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Playing Spy Scrabble

Playing Spy Scrabble

By Paul G. Buchanan - Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

When it comes to spying, acronyms tend to run short: CIA, DIA, DINA, ECHELON, KGB, MI6, NSA, ASIO, KCIA and, to stretch the sample, Mossad. With regard to New Zealand’s intelligence services, the subject is gathered in short fours: SIS, EAB, DDIS and GCSB.

When comparing acronyms, consider a hypothetical example. Think of a country in which primary responsibility for internal and external intelligence collection and counter-intelligence operations are covered by one agency. Imagine that because of resource deficiencies and institutional disposition, such an agency devoted most of its time to internal espionage, including monitoring of political dissent. Imagine that the lead manager of this agency answered only to the head of the government, in secret, with no external oversight mechanisms to check that manager’s decision-making, and with authority to withhold classified information even from that individual head of the government. This manager also has exclusive authority for determining who is considered a risk to society, as well as the very definition of what constitutes national security threats. Imagine that there was a separate electronic eavesdropping agency, operated by nationals on behalf of a foreign coalition of intelligence partners, that shared information with the primary intelligence service. Imagine that these agencies were complemented by a separate military intelligence branch staffed by civilians and soldiers and housed in the defense ministry. Imagine that above these collection agencies existed a separate foreign intelligence-vetting body that assessed intelligence streams from customs, immigration, police, and diplomatic channels as well as the collection agencies described previously. The ultimate source of intelligence policy decisions, this bureau provides directed advice to the head of the government (also Minister of Intelligence, in a fusion of roles) operating according to the doctrine of plausible deniability and institutional impunity, with no oversight or accountability outside of Cabinet.

For those who know the model, the most obvious comparison would be drawn from twentieth century Fascist and Stalinist regimes, seconded by military-bureaucratic dictatorships. The common denominator is that the model concentrates intelligence powers in the hands of a very small group of people unaccountable to the citizenry. Yet the real life example is found closer to home.

The combination of an omniscient national spy agency with predominantly internal focus, foreign electronic eavesdropping and defense intelligence organisations, plus related intelligence streams from a variety of other agencies feeding information to a “captured” cabinet overseer free from oversight mechanisms, is a uniquely New Zealand trait in this day and age. This could also mean that New Zealand’s intelligence gathering and dissemination are not well served on grounds of principle as well as competency given the threat environment in which we live. After all, if the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) shares more common traits with the KGB than with its larger Western intelligence patrons, and retains an organisational structure that was geared towards the geo-strategic intelligence gathering requirements of the Cold War, then perhaps it is destined to suffer a similar fate should there be a political climate change.

Communists and Fascists agreed on one thing: imposition of a partisan viewpoint requires that control powers be exercised by a centralised security bureaucracy dominated by a Party vanguard. Concentration of power, to include centralisation and overlap of intelligence functions within the national executive, is part of virtually all authoritarian organisational blueprints regardless of the ideology of the dictatorship in question. This is also what New Zealand has in terms of intelligence bureaucracy at the moment.

Defenders of the SIS will claim that the better comparison is with Canada, from which the New Zealand security risk certification legislation was copied, and in which courts have upheld the constitutionality of that legislation with reference to a case with striking parallels to the Zaoui affair. But such a comparison would be spurious.

Canadian intelligence services operate in the decentralised fashion common to western liberal democracies, with external, internal and counter-intelligence operations housed in separate bureaus, with broad oversight powers vested in parliament, and with vigorous citizen watchdog groups offered ample juridical means by which to question the decision-making of the spymeisters. Moreover, Canada’s geo-strategic position, and hence its threat environment, are very different from that of New Zealand. If New Zealand is considered to be a back-door channel for access to Australia (at least by the security community), then Canada, as one of two backdoors to the USA, has a much bigger security problem. Besides the 2000 mile common border, much of which is unpatrolled, there is the precedent of al-Qaeda operatives staging and infiltrating the US from Canada in order to carry out terrorist attacks on US territory (including the aborted millennium attacks against targets in Los Angeles). The combination of physical contiguity and precedent for terrorist infiltration lends urgency to the Canadian security risk certification process, if nothing else because of US pressure to do so. Such is not the geo-strategic situation of New Zealand, yet its security risk certification process is just as draconian as Canada’s and yet, unlike its model, undertaken almost entirely by one all-encompassing intelligence agency.

Some might argue that the nature of the current global threat--an elusive, amorphous, non-state transnationalised irregular force that uses an ethno-religious defensive ideology for motivation and unconventional warfare as its weapon--requires better coordination of anti-terrorist operations, something only achievable with the centralisation of intelligence authority. The intelligence reform bill currently before the US Congress is a leading example of the persuasiveness of such views. But this argument assumes that centralisation of intelligence authority is necessarily better, and has no downside in terms of efficiency (to say nothing of civil rights). It assumes this to be universally true.

That is simply wrong. The historical record clearly shows that centralised intelligence agencies inevitably succumb to the political wishes of their governmental masters, which leads to institutional myopia and organisational mistakes when confronting variegated threats in and out of the governmental purview. Centralisation of intelligence authority is no panacea, and instead is fraught with problems of its own, some of which may be worse than the problems of coordination associated with decentralised intelligence systems. Instead, the issue is one of “hand-off,” that is, coordination between agencies involved in the various aspects of the intelligence business. In a small country like New Zealand, where the entire intelligence community totals less than 450 people, the problems of inter-agency coordination are vastly less than that of larger Western nations, which makes problems of coordination less conducive to the centralisation argument.The bottom line is clear: centralisation does not always equal efficient coordination of intelligence-related tasking, and may bring larger problems of its own.

