger Jones claim them to be? I would argue no to both suggestions. What TPM is doing is a time-honoured yet new form of politics in a social media age, where their theatrics are part of a grassroots appeal to marginalised and disaffected (not always the same) groups, especially proletarians of colour. By working “in the trenches” TPM can slowly promote an ideological re-orientation away from neoliberal vestiges (because neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine but has become over the course of two generations a social construct that frames our way of life) and towards a type of post-modern indigenous-centric perspective infused with working class-based values and perspectives. This view is self-realised and awake rather than woke, defiant but not always disrespectful, confrontational but not conflictual, independent rather than (Pakeha) dependent, cooperative and collective rather than corporate in organization. It may take time for the TPM-led movement to congeal, but the stirrings are there and the people are ready for generational change to take effect. That is the plan and TPM sees itself as the instrument for converting that plan into praxis.

Or so they hope.

Media Link: AVFA on the implications of US elections.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and spoke about the upcoming US elections and what the possibility of another Trump presidency means for the US role in world affairs. We also spoke about the problems Joe Biden has in dominating the presidential race against a demonstrably unbalanced opponent, shifting voter demographics, how US allies and adversaries engage in strategic hedging depending on whether they view Trump as an asset or as a threat, and how the US increasingly looks like an unstable polity, to the point that US foreign interlocutors must factor in its growing unreliability as an international partner. And much more. The link is here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on the moment of friction, and more.

After a hiatus of over four months Selwyn Manning and I finally got it together to re-start the “A View from Afar” podcast series. We shall see how we go but aim to do 2 episodes per month if possible.

Here we start of with a catch up on events since the last podcast of 2023. Selwyn liked the KP moment of friction post from April 1, and so we used it as the stepping stone into a discussion that incorporates material from several recent KP posts and other news. I hope that you find the podcast of interest. You can find it here.

The Israel/Palestinian metastasis.

In the weeks after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Southern Israel I wrote about the possible 2nd, 3rd and even 4th order effects of the conflict. These included the possibility of new fronts being opened in the West Bank (with Hamas), Golan Heights (with Syria), Northern Israel/Southern Lebanon (with Hezbollah), with the Yemeni Houthis (at sea and in the air) and with Iran (now directly) all of which seemed a fair possibility back then and most of which have indeed eventuated. Israel has needed allies to help fend off some of the widening attacks, while Palestinians have had to place themselves at the mercy of the international community for humanitarian aid because Israel will spare them little of it while prosecuting what for all intents and purposes is a scorched earth war policy in Gaza. Other than Iran and its proxies/allies, no one is coming to the military rescue of Hamas or Palestinians in general. In other words, it is now a one-sided meting out of punishment on a largely defenseless population.

What I did not envision is what is happening on campuses in the US and around the world nearly seven months after the Hamas attack. The ensuring conflict has become a lightening rod and trigger not just for those disgusted by the events in Gaza but also for those who espouse a number of other grievances, including climate change, racism, global inequality, imperialism and colonialism, political corruption and even capitalism itself. In response, the Right labels them all “radicalised” commies and terrorist lovers because that is an easy way to introduce culture war themes into the mix rather than debate the complexities of what is happening in the Eastern Mediterranean. Apparently the war on Gaza is less about Israel and Palestine and more about a host of other (not all unrelated) things. The moment of friction that I wrote about recently has now come to American academe.

This has turned campus protests (and the coverage of them) into partisan events, with rightwing entities backing pro-Israeli demonstrators and leftwing and progressive forces, including those in the Democratic Party in the US, siding with the pro-Palestinian side. The protests include non-students as well as students, confirming what I wrote in the last post about outside agitators and infiltrators using the opportunity to advance their own agendas (which often go beyond the Israel/Palestine conflict). This includes Antifa and the old Occupy Wall Street crowd, now resurrecting old peeves (some well justified then and now) on the back of the Palestinian cause. For the US Right it is another way of showing how Democrats are soft on crime and Joe Biden is a doddering old fool while demonstrating that, like Republican Governors Abbot of Texas and DeSantis of Florida have done, you show strength by ordering cops to bash in heads of people wearing masks and keffiyeh–but not those waving Israel flags.

Unfortunately, this has lifted the scab on long-festering hatreds in many societies, including the US. Long dormant anti-semitism has been inflamed by Israel’s actions in Gaza, which however heinous the October 7 Hamas attacks were, are grossly disproportionate to them (including using starvation as a weapon), and are therefore a form of collective punishment that, if not genocidal in the strictest sense of the term, certainly seems to have ethnic cleansing as a purpose. Conversely, Islamophobia has been resurrected by the Political Right, including conservative Christians and Jews and an assortment of rightwing media outlets and political organisations. In the pro-Palestine protests there are now people who believe that the main problem are Jews rather than Zionists or the the State of Israel’s actions. In the pro-Israel camp there are people who believe the root cause of the conflict is Islam, Arabs or the both combined. Primordial hatreds have been resurrected and brought to the fray, which now encompasses pre-modern, modern and post-modern fault lines covering a broad spectrum of divisive issues.

Then there are those who are not quite sure who to hate more. Take for example representative Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA), who believes that all Muslims are potential terrorists and therefore should be deported from the US and Europe, but who on the other hand, when it comes to “the” Jews, well, there is that problem of their space lasers causing forest fires….

This is why I refer to this evolution as a metastasis of the conflict. It is malign in nature and it is spreading well beyond the original boundaries of the conflict qua disease. The pro-Palestinian protestors have degenerated in some places into glorification of Hamas’s atrocities and a Holocaust denying Jew hate fest. Likewise but in mirror fashion, pro-Israeli demonstrations rejoice at the civilian death toll in Gaza, paint all Muslims/Arabs as savages and call for their extermination as such. Neither is really interested in a legitimate “debate,” and both are using protests to stake antithetical claims. That is not good and does nothing to change minds, much less advance any peaceful resolution or long-term solution to the impasse in the Levant.

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, appears to have struck a good balance by allowing an encampment to be established on the central university mall but not on footpaths or in front of buildings. The university makes a distinction between free expression versus disruption, drawing the line when the former is used to justify the latter. It seems to be working so far, as the protests are loud but constrained when compared to other universities. That being said, MAGA frat boys have tried to storm the encampment, only to be repelled by the U Chicago police (as a private university U Chicago has its own accredited police force dating back to the 1960s). The rightwing frat guys have a history of racist antics and in this case appear to be less interested in supporting Israel than in scoring physical points against woke “commies.”

Other places that I have taught at, including the University of Arizona and University of South Florida, have descended into chaos, including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas to roust pro-Palestinian crowds. As for the University of Auckland, where I also taught, Students for Justice in Palestine (they dropped the “Peace” from their name a while ago) abandoned their attempts to set up an encampment when the University informed them that as a registered university club they would be in violation of university policy regarding club rules if they did so and therefore become liable for suspension, etc. They still have the freedom to conduct peaceful protests outside the main library on a daily basis, which is what they have agreed to do.

