Christchurch Press feature on intelligence

Australian author and academic David McKnight is currently researching a book about spying on students, anti-apartheid groups and other political movements of the 1960s and 1970s by the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIO) – and ASIO is doing everything it can to help. 

It has assigned extra staff to search for all files over 30 years old possibly relevant to his study. The staff send him summaries and arrange copying of any files he wants. This includes endless transcripts from offices they bugged, surveillance of political meetings and files on individuals. The agency has accepted that its targets, its methods and the world have all changed so much in 30 years that the secrets no longer need to be secret.

The situation in New Zealand couldn’t be more different. In November last year PM Helen Clark released a new policy on access to our Security Intelligence Service’s old files. The press release said it was to encourage “greater openness”, but in fact she had just instituted possibly the most restrictive intelligence archives policy in the western world.

The SIS will release no documents less than 50 years old (the SIS is only 48 years old!) and sensitive subjects must wait until 100 years after the death of those concerned. 99% of old personal and subject files will simply be destroyed and – very convenient when you’re the Minister signing the warrants – all information about who is bugged will be withheld indefinitely. Not one word of the information McKnight is getting would be released here. Not one word of the information McKnight is receiving would be released here.

Are the SIS’s secrets so much more sensitive than Australia’s? Of course not. The archives policy was just another example of a general problem in New Zealand: that our politicians are unwilling to impose any effective systems of accountability on the intelligence agencies. 

So, at a time when US and British spies are being questioned about dodgy Iraq intelligence, what do we know about our spies? For instance, who have they been spying on to aid George Bush’s “war on terror” (our largest intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), called this a “major focus” of its 2003 operations)? What influence do US and British intelligence have over our secret services? And of course – a landmark issue for New Zealand – why is the SIS so determined to expel political refugee Ahmed Zaoui?

The answer to these sorts of questions is that, unless someone leaks information, we simply do not know (and under Helen Clark’s archive policy never will). Anyone can speculate, but the spy agencies are in practice accountability free zones.

The SIS presents itself as a “well run, fully accountable and ethical organisation”. But we must take it almost entirely on trust. And on the rare cases that come to light, like Zaoui, that trust would appear to be decidedly misplaced.

These rare cases also show us how inadequate intelligence oversight is in New Zealand. The Inspector General, Laurie Greig, is very part time, has no independent staff and appears thoroughly captured by the agencies he’s supposed to watch on our behalf – more an apologist than a watchdog. Yet Labour reappointed him for a third term in 2002. National and Labour voted together in 1996 to establish a toothless parliamentary oversight committee. It has few powers and rarely meets. 

It is unsurprising to learn that the intelligence agencies themselves designed these oversight systems. Like the absurd archive policy, and a series of new surveillance laws, our politicians (National and Labour) seem unwilling to balance other public interests against the agencies’ interests. (Why? I suspect it’s partly lack of knowledge and interest and partly uneasiness about the powerful alliances within which the agencies operate.)

The public is left with the spin. For instance, the GCSB released its first annual report three weeks ago, stating that the agency’s foreign intelligence gathering was to “support and inform Government decision making”. There wasn’t the faintest acknowledgement that nearly all the GCSB’s spy operations are structured around supplying intelligence into a US-run network.

The usual reply to questioning is that, by their nature, intelligence operations have to be kept secret. However, other countries manage to get a better balance between operational secrecy and accountability. Canada and the US have much better oversight systems (watchdogs with independence, resources and strong investigatory powers). The Australian file release policy illustrates how far more information could be made public without harming operations.

The reason this matters is that without decent accountability there’s nothing to stop secret agencies producing reports claiming Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or hounding every Arabic person who turns up on a foreign intelligence list. If everything’s secret, who can challenge them?

Under the current government both the SIS and GCSB have grown in size and budget by about 40% and have gained major new spying powers. If our intelligence agencies really aspire to being well run, fully accountable and ethical – that is, deserving of public trust – then they and the politicians should allow proper systems of accountability and much greater openness.

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