The slow drip feed of classified NSA material taken by Edward Snowden and published by journalists Glen Greenwald, Nicky Hager, David Fisher and others in outlets such as The Intercept and New Zealand HeraldÂ caused a stir when first published. Revelations of mass surveillance and bulk collection of telephone and email data of ordinary citizens in the 5 Eyes democracies and detailed accounts of how the NSA and its companion signals intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK spy on friend and foe alike, including trade partners and the personal telephones of the German prime minister and Indonesian president, caused both popular and diplomatic uproars. In New Zealand the outrage was accentuated by revelations about the illegal GCSB spying on Kim Dotcom and the government’s extension of its spying powers even after it was found to have operated outside its legal charter in other instances as well.
But now it seems that public interest in the issue has faded rather than grown. Revelations that the GCSB spies on Pacific island states such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga as well as Pacific French territories, followed by news that it spied on candidates for the World Trade Organisation presidency on behalf of Trade Minister Tim Groser (himself a candidate), has been met not with street demonstrations and popular protests but by a collective yawn by the public at large.
Why is this so?
It appears that the New Zealand public is weary of the death by a thousand cuts approach used by Mr. Hager and his investigative colleagues. Beyond the usual array of diversions presented by popular culture and media, the reason for this disinterest seems to lie in the fact that the information released to date is seen as trivial, uncontroversial and tediously never-ending. Take for example the reaction to the news that the UK spied on Argentina after the Falklands/Malvinas War and carried on until 2011. Numerous pundits asked whether that is surprising. What is the UK expected to do when Argentina remains hostile to it and has never renounced its territorial claims over the islands? Similarly, others have pointed out that since New Zealand is utterly trade dependent, why not try to advance Mr. Groser’s candidacy for the WTO job using surreptitious as well as diplomatic means? Likewise, is it news that Australia and New Zealand spy on small Pacific neighbours who depend on them for a significant amount of foreign aid and are being courted by the Chinese? Why not given the levels of corruption and intrigue present in the region?
This does not mean that there are no constitutional, diplomatic, security and trade concerns raised by the Snowden leaks coming into the public domain. My belief is that there is much to be alarmed about in the Snowden files and they should serve as a catalyst or window of opportunity for a thorough review of the NZ intelligence community and perhaps even a renegotiation of the terms and conditions of its participation in Anglophone intelligence networks.
But the way in which it has been presented to New Zealand audiences has induced fatigue rather than fervour. Add to that the government’s strategy of obfuscation, denial and attacking the motives, ethics and character of the journalistic messengers, and the result is a jaded public with little interest in spies or what they do and whom they do it to. Cast against a backdrop in which personal data and private information is already bulk accessed by private firms and a host of social media platforms with profit-maximising in mind, the general attitude seems to be one of unconcern about what the guardians of the public interest are doing in that regard. In such a climate the old Nazi refrain “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” resonates quite well.
Unless Mr. Greenwald, Mr. Hager and their colleagues have bombshells that they have yet to drop, it appears that like Mr. Dotcom’s much-hyped “Moment of Truth” last year, their efforts have fizzled rather than fired. For the sake of their credibility as well as the public good, it is time for them to stand up and deliver something of significance that transcends the Wellington beltway or if not, to walk away.
Should Mr. Hager and company opt to deliver a bombshell, they need to consider one more thing: what good purpose is served by revealing the foreign espionage activities of New Zealand and its closest intelligence partners? Even if it uncovers myriad spying efforts that have nothing to do with national security (and terrorism, that old canard), will it advance the cause of transparency and selectivity in intelligence operations and make some governments more responsive to public concerns about privacy? Will it curtail spying by the 5 Eyes partners or any other nation? Will it encourage whistleblowing on illegal government surveillance? Will it advance New Zealandâ€™s interests in the world or force a reconsideration of its relationship with its security partners?
Or will it simply damage New Zealand’s reputation and relations with the countries that have been spied on? Â Given that New Zealand is the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners and is, indeed, almost totally trade dependent, the negative consequences of any potential backlash or retaliation by aggrieved states could be significant.
That is why the issue is important. The thrust of the most recent revelations have moved beyond domestic mass surveillance and into the realm of traditional inter-state espionage, which is not confined to the activities of the 5 Eyes partners and is an integral, if unspoken necessary evil of international relations. Given that the focus of the Snowden material is solely on 5 Eyes spying and not on its counterespionage efforts or the intelligence operations of other states, could it not seem to the general public to be a bit one-sided and deliberately injurious to continue to unveil only what NZ and its partners undertake by way of signals intelligence collection (as some in government and supportive of it have insinuated)?
In the end, will ongoing revelations about New Zealand foreign espionage serve the public interest and common good? Or will it have the opposite effect?
And will average Kiwis care either way?
A short version of this essay appeared in the New Zealand Herald, April 10, 2015.