A Second Look: The Intelligence & Security Cmttee.
The Intelligence and Security Committee
''My message is that we in the intelligence and security services can work under a system of parliamentary control.''
- William Colby CIA Director 1995
There was a time when the intelligence and security agencies did not call press conferences and volunteer information relating to security concerns. And back in the mid 1990s there was little media interest in the workings of these, our most peculiar, government departments.
As it happens "Government Departments" or "Ministries" is a reasonably accurate description for the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communication Security Bureau (GCSB).
Working within the bowels of Stout and Aitken streets are (presumably) a number of well educated bureaucrats, who like their counterparts elsewhere occasionally pop down to have a latte on Lambton Quay.
These organisations have more in common with ‘Gliding On’ than any of the characters portrayed on ‘Spooks’ or '24'. Despite the fevered imaginations of various badly mohawked anarchists, the workers within these institutions are far more likely to be mature women with masters degrees in classics than Keifer Sutherland lookalikes packing heat.
However, unlike their fellow policy analysts, advisors and general managers in other government ministries or departments, there is no select committee scrutiny whatsoever of their activity.
What this means is that even a junior analyst, fresh out of university and now working at the Security Intelligence Service is likely to have a far better understanding of the intelligence agencies workings than most Members of Parliament.
Considering the scrutiny intelligence agencies face in other Parliamentary democracies, this may not actually be either protecting our national security or creating a culture of professionalism in our security services.
Background to the Intelligence and Security Agencies Bill
Until 1996 the intelligence agencies were expected to occasionally appear before the Government Administration select committee. From most reports the scrutiny of the services was indifferent at best. New Zealand had yet to make the move to mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting, and unlike most other policy areas both National and Labour’s stance on security is like tweedle dum and tweedle dee – i.e. hard to spot the difference.
Some time in 1995 there was a desire to revamp the intelligence agencies to give at least the impression of more accountability to the public. After all, some tens of millions of dollars were being expended each year, and virtually no-one had the foggiest idea if the public was getting value for money.
The then National Leader, Jim Bolger, gave the go-ahead for his officials to begin drafting new legislation. The details of legislation were hammered out among the Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Finance and the Attorney General. The Leader of the Opposition (Helen Clark) and her Deputy Leader (Michael Cullen) were consulted on the proposals.
Over the course of 1995 and 1996 the Intelligence and Security Act 1996 was pieced together. Perhaps the most important aspect of this Act, certainly for those parties that were not around to provide any input, was the fact that under the new act, no Parliamentary select committee may examine the policy, administration or expenditure of an intelligence and security agency. Instead an entirely new committee was to be formed, The Intelligence And Security Committee.
Membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee
The Prime Minister of the day was to take the lead role in the composition of the committee. The leader of the main opposition party (invariably either Labour or National) is also represented. The Prime Minister may make two more appointments and the Leader of the Opposition one.
Why it was necessary to have only five members, a number far smaller than a regular select committee, has never been fully explained.
The reasoning behind excluding more MPs from exercising oversight?
Presumably the small number in this select group of politicians was and is for security reasons. Less members on the committee, the thinking goes, leads to less leaks. And as it is well known that various papers and tip offs come to journalists from politicians on all committees this makes some sense. However would a smaller number make a difference to this?
It is interesting to consider what would happen to any politician who was found to be leaking information. Would they be shot at dawn? Also, would the Minister in charge of the SIS want to bring this fact out into the open, even if they suspected one of their cohorts of feeding the press a juicy titbit?
Moreover, if the Intelligence and Security Committee can leak like a faulty sieve with five members then the raison d’etre for denying access to any party that wishes to be represented is completely negated. That said it is easy to imagine that the prospect of having Keith Locke anywhere near the committee's deliberations would give Richard Woods heart palpatations.
