Trying to Make New Zealand Intelligence Services More Accountable: My Efforts in Parliament

By Keith Locke

(The following article was published in the May 2012 issue of Peace Researcher, the journal of the Anti-Bases Campaign. To see the other interesting articles in Peace Researcher go to http://www.converge.org.nz/abc.)

[Peace Researcher editor's introductory comment: Keith Locke was a Green MP from 1999 to 2011. He has been credited with being the most respected member of the House, yet maintained his Leftist credentials with honour and humility. Prepared to ask the hard questions, and constantly issuing press releases that pinpointed what was really happening in both NZ and overseas, Anti-Bases Campaign owes Keith a tremendous debt; no other MP has ever been prepared to raise the military and intelligence questions that he demanded answers for, and no other MP has ever so persistently tried to penetrate the wall of secrecy and bullshit erected around the affairs of the Security Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Security Bureau and other related agencies. This article will concern anyone with an interest in the covert operations of our spooks. The Editors of Peace Researcher wish Keith the best of luck in retirement, and long may his energy to pursue the big issues continue. Ed.]

One of my missions during 12 years in Parliament was to make our intelligence services more accountable. I made less progress than I’d hoped for. I asked many questions of Prime Ministers Clark and Key – the Ministers formally responsible for the security services – but I was usually told that they didn’t comment on intelligence or security matters. This isn’t to say that pressure from MPs like me (and the public) has not had some impact. The Security Intelligence Service (SIS) now makes a show of being more open, but it is still mainly a show because the information in their Annual Reports – and on their Website – is pretty non-specific. We are hardly surprised to find out that they are chasing terrorists – but what does that mean in practice? I couldn’t find out through Parliamentary channels, even though, for ten years, I was the Green Party’s Parliamentary spokesperson on intelligence services. It was from my work in migrant communities that I got some idea of what the SIS was doing to “fight terrorism”, and it wasn’t pretty. I discovered the SIS was visiting mosques, and regularly questioning members of the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

The extensive SIS surveillance of the Sri Lankan Tamil community shows just how unaccountable the SIS actually is. In practice the SIS is often more answerable to other governments [particularly American, British and Australian] than our own. First, let me provide some factual background. Many Sri Lankan Tamils in New Zealand have supported the Tamil independence struggle in north-east Sri Lanka – a struggle that has been going on for long time, and pre-dates the Tamil Tigers. That support is based on a belief that over the centuries Tamils largely governed their own affairs, but now their interests are being largely subordinated to the Sinhalese majority. New Zealand Tamils respected the Tamil Tigers as leaders of the nationalist struggle – even if they didn’t agree with the Tigers’ more ruthless practices. They didn’t buy the Western story that the Tamil Tigers were the “terrorists” and the Sri Lankan government the “counter-terrorists”. As documented in Amnesty International reports, there were terrorist practices on both sides, with the Sri Lankan government clearly the dominant terrorist agency, in terms of the numbers of civilians it killed and “disappeared”.

While most Western governments backed the Sri Lankan government, Norway took a more even-handed approach, trying to mediate between the two sides to peacefully resolve the disputed issues. The 1999-08 Clark government – behind the scenes – expressed some interest in helping Norway and rebuffed those New Zealand officials who wanted to follow the US/UK/Australian line and simply designate the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation. This didn’t make any difference to the SIS which, under the influence of its foreign masters, subjected New Zealand Tamils to probably the biggest domestic spying operation New Zealand has seen in recent years.

I was caught up in this big surveillance operation. When I got my own Personal File* out of the SIS in 2008 I discovered that the SIS had been keeping an eye on my engagement with the Auckland Tamil community – and wasn’t too pleased when I visited Sri Lanka in 2003 to talk to both sides about where the (then current) peace talks were headed. At that time there was a ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. *See Peace Researcher 38. July 2009, “SIS Spied On Peace Movement For Decades”, by Murray Horton, http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr38-178a.htm. Ed.

It was clear to me that the SIS was a political actor – in the wrong direction, and undermining any New Zealand effort to play a role in the Sri Lankan peace process. It was frustrating for me see this and to see the inability and unwillingness of the Government to bring the SIS to heel. When I raised the issue as a Member of Parliament, the Government wouldn’t engage in any debate. Many New Zealand families have suffered from this SIS targeting of Tamils. Some New Zealand Tamils accused of supporting the Tigers were expelled from the country – splitting up their families in the process. Expensive court cases have ensued to try to get them back. All this in a Tamil community which is among the most law-abiding communities in our country.

Strange though it may sound, the Tamils were victims of an embarrassing reality for the New Zealand intelligence services. That is, there were not any terrorists in New Zealand – of any nationality. The SIS was beside itself because it couldn’t find any terrorists. It was desperate to come up with at least some people it could call “terrorist supporters” to show the Central Intelligence Agency, MI5 and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation that it was keeping its end up in the “global war on terror”. In a parallel universe this is why the Police were so keen to prosecute the Urewera 17 under the Terrorism Suppression Act – and subsequently found themselves laughed out of court by the Solicitor General for trying to do so (see Peace Researcher 42, November 2011, “The Covert State Must Not Be Severely Embarrassed! Part 2: Government Drops Charges Versus ‘Terrorists’ & Changes Law To Legalise Illegality”, by Murray Horton, http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr/42/pr42-003.htm. Ed.).

