Behind the damning State Services Commission report on our spy agencies


Last week the State Service Commission

issued a strongly critical report on our spy agencies

. It concluded that there is ”urgency” for “a huge amount of change to be undertaken”. The agencies’ “national security and intelligence priorities are inadequately defined”; vetting systems are not up to scratch, and the public is kept too much in the dark about what the spies do.

The SSC discovered organisational dysfunction at all levels, “a forgiving and undemanding response to poor performance” and patch protection (including “distrust between staff of constituent [spy] agencies”). The intelligence agencies were found to “not have processes to systematically monitor, measure and review work.”

The SSC criticism is justified, as far as it goes. However, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is that our spy agencies were set up to serve foreign agendas (particularly those of the UK and USA) and they have operated that way ever since. Obfuscation as to purpose is necessary to hide this reality.

It’s all very well for the SSC to push for more openness here and note that overseas intelligence agencies were “much more transparent in the media. They have communicated positive achievements (and can point to successful interventions and prosecutions).”  It would be embarrassing for the SIS and GCSB to admit that they haven’t been responsible for a single successful prosecution during their entire history over the past 50 years.

It certainly would be good to have more openness and for the SIS and GCSB to fess up that their main “achievement” has been to damage the lives of politically active New Zealanders engaged in lawful dissent.

Transparency and engagement with the public would mean they would have to justify their current targets here in New Zealand, who don’t seem to include any terrorists, mainly because we’ve never had any (other than the French agents who bombed the Rainbow Warrior back in 1985).

Today, the prime SIS targets are members of the Muslim community going about their lawful business. There is also comprehensive spying on Tamils, whose support for Tamil self-determination in northern Sri Lanka is deemed to be a threat. The SIS has serious damaged the careers of some NZ Tamils through negative vetting and it has divided some Tamil families by refusing to support immigration visa or citizenship applications.

The SIS targeting of New Zealand Tamils, at a time when our government claims to support ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka, would not survive open public debate. That’s why the SIS will keep such targeting secret, regardless of any SSC calls for greater openness. The general targets for SIS surveillance (be they political currents or ethnic and religious organisations) are determined primarily by the SIS’s overseas partners (particularly the CIA, FBI and NSA in America) rather than emerging from any domestic reality in New Zealand.

The SIS and GCSB are unlikely to agree with the SSC that they should “respond to public concerns in the light of the Manning and Snowden cases.” Greater transparency regarding New Zealand’s contributions to Five Eyes would show that the GCSB is deeply enmeshed in this network’s comprehensive spying on the people of the world and on foreign governments (including, embarrassingly, our main trading partner – China).