Key counterattacks over SIS boss letter — but tripped up by video

UPDATE: Prime Minister John Key's claim that he was out of the country at the time of a disputed SIS briefing have hit a roadblock.

The NZ Herald has unearthed a link to a video of Mr Key's August 8, 2013 press conference, when his answer to a question about SIS documents being released to Cameron Slater implies he was directly briefed by the spy agency's then boss, Dr Warren Tucker.

During the clip, Mr Key says:

"What happened is Warren Tucker didn't come to me, he went to his legal adviser and his legal advisers told him this is the process they have to follow and when he was going through that process it was at that point he told me he'd release it because he has to tell me that under the no-surprises doctrine."

Today, Mr Key told media that by "me" he meant Dr Tucker had briefed his office.

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Aug 21: Prime Minister John Key has today reiterated that he was not personally informed about the release of SIS documents to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater, telling media he was "having a whale of a time in Hawaii" at the time.

A 2011 letter from (then) SIS boss Warren Tucker that came to light this morning about the Prime Minister being "notified," "advised" and "informed" was a reference to his office, not him directly, Mr Key said.

"'The Prime Minister' means the Prime Minister's office," he said. "The assumption made by the service was if they inform my office they take it that I'm informed."

He was not concerned that his office did not in fact inform him about the OIA release of the documents, which regarded then Labour leader Phil Goff.

"My office could try and take me through every single OIA request, but I'd spend a lot of time dealing with that and not a lot of time running the country," Mr Key said.

Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverley Wakem has backed the Prime Minister's story, telling NewstalkZB that Mr Key was not directly briefed by Dr Tucker. She also said the use of the term 'discussion" in a letter written on her behalf was "loosely used".

"I am very clear that the Director of Security communicated with the offices of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition on this issue," Ms Wakem said.

Dr Tucker has also backed Mr Key's story, saying he communicated with the PM's office, not Mr Key directly.

Mr Key has also told media he was on holiday in Maui at the time, following his first official visit to the United States in July 2011. Asked if he could have been briefed by phone, Mr Key said people were welcome to check his records.

Questions remain over the unusual speed with which the documents (which were embarrassing to Mr Goff) were released under the Official Information Act to Mr Slater, and whether the Whaleoil blogger was nudged to make an OIA request for them (something he denies).

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn has opened an investigation into the release of the SIS documents to Mr Slater. Against this, former GCSB boss Bruce Ferguson has told media that in his time in the role he only briefed the PM directly, never staff.

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Smoking gun letter emerges as IG opens Slater-SIS investigation

EARLIER: Labour's Phil Goff says a 2011 letter from (then) Security Intelligence Service director general Warren Tucker proves John Key is lying.

The letter, released by NewstalkZB reporter Felix Marwick, comes on the heels of news that  Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn will investigate the release of SIS documents to Cameron Slater.

The Prime Minister has said he did not know the SIS released documents to Mr Slater following an Official Information Act request from the Whaleoil blogger.

The 2011 release of the documents embarrassed then Labour leader Mr Goff, as it contradicted his claim he was not briefed by the SIS on an Israeli spy controversy (Mr Goff says the briefing was confidential).

In his book Dirty Politics, which relies on stolen email between Cameron Slater and various National Party and government figures, author Mr Hager suggests there were several instances were the blogger was guided to make OIA requests for information that would embarrass the opposition. Mr Slater denies the claim.

On the SIS documents handed over under the OIA to Mr Slater in 2011, Mr Hager speculates the PM likely did know about the release, writing: "The head of the SIS would surely never have done anything so unusual, so public, and so political without their minister’s knowledge and approval.” 

Yesterday, Mr Key reiterated "I wasn't told."

On Breakfast, Mr Goff brandished a signed letter from Mr Tucker to a press gallery journalist Felix Marwick. Mr Tucker's November 2011 letter says, in part:

In relation to your request of 4 August , I can confirm that there was no written "correspondence with the Government and the Office of the Prime Minister regarding the SIS decision to release information to Mr Slater."

That section of the letter backs up Mr Key's claim of being out of the loop. However, the next section implies the (then) SIS head was in contact with the PM directly over the matter in some means other than written communication. It says:

I notified the Prime Minister (in accordance with my usual practice to keep the minister informed on a no surprises basis) that I was going to release redacted documents in response to the request from Mr Slater.

I advised the Prime Minister that I had received legal advice that there were no grounds to withhold the information given the public disclosures already made about the existence and some of the content of the briefing.

I informed the Prime Minister that I had informed Mr Goff of my decision to release the information

The letter leaves the PM a little wiggle room if you allow that "I advised the Prime Minister" could also be read as the broader "I advised the prime minister's office" rather than updating the PM personally.

Mr Goff also continued to press his concerns that the document was released to Mr Slater, but not to the Dominion Post, which also made an OIA request for the information (Selwyn Manning, then a journalist for Scoop, did get his request fulfilled, though was baffled by the speed).

The Labour front-bencher also continued to question why the documents were released within 24 hours of Mr Slater's request. Journalists are accustomed to waiting weeks for information sought under the Act.

Mr Goff said Mr Tucker informed him during a phone call that the documents would be released the same day.

The former Labour leader says he told the SIS boss during the conversation "That is utterly unprecedented. That is collusion with the political agenda of the National government."

IG investigates
Yesterday, following a call from the Greens,  Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn said she will investigate the release of SIS documents to Mr Slater.

The inquiry will consider:

The inquiry will consider whether:

  • the SIS acted properly and within the law (including its statutory obligation of political neutrality) when it considered and responded to an OIA request from Slater in 2011
  • the documents released to Slater were properly declassified; and
  • other requests for similar information were treated in the same way.

Mr Goff says it needs to answer the questions:

  • whether Slater was tipped off by National to specifically request a document
  • why Warren Tucker released them so quickly
  • why Slater was given preference over other media

He has also called for the inquiry to be wrapped up ahead of the election.

A Roy Morgan poll released yesterday showed National up 2 points to 48%.

However, the survey, which finished August 17, only captured partial reaction to Dirty Politics

Since that date, posts of new information by "Whaledump" (a person claiming to be the hacker who supplied Mr Hager with emails and documents stolen from Whaleoil), have put the government under new pressure — particularly Justice Minister Judith Collins, who is alleged to have supplied the name of an (alleged) whistle-blowing civil servant to Mr Slater. Mr Key said the move was unwise, and that Ms Collins was "on her last chance."

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