Waihopai: our role in international spying
When three Christian protesters deflated a radome at the Waihopai intelligence base 12 days ago, citing the base’s support for the US War on Terror, a chorus of voices ridiculed the suggestion. Waihopai is entirely a New Zealand operation, not part of the War on Terror, they said. It is, in the words of one newspaper, just to “keep New Zealand competitive in diplomatic, political and trade negotiations”.
They are completely wrong. New information, prised out by former Chief Ombudsman John Belgrave and from intelligence insiders, makes it clear that Waihopai, and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) that runs it, have been heavily focused on supporting the US War on Terror since September 11, 2001.
It’s understandable if people are ignorant about the GCSB. It is New Zealand’s largest but least understood intelligence agency. Whereas the SIS spies within New Zealand, the GCSB and its predecessor have worked within an extremely secret five-nation alliance since the late 1940s, eavesdropping on other countries’ radio communications and, nowadays, emails and phone calls.
The first signs of the GCSB’s War on Terror role came thanks to the efforts of Belgrave, who sadly died late last year. The GCSB had refused an Official Information Act request for information on its post-September 11 activities, but Belgrave was unconvinced by the GCSB’s claim of needing total secrecy.
The papers he ordered released show immediate changes inside the GCSB in the early days of the War on Terror. A June 2002 annual report declared that “the 2001-2002 Financial Year has been a defining year for the Bureau”. It said “the events of 11 September led to a major shift in focus for the Bureau and defined its operations for most of the year”.
It noted in particular that the “SIGINT” operations (signals intelligence), which include the spying on satellite communications from the Waihopai station, “were defined by [the Bureau's] response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 … and the consequent heightened demands for those services”.
This heightened demand for spying services quickly led to requests for extra resources. Both funding and staff numbers have nearly doubled (to $42 million and 370 staff) in the six years since. Insiders say the first changes in early 2002 included a new analysis section devoted to terrorism-related intelligence, named the Transnational Issues Reporting Team and located in the headquarters’ SIGINT Production Unit. Their job is to process “raw” intercepted emails and other messages intercepted at Waihopai and elsewhere: translating them and producing standardised intelligence reports to send to New Zealand and overseas intelligence “end users”.
Most GCSB spying occurs at Waihopai. However, inside sources say another major New Zealand contribution to US war-on-terror activities has been covert GCSB-directed electronic eavesdropping teams. The GCSB began using specially trained New Zealand military personnel for overseas spying missions in the late 1980s, first using Navy staff and later Army and Air Force staff. Insiders say that immediately after the September 11 attacks these GCSB-trained personnel were sent to serve with US forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In 2003 the GCSB began openly publishing annual reports. They show a continued priority on the War on Terror. “The ongoing war against terrorism was a major focus of the Bureau’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) operations,” director Warren Tucker wrote. This was achieved “through an increase in the numbers of analytic and processing staff, and ongoing work to enhance technical collection and processing capability.”
BY THEN the War on Terror had changed. Osama bin Laden was all but forgotten and the United States was primarily focused on Iraq. Intelligence justifying the Iraq invasion had been discredited and photos were appearing from the Abu Ghraib prison. But the GCSB was set on its new path and there was no sign of reconsidering the War on Terror role.
In the 2004 annual report, Tucker wrote: “Throughout the year, the Bureau has continued to play its full part in the international partnership. Collaboration and co-operation, particularly on counter-terrorism, is extremely strong, as demonstrated by the record number of visitors to GCSB (including several major conferences).” The War on Terror had become a welcome means for New Zealand intelligence and military staff to achieve closer relations with United States intelligence and military agencies.
It was also a great way to get more resources. Tucker wrote in the 2004 report that “the Bureau was successful during the year in obtaining significant additional funding for a range of capability enhancements” including “further development on both collection stations” (such as a new 7.3m antennae at Waihopai) and a further increase in the number of intelligence analysts. (A fourth Waihopai dish was added in 2007.)
Within the GCSB, some staff were not so sure about the direction. One confided privately that “many people [in the Bureau] feel it’s worthwhile watching out for terrorism in our region but it doesn’t mean they support George Bush’s approach, rushing into wars and all.”
They could see how closely the GCSB’s terrorism work was aligned to US foreign policy. That year’s annual report mentions that the GCSB had made “a considerable effort… during the year to provide enhanced language training for our intelligence analysts” and that “preparation of a strategy for long-term language capability development is now well advanced”.