That is somewhat ironic– student protesters accepting the orders of their institutional masters when it comes to how to behave. Ah, the kiwi way! But where are the old “Minto” types of direct action these days? (Minto himself was down in Christchurch yesterday protesting National’s support for Israel, so at least that old dog still has some bark left in him). Is it true that today’s generation of NZ leftist activists have gone a bit soft? It is not for me to say since I am just a Trotteresque keyboarding observer these days, but the starch seems to have gone out of the current protester’s shirts when it comes to Israel and Palestine. On the other hand, when it comes to vaccinations, government mandates, Qanon and the Deep State, those on the NZ Right have shown in March 2022 how far they are willing to go in order to prove their points (and mettle). In fact now that I have mentioned them, given the attitudes of many on the NZ Right when it comes to Jews and Muslims, where might they stand when it comes to the Middle East? Perhaps Kyle Chapman or one of the Counterspin or Action Zealandia weirdos can enlighten us.

Let’s be clear on this. The Right demonstrate over matters that they feel affects them personally (like vaccines and mandates), but not over matters of solidarity with or concern for others. Their protests are about infringements on themselves, not on infringements not he rights of others. The Left, such as those involved in the student protests, demonstrate out of humanitarian concern for people that they do not even know, but whose basic humanity is under lethal siege. To be sure, there are the bad-intentioned actors among them who bring other agendas into the mix, but the motivations for Right versus Left protests are often quite different in origin.

That brings up a larger issue. Are not protests supposed to be disruptive? Much is said about the Vietnam War protests but what about the freedom marches in the US South that brought about the civil rights movement and eventually the Civil Rights Act? Were they not disruptive? What about the Springbok Tour protests? Did no good came from their disruptions? How about the Stonewall protests, which opened the way for gay rights in the US? What about general strikes? Are they not disruptive but have served to improve wage and working conditions for a multitude of employees? This the fundamental question that needs to be asked.

Instead, riot porn is the clickbait of the day.

That makes the coverage of the student protests pretty shabby. More emphasis is placed on the protection of property and supposed public order (even though the violence that has occurred has been confined to campuses) rather than on the original cause and the motivations of others now involved in the unfolding events. More time is spent on political blame-gaming than on considering whether divestment from companies doing business, especially military business, in or with Israel is a reasonable demand given what is unfolding in Gaza. In fact, few Western media outlets appear to have asked the basic question as to whether it is ethical for corporations, and the US and other governments for that matter, to do business with and sell weapons to Israel while it reduces the Gaza Strip to rubble. And when they do, the answer is always the same–“but what about Iran and the terrorists?”

In any event, I use the US examples as illustrative of the fact that the Israel/Palestine conflict has galvanised as well as polarised world opinion, creating an ideological vortex into which a number of causes and actors have been sucked into. This may well have a tornado-like effect on several political landscapes, including in Israel but especially in the US this election year, where not only the presidency and Congress undergo elections but also a multitude of State and local governments as well. How the protests evolve and end–if they do before November–may be critical to those election outcomes.

More broadly, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a malignant scabrous wound that may not be cauterised any time soon. In fact, regardless of the outcome of the war on the ground, it is doubtful that Israel will recover much diplomatic goodwill other than from its Western backers and the Arab oligarchies that side with it against Iran. Much like Russia with its invasion of Ukraine, the question Israelis have to ask themselves is “will we be better off for having prosecuted this war they way that we have?” If the answer is anything other than “yes” (and that would be delusional), then they have already lost. Israel’s supporters abroad need to understand this basic fact.

As I have written before, hypocrisy is the currency of diplomacy. But when governments like those of NZ, Australia, the UK and US mute their criticism of Israel with their “whataboutism” comparisons with Hamas and Iran, they lose all moral ground for chastising other States for their treatment of subject populations. Because in some liberal democracies, for all the talk about supporting a “rules-based” international order, when it comes to Israel the rules are made to be broken.

The student protests are a reminder of that.

Policing protests.

Images of US students (and others) protesting and setting up tent cities on US university campuses have been broadcast worldwide and clearly demonstrate the growing rifts in US society caused by US policy toward Israel and Israel’s prosecution of its war against Palestinians in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territory along the Gaza Strip on October 7 of last year. The police behaviour appears to be a bit over the top, to say the least, given that the protests are purportedly peaceful for the most part, or at least until the cops arrive. It would seem that the police do not care for freedoms of speech or assembly, so there appears to be an anti-democratic bias at play in the suppression of these protests. But there are some angles to the subject that need further discussion, so let’s dig in on them.

Assuming that protesters are not harassing, intimidating or assaulting people or damaging public or private property, then the police response in place like Emory University, University of Southern California and the University of Texas (to name a few), is in fact excessive. Even if trespass orders are given, there is no need to manhandle, use tear gas, rubber bullets or generally hurt protestors in order to get them to leave a designated area unless they are being violent. If they block roads and physically impede public movements in and around the demonstration, then protesters can be arrested and cited under law for a subsequent court appearances. But unless they actively (as opposed to passively) resist, then violence should not be used against them and even then, all care should be made by law enforcement to consider the physical well-being of those arrested. Marching people out by the elbows is one thing. Throwing them to the ground and cuffing them behind their backs is another. Breaking arms or legs and pepper-spraying people people is a step too far. Again, this assumes that protesters are not behaving in a threatening or violent manner.

Private schools can issue trespass notices for any reason and have the police enforce them. Likewise, public institutions can do much the same although here the space being occupied is owned by taxpayers and therefore not as easily subject to tresspass orders unless people start damaging things or other folk. This was the case with the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, which was held on parliament grounds but eventually spilled into adjacent streets (and beyond), all of which are public spaces. Given that public institutions are thought of as “the people’s places,” authorities must exercise extra caution when attempting to end protests on and in them. Unlike the centralised nature of law enforcement decision-making in NZ (due to the unitary nature of government), as a federal republic that means that in the US State and/or local authorities must make the decision to move against a protest, usually at the request of university administrators. There are plenty of regulations in place that give State and local governments authority over public spaces, so the right for public authorities to enforce trespass notices is there. It is how they do so that is the issue.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about “free” versus “hate” speech, which is at the crux of the protests and how they are handled. Waving banners and yelling “long live Hamas” is an example of protected free speech. Given Hamas’s record, it may offend many people but no harm is invited and no violence is incited. On-lookers can walk away if they object. It is therefore a case of protected “offensive” speech at worst. However, yelling or waving banners saying “kill the Jews” or “nuke Gaza” is not. It is an incitement to violence against a specific group of people. As such it needs to be treated as a precursor to a hate crime as it invites and incites violence against a designated target. Law enforcement authorities need to understand the difference and formulate their responses accordingly.

Think of it this way: Kyle Chapman and other NZ neo-Nazis can play dressup and march around yelling “Sieg Heil” and “white power” all they want, so long as they do not cross the line into advocating violence or committing acts of violence against others. The police need to know what is protected (anti-social racist incel boorishness) and what is not (advocating harm to others). Unfortunately, the police in Christchurch have a history of downplaying the issue when Kyle and his fellow creeps cross that line, something that may have been a factor in the events of March 15, 2019.

