Spies like us

A recent story in Britain’s Observer newspaper revealed that US intelligence agencies have been spying intensely on UN Security Council members as the US worked to secure backing for the war in Iraq. You might imagine that New Zealand would disapprove of these high level dirty tricks, but our most secret intelligence agency has a long record of helping its US and British partners spy on just these sorts of targets.

The Observer story is based on a leaked intelligence memo written by Frank Koza, head of the Regional Targets section at the gigantic US National Security Agency. The memo, dated 31 January 2003 and addressed to US and British intelligence officials, requested a “surge” of surveillance activity against the diplomatic communications of UN Security Council (UNSC) members, such as Angola, Cameroon and Guinea. It also requested “attention to non-UNSC members”, specifically all “UN-related and domestic comms” containing anything relating to the Security Council.

The goal of the surveillance, according to Koza’s memo, was to collect inside information on the countries’ “negotiating positions”, “alliances” and “dependencies” – “the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals”.

The US Government was using its intelligence agencies to spy on friendly countries, seeking weaknesses and pressure points to help “diplomatic efforts” to secure pro-war Security Council votes. It’s very rare for internal documents showing these machinations to reach the public. But there is a long history to this spying on the UN.

US efforts to control the UN began at the organisation’s founding conference in April 1945. Delegates from fifty countries met in the San Francisco Opera House to shape a post-war world order that could “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The New Zealand delegation played an important role in arguing for a United Nations built upon “the equal rights of nations large and small…. liv[ing] together in peace with one another as good neighbours”.

President Roosevelt had fought hard to host the conference in San Francisco. But declassified 1940s intelligence documents now show that this generosity was to allow US intelligence staff to eavesdrop on delegates as they exchanged messages with home.

US Army codebreakers worked 24 hours a day, obtaining coded telegrams from US telegraph companies and supplying the decoded messages to the US negotiators. The secret operation was judged a huge success. The 1940s documents show that Washington knew the negotiating positions of almost all the delegations, including allies and neutral states. This crucial intelligence allowed the US to set the agenda and pressure nations to support it on issues such as composition of the Security Council and veto powers for the five WWII victors.

According to the most authoritative book on the National Security Agency, Body of Secrets by James Bamford, the US likewise lobbied to have the UN headquarters on US soil – again to assist its eavesdroppers and codebreakers. The usefulness of this intelligence was seen during the fateful 1948 UN vote on the partition of Palestine – the US-backed plan that has led to instability and violence in the Middle East ever since.

New Zealand’s delegate, like many others, expressed serious concern about the plan. But the US brought massive pressure to bear on countries to support the partition, finally heavying three small nations – Liberia, Haiti and the Philippines – to change their positions just before the final vote. Sound familiar? US Secretary of Defence James Forrestal wrote in his private diary at the time that the methods used “to bring coercion and duress on other nations bordered closely onto scandal”.

New Zealand governments still support the UN and the “rights of nations large and small”. But over the succeeding decades New Zealand has also increasingly integrated into an alliance with the US intelligence agencies. Our government would never admit this, but this includes helping to spy on the UN.

How do we know this?

New Zealand’s closest intelligence ties are to the National Security Agency, the largest intelligence agency in the world (bigger than the CIA and FBI put together). Most of the NSA’s surveillance isn’t against terrorists or rogue states. It uses high-tech electronic surveillance to spy on a wide range of communications from virtually every country on earth. New Zealand co-operates closely in this surveillance. The US-NZ intelligence “split” that supposedly happened in 1985, repeated as fact in numerous news stories since, did not occur.

Our largest intelligence agency, the forgettably named Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), is modelled upon and serves as a South Pacific outpost for the NSA. It spies on communications throughout our region using electronic eavesdropping stations near Blenheim and Palmerston North – and specially trained military eavesdropping units on navy ships, air force Orions and overseas army deployments.

If you could visit the GCSB’s Wellington headquarters, you’d enter at the 12th floor entrance through special security doors then walk down a corridor decorated with framed photographs of NSA and allied interception stations around the world. The New Zealand stations are fully integrated into this NSA-controlled network. Many of their target instructions come from the NSA and the resulting intercepted messages are automatically sent to the NSA’s Washington headquarters.

The GCSB has contributed to NSA operations through a series of US wars, so it’s likely that its facilities have provided a secret contribution to US warplans against Iraq. Likewise, when the NSA prioritises UN Security Council intelligence, the NSA target lists in the New Zealand facilities probably reflect this. Usually the only constraint is what communications are technically accessible from New Zealand. According to staff, the agency does not refuse US requests.

At the front of the building you would reach the computer services section, containing a large freestanding vault called Room 12.11. This vault, crammed with racks of computer equipment and people working at computer screens, contains the databases of intercepted communications received from New Zealand’s eavesdropping facilties. Fibre-optic cables connect these databases to intelligence analysts on the 14th floor, where their daily work is processing intelligence from New Zealand’s area of responsibility within the NSA network: all the nations and international organisations in the South Pacific.

I’ve talked to GCSB staff whose daily job was scrolling through the intercepted communications of UN agencies based in Suva, forwarding them to the NSA, CIA and other allied intelligence agencies. That’s right, they routinely spy on the UN.

Other staff routinely view all the South Pacific countries’ private diplomatic messages on UN meetings, GATT negotiations, bilateral trade relations with the US and other private business – again dispatching it all to the NSA. Our intelligence agency is helping “give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals”, at the expense of countries and international organisations we supposedly support. Staff say that potential threats like terrorism barely feature in the work programmes.

The reason for storing the databases of intercepts in the Room 12.11 vault, and for numerous other security measures, is that nothing that happens inside the GCSB is ever supposed to reach the public. That leaves politicians free to make vague statements about the GCSB being “essential to fight terrorist groups and other threats to national security”, as our Government claimed earlier this month during the second reading of a bill increasing the GCSB’s powers.

It suits these agencies and their political supporters to dismiss discussion about intelligence as a bit of a joke – conspiracy theory country. It creates an accountability-free-zone where difficult questions can be brushed aside. But there are serious issues to face.

Publicly, our Government is a staunch supporter of the UN. Our leaders regularly visit the UN headquarters in New York. But, just as regularly, our intelligence and defence chiefs visit the NSA headquarters half an hour away in Washington DC to ensure New Zealand compatibility with NSA plans and agendas.

The contradiction is obvious. Supporting US intelligence agencies can serve diametrically opposite goals to supporting the UN: helping large nations walk over the rights of small ones, instead of ensuring the rights of all. Helping fight the wars instead of stopping them. New Zealand needs to work out where it stands.

Unfortunately our Prime Minister has signed the same US-originated intelligence secrecy pledges – called “indoctrination oaths” – that all local intelligence staff must sign. So when troubling issues like the NSA’s Security Council spying appear, raising questions about our Cold War-era intelligence allegiances, all we can expect is the standard “no comment on intelligence matters”.

The contradiction remains. Helen Clark has explained her pro-UN stance on Iraq by arguing that you can’t just support multilateralism and international law when it suits you and ignore them when it doesn’t. But isn’t that exactly what New Zealand is doing? The answer is to bring intelligence activities into line with the avowed support for the UN and multilateralism, as one is undermining the other.