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Brief Comment On Spy Bases And Civil Disobedience

A Brief Comment On Spy Bases And Civil Disobedience


Paul G. Buchanan
May 5, 2008

The Waihopai ANZAC Ploughshares direct action operation on the Echelon signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection station outside Blenheim is an excellent example of civil disobedience in a democracy. It also raises questions about security at the eavesdropping post, as well the utility of New Zealand being a part of a global intelligence-gathering network operated mostly for and by larger partners. Image: Paul Buchanan, by Jason Dorday.

Civil disobedience has a long and storied history in democratic theory and practice. It is designed to challenge both government policy and public apathy towards issues of political controversy. To be successful it must have high symbolic value so as to raise the issue into mainstream public consciousness, thereby generating debate on a previously neglected or downplayed subject that the political elites do not wish to address. It also must be non-violent towards other human beings. Assaults on property and symbols of power are permissible, but the perpetrators acknowledge that in doing so they make themselves liable to criminal prosecution, and they accept the consequences of their actions. For them, the issue is one of principle and conviction, of bearing witness and speaking truth to power, and of personal responsibility. It is not about avoiding liability.

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By that definition the Waihopai Ploughshares operation was a case of successful direct action civil disobedience. Although material damage was done to the facility, its functions remained unimpeded, no one was hurt, and the protestors were able to deflate the symbol of foreign power on New Zealand soil exemplified by the protective Kevlar domes surrounding the satellite antennae dishes. Public awareness was raised, both pro and con, of the existence, if not the exact nature of the electronic eavesdropping operations conducted by the Echelon network (which includes the US, UK, Australia and Canada along with New Zealand).

With regard to the motives of the three protestors, their cause can be debated. Contrary to what Ploughshares believe, New Zealand derives strategic utility and material benefits from its participation in Echelon. In exchange for giving up a limited slice of its territorial sovereignty, it becomes a junior partner in a global intelligence-sharing network that gives it better access to, and early warning of, potential threat scenarios and critical developments abroad than it could obtain otherwise. It also accrues diplomatic and military benefits that are not publicly acknowledged but which are important to New Zealand’s stature in the international community.

The nature of the eavesdropping station at Waihopai is such that it primarily engages in strategic intelligence gathering as opposed to frontline tactical intelligence gathering. Broadly speaking, it trawls through electronic signals in designated areas of military and civilian security interest, passing them along to the larger partners for filtration and analysis. Its coverage is regional as well as issue-specific, depending on the intelligence requirements of the partners. As examples of the two different types of collection, New Zealand based SIGINT stations broadly monitor diplomatic as well as military communications in the Western Pacific (and elsewhere); conversely, during the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War NZ-based Echelon stations were used to monitor Argentine Naval communications in support of British military operations, and may be monitoring Chinese submarine transmissions at present. In return, information of specific interest to New Zealand is shared with the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB)—which has physical and managerial control of the eavesdropping stations in New Zealand--and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS).

Thus, the likelihood that the SIGINT collection stations in New Zealand are providing positional intelligence (such as GPS coordinates) or electronic intercepts for frontline actions by US and UK forces in Iraq—as the Ploughshares protesters aver—is low, albeit technically possible. Most of that form of real-time intelligence collection is handled directly by the US or UK themselves, such as through the US Army intelligence center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona or joint intelligence collection and analysis facilities on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (using data obtained from SIGINT stations located in other parts of the world as well as non-satellite mobile platforms). Echelon is bound to have involvement in intelligence gathering in Afghanistan as well as the Middle East, but the Afghan campaign is a UN and NATO-led mission that New Zealand publicly supports, so opposition to involvement to that type of intelligence participation runs counter to the multinational, internationalist spirit of Kiwi diplomacy and foreign military operations. Likewise, Echelon is clearly involved in monitoring the communications of unconventional warfare groups as part of the so-called “War on Terror,” but that also responds to the interests of the international community as expressed through the UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions.

The most serious question raised by the Ploughshares raid is that of operational security. The three protestors—none of whom have experience as military sappers or intelligence operatives—managed to cut through three security fences and avoid detection by motion detectors and CCTV cameras (the latter ostensibly because of “pea soup” fog). Security personnel did not arrive on scene until 30 minutes after the perimeter was breached. Thankfully, the protestors only wanted to deflate one dome, build a shrine and pray for the Iraq war dead. But what if they had been real enemies bent on destroying the satellite dishes, or even worse, experienced spies with an interest in recording the technologies inside the dome? With that amount of lead time before security personnel arrived to unlock the gates, an experienced saboteur or spy would have been long gone. The protestors claim to have planned the raid by cell phone, email and text, which makes one wonder what a real enemy would be capable of doing (an which, ironically, demonstrates that Echelon is not engaged in targeted eavesdropping of domestic communications By New Zealanders).

As it stands, one of the most sensitive intelligence gathering installations in the country had nothing more than passive defenses in place, the majority of which were static (the fences), with the others inoperative or rendered useless by natural conditions common to the area. There apparently were no active defense measures, be it human, animal or remote controlled vehicle, in place inside or outside the fences at the time of the breach. Such a lapse in a component part of the world’s most important electronic intelligence collection network is bound to raise pointed questions from the other Echelon partners about New Zealand’s commitment to operational security on its patch (regardless of the assurances given by the GCSB). Coming on the heels of the medal theft at Waiouru and the 2005 discovery of the highly sensitive 1985-86 GCSB annual report in David Lange’s private papers (which were kept unguarded in Archives NZ), the question must be raised as to whether there are even more areas in which national security is vulnerable and if so, who will uncover them?

What is clear is that the Ploughshares Three are neither terrorists nor traitors. They did not act on behalf of an enemy (notwithstanding claims from some quarters that they are al-Qaeda dupes). They did not threaten or commit acts of violence against people, and they did not sow irrational fear and panic amongst the general population in pursuit of political objectives. To the contrary. They acted out of personal and religious conviction, and adhered to the time-honoured principles of civil disobedience in a democracy. They profess to be willing to pay the price for their criminal liability in exchange for a more robust public debate on the merits of New Zealand’s participation in the Echelon network.

That sounds like a fair trade, and the courts can ascertain whether they should pay for the damage they caused with jail time and/or compensation for the cost of the repairs. Their trial and the coverage of it allows Ploughshares, the Green Party, Global Peace and Justice Auckland and other groups opposed to the Echelon presence in New Zealand to engage a public discussion with the government about the relative merits of providing logistical and technical support to US-led intelligence-gathering efforts. In the meantime, a major review of operational security at all of New Zealand’s major security installations is in order—the sooner the better.


Paul G. Buchanan writes about issues of political risk, threat assessment and market intelligence.


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