The same logic holds true for pro-Palestinian demonstrators. They cross the line if they call for the eradication of Jews anywhere. “Death to Zionism” is not the same as “Death to Jews” no matter how much some would like to conflate the two. Zionism is an ideology. Jews are people. One is a belief, the other are living humans. Although some Jews are Zionists, not all are and even then they do not deserve to be targeted for being Jews (there are non-Jewish Zionists as well, especially in US fundamentalist Christian communities).

The matter of how to end protests is complicated by the fact that infiltrators with other agendas often join sincere people participating in legitimate protests who are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The agitators may act as agent provocateurs in order to turn otherwise peaceful protests into something nasty, in order to expose the contradictions of the Deep State, capitalism, Big Pharma, the government or any number of other nefarious agencies who are believed to usurp and act contrary to the popular will. I witnessed this phenomena close up during my youthful protest days, where a group called the Spartacus Youth League, of Trotskyite persuasion, in Chicago and Washington DC, used a tactic where masked “Spart” columns moved to the front of crowds facing off with police and proceeded to assault the cops at close range with projectiles and blunt objects (but from behind the frontline of peaceful protesters). That usually caused a police riot where cops began to beat on everyone in front them while the “Sparts” slunk away to the back of the crowd and started looting and vandalising on the sidelines. The original reason for the protest often got lost in the mayhem, which of course is what the media focused on.

Although I do not know if the “Sparts” or other groups have engaged in this sort of action in the recent student protests, there are reports of non-students joining the student protesters, which in of itself is not a bad thing. But if they come with other agendas, say, turning a pro-Palestine or anti-genocide protest into a “Kill the Jews” hate fest, then the usual protections of speech and assembly no longer apply. Again, that is because the latter is a type of hate speech, inciting violence against a specific group of people because of who they are (as opposed to what the State of Israel does), and as such is no longer afforded the protections available to offensive “free” speech.

Not to belabour the point, but consider this: One can vociferously call Netanyahu a murderer and Israel a genocidal regime without personalising and inciting violence against Jews as an ethno-religious group. One can voice support for Palestinians and call for university divestiture of investments in companies that do business with the State of Israel without hating all Jews. Although holding and voicing these views may be offensive to some, it is not anti-Semitic to do so. After all, not all Jews are Israeli or support Netanyahu or Israel’s polices towards Palestine. The line is drawn when support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel turns into calling for violence against Jews. That moves what some may consider offensive speech into the realm of hate speech, which does not deserve the protections of law. Likewise, defence of Israel cannot extend to advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. If so, the line between free speech and hate speech is then crossed.

For police in liberal democracies (I shall not bother writing about how authoritarians handle protests since they do not concern themselves with the niceties of free speech and assembly), the conundrum is this: do they come in hard from the onset and disperse the crowds with overwhelming force? Or do they adopt a passive containment strategy that allows people to blow off steam before they decide to end their action either voluntarily or with non-violent encouragement by or disincentives from the authorities (say, by threatening suspension or dismissal from universities if students do not disperse by a specific time)?

In the Wellington protests the police adopted the passive approach. For a month they dealt with the crowds in a largely peaceful manner even though agitators and extremists joined the ranks of the original anti-vaccination/anti-mandate crowd. The police even overlooked the fact that there were public health restrictions (specifically, social distancing requirements) still in place when the protest caravans began to arrive in Wellington in early February, something that contributed to an upsurge in Covid cases in the crowd. Over time the infiltrators began to dominate the protest discourse, to include voicing MAGA support, waving confederate flags, railing against the “Deep State,” echoing QAnon weirdness, voicing violent threats against “Jabcinda” (including her execution and that of other officials) and otherwise behaving like aggressive a-holes. As days turned into weeks the public health and public order downsides of the protest grew larger and more uninvolved people were negatively impacted by it. Many of the original protest leaders, like the so-called Voices for Freedom, retreated back to their home keyboards rather than staunch things out to the bitter and inevitable end. Eventually, after a month of paralysis in central Wellington and at high cost in resources and injury, the cops moved in to disperse the encampment. A riot ensured.

Perhaps it did not help for the then Speaker of the House to order that the parliamentary lawn sprinklers be turned on and that awful pop music be played over loudspeakers above the encampment. Presumably he thought that would weaken the resolve of the protesters and they would all go home. Instead, that just turned the parliament lawn into a cow paddock and irritated the aesthetic sensitivities of the conspiracy theorists, who simply added bad pop music and involuntary cold water showers to their list of Deep State machinations. More importantly, the Speaker clearly did not consult with the Police Commissioner before he made his moves, or if he did, they must have concocted that genius plan after sharing a few pints at The Backbencher. In retrospect it was not a good decision.

So for the police the question is what to do? Go in hard early or adopt a passive containment/defusion strategy? (I will leave aside the idea that the police would chose not to enforce anti-demonstration laws and let people gather as they please simply because in a place like NZ or the US, the cops are mostly anything but progressive or anti-status quo in mindset even if individual members may be sympathetic to a specific cause. Having said that, the Washington DC police refused to move against pro-Palestinian protestors at George Washington University, a private school, after university administrators requested that they clear the student encampment. The cops said that the group was small and peaceful, so the “optics” would not look good. Make of that what you will.).

A different approach might have been to identify infiltrators and extremists via undercover and technological observation and use more selective techniques to isolate and separate them from the crowd. After all, the police are part of a repressive apparatus that not only has a monopoly over organised violence within a given territory but which has the authority of the State behind it. Of all actors, they should know–in fact be schooled in–the art of subtle extirpation of troublemakers as well as in the well-known goon squad tactics usually associated with riot control. That did not happened in Wellington and the goon squad approach eventually had to be used.

(I cannot go into the details here but in Greece there are two types of riot police, one dressed in green gear and the other in blue gear. The different colours signals to protesters the different levels of repression that is about to be meted out so that people can chose whether to stay or leave before the blue goons make their entrance. That serves to separate the protest wheat from the chaff once the blue squad arrives. For their part protesters in Athens had Loukanikos the riot dog on their side during my time in Athens as well as his “son” Kanellos, who is said to still be part of the resistance).

In the US things are different. The police doing the repressing represent state and local (municipal and county) authorities. Consequently, their training and approach to protest varies widely. From what I have seen, the cops at Emory (which is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the University of Texas have very little time for protestors. Their governors, both reactionary Republicans, have joined in the smear that the protestors are anti-semitic and pro-terrorist, thereby opening the door to a heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds. It should be noted that Emory University is a private school and its administrators requested that the Atlanta police break up the demonstration. At UT-Austin it was the governor who ordered the troops in (I do not know if that was done at the request of university administrators or of his own volition, but given his remarks the latter appears to have been the case).

Conversely, at Colombia, Yale, Harvard, New York University and USC (all private schools outside of the Deep South), the police initially exercised a bit more restraint but nevertheless resorted after just a few days to forcibly removing people in handcuffs or bodily if they refused to move. Perhaps that is reflective of the US police mindset when it comes to this particular cause and the people doing the protesting. If the protests were reversed (pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestine), it would be interesting to see if the police tactics changed. From the standpoint of equality under the law, one would hope not, but a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests to me that pro-Israeli demonstrations in the US would be met very differently by law enforcement and in fact may have to be “protected” from counter-demonstrators (as has happened in Australia).

