Analysis: NZ POLITICS DAILY: Political roundup: The Ramifications of the Spying Scandal
How much longer can the GCSB spying scandal run? Nicky Hager recently told the radio station bFM that “in some respects we’re only just at the beginning of what people are going to find out”. This continued drip-feeding of information about what our spies have really been up to will not bring down the Government or lose National the Northland by-election, but the ongoing revelations might still seriously tarnish New Zealand’s international reputation, as well as erode the public’s faith in its surveillance institutions.
New Zealand’s reputation tarnished
The latest revelations from Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher purport to show how New Zealand spies on important diplomatic and trading partners, and that it even does so in an attempt to further the international careers of the governing party’s own senior politicians – see: GCSB had Solomons post, papers show and How spy agency homed in on Groser's rivals.
The potential upshot of these revelations is that New Zealand is revealed as an unethical bully on the international stage. According to Fran O'Sullivan, the allegations about New Zealand spying on the director-general of the World Trade Organisation, and the other candidates when they were running for the job, will be damaging to our country’s reputation in both the WTO and Latin America – see: WTO spy revelations blow to NZ's image. O’Sullivan says that “there will be a good deal of work to overcome this latest hit to New Zealand's external image”.
Unsurprisingly, opposition politicians take this view as well, with Green Party co-leader Russel Norman saying the revelations are "extremely damaging to New Zealand's reputation". For Labour’s Andrew Little it “raised questions about how New Zealand had campaigned for other roles, including the UN Security Council” – see David Fisher’s GCSB spies monitored diplomats in line for World Trade Organisation job.
On the issue of New Zealand’s UN campaign, Labour-blogger Greg Presland ponders: “I wonder if New Zealand’s bid for election to the Security Council would have been as successful if friendly third world nations had discovered that New Zealand had been spying on their diplomats?” – see: GCSB spied on foreign communications to help Groser’s WTO bid.
Other views on how this particular revelation impacts on New Zealand’s reputation are found in David Fisher’s article, Former diplomat, minister shocked by WTO spy claims. Winston Peters says that the “surveillance on the Indonesian candidate was ‘truly repugnant for our long-term relationship’ with the world's largest Muslim country”. Diplomats, too, are unhappy: “Terence O'Brien – former UN ambassador, ambassador to the WTO-Gatt and president of the UN Security Council – was stunned. "What on earth were they trying to do?" asked Mr O'Brien, a diplomat of 40 years”.
New Zealand’s relationship with our biggest trading partner, China, will also be soured according to Fran O' Sullivan – see: China's polite concern about spying puts Key's evasions in perspective. She says that China has responded with a subtle but very firm protest, and “If Key runs true to form he will continue to flannel when pressed by journalists for comment on this issue. But China has put the word out”.
Former Green MP Keith Locke has launched an online petition for New Zealand to apologise for international spying.
More damaging Pacific revelations
The GCSB’s role in the Pacific – and the response – appears particularly problematic in terms of what has been going on in the Solomon Islands. According to Hager and Gallagher, New Zealand has been spying on politicians, civil servants, and even an anti-corruption campaigner – see the must-read article, Revealed: The names NZ targeted using NSA's XKeyscore system.
Responses from the Solomons have been strident. The former Solomons Chief of Staff, Robert Iroga, who was targeted by New Zealand, has made his reaction very clear: "I'm shocked to hear about the intrusion of the New Zealand government into the sovereign affairs of a country like ours. I would like to condemn the [New Zealand] National Government for its actions. This creates a pretty bad image of New Zealand as a friendly government in the Pacific” – see David Fisher’s GCSB spied on inner circle of former Solomon Islands PM and anti-corruption campaigner.
This senior civil servant has also conveyed how he apparently experienced the spy intelligence being used against his government: "New Zealand was bullying us in a lot of our negotiations. I was quite surprised that some of the information that they shouldn't know, they know already in some of the discussion and I won't tell what the information is but this all goes to tell you that they read exactly word for word what our discussions were and they had the upper hand” – see: Radio NZ’s Solomons official 'suspected' NZ was spying.
