Prime Minister Helen Clark has given the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence a green light to inquire into allegations made by Scoop.co.nz and in the Sunday Star Times concerning the propriety of SIS investigations into the Maori Party and Iwi organisations.
At today's post cabinet press conference the PM said she received a letter from Inspector General Justice Paul Neazor yesterday advising her that he believed a complaint laid by Maori Party Co-Leader Tariana Turia was sufficient for him to open an investigation into the allegations.
However as Justice Neazor wished to inquire into the "propriety" of SIS conduct he needed the Prime Minister's agreement, which she had granted.
"I expect the Inspector General (IG) will look at the range of allegations made by the Sunday Star Times and the Scoop website," Ms Clark said.
The PM went on to outline at some length the powers of the Inspector General to subpoena witnesses and require the production of documentary evidence.
These powers were similar to those of a commission of inquiry she said. The IG had the power to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath, and those witnesses would have the same privileges as those appearing before a court of law.
Asked what would happen if the media refused to go along with directions from the IG to disclose their sources the Prime Minister replied that she would "imagine" that their doing so might result in "some sort of contempt" action being taken against them. "How journalists react to any requests [for sources] is not for me to say," she said.
Ms Clark emphasised that her decision to allow the inquiry to proceed did not mean she believed the allegations had any validity.
As she had said before, the Director of Security and Intelligence Richard Woods had advised her that the allegations were a "work of fiction", and she had accepted his word on this as a public servant.
"I have asked the media to put up or shut up and now they have the opportunity to do so," she said.
Ms Clark said she also approved the inquiry because she had no desire for there to be any perception of a cover-up. "There is now a formal opportunity for those throwing mud to come forward," she said.
Asked about this morning's report in the New Zealand Herald that one of the alleged sources for the Sunday Star Times articles was a known con-man the PM replied: "I think it is a very interesting story and I do not consider the person named to have any credibility". Asked if she knew the person - who is connected to the Labour Party - personally she said she didn't, adding, "the Hon. George Hawkins [Police Minister] remembers him and remembers his brother and does not consider him to have any credibility."
Scoop inquired whether, in light of her comments about people throwing mud, it might be easier for the Inspector General to simply inquire into the SIS files on "Operation Leaf" and see whether they disclosed evidence confirming the allegations made against the SIS? Ms Clark replied that there was no limitation within the powers of the IG to prevent him from doing so.
Asked further whether she was referring to the media as being those who had been "throwing mud", the PM said she meant the people quoted in the reports on Scoop and in the Sunday Star Times rather than the media themselves.
It was these people who now had an opportunity to come forward to a formal inquiry and make their views heard, she said.
That said, Ms Clark said she was not prepared to confirm that there was in fact an "Operation Leaf".
Asked whether she had ever heard the phrase "Operation Leaf" before she stuck to her guns: "I am not going to confirm or deny any aspect of the allegations."
Asked whether she had any idea what the motivation of someone would be to make allegations such as these to hoax a major newspaper the PM said, "only the fun some people get from conspiracy theories."
Ms Clark said she had no idea when the inquiry by the IG would be finished asking rhetorically, "how long is a piece of string?"
When it was complete the PM expected that the IG would write a report that would be made public. It would be up to him whether he also wrote a confidential report as well.