Dotcom case shows the cost of spying is spooky

Oped published in the New Zealand Herald on 18 December 2012

By Keith Locke

The Dotcom case is focusing more attention on the Government Communications Security Bureau and its association with the Five Eyes electronic spying network.

Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann has asked the GCSB to name the entities (including foreign intelligence agencies) that were in receipt of some of the information the bureau had illegally gathered on Dotcom.

Hopefully, the judge will have more success in prising information out of the electronic spy agency than I had during my 12 years as a member of Parliament.

When I was an MP, even the most basic information was deemed too secret to disclose.

Back in 2006, I had no luck in getting then Prime Minister Helen Clark to even admit that New Zealand was a formal member of a five-nation electronic spying network. When I asked her direct parliamentary questions about our ties with UKUSA, the intelligence sharing treaty which underpins the Five Eyes network, she simply refused to answer.

This was a bit silly, because it was by then public knowledge that the five UKUSA signatories were the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

John Key – Helen Clark’s successor as Minister in Charge of the GCSB – was no more co-operative.

One of an MP’s responsibilities is to monitor departmental expenditure, but I couldn’t do that for the GCSB because the government would only provide the bureau’s gross annual expenditure.

There were hints at what the GCSB might be spending its money on, but no figures were provided. I discovered in the GCSB annual report for 2009 that there had been a “significant investment” in the satellite communications interception station at Waihopai, and I wanted to know more. I felt taxpayers were entitled to know what was being spent on Waihopai and surely the government could provide at least an overall figure or the year.

But Key wouldn’t tell me, on the grounds that under the Public Finance Act intelligence agencies are not obliged to provide expenditure details. I countered that that act didn’t prevent the government disclosing some expenditure details – in the public interest – when there was no genuine security issue involved. It seemed to me that the Prime Minister didn’t want to disclose the annual spending on Waihopai for fear there would be more public debate on whether it was money well spent.

Such a debate could raise awkward questions about the spy station, such as how much useful information New Zealand gains for itself, or whether partner agencies such as the United States National Security Agency are the main beneficiaries. In turn, this raises a broader question of whether operating the Waihopai facility for the Five Eyes network compromises our independent foreign policy. The potential for our foreign policy to be compromised grows as the United States shifts its attention towards Asia and becomes more interested in the communications of Asian governments intercepted by the satellite dishes at Waihopai. These are Asian governments, such as China and Japan, which have otherwise good relations with New Zealand and might be upset that we are helping America spy on them. Another problem with the impenetrable shroud of secrecy around the GCSB is that it breeds incompetence of the sort we have seen in the Dotcom saga. It is a rule of thumb that the more opaque and unaccountable a government agency is, the more mistakes it will make.

In practice, there is very little oversight of GCSB activities. The Prime Minister clearly isn’t able to give it much time, even though he is both the Minister in Charge and the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the only oversight body in the Parliament. It is hard to judge the effectiveness of the Intelligence and Security Committee because, unlike similar bodies overseas, it meets in total secrecy. The only other person engaged in oversight is the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Paul Neazor. He is handicapped by being part-time, and judging by his annual reports he concentrates his attention on the Security Intelligence Service, not the GCSB.

It is a pity that despite all the attention on the GCSB’s illegal surveillance of Dotcom, there has been little debate about the mission of the agency and how much value we are getting from it.

We need more public discussion on what New Zealanders gain or lose from the Waihopai facility, and from the other significant GCSB facility, the radio communication interception station at Tangimoana near Palmerston North.

It would also be worth reviewing whether another key GCSB task, helping protect the security of government computers, is being carried out adequately in the light of the failures in Work and Income and some other departments.

The GCSB budget is $64 million so the agency is worth more public attention, particularly in times of financial restraint.

Keith Locke is a former Green MP. He was also the party’s spokesman on intelligence and security issues.