This was written when “fighting terrorism” in the Middle East was looking more like fomenting terrorism and many countries were urgently re-evaluating their role in the War on Terror. The GCSB report didn’t say what language capabilities were being increased in the long-term strategy, but the answer is they were digging in to continue supporting the George Bush approach.
The enhanced language training was overseen, like various other major GCSB developments, by a British intelligence officer posted to Wellington for the purpose. According to GCSB staff, the officer, a polite man in his 40s, was a language specialist from the British sister agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Staff throughout the Wellington headquarters knew he was a GCHQ Middle Eastern languages specialist, speaking four or more Arabic languages, and that his job during 2004 was to reorient the New Zealand analysis sections towards Middle Eastern language intelligence.
And so it went on. The 2005 annual report shows a further 30% rise in budget for the year, including more analysts and “continued enhancements to the Bureau’s two collection stations at Tangimoana and Waihopai”. It says “counter-terrorism and regional issues continue to be the major focuses of the Bureau’s intelligence efforts”. Each subsequent annual report uses the same words. In late 2007 GCSB director Bruce Ferguson was privately seeking linguists competent in Farsi/Persian (the main language of Iran and part of Afghanistan) to recruit as intelligence analysts.
Throughout this, the mood does not sound like one of dreadful responsibility to stop terrorism, but more of welcome opportunity to build up the spy agency. Even in the first months after the September 11 attacks, amid public fear and uncertainty, Tucker wrote in a non-public annual report that “the internal atmosphere of the Bureau [had] changed during the year, with a much greater sense of optimism at the end of the year, brought about by certainty of funding and a sharpened sense of mission and purpose.”
All of this makes it clear that, whatever you think of the Christian protest at Waihopai, they were correct when they described it as an important part of the Bush adminstration’s War on Terror. But the GCSB is generally so secret that it’s easy for people to sound off in uninformed ways.
Peter Cozens, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies, for instance, said the base is used strictly to collect and analyse information, often of “a political, trade and diplomatic nature”, for the New Zealand government. He told the New Zealand Herald that Waihopai is “entirely, totally cosa nostra New Zealand. It is New Zealand’s mafia, if you like. It’s our thing. It’s got nothing to do with the Americans”.
Incorrect. The Waihopai station, like the GCSB itself, is staffed and funded by New Zealanders. It is not a US base in the sense of US personnel being stationed on New Zealand soil. But it has everything to do with the Americans. The station is part of a network of similar stations set up at US prompting by allies around the world. The same equipment, manuals, codewords and communication systems are found in each station.
This US intelligence system, codenamed “Echelon” in the 1990s, was the subject of a 2000-2001 European parliament inquiry that confirmed and added extra detail to the descriptions of Echelon provided by GCSB staff for my 1996 book about the agency. It uses computers codenamed Dictionaries to sift intelligence from the millions of satellite communications intercepted at the various facilities. The key to the system is that each station does not just collect intelligence for the home nation. Waihopai, like the others, has separate US, British and Australian search lists (keywords, email addresses etc) that are used to identify and collect intelligence for the US, British and Australian electronic spying agencies. Thus at the same time as Waihopai collects intelligence on the South Pacific and other subjects for the GCSB, it also functions in effect as a foreign base collecting intelligence for the intelligence allies.
The intercepted messages collected for the New Zealand agency go by an encrypted link across Cook Strait to the Freyberg Building headquarters in Aitken St, Wellington. They are stored in a computer database inside a large vault room 12.11 on the GCSB’s 12th floor until processed by the intelligence analysts. But the messages collected at Waihopai for the other allies, which mostly means the United States, are routed straight from the 14th floor GCSB information centre to Washington DC and allied agencies.
The early (non-public) GCSB annual reports acknowledged the agency’s role assisting the overseas intelligence allies.
“New Zealand’s international intelligence links are strengthened by a reliable contribution to allied intelligence community efforts,” the 2000 report said.
However, subsequent publicly available annual reports removed this statement and said only that “the mission of the GCSB is to contribute to the national security of New Zealand through… providing foreign signals intelligence to support and inform government decision-making”.
The GCSB’s role in the US-led network is well known to its own staff. When they arrive at headquarters each day, they walk along corridors displaying framed pictures of the signals intelligence bases that are the foundation of their work: photos of Waihopai and its US and allied sister stations dotted around the globe. There is no good reason why other New Zealanders should not also be allowed to know the basic facts of these intelligence ties, and whose foreign policies they are supporting.