Then there is the issue of disinformation. Most of the word about the protests is spread by social media, and various platforms are used by protest organisers to spread the action beyond its origins. This opens a window of opportunity for state and non-state actors to introduce disinformation into protest campaigns in order to advance other, hidden agendas. For example, it would seem to be a professional imperative for Russian and Chinese disinformation units to target the protests in order to further undermine the historic public consensus in support of Israel in the US (born of political elite and media bias in favour of Israel), in order to advance their respective adversarial interests vis a vis the US in the Middle East and beyond. From a strategic perspective it would be derelict of them not to exploit this window of opportunity, as undermining an enemy from within using non-military means is far more resource efficient that waiting until open conflict with that enemy has begun. Both the PRC and Russia have prior form in this regard (including in NZ), so it is not a stretch to speculate that they may be doing so with regard to the student protests. Police and other intelligence agencies need to be aware of this possibility and approach the cyber realm accordingly.

Of course, the root cause of this situation of discord and dissent in the US is the Israeli elite’s psychopathic behaviour both before and after October 7 and the willing blindness of US foreign policy elites to the fact that Israel is not only the tail that wags the US foreign policy dog in the Middle East but has now become a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset (which derives from its importance when it comes to intelligence gathering on and sharing of Middle Eastern affairs). It has taken young adults–students–to bring critical attention to that fact, but for US adversaries they are just pawns in a larger game.

In the end how to police protests has much to do with the cause, the culture (both in civil society as well as in policing), who is doing the protesting and who is in government at the time. Some causes may be purer than others. The students are protesting about terrible events in a far-off place based on the ideal that collective punishment leading to genocide is wrong and that casting a blind on it is complicit. Besides the cookers and nutters, the anti-vaxx crowd in Wellington were more about their personal inconvenience and material losses rather than protection of the commonweal or public good. In an odd way that suggests that the latter should have been dealt with in stronger terms from the onset while the student protests need to be handled in a less repressive way. But that is where culture and governments come in. In the US the police are more about kicking a** and taking names, whereas in NZ the approach is more to play community cop rather than Judge Dread. Likewise, US governments at every level always want to be seen as upholding “law an order” even if the laws are retrograde and the order is rigged, whereas the Labour government in place at the time of the protests was determined to try and play things softly-softly in the hope that cooler heads would prevail in the protesting crowd and things would end quietly, in the Kiwi way.

They did not.

There are lessons to be learned from both of these protest episodes, mostly about what not to do rather than what to do.

Unnoticed guests.

The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) recently released a report in which he exposes the existence of a foreign intelligence partner-controlled technological “capability” inside the headquarters of the GCSB, NZ’s 5 Eyes-affiliated signals intelligence collection and analysis agency. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) governing the way in which this “capability” was used was negotiated from 2008 through to 2012, and the system went operational in early 2013. It continued to do so until 2020, when it supposedly suffered a systems failure and the equipment was removed.

The IGIS became aware of its existence while investigating an unrelated, different foreign partner-operated “capability” in the GCSB in recent years. What he found about the 2013-2020 “capability” was troublesome on several levels.

At a broad level, the IGIS appears to have indirectly confirmed what Edward Snowden revealed when he defected and leaked thousands of classified documents to investigative journalists in 2013. Those documents included descriptions of signals intercept programs such as XKeyscore, Speargun, Cortex and Prism, all of which were unknown to the public or most political leaders at the time and one of which may be the “capability” in question.

Negotiations over the MOU and entering into service of the “capability” occurred during the first two National-led Key governments. Key was the Minister for Intelligence and Security as well as PM at the time. The MOU assumed that the Minister of the day and perhaps cabinet would be informed of the “capability” following the “no surprises” policy in the Cabinet Manual regarding sensitive, controversial or security-related matters. The MOU specified that the GCSB would be informed of what the “capability” was doing in real time, what its end products/outputs were and to what purposes it was being used. The MOU was also supposed to be reviewed on a regular basis, but in fact it never was.

The “capability” was not a collection technology but an analytic mechanism to which the GCSB delivered collected inputs (intercepts) from a variety of sources. From time to time the foreign partner agency would send emails requesting “feed” settings changes on the “capability” that were done by GCSB personnel. The IGIS found evidence of 45 of these but believes there were more that went unrecorded due to faulty or patchy record keeping and, most troubling, the foreign partner agency unilaterally changing the “feed” settings on the “capability” from a remote location without notifying the GCSB.

That is just part of the problem. Whatever was intended to happen according to the MOU, in practice the Minister responsible for the GCSB–John Key in the first instance–was apparently never informed of the “capability’s” existence. Nor were any other members of the political leadership, even after the Intelligence and Security Ministerial position was divided into two (one responsible for day-to-day oversight and the other a a more general steering role). Worse yet, the senior GCSB leadership after 2013 were also kept in the dark about the “capability’s” existence. Some of that may have been due to the revolving door nature of the Director General’s (DGGCSB) position after the Kim Dotcom illegal spying fiasco of the early 2010s, where general “authorisations” were rubber-stamped by incoming DGGCSBs without paying attention to the details of what was being authorised. It is also possible that lower level technicians with hands-on roles regarding the “capability” assumed that middle management kept their superiors in the chain of command informed about the “capability” and its operational status when in fact no senior leader was the wiser about the system after in came on line. In addition, hosting of the foreign partner’s “capability” was within the law according to the 2003 GCSB Act regarding foreign intelligence sharing even if the GCSB leadership and political decision-makers were not informed about its presence. Everything was lawful and yet in violation of the MOU regarding the duty to keep Ministers and senior agency leaders informed.

Beyond that, problems remained. No legal framework or organisational protocols were developed regarding the “capability’s” usage. In fact, unlike another NZ intelligence partner country that had a similar technology installed on its soil, there was no institutional and legal frameworks developed by the GCSB and Crown Law to specifically govern the operation of the “capability.’ That meant that the “capability” was used without regard to NZ law and international legal commitments.

As an illustration of what could go wrong with this arrangement consider the following. The IGIS repeatedly mentions in his report the possibility of data from the “capability” being used for military purposes, targeting in particular. Even though “targeting” can refer to a number of intelligence-related activities beyond kinetic strikes against physical objects, the possibility remains that NZ hosted a technology that in fact may have been used to do so. Imagine a drone strike in Afghanistan using GCSB-collected data that was analysed and “packaged” by the foreign intelligence partner-operated capability located on NZ soil. Imagine that the drone strike wound up killing innocents as well as intended targets. That makes NZ culpable as an accomplice of war crimes because it was part of the kill chain even if it was not aware of being so.

That brings in the second troublesome aspect of the issue. Whatever the MOU intended, in practice the GCSB had no operational control over how the “capability” was used or what its end products were. Instead, it served as a type of maintenance engineer, maintaining the platform and changing “feed” settings on it upon request (and sometimes not even being aware that the settings were changed remotely). Evidence of the latter only became apparent when GCSB personnel noticed unexplained data outflows at odd times in which there were no setting change requests. Although this was discussed internally by those involved with the “capability,” it was never brought to the attention of the agency’s senior leadership, much less the Minister. It was only discovered by the IGIS during the course of his post-2020 investigations.

