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A Conversation With Paul Buchanan On The NZ SIS

A Conversation With Paul Buchanan On The SIS

By Paul Buchanan

Let me begin by stating that as someone who trained US intelligence officers and who worked closely with the US intelligence community for over a decade before emmigrating to NZ, I believe in the legitimacy and utility of intelligence-gathering, including by covert means. In fact, I am a strong supporter of the intelligence profession and admire the fortitude, integrity and circumspection of most of those who work in it in the US and NZ. I have no interest in seeing the SIS destroyed or diminished.

To the contrary, given the proliferation of threat scenarios, I believe that New Zealand's external human intelligence gathering capability needs to be expanded, and that internal intelligence therefore should become the responsibility of the NZ police (who already have a good counter-terrorism unit) while the SIS concentrates on external missions. After all, a stand-alone intelligence gathering capability, at least in areas of immediate geographic or political-military concern, is increasingly a necessity, not a luxury in these troubled times.

1. How confident can the public be today in the SIS compared to a couple of years ago - and why?

I believe that, then and now, the public should be very concerned about the extremely broad scope of the SIS charter, its lack of accountability, its relative impunity, and the virtual absence of viable oversight mechanisms, parliamentary or otherwise, to hold the SIS leadership responsible for the actions it takes.

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Cloaked by overly broad secrecy clauses, the SIS does not have to release foreign derived classified intelligence to any oversight mechanism (at the moment totalling 7 people) if the foreign intelligence patron does not consent (which none of them do as standard operating procedure). It is an organization that has over the years seemingly taken on "rogue" characteristics - it does what it pleases, as it pleases, for reasons not of State, but of its own, or those of its immediate political masters.

2. What have we learned so far about Richard Woods leadership, in terms of the handling of the Zaoui affair and now this?

Not much other than he is seemingly aloof, disingenuous (if we are to go by the summary of evidence against Mr. Zaoui he provided after ordered to do so by the court, which included the absurd claim about the so-called "casing video"), perhaps duplicitous (in that he did not reveal and continues to deny his past French and Algerian connections), and most of all, by these actions apparently contemptuous of the public he is supposed to serve. This is because he is not just the keeper of the secrets. He is also supposed to be the honest broker of information directly pertinent to New Zealand's national security, and that is now open to question.

3. On what grounds is it legitimate to spy on Maori Iwi organisations? To what extent are Maori sovereignty activists legitimate targets? If they hold views that the state is illegitimate, is that grounds enough for scrutiny?

Given its broad charter and configuration towards internal espionage rather than first-hand external intelligence gathering, it is legally permissible for the SIS to covertly monitor any organisation that advocates the overthrow of the NZ government, or which refuses to recognize the Crown as sovereign.

Advocacy of violence to achieve political ends is included in this purview, so the SIS is legally able to spy on, for example, anti-GE and animal rights activists as well as Maori activists who destroy property, commit acts of violence against people, or issue threats against people or property. The question then becomes one of whether the groups allegedly scrutinsed actually advocated any of those things.

4. What issues does all this raise for reform?

Fundamental ones. Besides the overly broad charter and overly extensive secrecy clauses, the fusion of internal and external espionage roles is a uniquely authoritarian characteristic unseen in virtually all other modern democracies.

The emphasis on internal espionage is also unusual, and some might say unwarranted, in a stable peaceful democracy such as NZ. And most of all, the utter lack of independent oversight mechanisms not only leads to the issues of accountability raised before. It also opens the door to the wilful manipulation of intelligence for partisan or political purposes. The latter is the sweet poison in the chalice of intelligence professionalism - so very tempting and easy to justify swallowing, yet so injurious to its raison d'etre.

5. And how confident can we be that anything will come out of an inquiry led conducted by the Inspector General?

I have serious doubts that anything will come of the Inspector General's inquiry. Not because of any fault of the current IG, but because he is appointed by the Prime Minister out of retirement, under-resourced in terms of research assistance, dependent on the SIS for logistical support and information, and by provisions of the SIS charter can be denied classified information by order of the Director. Thus, the IG is handcuffed from the beginning, and risks being both a rubber stamp and a whitewasher of SIS actions.

Addendum: Of course, those making the claims of domestic spying are easily identifiable in an organisation of less than 140 people. One allegedly resigned in protest in September, another admits to computer skills and familiarity with those targeted, and the third has been discarded as a fraudster. They should be very, very easy to identify without the newspaper revealing its sources. But two questions remain: is it all a hoax? And if the "insiders" do speak to the Inspector General in classified confidence, will that become cause for their dismissal?


Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Lisbon. He is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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