The question is why do New Zealand political elites, regardless of where they stand in opposition, invariably accept the intelligence community status quo once in office? Why do they all succumb to the temptation of using overly broad security legislation to justify an expanded definition of national security in what is a relatively benign threat environment? In a stable liberal democracy located in a safe geo-strategic position, justification for intelligence-based decision making should preferably err towards transparency and universally recognised urgency in countering perceived threats to national security. As it stands, things are different. For example, the SIS argues that the rationale for keeping Mr. Zaoui incarcerated for two years without charge is because his presence represents potential damage to New Zealand’s reputation (presumably in the intelligence liaison and diplomatic field). If true this means that government preoccupation with reputation outweigh physical threat or humanitarian concerns when assessing the risk to national security posed by political asylum-seekers.

Even then, the question of faulty or politically manipulated intelligence is raised because the goalposts for defining Mr. Zaoui as a national security threat shifted three times during his incarceration, to the point that the Crown admits he poses no violent threat to society and is not linked to terrorist organisations (but still wants him out). The Supreme Court does not believe that such flexible threat criteria warranted Mr. Zaoui’s continued imprisonment, and questions have been raised regarding the initial basis for issuing a security risk certificate against him.

The problem runs deeper than the shifting rationales employed by the SIS to justify its position in the Zaoui case. It is the over-centralisation and concentration of intelligence functions that brings overt political considerations such as reputation to the fore of what, in theory at least, should be a rigorously neutral, objective and transparent process of intelligence provision based on clearly-defined threat assessment policies and procedures.

Beyond the issue of professional ethics emerges another of practical import. Why do New Zealanders, in spite of repeated instances of bureaucratic arrogance, incompetence, misinformation, lack of accountability and politically-motivated espionage scandals, continue to accept that the SIS, External Assessments Bureau (EAB), Directorate of Defense Intelligence and Security (DDIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) deserve the trust and confidence placed in them ? More generally, since when are the unelected managers of government security agencies free from the responsibility to account for their actions to the electorate, and where, exactly, does the buck stop when it comes to responsibility for intelligence policy decision-making? As things stand, the centralisation of intelligence functions and lack of accountability outside the Prime Minister’s office not only lead to authoritarian excesses such as the Zaoui and Aziz Choudry cases and recently alleged Maori-focused espionage. In the revelations about the details of SIS operations (as well as the under-the-radar role of the DIB, EAB and GCSB ), the perils of authoritarian intelligence organisation are manifest: dependent/reactive groupthink, failure to predict and adjust to evolving geo-strategic contexts and changing threat environments because of an inbred corporate culture tied to partisan interests, and legally-sanctioned abuses of authority leading to increasingly politically-attuned top-down management practices that are product as much of institutional history as they are the contextual opportunities for self-enhancement presented by the post 9/11 moment.

The post 9-11 strategic context provided the perfect excuse to defend (and expand) the activities of the New Zealand intelligence community. Harking to the Red Scares of the 1950s, the reinforced overlap between domestic and foreign intelligence operations has led to a more restricted definition of civil rights for both citizens and non-citizens alike. The Zaoui case exposed the grievous flaws in the legislation governing issuance of security risk certificates (which was passed before 9/11 but which has vague definitions of threat reminiscent of the charter of the US Department of Homeland Security). What it has also done is further expose the grave organisational deficiencies within the New Zealand intelligence community. Both at the level of policy-making (the EAB) and implementation (the SIS), bureaucratic inertia has turned into a structural flaw.

The years since 9-11 have seen what can happen when there is an over-reaction to a violent provocation on the part of a dominant actor within the international security community. That over-reaction rippled out across the globe and filtered down to the terrain of civil liberties in mature as well as nascent democracies, to say nothing of various authoritarian regimes. Sides have been chosen in the “War on Terror,” and a “love it, right or wrong” ethos has crept into the security discourse of western democracy. In New Zealand that has led, some argue by necessity, to a retreat from the principles of natural justice and transparency that are foundation stones of liberal government. This has raised questions about the balance between governmental control powers and civil rights in Aotearoa, especially since the scope of New Zealand’s anti-terrorist legislation exceeds that of states with more direct exposure to risk such as Portugal (which has 130 military police serving in Iraq and is less than 120 miles from the Moroccan coast).

The moment is therefore opportune for a thorough reappraisal of New Zealand’s intelligence community. The inevitable review of the security risk certification process in light of the Zaoui case should not stop at the 1998 empowering legislation, but should include consideration of whether the current organisation of New Zealand’s intelligence services is configured appropriately given the objective conditions of the threat environment in which it is situated. If not, then institutional reform of both the intelligence policy-making and intelligence-gathering branches is required, something that requires updating the 1996 Security Intelligence Act.

Resource considerations, political maneuvering and bureaucratic turf protection will undoubtedly surface in the review, but their presence can only enrich public discussion surrounding it. That would provide the context in which considerations of institutional reform can be entertained, and if need be, implemented by the political elite. All of this takes political will, which ideally is comprised of two virtues: the courage of conviction and the determination to press forward in spite of serious obstacles to the enterprise. These virtues not only prevailed in the defense against false accusation undertaken on behalf of Mr. Zaoui. They reaffirmed a commitment to commonweal governance in which service to the nation takes precedent over partisan or opportunistic political gain. It remains to be seen if the political elite are made of such cloth when it comes to taking stock of New Zealand’s modern intelligence needs. If the past is our guide, then we cannot be sanguine about the prospects.

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