In effect, the problem with the arrangement governing the “capability” installed within GCSB headquarters in 2012 was two-fold: on an internal level there was no vertical accountability to their superiors inside and outside of the GCSB from those responsible for handling the technology. This is a gross violation of basic principles of democratic oversight of intelligence operations, where senior intelligence professionals and the decision-making politicians elected by the public are supposed to take responsibility for whatever choices are made regarding intelligence matters. In this instance both the political and civil service leaderships were ignored by their GCSB subordinates, who ran what could be called a type of “dark” operation within an already opaque agency when it comes to revealing or acknowledging its activities.

The second problem is one of sovereignty. The GCSB hosted a foreign espionage platform operated by an intelligence partner country without any meaningful level of scrutiny or control, legal or practical, over what that platform did. The GCSB knew about its technological attributes but little more, and certainly knew nothing about its uses and end products until, at best, after the fact (in just one instance as far as the IGIS could determine). Although the IGIS report does not mention the possibility, it is known that US personnel are regularly stationed at GCSB facilities and, according to the report, were involved in training GCSB personnel in the operation and maintenance of the “capability.” If US (presumably NSA) officers were inside the GCSB and involved in running the “capability” without the knowledge of GCSB leaders and the Intelligence and Security Minister, then the infringement on NZ sovereignty was great.

Think of it this way. Imagine that the CIA sent an undercover officer to work from within the SIS on a project tasked by the CIA. Although the MOU governing his/her work stated that the SIS would know about his/her activities and regularly review them, the SIS had no idea what the CIA officer did although it regularly provided him/her with various spycraft tools of the trade. The CIA officer answered and provided human intelligence to the CIA, which did not share with the SIS how the intelligence was used or what its end product or output was. The SIS “handlers” of the CIA officer did not inform their superiors about his/her presence and no one told the responsible Minister that s/he was even in NZ. How would people react to such news? Well, that is what has been revealed about the GCSB foreign “capability” program from 2013-20.

The irony is that had the “capability” been revealed to the responsible Ministers and GCSB leadership it would have most likely been approved given the nature of the NZ governments during that period and importance of NZ’s relationship with its 5 Eyes partners. Or, given how he governed, perhaps John Key told the GCSB that he did not want to know about sensitive operational matters because it gave him plausible deniability when asked about them. Maybe there was a bit of truth in both possibilities. Who knows?

Another interesting aspect to this story is that it is very possible that the “capability” was installed at the GCSB headquarters in Wellington because NZ’s looser intelligence and security laws at the time made it easier for the foreign intelligence partner to circumvent its own laws regarding certain types of signals intercept collection and analysis. The Snowden leaks detail instances of “bulk collection” and other types of whole-scale metadata gathering that much like some types of mass surveillance violate the right to privacy and presumption of innocence in most democracies. The IGIS report actually mentions metadata collection, albeit without specifics. It is therefore possible that the foreign intelligence partner took advantage of NZ’s looser oversight and legal control regime in order to do what it could not do at home.

One positive discovery by the ISIG was that as far as he could tell the “capability” was not used on NZ citizens or permanent residents. That reinforces the notion that the targets of the “capability” were foreign as well, military or not. Again, Snowden’s leaks alluded to this.

When the 2017 Intelligence and Security Act was promulgated, which superseded previous legislation like the 2003 GCSB Act and brought various legal artefacts into one body of legislation, things appear to have begun to tighten when it comes to internal oversight mechanisms within the GCSB and the SIS. Former GCSB Acting Associate Director General (and later SIS Director General) Rebecca Kitteridge and former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwynn were instrumental in this regard and met concerted resistance from the “old boys” ranks within both agencies. Although they resisted so-called “bureaucratic capture” by spy agency “old boys” institutional inertia was great and it ran against them. They made significant inroads when it came to reforming institutional culture and practices, but much more remains to be done.

Here the troubling aspect is also double-sided. One the one hand the culture of impunity within these agencies continues to exist, even if in diluted form. The IGIS had great difficulty obtaining records, documents and truthful statements about and from those involved with the 2013-20 “capability.” Even after leaving the GCSB, some claimed to not recall its existence even though they were directly involved with it. This indicates that they are more loyal to each other and their foreign partners than to the governments of the day and the people who paid their salaries when in government service. Wellington, there is a problem.

The second difficulty is that for all the tightening of internal oversight mechanisms, there still is no effective external oversight of the NZ intelligence community, and particularly of operational agencies like the GCSB and SIS. The parliamentary committee on Intelligence and Security remains a toothless gab-fest with no powers of compulsion under oath or any other other form of disciplinary enforcement powers levied on intelligence agencies for a lack of institutional candor or cooperation. Legal punishments for these agencies for breaking the law are limited to small fines and no personal punishments. That means that the bureaucratic culture of impunity within some elements of the intelligence community is rewarded rather than constrained because, quite frankly, agency personnel can get way with things that the rest of us cannot because they are the so-called “keepers of the secrets.”

As things stand, as far as the IGIS report mentions none of those responsible for managing the “capability” have been held to account or disciplined in any way. The suggested agency reforms proposed by the IGIS, all accepted by the GCSB, do not address the issue of individuals discipline or accountability. It seems that impunity is its own reward.

This extends to their incompetence. One of the provisions of the Royal Commission on the Christchurch terrorist attacks was that no one within the intelligence and security communities would be held responsible for failures of a personal or institutional nature. This was supposedly done to encourage people to talk freely about what was and was not known in the lead-up to the attacks, but instead what resulted was a highly sanitised whitewash of bureaucratic and personal responsibility for the intelligence failures that facilitated the carrying out of one of NZ’s worse mass killings in modern times.

In effect, the story about this foreign intelligence “capability” secretly operated from within the GCSB is one about violation of basic principles of democratic oversight of intelligence agencies, of an abdication of sovereignty to a foreign power when it comes to intelligence collection and analysis, and above all, of an ongoing culture of impunity within NZ intelligence agencies that do not appear to have learned the right lessons from the Zaoui, Dotcom or March 15 cases when it comes to behaving ethically and taking responsibility for the actions or inactions taken on their watch.

Which begs the question: in spite of all the post 2017 tightening of internal oversight mechanisms, will it be a matter of when not if before history repeats when it comes to an intelligence agency scandal?

Two offenders, different treatments.

See if you can spot the difference.

An Iranian born female MP from a progressive party is accused of serial shoplifting. Her name is leaked to the media, which goes into a pack frenzy even before the Police launch an investigation. She resigns from parliament, declines to seek name suppression (what was the point?) and eventually pleads guilty to several charges of non-violent property crime involving goods worth less than $9,000 (which is a cut-off standard for sentencing purposes). Her court appearance is the lead story in most media even though there are a couple of major wars and several famines occurring, to say nothing of a number of developments in NZ politics and society that are a bit more significant than the travails of a troubled individual. She and her disgrace are headline news in NZ.