Administrative requirements of the committee
As the new ‘supra’ intelligence committee is no longer considered a select committee, the administration is no longer handled by David McGee, Parliament’s Clerk and resident rules and regulation’s expert. McGee needed to amend parliament’s standing orders following the passing of the Act - excising the words “security intelligence’ from various Standing Orders. Administrative requirements for this committee are now handled by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The intelligence and Security Committee - 2004
The Intelligence and Security Committee vintage 2004 is made of a disparate collection of politicians whom you wouldn’t imagine could agree easily on whether they should have ‘Shrewsberrys' or ‘Choccy Maccadoons’ for dipping in their cuppas.
The Prime Minister, Helen Clark, is still there, making her the longest serving member of the committee. Alongside her on the left side is Michael Cullen, proving that as well as balancing the books, he is not afraid to diversify his portfolio interests. Rounding out the Government appointees is Jim Anderton, who presumably - given his speeches condemning this committee in the mid-90s - is there to keep a close watch on any excesses.
Sitting across the table at present is Don Brash, who given the rarity with which this committee meets may even now still be a committee virgin. Last, but definitely not least, is Winston Peters who was an original appointee back in 1997. Peters missed taking part in any oversight work of the committee during 1999 till 2002, but has now returned.
Peters' and Anderton’s places on this committee both raise interesting points, should Peters as the leader of the third largest party in the House be on this committee by right? If not, what sort of deal was hammered out to allow him to sit here?
Anderton’s place on this committee has also caused some dissension. But as the Leader of the Progressives, the Government's coalition partner there is a reasonable case for his inclusion.
Committee members' past concerns
In the past both Peters and Anderton have had grave misgivings about certain aspects of how our the intelligence agencies work and the carte blanche they consider they have received from both National and Labour governments.
In a speech to the House on the appointments to the inaugural Intelligence and Security Committee, Anderton took issue with the exclusion of parliamentarians from the process of oversight. “The fact that members of Parliament are not allowed to know about the security of the nation is a disgrace that would not be tolerated in many other democratic parliaments around the world.”
Anderton also took issue with the fact that the Chair of the committee was the Prime Minister. “It is highly inappropriate in a modern democracy such as ours for the Prime Minister, the Minister in charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, also to be chairing the body that should be independently examining the activities of the intelligence and security agencies.”
Prior to sitting on the first such Committee Winston Peters was also concerned about the intelligence agencies although his concern was fiscal accountability. Prior to the 1996 election he railed against the GCSB, “the level of secrecy that surrounds this electronic eavesdropping agency should give us all cause to think. If we are no longer in ANZUS and have as some claim no obvious enemies, and we regard Asian nations as some of our most important trading nations, then what does the GCSB do for its $18.5 million relationship.”
What can be scrutinised - How often the committee meets
As both these Honourable members are now sitting upon the committee it is hoped their concerns have been dealt with. However it is also worth noting both what this committee can look at and how often it meets. Members of this committee will not be sitting around flicking through classified information provided by foreign Governments. It is apparently forbidden from seeing any operational material, concerning itself mainly with financial and policy matters.
Why and when this committee meets is also something of a mystery. It may be that if some security concern crops up unexpectedly the committee may convene. In March 2003, Winston Peters pressed the Prime Minister during question time on how often the committee met. Peters was annoyed at how few times the committee had met in 2002. It was discovered that the committee had met only once since the last election.
Evidently the committee had come together some time in December 2002 - whether this was for financial policy or some other security concern was unknown though the fact that it is two months after he Bali Bombing may provide a clue. Interestingly it was also in December 2002 ( Herald Report 13 December 2002) that news of Ahmed Zaoui being held in Auckland Prison was leaked, though whether anything can be drawn from that coincidence is far from clear.
It would have been heartening to even those MPs' deeply concerned about the actions of the intelligence agencies listening to Peters. Although MPs like Matt Robson and Keith Locke may never get to have a chinwag with Richard Woods and his ilk in the Beehive, they can rest easy that there is one politician eager get to grips with any national security concerns.
- Kevin List is
a Scoop staff writer. A Second Look is an occasional column
which endeavours to look a little deeper into the background