Secret Budgets; “Oversight” Committee A Joke

One of the key roles of Parliament is to check that the Government is not wasting our money. However, the Labour-led government put the SIS and Government Communications Security Bureau’s GCSB) budgets out of bounds. MPs were given the overall sum spent by both agencies – which has gone up dramatically in recent years – but provided no breakdown into spending categories. For example, despite repeated questioning I could not find out how much of the GCSB budget is spent on the controversial Waihopai spy station.

To try and stop any such questioning from MPs, the Clark government sneaked an amendment [45E] into the Public Finance Amendment Act 2004 (which I didn’t spot at the time), exempting intelligence services from having to provide Parliament with anything other than their total annual expenditure. Subsequently, whenever I asked Clark or Key how much Waihopai cost they quoted this section of the Act as their let-out. Of course, Section 45E of the Act doesn’t prevent any Government from explaining – in the public interest – how much Waihopai costs each year. And it certainly is in the public interest. More information about Waihopai may have been available to the Intelligence and Security Committee, a body made up of the National and Labour leaders plus three of their appointees. But, as an MP, I could not find out what information this Committee got, because unlike other Parliamentary committees – true Select Committees – it met in complete secrecy.

In 2000 soon after I entered Parliament, my Intelligence and Security Committee Repeal Bill was pulled from the Parliamentary ballot, but didn’t get past the First Reading debate because Labour and National combined to vote it down. My argument was that the SIS and GCSB should be monitored by a real select committee, not one chaired by the PM [as Minister in Charge of Intelligence Services], and not by a Committee that didn’t have any open sessions at all. Quite farcically, in 2011, the media was prevented from hearing my oral submission to the Intelligence and Security Committee on the Security Intelligence Service Amendment Bill. Nothing I was advocating was in any way a State secret. Apart from holding its [secret] hearings on that Bill the Intelligence and Security Committee has been pretty dormant. I asked several written Parliamentary questions on how often and for how long it met, and discovered that it generally met for less than two hours a year.

SIS Spying On Keith

The main myth about the SIS is that it is spying on New Zealanders who, because of their politics, might be engaged in serious crime. The opposite is likely to be true. Those on whom the SIS built up files would have been more law-abiding than the average New Zealander. Their “crime”, in the eyes of the SIS, was to disagree with the Government of the day. This was certainly true in my case. Pages and pages in my SIS file, released to me in 2008, detail my activities against the Vietnam War, apartheid and the like. The SIS had been spying on me since I was 11, up to and including the years I was in Parliament. When (in early 2009) I complained about this SIS spying on an MP, the Prime Minister, to his credit, referred the matter to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Paul Neazor.

Mr Neazor’s report did lead to some changes, making it more difficult for the SIS to spy on sitting MPs. However, there are severe limits on the degree to which the Inspector-General can be an overall monitor of SIS operations – not least because of the part-time nature of the position and the limited resources to hand. I do, however, commend the decision of the current SIS Director, Dr Warren Tucker, to release more SIS files under the provisions of the Privacy Act. But too many files are still being withheld from people with a legitimate right to them. Or, frustratingly, some applicants are told the SIS “can neither confirm nor deny” the existence of a file. How very Kafkaesque. A “Catch 22” for me, when I tried to document the SIS’s subordination to bigger Western intelligence services, was that the very evidence I needed was withheld under Section 4(4)(b) of the SIS Act on the grounds it might “prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on a basis of confidence by the government of any other country or any agency of such a government”.

SIS Persecution Of Ahmed Zaoui

The harassment of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui* illustrates this difficulty. He was detained and denied residency on the basis misinformation from Western intelligence agencies. It took five years and many court hearings to get to the truth and allow Mr Zaoui to settle here with his family. My role as the Parliamentary advocate for Mr Zaoui (along with Progressive MP Matt Robson) is one I am most proud of. It did help win his freedom. *See Peace Researcher 35, December 2007, “At Long Bloody Last: A Happy Ending To Ahmed Zaoui’s Ordeal”, by Murray Horton, http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr35-153.html. Ed.

If I hadn’t been pressing the Zaoui case in Parliament, the Labour, National and NZ First attacks on this Algerian refugee would have got more traction. My special status as an MP also helped – because under a provision in the Corrections Act I could visit Mr Zaoui in prison any time I liked. This was particularly important when, shortly after Mr Zaoui was detained (and shoved into solitary confinement in Paremoremo’s D-Block, the section of the country‘s maximum security prison reserved for the worst and most dangerous criminals) I was able to visit him and warn New Zealanders of the injustice that was occurring.

What Have SIS & GCSB Actually Achieved?

The efforts of Green MPs over the last 16 years have had some impact on making the intelligence agencies a little more open and accountable. The work that began with the late Rod Donald in 1996 and continued through my term in Parliament are now in the hands of a new MP, Steffan Browning, as well as Co-Leader Russel Norman (who has been on the Intelligence and Security Committee these last three years). The presence of Green MPs at protests critical of the intelligence services – at Waihopai, in defence of the Waihopai Three, etc. – have all put pressure on the SIS and GCSB to be more accountable.

Sadly, in other important ways we have lost ground over the past decade as more money and resources pour into New Zealand’s intelligence agencies to fight America’s “War on Terror”. Some of this money has been used to hook up the SIS database with its American counterparts, making us even more a part of the American intelligence machine – something we only found out about through Wikileaks. One saving grace is that New Zealanders still have a healthy distrust of our intelligence services and what they get up to. It doesn’t help the SIS and GCSB that they can’t point to a single solid achievement over their decades of existence, apart from building up huge files on law abiding dissenters.