A short history of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS)

A public talk by Nicky Hager, 1 February 2011

The Security Intelligence Service is New Zealand’s internal intelligence agency, which was set up to spy on New Zealanders and foreign people and organisations within New Zealand who are regarded as a threat to the country’s security. ‘Security’ has a very specific meaning for the SIS: it is defined in the SIS legislation as covering espionage, sabotage, terrorism and ‘subversion’ (planning to overthrow the state by force) plus two poorly defined recent extensions covering threats to New Zealand’s ‘international and economic well being’. The SIS also vets people in or applying for senior government jobs, gives security advice to government departments and, in recent years, it has begun some overseas intelligence collection operations, about which very little is yet known.

The SIS is one of New Zealand’s main two intelligence agencies. It currently has about 200 staff while the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), which is designed primarily to spy on other countries, is about twice that size.

The SIS history divides into three eras: Cold War (1956-1990), post-Cold War (1990-2001) and War on Terror (2001 to the present). First the Cold War.

The SIS was established in 1956, the midst of the early Cold War, at the instigation and with the assistance of the British intelligence services. In 1955-56 the British also encouraged and helped New Zealand set up the Special Air Service (SAS) and the NZ Combined Signals Organisation (predecessor of the GCSB). The three organisations were designed for helping fight on the US/UK side in the Cold War: the SIS monitoring Soviet and other communist activity in New Zealand; the GCSB predecessor helping long-distance radio interception of Soviet and other communist activity around the world; and the SAS fighting alongside British and allied special forces against ‘communist’ movements in South East Asia.

Based in Wellington, the SIS dedicated a lot of its resources through the Cold War to monitoring the embassies and any other activities of communist countries in New Zealand. In practice this meant routinely tailing cars and bugging the communications of diplomats and any delegations visiting New Zealand from these countries. There were squads of surveillance staff whose main work was waiting for cars to leave the Soviet or Chinese embassy and following them around the city. I have talked to people who did this job. There were also observation houses watching the Soviet and Chinese embassies (a large two-storey house across Messines Road from the Soviet embassy and a two-storey house a few houses down Glenmore Street from the Chinese embassy, that can be identified because the upper window juts out from the front of the house giving a view along to the embassy). There was also a fake record company in an old brick building at the bottom of the Ngaio Gorge in the 1960s housing the SIS’s telephone tapping equipment. A nearby building in Kaiwharawhara Road contained the monitoring operations and surveillance teams in the 1990s.

The SIS’s other main target was local communist and socialist groups, as part of world-wide monitoring of these groups by their US and British allies. This spying was done under the security category of ‘subversion’. Although, of course, New Zealand has no history of people trying to overthrow the government by force, but subversion was used as the pretext for spying on all sorts of progressives groups: unions, students, iwi, the nuclear free and environment movements and so on. The SIS has released some of the personal files it kept on progressive people during this era and they reveal an astonishing scale of intrusive and completely unnecessary surveillance. These released files also show that the was not equally interested in all progressive or left-wing people. They appear to have monitored this wide range of organisations primarily to find out about anyone from communist and socialist groups, their allies’ preoccupation. It was all very political, with no interest shown in local groups with close ties or funding from the US government but an obsessive interest in any links to Eastern Europe or China.

In many ways this was just silly and irrelevant to New Zealand. But there was harm caused to the individuals and groups targeted. Some people’s careers were unfairly and seriously harmed; and many people had fear about their groups being infiltrated and monitored (fears which were often correct). It had a negative effect on all sorts of political activity. One very large SIS case was that against the well-known New Zealander Bill Sutch: senior public servant, author, public intellectual. At 8.40pm on 26 September 1974 he was arrested near the top of Aro Street in Wellington (the remains of a concrete public toilet mark on the spot, near the corner of Holloway Road). The SIS accused him of passing information to a Soviet embassy officer. It appears that Sutch had met with a Soviet embassy person. But he was very far from being a traitor. He was one of the great New Zealanders of his time, but of intense interest to the SIS because of his left-wing beliefs. There was a five-day trial, where he was acquitted, but the stress was so great that he had died within a year of the arrest.

Later, in 1981, the SIS prepared a list of 20 supposed subversives involved in the 1981 Springbok Tour protest organisation, which was released to the press by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. The SIS was later successfully sued for publicising incorrect information in the dossier.

It is important to note that a lot of the SIS monitoring of progressive groups and people stopped at the end of the Cold War. Today a lot of people still fear they might be monitored by the SIS but, as far as I know, relatively little of the subversion monitoring continues. This is unnecessary fear, which needlessly chills political activity, so it is worth people knowing that it is mostly in the past (although police intelligence monitoring of political groups in New Zealand continues). The SIS should have removed the ‘subversion’ category from the SIS Act at the end of the Cold War but it did not. The potential for unwarranted monitoring and abuse of the agency’s powers continues.

The 1990s post-Cold War era was a period of crisis for the SIS. The agency floundered, its main long-term anti-communist rationale gone, and it really should have been closed at that time. It used secrecy to protect itself from change as it followed the allied agencies in trying to find new roles to justify its existence. This is, for example, the period when SIS officials persuaded the then National Government to broaden the definition of ‘security’ to include the woolly concept of threats to New Zealand’s international and economic well being. Shortly after this definition was put into legislation in 1996, another high-profile SIS case hit the news when free trade opponent Aziz Chaudrey had his Christchurch house broken into by SIS officers. A friend of Aziz’s caught them in the act and followed the officers back to their 4WD car, which was registered to an SIS front company called Amalgamated Office Services and based on the first floor of an office building in Waring Taylor Street in central Wellington. The SIS was sued over the break in and paid Aziz a large but undisclosed sum, more than enough to pay off his mortgage. In 1999 its functions were extended to giving secret advice in immigration cases, a new power that has lead to innocent people being harmed.

The SIS’s make-work years ended on September 11, 2001. Like secret services around the world, the Service recreated itself as an anti-terrorism agency and received large increases in budget and staff, plus the expansion of its role to overseas operations. There was actually no significant change to the terrorist threat level in New Zealand (it was still very low), but the SIS had a new lease on life. As in previous eras, there were soon casualties. The activities of agencies such as the SIS always impact most on small subsets of society, not everyone equally. After the September 11 attacks it was particularly Muslim people, anyone from Middle Eastern/Arabic countries and other people from repressive countries where ‘terrorist’ is an easy attack on political opponents. The SIS got extra staff in Auckland who started alarming Muslim people by turning up at their homes (in the countries many come from, a visit from the security forces is very serious trouble.)

The greatest known casualty was former Algerian MP Ahmed Zaoui who was accused of being a terrorist when he sought asylum in New Zealand and who was belligerently hounded by the SIS through years of legal battles before he was grudgingly admitted not to be a threat. He has lived peacefully in New Zealand since. There is undoubtedly work the SIS does that, if the public knew about, it would support. But there is no evidence of a single dramatic case in recent decades where the SIS has deterred threats or defended New Zealand. Meanwhile the war-on-terror era has given the SIS greater powers and more resources, and more mistakes and abuses like the Zaoui case may well follow. The agency is still closely allied to the Anglo-American agencies that set it up and is still closely aligned with their priorities and biases.