In the same Radio NZ report, Professor Steven Ratuva of Canterbury University also makes allegations of bullying: "It raises a whole lot of questions in relation to New Zealand's relationship with Pacific Island states. It's something which I would call very subtle diplomatic bullying, because a small island state like Solomon Islands has no way to respond to spying. I mean if you do it to the Chinese and Russians, they can respond in kind."
Ratuva is reported as explaining that the generally “muted reactions from Solomon Islands officials” is potentially because of “the country's dependence on New Zealand for aid funds”.
In this regard, Radio NZ also reports that “Nicky Hager says he believes the New Zealand Foreign Minister has been leaning on Pacific governments not to react to the spying revelations” – see: Hager 'shocked' at NZ spying on Solomons diplomats.
Gordon Campbell also points out that “their dependency on aid from New Zealand means that Pacific nations have to mute their displeasure, and pick their fights carefully” – see: On Pacific spying.
What is the GCSB really for?
The latest revelations have been useful for public clarification of what the spy agencies are actually for. The Government has been arguing that the GCSB exists to protect the country from security threats, but all the recent examples suggest something different. As Hager and Gallagher argue, “Deploying GCSB's surveillance capabilities to gain the upper hand in the WTO selection is far away from terrorism, the Islamic State and other security issues for which Mr Key has claimed the agency is used” – see: How spy agency homed in on Groser's rivals.
Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan says the question of the GCSB’s role therefore needs serious attention: “This agency has cost about half a billion dollars over the last ten years, which would be fine if we had dire security threats and they were protecting us from them. But that’s not what’s happening. The half a billion dollars funds intelligence operations against Tuvalu, Kiribati, Antarctic research scientists, anti-corruption campaigners in the Solomons and the Trade Minister’s career rivals” – see: Spies for the boys.
Similarly, see No Right Turn’s How does this protect New Zealanders? Looking at the Solomon’s revelations, he argues “if this is the GCSB's mission, we are better off without it”.
On the debate over the WTO campaign, Professor of Strategic Studies, Robert Ayson is now asking: “is that what we want to have an intelligence service for?" – see Benedict Collins’ Spy claims 'most concerning'. Ayson says that these allegations are “arguably the most concerning spying revelation yet”.
So is the GCSB being used for “national interests” or “National Party interests”? Andrew Little has responded to the WTO allegations saying that "The GCSB isn't there to advance the career prospects of politicians” – see TV3’s John Key hits back at Nicky Hager over GCSB claims. Similarly, for Danyl Mclauchlan, the latest story illustrates “How our elites conflate the interest of New Zealand with their own personal and career objectives”.
This isn’t just the view of anti-Government voices. Fairfax political editor Tracy Watkins says it was “an abuse of the trust” for the National Government to use the GCSB “powers for the purpose of giving a senior Cabinet minister a leg up into a plum international posting. It fails the national security test dismally, and it is a line call as to whether it met the national-interest test” – see: Claims GCSB spied on WTO candidates 'disturbing'.
Economic security questioned
What licence should the GCSB have for pursuing surveillance in terms of New Zealand’s economic interests? As David Fisher explains, the GCSB’s official brief includes the purpose of contributing to the "economic well-being of New Zealand" – see: Former diplomat, minister shocked by WTO spy claims.
For leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury, this is clearly a consequence of last year’s extension of GCSB powers – see: The Rights defence of spying for a mates job interview. He says that the new rules “set a terrifyingly low threshold for the State to activate these powers”.
Labour blogger Rob Salmond argues that there’s a slippery slope with the GCSB pursuing economic interests: “If the GCSB spies for Groser, should taxpayer resources fund spying for Fonterra to help them sell more milk powder, or is that corporate welfare? Should we spy for Peter Jackson so that more movies get made here? Should we spy for the BlackCaps so they are more likely to be world champions, leading to higher international endorsement deals for our players, leading to increased tax earnings for the government, leading to more heel treatments?” – see: Further thoughts on GCSB / Grocer.
