In last Monday’s press briefing, the Prime Minister took my name in vain. Responding to questions from a reporter I had talked to, he said that my concerns about the apparent illegality of undercover intelligence operations were “fundamentally wrong.” Instead, he said that although intelligence agencies could not break laws (tell that to Kim Dotcom), they might require “different laws.”
I beg to differ.
Before delving deeper, let’s address the PM’s remark about the need for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations. What does he mean by “different?” Is he proposing that there be one set of laws for regular citizens and another set of laws governing undercover intelligence work? How does that sit with the “equal rights under the law” premise that is at the heart of democratic jurisprudence? And if there is no provision for “different laws” governing undercover intelligence operations today, then what is there in extant law that makes otherwise illegal acts legal? How often and under what circumstances are these illegal-but-legal acts allowed and are they only allowed or legal under warrant? Something tells me that the answers to the last two questions are “frequently and routine” and “no” respectively.
The question about undercover intelligence operations was raised because during the course of conversations with a couple of reporters about the Intelligence Review in general, I pointed out that the most interesting items were buried at the back of the report. Reporters tend to read the executive summaries of official government documents but seldom have the time or inclination to read through 179 pages of dense prose and legal jargon.
But since I have the time and inclination, I did. Plus, in my former life as a US government official I actually helped draft such reports so know that the best way of reading them is from back to front. That way one can get to the meat of the report, often found in annexes, before wading through the fluff.
I should point out that my overall take on the report is this: given who was on the Review committee, the report was inevitably going to have a bias towards institutional continuity and incrementalism with regard to reforms. That is indeed what happened. The report reflects as much if not more of the spy agencies’ concerns than it does that of external parties or stakeholders like the civil society organisations and individuals that were consulted by the Committee. The result is bound to be disappointing to those who wanted a major overhaul of the intelligence community or wanted parts of it disbanded altogether, such as the Greens, but to my mind it is a small but acceptable step towards greater transparency and accountability in the NZ intelligence community and its main collection agencies, the GCSB and SIS.
Even so, there are several problematic areas in the report that are worth considering, and here I will focus on the undercover operations that the PM thinks I have interpreted so fundamentally wrong. Rather than present my views without context, here are (cut and pasted) the recommendations regarding undercover operations as listed in the Report:
163 Annex C: Full list of recommendations (abridged).
Cover for operations and employees
78.The legislation should explicitly provide for the Agencies to obtain, create and use any identification information necessary for the purpose of maintaining the secret nature of their authorised activities. This should include the ability to create cover for anyone authorised to undertake activity for the Agencies.
79. â€œIdentity informationâ€ should include anything that could be used to establish identity â€“ such as credit cards and shell companies in additional to traditional forms of identification (such as passports and driver licences).
80. The Agencies should also have the ability to obtain, create and use identification information necessary to keep the identity of their employees confidential.
81. The use of these powers should be covered by a tier 3 authorisation (policy statement) to ensure they are exercised only where necessary and proportionate.
82. There should be corresponding immunities from civil and criminal liability for reasonable acts done in good faith to create or maintain cover as part of an authorised operation or to keep the fact of a personâ€™s employment with the NZSIS or GCSB secret.
83. These powers and immunities should be incorporated through general provisions in the legislation governing the Agencies, rather than by inserting specific exceptions in other legislation as is currently the case.
84. The same immunities should apply to both agencies, in line with our recommendations that the Agencies share functions and an authorisation regime.
85. Immunities should also apply to anyone required to assist the Agencies, such as telecommunications companies, or to human sources or agents acting at the Agenciesâ€™ request or direction.
86. The legislation should provide that no person should be subject to criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith and in a reasonable manner that are necessary to give effect to a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.
87. Employees of the Agencies should also have immunity from criminal liability for acts carried out in good faith, in a reasonable manner and in accordance with the purposes of the Act to obtain a tier 1 or tier 2 authorisation.
88. The immunities for employees of the Agencies should also extend to any relevant minor offences or infringements that may need to be committed in the course of investigations carried out under a tier 3 authorisation (such as breaches of road user rules).
89. Employees of the Agencies and any person acting at the request or direction of the Agencies should be protected from civil liability for acts or omissions in good faith in the pursuance or intended pursuance of the Agenciesâ€™ duties, functions or powers. This is the same protection as is provided to public sector employees under the State Sector Act 1988.
90. Where the GCSB or NZSIS is assisting another agency to perform its functions, any immunities that apply to the agency being assisted should also apply to the GCSB and/or NZSIS.
