General Debate: Intelligence and Security Committee


The Intelligence and Security Committee, in the last Parliament, had the most disgraceful record of any committee in this House.

This parliamentary debate, by my calculations, has gone for nearly three-quarters of an hour, which is more than this committee sat for in the whole of last year. This committee sat once last year, on 14 June, for a total of 43 minutes. The committee was not much better the previous year, 2004, when it met for 84 minutes — that is, for 49 minutes on 15 June, and for 35 minutes on 14 December. In 2003 the committee met for a little more time — a total of 113 minutes made up of 44 minutes on 19 March, 20 minutes on 10 June, and 49 minutes on 16 December. In 2002, after the July election, it met just once, for 49 minutes, on 17 December. This makes a total of 4 hours and 49 minutes for the whole of the parliamentary term. So in 3 years this committee sat for not much more time in total than a normal select committee meets for every week. We are lucky even to know how hopeless the committee is, because it has not reported on the record I have just described to the House. I obtained the information through written questions to the Minister in charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Helen Clark.

Let us look at what the committee did report on to the House in the last Parliament. It reported three times on the Budget estimates, three times on supplementary estimates, and three times on financial reviews. None of the committee’s reports to the House exceeded two sentences, and none told us anything other than that the committee had done an examination or a review. For the financial reviews it needed a second sentence to ask that the House take note of its report. Yes, I think that the House should take note of the three reports on the financial reviews and conclude that this committee is not doing its job.

I have here the estimates and supplementary estimates for the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau during the last parliamentary term. They tell us nothing other than the gross amount spent by these agencies. For example, for the 2004-05 year the figures were $22.5 million for the Security Intelligence Service and $38.963 million for the Government Communications Security Bureau. Unlike the estimates for all other State agencies there was no breakdown for capital expenditure, staff, etc. Why did the Intelligence and Security Committee not comment on that in its report? Why did it allow that to happen? It cannot argue security reasons for denying Parliament and the public such general information on expenditure. We are entitled to suspect that the reason for that is to avoid any substantive debate on intelligence matters.

If the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau keep quiet about what they are spending money on, and the Intelligence and Security Committee goes along with that, then there will be less public debate. Is that why there is all the secrecy? Why, for example, can we not know how much the Waihopai satellite communications interception station is costing the taxpayer? It is primarily a spy station for the US National Security Agency, which is the same agency that George Bush has been misusing illegally to spy on American people — that is, spying on them without a warrant. Every day the National Security Agency takes information from the millions of phone calls, faxes, and emails that are drawn down into Waihopai near Blenheim from the two communications satellites over the Pacific equator.

There is pressure on the Government Communications Security Bureau to be a little more forthcoming in its activities, and it was good that its director, Warren Tucker, wrote an op-ed in the Dominion Post and the Press newspapers on 31 January. However, it included only generalities about the good work it is doing in the communications surveillance area, and claimed, without any evidence, the “immense benefits” of its close links with American and British partners. In the article, Mr Tucker claimed that the Intelligence and Security Committee functioned in much the same way as a select committee.

The problem is that it does not. It operates outside of the Office of the Clerk, and Standing Orders in general do not apply to it, apart from some in reference to financial reviews and the things mentioned in the motion before us today. One of the problems with the motion is that it shuts out all other committees from even considering intelligence issues. It specifically forbids other committees from doing so. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee does overlap the intelligence area, to the extent that its members know that intelligence gathering is going on through police and customs and the defence intelligence units. Why should we not be allowed to stray into the security and intelligence and Government Communications Security Bureau areas at all in our consideration if we want to have a coherent understanding of intelligence gathering across all agencies in New Zealand?

Also, the motion before us prevents any petitions from going to any other committee than the Intelligence and Security Committee, which means that one cannot have proper consideration of those petitions if the oversight body for the intelligence services is also the body having to respond to the petitions.

The abysmal record of the Intelligence and Security Committee proves the point the Greens have been making for years, that the committee should be abolished and replaced by a true select committee in Parliament. A member’s bill in my name, the Intelligence and Security Committee Act Repeal Bill, was debated in the year 2000, but unfortunately was defeated in Parliament. Hiding behind a wall of secrecy, the Security Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Security Bureau, and the supposed supervisory body, the Intelligence and Security Committee, have been able to avoid real accountability to the House. We need a true multiparty select committee, not one appointed by National and Labour leaders that meets so infrequently that it effectively gives the intelligence services carte blanche to do what they want, with barely any questioning.

It is true that with any supervisory committee of intelligences services, a certain level of confidentiality needs to apply. But when one has total unaccountability to Parliament — as is currently the case — as with any other Government department, incompetence may be hidden. I am not just stating that hypothetically; we can see the Security Intelligence Service’s incompetence in the Ahmed Zaoui case. Firstly, in 2003 the Refugee Status Appeals Authority was “surprised at how limited” the Security Intelligence Service material was, it being mainly unsourced extracts from various news reports containing “erroneous claims” and relying in one case on a “self-evidently dubious source”. Then we have the Security Intelligence Service’s summary of allegations against Ahmed Zaoui provided in February 2004, which are laughable. The paranoid incompetence of the Security Intelligence Service reached new heights when it described a tourist video of Mr Zaoui’s that has his face and voice on it as being “suspiciously like a casing video”.

That is the same summary of allegations that let the cat out of the bag that the Security Intelligence Service’s concern about Mr Zaoui was all about not upsetting other Western Governments and their intelligence agencies — that is, diplomatic concerns — rather than because he is a threat to our security. The paragraph in the Security Intelligence Service summary of allegations reads: “If Mr Zaoui, with his public record, were allowed to settle here, that would indicate that New Zealand has a lower level of concern about security than other like-minded countries. That would impact adversely on New Zealand’s reputation with such countries and thus on New Zealand’s international well-being.” So much for the rights of Ahmed Zaoui to have due process and, as the Supreme Court said in its judgment, be proved to be a real threat to security. I am confident that, after all those processes that have been gone through, he will be proved to be a genuine refugee, as already stated by the Refugee Status Appeals Authority.

With the incompetence of the Security Intelligence Service and the wrong, political approach that it has taken in the Zaoui case, it is important that any parliamentary supervision be cross-party and more interrogatory. I agree with my colleague Wayne Mapp that there are a lot of issues for the Intelligence and Security Committee to deal with; there is just no way it has dealt with them in the time it sat. In fact, it has not done anything more than hear a few briefings and do a very sketchy financial review in the last Parliament. There is no indication, with the present membership of the committee being largely unchanged, that it will do a better job in this Parliament.