No public accountability for the GCSB

[This was published on Evening Report on 9 March 2015.]

By Keith Locke

“YOU SHOULDN’T WORRY IF YOU’VE GOT NOTHING TO HIDE” is one of the mantras trotted out when New Zealanders complain about the GCSB having access to their private communications.

Let’s turn that mantra around as ask those running the GCSB why the feel they have to hide from public everything they do. Is it because, as recent revelations show, the agency is more about serving the interests of the US government than that of New Zealanders?

When I was an MP I ran up against a brick wall when I asked any questions about the GCSB, the Waihopai spy station or the Five Eyes. “We don’t comment on matters of national security” was the routine reply from the Prime Minister (Helen Clark followed by John Key).

The PM’s stonewalling has become even more absurd now that the Snowden documents have shown that the GCSB is intercepting and collecting virtually all the communications in Pacific Island states.

When asked whether former GCSB head Bruce Ferguson was right that the agency does engage in mass communications data collection, the PM said he didn’t know what Ferguson meant? He also said there was no obligation on the GCSB to inform any New Zealander that details about their private communications were being collected. Everything the GCSB does is lawful, Key, claimed, forgetting the Privacy Act and forgetting his previous assurance that the GCSB Act does not allow for mass surveillance of New Zealanders

To me there doesn’t seem any question that the GCSB is illegally engaged in the wholesale collection of the communications of any New Zealander visiting or living in a Pacific Island, or any New Zealander emailing or phoning someone in the Pacific). The targeting of Pacific Island government communications (as mentioned in one NSA document) is also contrary to the Vienna convention, and not what a good neighbour should do. The rejoinder of Key apologists, that “all nations do it” is simply not true, and we would rightly be outraged if a foreign government was intercepting all of our government communications.

Parliamentary oversight of the GCSB is a joke. There is an Intelligence and Security Committee, which operates in secret and is now limited to National and Labour politicians. They are told very little as evidenced by the comments of a former Intelligence and Security Committee member, Peter Dunne, who has expressed surprise that the GCSB is collecting communications data wholesale and passing it on to the NSA.

Let’s not accept the PM’s obfuscations. Let’s demand enough information to allow us to have a proper debate about what GCSB is doing in our name. And let us have better parliamentary oversight of the agency through an all-party select committee whose hearings are where possible in public, like other parliamentary committees.