On the other hand there is a male Pakeha “senior political figure” in a rightwing party who during the course of a fraud investigation had someone come forth accusing him of serial sexual offending. Eventually the number of charges grew to nine involving at least two victims. He resigned his senior party position once the fraud investigation heated up, and then he was charged with the sex offences. The offending is historical and related to a well known volunteer service organization in which he held senior leadership roles and was involved with young people in a mentoring role. The judge assigned to the case granted him and his party name suppression in 2023 because, among other things, disclosure of their identities might have a negative impact on his party’s chances in the 2023 election. The judge ordered that the suppression order be reviewed after the election.

The election happened six months ago. No review of the suppression order has been undertaken. The trial of this person has been put off until August 2024. As far as I can tell (am happy to be proven wrong), the media have done nothing to find out why his name suppression continues. The Leader of his party has been asked directly about the case and answers by talking about contempt of court. Worst yet, the media has not asked questions as to why a judge would introduce explicitly political criteria into a decision to grant name suppression in light of the seriousness of the charges, which involve physical sexual assaults on minors. During the build up to an election.

I asked these questions in a series of social media posts. I respected the name suppression order but spoke about the background of the case. Although I received many positive responses I also received a number of veiled threats that I was violating the suppression order by alluding to this man, even obliquely. That is besides the fact that his offending is an open secret in the volunteer circles in which he was a prominent figure, his party affiliation and former role is common knowledge in political circles, and his name has been disclosed in a number of social media outlets and even mentioned in parliament (which even if done under parliamentary privilege and struck from the written record, lives on in the video archive of the debates at the time of his mention). I am told by these critics that it does not matter if others have previously spoken of him in direct terms and that I am liable for up to six months in jail for my “criminal offending” (exact words). If so, I am going to have to get in the back of a long que of criminal offenders and the taxpayers are gong to have to fork out a fair amount of public money having the Crown prosecute us. Selective prosecution, say of me, would only worsen the situation when it comes to the appearance of (at a minimum) Crown bias and (at worst) judicial integrity and neutrality.

I suspect that the threats of legal retribution are coming from within this fellow’s political party. The concern is more about protecting him and the Party rather than seeking justice for his alleged victims or adhering to judicial standards about protecting victims and presumptions of innocence. Plus, the threats have a sort of finger-in-the-dike quality to them, as there will be a flood of coverage once the legal circus hits the road. That is, assuming that things ever get to trial and some sort of pre-trial agreement in not reached (which I think is possible at this point. The trouble with any such deal is that it will likely include some form of permanent name suppression in exchange for a guilty plea to some of the charges).

However things end up, there remains a deeply troubling aspect to this study in contrasts. The first is the media’s behaviour. It involves the hounding the former MP-turned private citizen on the one hand, and the ignoring of the other case almost entirely. This follows a media pattern of going after female progressive politicians for their indiscretions while largely soft-peddling similar behaviour from male politicians. Moreover, it is not as if name suppression prevents intrepid reporters from digging into the larger story of the male senior political figure in more depth, even if as background to the coverage of the trial when it happens (there is plenty of coverage from 2021 to last year). The media double-standard is stark: young female progressive gets the full “cameras in the face and shouted questions” treatment, whereas when it comes to this alleged Pakeha male serial sexual predator, there are nothing but crickets.

Even so, the worst part of this sorry dichotomy is the use by a judge in a criminal case of overtly political criteria as a factor in granting name suppression for a defendant–specifically the possible impact on a political party’s election chances if one of its senior member’s name is released before the election after being charged with sex offences. In my view political considerations simply should not be a criteria for name suppression, ever, and even more so if it involves a senior leader of a party about to contest a national election. That the ruling went unchallenged (as far as I know) and that the media did not question the rationale behind it is a disgrace. It brings the neutrality and/or judgement of that judge into question and opens the door to doubts about equal standards of justice in NZ. Even the appearance of anything other than impartiality and neutrality is a stain on NZ’s judicial good name, and this decision does not look good.

I understand that name suppression orders are designed to protect victims as well as the reputations and livelihoods of people accused of crimes (the sex charge defendant’s name was also suppressed because it was accepted by the court that he could not find a job if his name were revealed and he could therefore lose his house). But in this case the victims are now adults, at least some have come forward already, the defendant has been identified in a fraud investigation involving that voluntary organisation as well as in parliament, multiple face-blurred photos of him have been published that are no impediment to identifying him (especially the ones in which he appears more than once in a distinctive shirt at the fraud and sex charge hearings), and the elections are over and done with (his party did well in them and is now part of government). None of what I have said here or in other fora adds any new light on his identity. It is out there for those who are interested in finding out.

What I have done in this and the other posts is pose an open question about media double standards and judicial neutrality in his case. As I said elsewhere, something smells, and it is not the aroma of purloined boutique shop designer brand merchandise.

Another Brief on Intelligence Matters.

Although my son is still in hospital he is recovering well and should be sent home soon. We dodged a bullet thanks to the Starship medical staff.

While at the hospital a reporter from one of Argentina’s oldest and most influential papers got in touch with me to discuss the case of the Russian double agent (for the UK) Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were poisoned some years ago by Russian agents but survived and then disappeared. Some time ago they were reported to be hiding in NZ and I was asked about that by various media, and the Argentine reporter had seen some of the news coverage that mentioned me. He was most focused on the details of the case and whether the the Skripals could still be in NZ if they ever were. But before that he wanted a primer on intelligence operations. Here is the Q&A in English.

Why do countries spy and why do they react negatively to being spied upon? What is intelligence collection and what type of people are selected to become intelligence agents?

Espionage and intelligence-gathering is rooted in human nature. Humans fear uncertainty, and a way to diminish uncertainty is to gather information about uncertain subjects, be they economic, military, natural, political or social. It helps determine intentions as well as capabilities or other factors otherwise unknown. From that intelligence-gathering, knowledge is achieved and uncertainty is diminished. And if it is true that knowledge is power, then power is enhanced by intelligence-gathering.

Intelligence collection and analysis comes in three forms: human intelligence, signals/technical intelligence and open-source intelligence. Human intelligence refers to human collectors, i.e. intelligence agents of the State and non-State actors (say, private security firms or investigators) who collect information from personal observation, interactions and exchanges with people in a designated functional areas, regions or countries. State intelligence agents work in two ways. One is under the protection of a diplomatic passport. Known as “official cover” agents, this includes military attaches as well as other diplomatic personnel whose activities are recognised by host countries but which often extend beyond the official remit outlined in their credentials. If caught and accused of espionage, official cover agents are detained and deported as per diplomatic protocol (that is, they received diplomatic immunity).

Non-official cover (NOC) agents are what are traditionally known as spies. They are the stuff of cloak and dagger stories but the reality is a bit more mundane in most instances. They work under the cover of assumed names, aliases and occupations, for example as businesspeople, academics or developmental aid workers, among many other “covers.” If caught, they are subject to the full penalties of the jurisdiction in which their offenses were committed and where they are charged (including being subject to the death penalty in many countries). They receive no diplomatic immunity. The outed US spy Valeri Plane (outed in 2003 by the W. Bush administration as revenge for husband refusing to go along with their lies about Iraq having nuclear weapon precursor yellowcake stockpiles), who used a job as a petroleum executive as cover for her espionage activities in the Middle East, is an example of such a so-called “NOC.”

