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A Word From Afar: Leashing the Watchdogs

A Word From Afar: Intelligence Matters Redux: Leashing the Watchdogs

A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

By Paul G. Buchanan

In last month’s column I addressed the reformist role of NZSIS Director General Warren Tucker and offered some prescriptions for a revamp of New Zealand’s intelligence apparatus. This week a political event occurred that has the potential to be a milestone for New Zealand intelligence operations and national security. I therefore return to the subject, with this new development as the focus.

The event in question is the recently announced Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (PISC). Although obscured by coverage of other government initiatives and the usual media fascination with crime and scandal, it is remarkable on several levels. The five-person committee, which is responsible for parliamentary oversight of the SIS, GCSB and other security agencies, served as a rubber stamp on intelligence operations rather than an impartial oversight mechanism during the Fifth Labour government. The majority of its past members, the most notorious being Winston Peters, accepted without question whatever they were fed by the SIS in the way of threat assessment, particularly if such assessments dovetailed with their political platforms (Don Brash’s momentary burst of candor in a 2006 radio interview, where he stated that there was not much of a case against Zaoui, was an exception to the rule—and he was promptly muzzled). The reasons given for the committee’s rote acceptance of SIS threat assessments were usually “reasons of State,” but the real rationale may have been nothing more than a desire to stay onside with the intelligence watchdogs. This led to some oversight farces.

The most ludicrous of these in recent years was PISC acceptance of the 2002 assessment that Ahmed Zaoui was an immediate physical threat to New Zealand (a claim later withdrawn) and the 2005/2006 assessment that home-grown jihadis were the country’s most dire security threat (to date, none have been found and they have not appeared in any subsequent threat assessment). Under the Fifth Labour government PISC met less than once a year and did absolutely zero in terms of holding the SIS to account over the Zaoui fiasco, the undetected entrance of the Yemeni flight school student who had roomed with 9/11 conspirators (detected by a member of the public), the Israeli passport fraudsters (detected by an entry-level Immigration officer), and, more broadly, the Police attempt to pin the “terrorist” label on the Urewera 17 under the terms of the much-disputed Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA).

Although the GCSB has always maintained a strong reputation for professionalism (in part due to its integration into the ECHELON signals intelligence network involving the US, UK, Australia and Canada), and military intelligence has a history of reliable service to NZDF requirements, the SIS and Police intelligence have an equally deserved reputation for politicization and manipulation of intelligence data for bureaucratic or partisan gain. In a democracy, such traits are not only inimical to effective intelligence collection and analysis; they are inimical to democratic accountability and transparency. With parliamentary oversight neutered by the appointment of party lapdogs or intelligence/defence community sycophants to PISC, a fundamental tenet of democracy—the concept of institutional checks and balances based on objective critical review—is undermined. Unfortunately, this has been the case for more than a decade.

That may about to change. John Key, as Prime Minister, nominates two members to PISC, while Phil Goff, as Leader of the Opposition nominates one. Both Leaders sit on the committee as well. Mr. Key nominated Tariana Turia and Rodney Hide as new members. Mr. Goff nominated Russell Norman. What this means, besides the obvious move to bring important minor party leaders into the committee, is that it now has a majority of members who are critics of the SIS. This not only includes Ms. Turia and Mr. Norman, whose parties and members have reportedly been spied upon by the SIS and Police, but also Mr. Hide, who has opposed on libertarian grounds the TSA and other security-inspired encroachments on civil liberties. That these critics now have oversight on the SIS is a striking reversal of business as usual for PISC, and portends significant changes in the relationship between the New Zealand intelligence community and its parliamentary overseers. It would appear that John Key and Phil Goff agree on at least one thing, and that is that the intelligence community, and the SIS in particular, need to be held to closer account than under the previous government. That both of them served on the committee during the last term of the Clark government may have something to do with this common belief.

That may not be entirely coincident. As I noted last month, appointment of Warren Tucker to head the SIS signaled a shift in that agency after the debacles of his predecessor. Being intelligence professional (he was former Director of the Government Security Communications Bureau, GCSB), Mr. Tucker was aware of the myriad problems and poor institutional culture of New Zealand’s lead intelligence agency. He knows things had to change and he was brought in to do that. It was Mr. Tucker who pulled the plug on the Zaoui case under legal challenge; it was Mr. Tucker who has opened up declassified files on the surveillance of dissidents; it is Mr. Tucker who has moved to re-focus the SIS on what are usually the core functions of intelligence agencies: external intelligence gathering and domestic counter-intelligence. It may well have been his decision to limit SIS involvement in “Operation 8.” But changing an entrenched institutional culture is not just a matter of symbolic gestures and strategic re-orientation. By his actions Mr. Tucker has undoubtedly generated as much resentment within the SIS as he has external skepticism that he can accomplish any significant change in an agency with a reputation for insularity, unaccountability and rogue behaviour. With the appointment of the new PISC, he has just received institutional support from the government for his efforts.

To be sure, much work has to be done if PISC is to exercise its responsibilities in effective fashion. By law, the SIS can withhold information derived from foreign sources (effectively, the bulk of its external intelligence) from the committee. Since PISC members do not, as elected officials, receive the same security vetting as do intelligence and military personnel, highly sensitive information involving sources, methods and contacts can be withheld from them (other than the PM). As politicians with other things on their mind besides security, committee members are less versed in, and competent to assess, the validity and utility of intelligence dossiers provided them by their ostensible charges. Thus the change in the composition of the committee, while a worthy start to the process of intelligence reform and a splendid show of support to Mr. Tucker’s efforts to revamp the SIS, needs to be followed by a thorough review of the entire intelligence apparatus and the legal foundations on which it works. In fact, that should be PISC’s first order of business. As I have previously pointed out, the review should include examining the work of agencies like the External Assessments Bureau (EAB, which is part of the Prime Minister’s cabinet), the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG, which includes representatives from the SIS, EAB, GCSB, NZDF, Defence, Immigration, the Police and MFAT), the Police Special Investigations Branch and military intelligence in order to determine areas of overlap or duplication of functions, dysfunctional behaviour or unwarranted purview. This will allow, in the context of financial cost cutting, PISC to recommend areas of change and reform in order to improve efficiency and objectivity while streamlining the intelligence gathering process. For that to happen it has to have a government mandate and the resources to do so.

Mr. Key has already asked the Inspector General of the SIS to report to him on the domestic surveillance campaign that saw academics, activists and unionists spied upon by the SIS until 2006 (the year Mr. Tucker assumed directorship of the SIS). Naming Keith Locke or Hone Harawira to PISC might have been a step too far given that they have been targets of SIS and Police domestic spying operations, but this committee is close to ideal—one that will not provoke an institutional or political backlash but which carries the potential for critical assertion of parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services.

Mr. Key has proven to be quite a different type of Prime Minister than many anticipated. Seemingly pragmatic rather than ideological, with an apparent sense of social justice and an appreciation of the substance rather than the trappings of democracy, his early moves have confounded critics and supporters alike. His move to support Mr. Tucker’s efforts is another area in which he has broken the mold, and for that he needs all the public and political support he can get. That is because, in an age of increasingly complex and variegated threats of an overlapping nature in which traditional alliance structures no longer suffice as guarantors of New Zealand’s security interests, this country can no longer afford to have amateurs or partisans manning its first line of defence.

Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, on leave from the University of Auckland. He is also a member of the collective.


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