The Government Communications Security Bureau's support for former Cabinet minister Tim Groser's bid to lead the World Trade Organisation almost five years ago was above board and within the spy agency's remit, says Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn. That was despite "robust but informal" processes not being rigorously followed.
The intelligence agency watchdog today cleared the GCSB of any wrongdoing after Labour Party leader Andrew Little sought an investigation in 2015 over reports the GCSB used its tools to intercept data from foreign government officials to assist then-Trade Minister Groser's bid to become director-general of the WTO. Gwyn found the intelligence agency didn't act unlawfully or improperly in assisting the campaign, with appropriate Cabinet sign-off permitting government help.
"The statutory objectives of the bureau (then and now) are sufficiently broad to cover the collection of foreign intelligence to support a New Zealand government minister's bid for leadership of an international, multi-lateral organisation, such as the WTO, which is significant for New Zealand's international well-being or economic well-being," Gwyn's report says. "The GCSB had reasonable grounds for accepting that the relevant foreign intelligence it provided contributed to 'New Zealand's international well-being or economic well-being'."
The New Zealand Herald newspaper and The Intercept news site uncovered the GCSB's involvement in Groser's failed campaign in 2015, reporting that the intelligence agency was involved in covert surveillance of candidates from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, Jordan, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and South Korea. At the time, former Prime Minister John Key was in South Korea signing a free-trade agreement.
Gwyn's report neither confirmed nor denied allegations on operational matters, and she said she didn't seek to prove or disprove any of the allegedly leaked documents on the issue.
The report found there was no breach of political neutrality, given the assessment by senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet officials that such a bid was "important and the economic benefit to New Zealand significant if the campaign was successful".
At the time of the campaign in late 2012 and early 2013, the GCSB had "informal but robust practices" for managing new requests for foreign intelligence and assessed the risks and benefits of doing so. While "the particular circumstances of this case meant that those practices/processes were not rigorously followed", that didn't mean it was "unlawful or outside government requirements". Standardised processes have since been put in place, the report said.
Gwyn recommended the GCSB modify its current practice to record requests for government intelligence with supporting reasons, make a record of how any request that raises a "novel issue of legality or other sensitivity or concern" is addressed, and develop procedures to deal with requests that don't fit the framework.
The GCSB accepted the recommendations, and Gwyn said her office will monitor their implementation.
Gwyn said the intelligence agency provided its full cooperation with her investigation, which included the provision of detailed reports and access to GCSB's electronic repositories of information to conduct her own search. She also obtained documents from MFAT and some witnesses also produced documents at or after their interviews. Fifteen people were interviewed, including Groser, former GCSB director Ian Fletcher, and past and current staff at GCSB, MFAT and DPMC.
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