NOCs tend to work in a highly compartmentalised or “siloed” manner, dealing with one agency liaison up the collection chain and putting degrees of separation between the down-chain primary source contacts (informants who may be conscious or unconsciously helping the NOC and be paid or unpaid depending on who they are) in order to maintain tight operational security. The means of feeding intelligence up the chain are many, involving technical tools as well as personal interactions.

There is a sub-set of human intelligence agents that might be called “hunter-killers.” While all human intelligence agents will be trained in things like surreptitious entry, lock-breaking, concealed observation (static and in motion), eavesdropping and other such tradecraft, the hunter-killer sub-set includes assassination in their repertoire. The lethal means can include a range of tools, to include poison, blades, firearms, explosives or armed unmanned vehicles (for example, the CIA has its own UAV fleet, as does Mossad, among others). The individuals who engage in this type of activity are, at least when tasked to do such things, not true spies in the proper sense of the term since their focus is not on obtaining information but on acting on information previously obtained, although they may work in partnership with official or non-official cover agents because their priority focus is on tracking and eliminating targets. They are essentially assassins, although they may even engage in broader combat activities depending on circumstance. Intelligence agencies maintain paramilitary units for such purposes, and they can be embedded in or along with military forces. Given the threat environment in which a State operates and the nature of the adversaries being confronted, the number of hunter-killer agents, units or teams may be large or small. Israel has a large number of such people. The US has a fair number. New Zealand has none, as far as is known or admitted. In general and as can be expected given the nature of their rule, authoritarian regimes use hunter-killers more than democracies.

The ideal human intelligence agent must have a calm and even temperament, be able to display coolness under pressure, be resourceful, have a keen sense of curiosity and ingenuity when problem-solving, have the ability to think laterally and “out of the box,” and have a capacity to “silo” or compartmentalize their work so that their real work life as intelligence collectors is undetectable in their personal, public and private lives. They must be able to ward off being compromised, be it sexually, financially or socially. They must be able to keep a secret and rationalize their personal morals and ethics with their professional ethos and obligations. They must have a deep sense of and commitment to public service (service to the State on behalf of the Nation).

Selection to become a human intelligence agent varies from country to country. Along with the traits mentioned below, in authoritarian regimes party and personal loyalties to political elites are a significant factor in recruitment and selection. In democracies, they are not. Modern intelligence agencies in democracies maintain professional standards for recruitment and promotion that are neutral when it comes to partisan and personal politics. They use advanced psychological testing to determine a candidate’s fitness to serve. These include cognitive, physical and intellectual testing, often involving real-case scenarios in which a candidate is placed in a pressure situation in order to evaluate their decision-making capabilities. Once a candidate has been accepted into service and learned the tools of the trade (“spycraft”), they are matched with a suitable cover profile and trained in how to maintain that profile in the field (be it as a diplomat, military officer or undercover agent). There are variations to this scenario but the overall thrust is very similar in most developed States, and in fact in some instances (5 Eyes) intelligence agencies have exchange programs for officers from allied States in order to improve professional standards amongst them.

Question Two: It is said that Russia prefers human intelligence collection whereas the US and UK prefer technological means. Is this true and if so, why?

During the Cold War and the first 20 years of the post-Cold War environment, the US had a great advantage in signals and technical intelligence (SIGINT/TECHINT), moving far beyond the early 20th century techniques of eavesdropping on phones and/or in public and private places or using radar, sonar or advanced photographic techniques. It expanded the SIGINT/TECHINT collection domain to include space and submarine collection capabilities as well as sophisticated electronic and technical collection platforms using infrared, acoustic signature detection, computer intercepts and then cyber-hacking. As a result, it placed less emphasis on human intelligence collection, in part because it is a US cultural trait to believe in the superior benefits of advance technologies in everything from kitchens, cars and television to warfare. As a result, as of the 1970s the US diverted intelligence resources and focus towards signals and technical intelligence collection to the detriment of human intelligence collection. Also remember that CIA activities in Chile, Indonesia, and many other places had placed a stain on the reputations of field agents and undercover officers involved in those activities, so the move away from human intelligence collection was an expedient way of getting out of the unwanted limelight.

As a result, human intelligence collection (HUMINT) was maintained  but in diminished numbers. Given the changing priorities of the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, it left an unbalanced focus on post-Soviet dynamics without a shift to emerging threats such as ideologically motivated non-State actors like al-Qaeda.  For that HUMINT work the US increasingly relied on Israel and other allied countries. The emphasis on SIGINT/TECHINT was reproduced and compounded by the 5 Eyes network, which created economies of scale in that form of intelligence gathering that began to dominate the overall information acquisition process in their respective communities even if human intelligence agents were tasked with following up on information obtained and gleaned by SIGINT/TECHINT means by any of the partners.

The problem with over-emphasising signals and technical intelligence collection is that it often cannot discern real intent by separating bluster and idle talk from a commitment to action. Operational security counter-measures can also thwart effective SIGINT/TECHINT collection. In addition, the trouble with relying on partners for human intelligence collection and analysis is that the intelligence comes “filtered” by the interests of the sharing State, not all of which are exactly coterminous or identical to those of the US (and vice versa for its partners). In recent years the US has revived its human intelligence programs, but they are playing catch up when it comes to recruiting people with the appropriate language, social, cultural and personal skills to operate under deep cover (or even officio cover) in foreign environments. People with backgrounds in anthropology and sociology are high value recruits, but the number of them are small when compared to the amounts of subjects/targets that need covering.

As an example, when 9/11 happened the US military intelligence is reported to only have 3 Arabic speaking linguists in their ranks. NZ human intelligence (the SIS) had none, and even with the recruitment of Muslim, Chinese and Polynesian New Zealanders in recent years, it lags far behind when it comes to people with the requisite skills to undertake both official cover and NOC work given the threat environment in which NZ now operates.

As for the Russians, the situation was different. Because the Soviet Union/Russia and the PRC were considerably behind the US when it came to signals and technical intelligence well into the 1990s, they both emphasized and put resources into human intelligence collection. For decades even that form of intelligence collection was limited to internal intelligence and counter-intelligence (for example, against counter-revolutionaries, some of whom had foreign backing) and in their near abroad or against strategic adversaries (the US and its major allies). Over time the human intelligence capabilities of the USSR and later Russia expanded to have a global reach, something that China has emulated today. Other countries such as Israel have developed similar capabilities, using Jews in the diaspora as collection agents (known as “sayanim”). 

However, in the 21st century both Russia and China have put much effort and resources into developing state of the art signals and technical intelligence collection capabilities Although they do not have the economies of scale available to the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network, they have developed sophisticated capabilities of their own. The advent of social media has facilitated and accelerated this effort, something seen in the disinformation and misinformation campaigns undertaken by the Russian signals intelligence agency, the GRU, against Western democracies via the work of dedicated units such as the Fancy Bear cyber-hacking group that interfered with and continues to interfere in US and other democratic elections while promoting socio-political discord and right-wing conspiracy theories (including in NZ).

