Fisher on the intelligence agencies

A long and interesting piece by David Fisher on the intelligence agencies:

has opened up the spy agencies to public scrutiny in a way which we have never seen in New Zealand.

We know more now about what they do and even how they do it.

We know how the two agencies are managed, in that the GCSB and NZSIS both have top-flight lawyers in charge.

There will always be those who say we don’t know enough. For those people, we now have improved oversight of the agencies. This also happened under the Prime Minister’s watch as minister in charge of the agencies.

The new Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn – another superb lawyer – has been a breath of the freshest air.

Mr Key has since stepped away from directly overseeing the agencies, which is a further liberation. It seems right that the most powerful weapons of state should sit with someone whose role is to objectively challenge his Cabinet colleagues.

Now, even at a ministerial level, the and answer to a lawyer, this time Attorney General Chris Finlayson.

In terms of oversight and public disclosure, we are heading into an era unparalleled in our history. Citizens now have more ability to see and have explained the tasks done in their name. Again, it might not be enough but it is considerably more than we have had before.

I’m glad to see this recognition. If you go back 10 years, no PM would answer any question on the intelligence agencies. The oversight reports were few and extremely bland. It is vastly different to what we have today with both the Inspector-General and the two directors going into considerable detail (within reason) of what they do.

That’s where we have come to, three years after Mr Key had to admit Kim Dotcom and one of his co-accused had been illegally spied on by the GCSB. He also had to apologise – a concession which must have been galling.

That single event appears to be the point at which the Prime Minister stopped taking at face value the assurances given by the intelligence agencies, and began a programme for reformation which is huge in its scale and largely behind closed doors.

I think that was a catalyst, aided by the Snowden revelations. He sent in the Cabinet Secretary to review their compliance, and having found it lacking, then made her one director, and two deputy solictor-generals the other director and the Inspector-General. They are not just all lawyers, but all lawyers whose background is very focused on legal compliance.

But there have also been reports which paint a picture of the state of New Zealand’s intelligence services, past and present. None are individually explicit in their descriptions of how bad it was but the collective run of reports gives an impression of the intelligence community as an isolated part of government, lost to the public they were serving, changing purpose and shape under a cloak of secrecy.

There is a pattern which flows through these reports, whether it be NZSIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge’s investigation into the GCSB, or the Performance Improvement Framework reviews or the most recent Gwyn report. Every reviewer is insistent staff at these important and powerful agencies all had good intent, but that they were left operating in frameworks not quite right, or in some cases flat out wrong.

It is almost tragic the intelligence services sought out such eager and patriotic staff only to subject them to a bureaucratic acid trip.

Part of the problem I think is that the culture was too mixed in with the military, and the senior leadership all tended to be ex-military. Top military officers often have some very fine skills, but they are not necessarily all the skills you need to have an agency working correctly.

John Key’s response to a community which cultured problems and surprised him with embarrassment was to throw back the curtains, hire his own directors and to put serious lawyers in charge. There are those within horrified at their new reality, which includes the need to “inform the public of what we do and why it is so important”, as one recently disclosed report stated.

Accountability and transparency make the intelligence community one in which all New Zealanders have a stake, by simple virtue of it being more accessible.

John Key has made some mistakes in this area, such as personally requesting Ian Fletcher to apply. But I do think there hasn’t been enough focus on the massive changes he has introduced, and also how he personally has been far far more willing to talk on details of intelligence operations than any predecessor. There are some dangers with this, as you can’t go into detail on everything, and where you draw the line has consequences. But our level of transparency and independent review is far greater than in the past.

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