Why America never cut ties with NZ

MICHAEL KING’S excellent Penguin History of New Zealand tells us intelligence sharing between the United States and New Zealand ended in 1985 as part of retaliation for this country’s nuclear-free policy. Numerous books, articles and statements by senior officials have told this same, incorrect, story. Thanks to the discovery last week of the secret intelligence report detailing events at that time, we can at last, hopefully, lay this tired old myth to rest.

The myth of the 1985 “severed intelligence ties” is most often heard from people arguing that it is in New Zealand’s best interests to be a close American ally like Australia. It is used to reinforce a picture of New Zealand as vulnerable and dependent, where acting independently is unwise and risks some kind of loss, trade, intelligence or otherwise. Many foreign policy and security issues are discussed within this framework of supposed risks and threats.

The serendipitous discovery of the May 1986 report – the annual report of New Zealand’s little-known Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) eavesdropping agency – shows us that this prime example of vulnerability and loss never occurred. The report describes only minor and temporary reductions in intelligence flows, reluctantly introduced by a privately cordial National Security Agency (NSA) in response to pressure from the US Administration.

The ANZUS dispute led to three changes to the flow of signals intelligence (intercepted communications) to New Zealand. The first was that New Zealand got only one copy of each report, addressed to the GCSB, instead of one going to each local agency. This is no great problem to an intelligence service possessing a photocopier.

Next, the Canadian, British and Australian agencies were asked by NSA to exclude all US content from material provided to New Zealand. This meant we got US intelligence directly but not quoted in allied countries’ reports. The most substantial change was that all summary reports of signals intelligence produced by America were cancelled.

This fits with the changes GCSB staff told me they saw to incoming intelligence in March 1985 when, they said, certain intelligence summaries were withheld. The spy agency still received all the individual US intelligence reports – thousands a week – but some weekly or geographic compilations of this intelligence stopped arriving. David Lange called this not getting the Reader’s Digest version.

The summaries withheld were those prepared by US military forces – which is not surprising since the US military, and especially US Navy, were most annoyed by the nuclear policy and did cut some military ties.

It was a hassle for New Zealand’s small intelligence agencies not to have these convenient summaries arriving. But, since everything still arrived as individual reports, the country was not deprived of intelligence. Overall, the “end” of US-NZ intelligence sharing amounted to a few per cent of intelligence reports being withheld.

Why, then, did news go around the world of intelligence access being – in the words of defence chief Ewan Jamieson – “terminated”? The aim of this deception seems to have been that the US wanted other countries, particularly its allies, to believe New Zealand had been severely punished for adopting the nuclear policy and not follow the example. This would explain why all publicly visible military links, such as major exercises, were cancelled while numerous less visible military links continued.

There were two other concrete ANZUS dispute punishments: the GCSB’s invitation to a joint Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, US Far East signals intelligence (SIGINT) planning conference in Washington in October 1985 was withdrawn and a ban was placed on new NSA-GCSB initiatives. The conferences and new initiatives soon resumed. The report records planning for GCSB satellite eavesdropping and the first training of military personnel for Tactical SIGINT missions. These are now New Zealand’s most important NSA-GCSB collaborations.

If the Americans were so annoyed at New Zealand, why didn’t they cut the intelligence links? Most of the Tangimoana radio eavesdropping station’s work was monitoring Soviet vessels in the Pacific for the Americans. The station also monitored Argentinian Navy and Egyptian diplomatic communications for Britain.

The head office intelligence analysts specialised in translating French government communications intercepted by the British and translating Japanese diplomatic cables and communications from friendly South Pacific nations intercepted by the US. A quarter of the radio eavesdropping staff were based at “JTUM” in Melbourne, helping a British/Australian operation against China. Why would the US cut intelligence ties when our intelligence staff were helping do its work?

The GCSB even spied on Greenpeace protests against French Pacific nuclear testing and a Greenpeace vessel’s Antarctic expedition – the latter called a watching brief for safety purposes. The most questionable spying targets revealed were UN diplomatic communications. GCSB staff told me in the 1990s that this included regular monitoring of UN agencies in the Pacific for the US and Britain, including the UN Development Programme.

We don’t know what the GCSB’s targets are today. But we do know our largest intelligence agency will still be conducting numerous operations on behalf of the US and British. Shortly after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Prime Minister Helen Clark told parliament “New Zealand has strong international intelligence relationships, and we will cooperate fully through the networks we have”. It’s likely New Zealanders would not feel fully comfortable if they were aware of those war-on- terror targets.

In 2003 a young Chinese translator in the British eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, blew the whistle on concerted monitoring of UN Security Council members before the Iraq war. She gave the media details of the NSA request for a “surge” of intelligence collection seeking anything the US could use to push these countries into voting in favour of invasion.

Were our electronic spies part of this more recent UN spying, helping the push for war while our government refused to take part? Based on the scale of US and British targeting revealed in the 1986 report, the likely answer is yes.