Hence, while it is true that Russia has traditionally favored human intelligence collection methods, to include hunter-killer activities, that is no longer the absolute case. Both it and the PRC have a very expansive and sophisticated signals and technical intelligence capabilities, including in space, in the atmosphere, on land and under the sea.

Examples of technical and signals intelligence collection include photographic and thermal imagery from space, submarine interceptions (“tapping”) of undersea communications cables (such as by the PRISM system used by 5 Eyes), airborne photography, jamming and early-warning detection, metadata targeted and bulk collection of internet communications, and acoustic “reading” of vibrations from interior conversations on exterior surfaces such as windows. Plus all of the old fashioned techniques such as telephone wiretapping, coding and decoding, encryption and decryption, etc. Artificial Intelligence has been used for some years now even if the commercial applications have only become operational in recent times, and is set to become a dominant means of extracting actionable intelligence from vast quantities of data as well as more rapidly recognising, analysing and filtering threat assessments and other intelligence priorities.

Questions 3 and 4: How does UK intelligence operate and why does it treat intelligence gathering differently from espionage?

Before delving into the specifics of the question, allow me to note that oversight and regulation of intelligence operations and agencies differs greatly between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes use intelligence agencies for domestic espionage, paralleling or supplementing the work of police intelligence units that are focused on crime-fighting. In such cases the focus of intelligence agencies is on domestic political dissent, subversion, foreign agents (counter-espionage), and a number of other targets such as environmental activists and other non-conformists who the regime deems to be enemies of the State. Intelligence units are bound by their own internal rules and procedures, which usually are much looser than those in democracies. They also have para-military units of the “hunter-killer” type that are tasked with hunting down and eliminating opponents at home and abroad. The Skripal case is an example, as was the Operacion Condor network operated by the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s. Authoritarian intelligence agencies and agents are not bound by the rule of law but by the boundaries set by the political (often military) leadership of the regime.

In contrast, intelligence agencies in democratic regimes operate according to the rule of law and constitutional principles. They are more restricted in their freedom or latitude of action. They tend to limit their domestic activities to counter-espionage and transnational crime with State or ideological connections, such as when monitoring and countering Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Corner region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (where drugs, weapons an extremists congregate for mutually beneficial purposes). In general, however, domestic intelligence collection is a responsibility of the police or gendarmes, not intelligence agencies, who only work with the domestic intelligence units of the police and gendarmes when specifically tasked to do so and within defined legal authority.

Because of that intelligence agencies in democracies have a primary focus on foreign and transnational intelligence gathering and threat identification and analysis as well as counter-espionage. They are bound by numerous legislative and legal restraints on their activities and a system of checks via courts and other oversight mechanisms. Unless the circumstances are exceptional (say, a bomb about to go off in a crowded train station), they must adhere to civil liberties and other democratic rights accorded to the population. And even then they often need the authorization of a special court or judge in order to legally infringe on individual and collective rights and constitutional norms.

To be clear, these norms have been violated in many instances by spy agencies in liberal democracies, including in the US, UK and NZ, but if discovered they are liable under the law and can be held accountable by oversight agencies as well as legislatures (if the Executive will not act against them in such instances). Intelligence agencies do not operate according to the whims of the political leadership, but in accordance with and under penalty of law.

In terms of how the UK approaches intelligence matters, it conforms with the democratic model outlined above. It uses legal frameworks to determine the distinction between intelligence gathering by the British State, its allies and partners and even private parties like corporations, versus espionage by foreign States or British nationals working for foreign states or front entities (such as by and for Chinese firms and “friendship societies” connected to PRC military intelligence via “United Front” entities). Having a legal framework delimiting what is and is not permissible when it comes to intelligence collection and the means used to that end gives the British State (and other States in their own ways), legal cover and authority to disrupt and prosecute (often clandestine) intelligence-gathering activities deemed unlawful and illegal.

Put simply, in the UK and other democracies intelligence collection done under official cover is considered permissible up to a point. Intelligence collection done under non-official cover is considered espionage and punishable by law. If an official cover intelligence officer from a foreign embassy goes beyond his recognized intelligence gathering duties (say, by trying to poison a dissident in England), that person will be charged and a warrant issued for their arrest even if they are deported under rules of diplomatic immunity. If a Russian NOC attempts to poison someone and is caught, s/he is out of luck.

Espionage is what the bad guys do; intelligence collection is what the good guys do, and the legal distinction is there to preserve that fiction.

Question Five: Where are the Skripals?

The Skripal’s are likely in a 5 Eyes country. They need to be in a place where they can go relatively unnoticed, where security can be provided for them and where there are not many other Russians around unless those Russians are sympathetic to the Skripals and have been security vetted. They will be provided with fake identities and documentation and take language lessons to disguise their thick English/Russian accents. They will be coached on how to act under their assumed identities, for example, as a retired Bulgarian businessman and his middle-aged daughter who cares for him as per traditional custom. They could be located in a city without many Russians where they can disappear in the crowds or, contrastingly, in a rural area far from prying eyes. That depends on their personal characteristics. If they are urbanites then they would stick out in a rural setting and probably have difficulties coping, much less assimilating. Many factors will determine where exactly they are re-located and hidden from Russian intelligence.

Of course, they may be relocated to a non-5 Eyes country such as Argentina or South Africa. But Skirpal’s spying was done for the UK and 5 Eyes, not other States, so other States would be reluctant to incur Russia’s wrath in the event they are discovered. Plus, other States may be more susceptible to corruption, leaking and not be able to provide adequate levels of discrete but effective security for them. So it seems to that a 5 Eyes country is the most likely place where they have been relocated.

That could be Australia, which has few Russians, lots of anti-Russian sentiment and both large cities and remote rural areas. Likewise, Canada. Even Wales or Scotland might serve the purpose. New Zealand is too small, in my opinion, and the US, although immense, has large Russian expat communities that are not all opponents of the Putin regime and is over-run with Russian spies in any event. So my guess is that they will be in a medium sized town or city in a rural area of a large or relatively unpopulated country or area of a country with few Russians present. But there are people who are experts in this so I can only speculate as to their exact location.

One final observation. The Skripals were poisoned, like other Russian double agents. Russia reserves poisoning for traitors of some importance, not just anyone. People of lesser status fall out of windows, get run over or die in a variety of crashes and explosions, depending on opportunity (remember the Wagner Group boss Prigozhin’s plane crash last year). Lesser rivals such as journalists and whistleblowers get shot. It will therefore be interesting to find out what killed the dissident and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supposedly died of “natural causes” in a Siberian prison camp at age 47. My hunch is that he may have received the ultimate (ironic) honour in the way in which his demise came about.

Or to draw the analogy this way: my Italian grandmother was once discussing with my parents the death of a cousin of hers who had mob ties in New York City. My parents asked her about how he died and she said “from a heart attack.” When challenged because the press had covered the story of a low level mobster getting “hit” in some criminal feud, she replied “yes, he died of a heart attack when a piece of hot lead went through it.”

In Russia the heart attack is induced by poison, but only for the special few.