Sludge Report #195
Tucker vs Goff And The Politicisation Of The SIS
By C.D. Sludge
This SIS Director Warren Tucker vs Labour Party Leader Phil Goff SIS Israeli spies/backpackers affair is weird in all manner of ways.
It appears that the SIS has allowed itself to become very publicly politicized, possibly for the first time since the days of Muldoon. Those with long memories may recall that SIS involvement in politics is something is far from desirable.
The latest development is the unprecedented release (see above) of secret briefing papers which are being used to allege that Phil Goff lied to the media about whether he was briefed by the SIS about the activities of Israeli back-packers around the time of the February 22nd Christchurch earthquake.
The OIA release which was made in
the first instance to blogger Cameron Slater is
extraordinary in a variety of ways:
- Sludge understands that SIS communications staff solicited OIA requests on the subject;
- The release need not have been made at all;
- The release was made over the space of just five working days - which any journalist would be able to tell you is not the usual Government practice.
However there is another aspect of this which is very odd.
As director of the SIS Warren Tucker is not your usual public servant. He has, if you like, two masters - the PM as Minister of the SIS and the Leader of the Opposition. By long held convention (for very good reasons) neither of these two masters comments publicly on any of the information they receive in briefings, and nor does the SIS itself.
Sludge understands that Mr Tucker was furious when Goff denied being briefed on the matter publicly. However if he was angered by Mr Goff's remarks - which were probably very unwise - then there are other ways to deal with it short of soliciting an OIA request and providing secret documents to a blogger which embarrass on of his employers.
Specifically he could have gone to Mr Goff, shown him the document, and asked him to clarify his statement. It would appear that in fact that is what Goff did last week when he changed his "I was not briefed" statement to something akin to "something may have been flicked past me".
In any event it seems inconceivable that Mr Tucker would choose to release documentary evidence with the intention of embarrassing Mr Goff publicly. To do so would seem similar to a Ministry CEO releasing a briefing to a minister under OIA to deliberately undermine his Minister's credibility. To do so would unquestionably be a sacking offence.
The recap sequence of events is as
1. Three Israeli backpackers leave the country quickly after an earthquake;
2. SIS conducts an investigation finds nothing and closes its file;
3. SIS director Tucker writes a report on this and it is included in papers for a confidential briefing with Goff. Because nothing was found it is not considered very important;
4. Nothing happens for months;
5. Southland Times Editor Fred Tullett and several Fairfax newspapers publish an extraordinary series of articles accusing 6 earthquake victims of being spies based on what turns out to be largely false information (1 passport not 5, NZ not Australian based Israeli ambassador, one call from Netanyahu not four etc.) including truly bizarre allegations accusing a forensic team of hacking the police computer. The story is based on an SIS informant who has spoken to Tullett;
6. The PM John Key is confronted with this story in the US he initially refuses comment and says it's a matter of national security;
7. Goff says he knows nothing about it and calls on the Govt. to come clean;
8. Later in the day the PM changes tack and confirms the basic fact that there was an SIS investigation which found nothing. He issues a statement refuting nearly all the remaining "facts" relied on in the Fairfax scoop;
9. SIS and Govt launch an investigation into the leak;
10. The PM's office and several other agencies confirm several other aspects of the original story including that the police and SIS looked into the activities Israeli security team and the forensic team which helped with victim identification.
And then it starts to get really weird....
10. The PM claims Goff was
briefed, and calls him a liar;
11. Goff denies this in a TV interview;
12. SIS Director Tucker is furious and sends out messages that he is about to make a public statement on the matter;
13. Tucker then backtracks and instead his staff tell journalists to make an OIA request, indicating that a response is likely to be forthcoming;
14. July 26th - Cameron Slater puts in an OIA request to the SIS;
15. August 2nd - Seemingly breaking from a practice of a couple of decades of not commenting on anything overtly political the SIS director complies remarkably quickly to the request and provides three pages of blanked out information to Cameron Slater which is immediately published. The document includes a hand-written note which appears to contradict Phil Goff.
All of which is very odd:
It is clear from the above that Phil Goff did not handle this matter very well.
On the morning of the Fairfax story being published he could have elected to respond in a more measured fashion. Instead of going out all guns blazing he should have contacted Warren Tucker and requested an immediate discussion on the matter. Instead he saw an opportunity to attack the Government and did so.
When he subsequently accused the SIS of not briefing him on the matter - knowing that they are obliged to do so - he further damaged his position.
But be that as it may, the way this affair as since evolved raises some very serious issues around the conduct of the Prime Minister and his staff, and the SIS Director himself. It appears that cool heads did not prevail in any of the offices involved with dealing with the political fall out from this story.
It would appear that there is something about Israeli spy allegations in the NZ media that causes a very large number of people to lose their senses.
The latest development - the release of this OIA information - raises a bunch of serious questions for both the PM and the SIS to answer. Specifically:
1. Earlier this year the Minister of Justice commissioned a Law Commission review into the conduct of the "Wild West" online media. The decision was mainly aimed at Cameron Slater and his interpretation of the law of name suppression. Now the National Party blogger is being used as a political attack foil by what is usually the most circumspect of all Government agencies the SIS. This OIA request could have been made by and fulfilled to someone more credible rather easily. Sludge understands that other OIA requests were made.Why would the 9th floor of the Beehive choose Cameron Slater as a foil to attack Goff?
2. Why did the SIS go along with this? Not only did they comply with an OIA request which they have a very clear legal basis to refuse. But they did so with extraordinary speed in a manner clearly calculated to undermine the credibility of the Leader of the Opposition (someone they have an ongoing working relationship with) in the lead up to an election.
3. If the SIS and the Government are genuinely upset about how this story was leaked to Southland Times editor Fred Tullett why are they now pouring petrol on the fire? It would appear that the Govt. is now happy to use a false story which accused backpacker earthquake victims of being spies (and which has very seriously upset the Israeli Government) as a foil to attack the leader of the opposition for purely political purposes.
4. Now that the document which is being used to attack Goff and accuse him of being a liar is in the public domain, will Tucker front up and respond in a media interview to the suggestion from Goff that - while the paper may have been in the briefing papers it was probably only mentioned briefly in passing as an investigation which went nowhere? This explanation would seem highly credible as the investigation did in fact go nowhere.
5. Will SIS Director Tucker be allowed to front up to the media on this issue by the 9th floor of the Beehive?
6 . What communication was there between the 9th floor and, a) Cameron Slater and other journalists, and b) the SIS and Tucker, around the release of the document?
7. Will an OIA request seeking full disclosure of that communication be complied with as quickly as the release of secret SIS files was?