Readers can form their own conclusions about what these recommendations imply. But here are some thoughts. It appears that undercover operations conducted by the SIS (and to a lesser extent the GCSB) do not have specific legal cover as things currently stand. There are no provisions in the SIS or GCSB Acts that explicitly refer to a legal framework under which otherwise criminal acts undertaken by undercover intelligence agents may occur. That means, in effect, that until now undercover intelligence operations are essentially illegal except for the fact that they are conducted by agents of the State at its behest under exceptions to existing legislation (outside of the GCSB and SIS Acts or even the State Sector Act). But even then there is apparently nothing in the law that explicitly authorises undercover intelligence operations that otherwise would be criminal acts (say, burglary, forgery or credit fraud). Yet the recommendations speak directly to such acts so clearly they have been happening.
The problem is not just that SIS agents have no specific legal cover for what they do covertly, something that individually places them at considerable risk in the event that they are caught or detected. There also are no specific provisions on what they cannot do. Where is the line drawn as to what is permissible when acting as an undercover agent of the State. Murder? Arson? Extortion? Blackmail? Kidnapping? Credit card fraud? Money laundering? Burglary? Home invasions? Tail-gating? (I include this because recommendation 88 specifically mentions breaches of road user rules). If an agent is recklessly tail-gating a surveillance target and wrecks while doing so, killing or injuring passerby, is that agent immune from prosecution or liability because s/he was in the service of the State?
These questions are not frivolous. From my personal experience, I know that among other things covert or undercover agents are taught how to pick locks and conduct “traceless” break-ins and burglaries (they are even provided with the tools to do so). Cyber-hacking to install malware or to steal sensitive information is a stock in trade of signals intelligence agencies. Clandestine surveillance of all sorts is the bread and butter of most human intelligence agencies. The CIA has its own lethal drone program and paramilitary branch, as do several other spy agencies. The Mossad is, among many other things, a brutally efficient assassination machine. So where does one draw the line when it comes to otherwise criminal acts carried out by intelligence agents of the NZ state?
The recommendations repeatedly speak about acting in “good faith.” But how is “good faith” defined? The SIS agents who broke into activist Aziz Chowdry’s home in 1996 were probably acting in “good faith” when they committed what otherwise would be a crime, but how is it that stealing documents from activists is justified on national security grounds? Moreover, the person who caught the SIS agents in the act of breaking and entering, David Small, had his home raided, ostensibly to search for bomb-making materials, by the Police a week later, after making the initial complaint (he was able to record the SIS get away car’s registration plate number, which was traced back to an SIS front company). How was the raid on Dr. Small done in “good faith” and at whose behest? The government was eventually forced to settle with Mr. Chowdry for a six figure amount and, worse yet, forced to apologise to him for the break in (you can read a summary of the case here).
Dr. Small also received compensation for “unreasonable search.” If we accept that an apology implies recognition of wrong doing and that “unreasonable searches” may be part of the SIS repertoire, then how and where does “good faith” come into the picture? Add to that events such as SIS break-ins at Auckland University in the late 1990s (if I am not mistaken Jane Kelsey’s office was a target), and one gets the idea that the SIS engages in otherwise illegal acts not so much for national security reasons but because it simply can under a de facto “good faith” immunity clause. So the effect of the current recommendations would be to codify what is already informal usage and practice.
The issue of “good faith” extends beyond New Zealand’s borders. Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn is currently investigating whether the SIS was complicit in the CIA extraordinary rendition and black site program. For those unaware of these, the program involved kidnapping or detaining suspected Islamic extremists and “rendering” them to clandestine detention centres in a number of countries (Poland, Thailand and Egypt, among others). There they were subject to euphemistically labeled “enhanced” interrogation techniques (some of which are more properly classified as torture). Although some of those “rendered” by this program turned up in Guantanamo Bay or in prisons operated by US allies, many others have never been seen again. All of this was conducted off the books and outside of legal guarantees or protections for the detainees.
Assuming that Ms. Gwyn does find that in fact the SIS knew about or was complicit in the extraordinary rendition/black site program in contravention of NZ commitments to international conventions against torture and arbitrary detention, can the SIS turn around and claim that it was doing so in “good faith?” Is “good faith” nothing more than a get out of jail card for the intelligence services?
The bottom line is two-fold. First, undercover intelligence operations to date have been conducted under very porous and somewhat dubious legal cover that allows a multitude of operational sins to occur under what seems to be a wink and nod agreement with other agencies such as the police and Crown.
Secondly, the recommendations in the report about legal cover for undercover intelligence operations are very vague and broad, which allows the possibility for agents to go “rogue” so long as they can claim that they are acting in “good faith.” Neither is acceptable in a liberal democracy.
I agree that a comprehensive legal framework is needed governing the circumstances and permissible activities conducted during undercover intelligence operations. But this framework has to specify as much what is not permissible as what is, and has to ensure clear lines of responsibility as well as authorisation before and during the conduct of said operations. Otherwise we run the risk of allowing State-sanctioned criminal enterprise to masquerade as intelligence gathering.