Issues of trade relations are clearly fair game for GCSB operations and, according to Jane Kelsey, critics of the TPPA might well be under surveillance too – see Evening Report’s Five-Eyes Scandal: How Far Does National-led Govt’s GCSB Spying Go?
Government and public response
The Prime Minister has dealt with Hager’s revelations in the usual manner. According to a TV3 report, John Key said Hager wasn't a journalist: “The guy's a protester. Well, fair enough but just don't take him too seriously. I don't” – see: John Key hits back at Nicky Hager over GCSB claims.
Similarly, a TVNZ report quotes Key on the scandal as saying, “it's just 2012 backward looking, anti-American bunch of plonkers” – see: PM dismisses spying allegations: It's just an anti-American bunch of plonkers.
According to Tracy Watkins, “The Government has refused to confirm or deny them, but the veracity of other files obtained by Snowden has not been seriously challenged internationally” – see: No official denial of GCSB spying on WTO candidates on Tim Groser's behalf.
But Keith Locke argues that claims of possible fabrication are disingenuous: “McCully shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that, particularly when he has ready access to the originals of the very documents Hager and Gallagher refer to. The two journalists say “the [January 2013] target document was prepared by a named GCSB officer living in Wellington.” Also, no-one has yet proven any of the Snowden documents to be fabricated” – see: Spinning in the secret realm.
The Government has also argued that the latest trade spying revelations were published deliberately at a time to scupper Key’s trade visit to Asia. But the Herald’s investigative reporter David Fisher refutes these allegations with an interesting explanation of the behind-the-scenes production of the spy stories: WTO spy revelations uncomfortable at any time.
Meanwhile, there continue to be questions about whether the wider public really cares about the spy scandal. Newspaper columnist Martin van Beynen discusses his own apathy on the issue, saying that he takes the allegations seriously and is glad they’re being made, but in the end he’s “prepared to give the system and the Government we elected a bit more credit” – see: We're snooping on the Pacific...so what?
A response to this – and other claims about public lack of interest – can be read in Giovanni Tiso’s blog post On caring about surveillance.
According to one recent survey, the public is in fact strongly opposed to the collection and storage of New Zealanders’ communications, with 75 per cent opposing US surveillance in NZ, and only 13 per cent in support – see David Fisher’s Most Kiwis reject Govt spying – survey.
Oversight and review of the spy agencies
The most long-lasting ramification of the current spy scandals might be a serious shake-up of the oversight and regulations of the various surveillance agencies. For the best coverage of this, see Paul Buchanan’s blog post On the balance between civil liberties and intelligence operations. He argues that the current arrangements are entirely unsatisfactory and that the various “mechanisms are fewer and less effective than those of most liberal democracies”. He bemoans that the recent changes to the oversight arrangements have been merely “cosmetic” and says more serious reform is required because, “Relying on the good faith of NZ intelligence agencies involved is not enough, especially given their history of playing loose with the rules when it suits them”.
The Government has promised a mid-year review of the agencies. For Gordon Campbell this exercise will be vital, and “In an ideal world, the June review of the security services would result in the formation of a properly independent oversight body to rein in the political abuse of these agencies. A representative committee of Parliament drawn from all parties and armed with investigative teeth – and to which the spy services must annually report, in public hearings – is what is needed” – see: On Pacific spying.
One crucial determinant of what happens could well be Peter Dunne, and judging by Benedict Collins’ news report, Spy claims 'most concerning', Dunne is becoming much less confident of the spy arrangements.
There are other interesting suggestions for technical reform made by Rob Salmond in his blog post Suggestion re GCSB. He advocates “giving the GCSB indirect access a bit more information about New Zealanders, but only for the purposes of deleting our data before sending it overseas”. See also, Salmond’s Spying for Groser.
Finally, for the latest satire about the GCSB and spying issues, see Steve Braunias’ Secret diary of John Key and Andrew Gunn’s Sausages, surveillance and the sound of one hand clapping.