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GCSB Director wanted to be useful - offered spies to Groser

GCSB Director wanted to be useful - offered spies to Groser

"Mindful of the importance of being useful", GCSB Director Ian Fletcher offered the GCSB's services to Tim Groser.

When information about the GCSB spying on Tim Groser´s competitors for the job of Director of the WTO became public in 2015, the general assumption was that this was a case of the government leaning on a supposedly politically neutral agency to advance its agenda.

Instead, what the IGIS´s report portraits is an agency taking it onto itself to do some extra-curricular spying in order to be in the good books with the government.

The report by Inspector General Cheryl Gwyn is similar to Ian Fletcher´s memory - very specific in some details, but extremely vague in others. It states that it was Ian Fletcher´s idea to approach Tim Groser and offer him some extra spying to help him get the top job at the WTO. The report explains this by Fletcher being "mindful of the importance of being useful", i.e. he wanted to lick Groser´s boots, possibly because there was some public concern about his appointment (he had been appointed by personal recommendation from the PM, somewhat bypassing the usual selection process).

Groser agreed that it was a good idea and told Fletcher to go ahead ("expressed his acceptance"). This is where the report becomes fluffy. This "acceptance" is subsequently equated with a ministerial approval, for which Groser - then Minister of Trade - was not authorised. The Minister in charge of the GCSB was the PM John Key. The report is silent on whether Fletcher thought that Groser had the authority to approve the spying or whether he just didn´t care. And because record keeping is not the GCSB´s thing and Fletcher´s memory suddenly stopped working after that meeting with Groser, we will never know.

So it looks like Ian Fletcher used the tools of his organisation to buy himself favours with the government, or to express his gratitude for getting a job for which he wasn´t really qualified. That is the essence of it and it shows how easily a spy agency can be used for personal gain. This is why many of us campaigned so hard against giving these agencies more powers.

The remainder of Gwyn´s report is interesting, but insignificant.

There is some consideration given to the question of whether the spying was in the interest of NZ´s national security, as required by the GCSB Act. Gwyn quotes the law, which allows for spying being done for "economic well-being", but only if it advances national security. But then it turns out that this ominous national security isn´t really defined anywhere: "The lack of a statutory definition gives scope for the government to determine as a matter of policy what its approach to national security will be." In other words, the government is free to declare anything it wants to be a matter of national security. Again, this is what many people pointed out as a real danger when all the anti-terrorism legislation was introduced and the powers of the spy agencies were expanded.

Gwyn then refers to the New Zealand National Security System (NSS) framework, which declares "sustaining economic prosperity" to be important for national security. And voilà, Tim Groser becoming head of the WTO is suddenly a matter of national security, because with him in that position, NZ might secure another free trade deal or two. Surprise, the economy is political. The strange thing about the report is that Gwyn clearly describes this circular argument, but then concludes that because it is that way, there is nothing wrong here.

Another aspect the reports spends some time on is that of the political neutrality of the GCSB. First it turns out that at the time this concept wasn´t actually part of the law. It was, however, mentioned in both the GCSB´s and the DPMC´s internal manuals.

But Gwyn only looks at this issue from a domestic perspective of party politics. She argues that because Groser´s nomination had been supported by both National and Labour, there was no political advantage here for the government. The issue of international politics doesn´t enter here. As Paul Buchanan points out in an interview with RNZ, the issue of NZ spying on allied countries (who put up their own candidates) is at least problematic and should have been considered.

And the argument with bi-partsianship for Groser´s candidacy falls short - because it suggest that if Labour had not supported Groser, then the spying would have `arguably´ been illegal. It seems strange to define political neutrality via the absence of an effective opposition.
ENDS

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