An excellent watchdog

Anthony Hubbard interviews Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn:

Gwyn has begun a series of inquiries which ask dangerous questions about both the SIS and the other intelligence agency, the GCSB.

Gwyn herself is a controversial figure, a former Marxist activist who would once have been of great interest to the spies.

Gwyn is a modest character with a lawyer’s precision and a sense of humour. The traditional face of intelligence is an ageing robot – spy-master, spy-watcher or politician – telling the public to mind its own business.

That’s not Gwyn.

As a young law graduate and freezing worker she belonged to the Socialist Action League, a far-Left group closely watched by the SIS.

Now recall Gwyn was hand picked by John Key to be Inspector-General. I can’t imagine any other PM doing this. But he picked her because he wanted a robust highly reputable watchdog who would make sure the intelligence agencies acted within the law.

Key has been responsible for more transparency and openness around intelligence activities, than any predecessor – by a country mile.

Gwyn would like the agencies to disclose what actual powers they have. Historically spy legislation is “pretty opaque”.

Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures, showing the agencies scoop up enormous quantities of digital information, had led to a “really important public debate about what powers do the agencies have”.

SIS head Rebecca Kitteridge called Snowden a traitor. “I didn’t say he was a traitor,” says the Inspector-General.

Gwyn says there’s a gap in the intelligence world. Snowden revealed how closely the international spy agencies work together, but their oversight agencies can’t do this.

“How do I know that what the [Kiwi] intelligence agencies get from other jurisdictions is lawfully and properly sourced?” she asks.

“[And] how do we know what use other jurisdictions put our intelligence to?”

The ultimate solution, she says, would be to allow, say, the Inspector-General of the CIA and her to carry out a joint inquiry.

Watchdogs of the world, unite.

Not a bad idea.

I believe intelligence agencies play a very valuable role in keeping us safe. But I also think they have a history of over-reaching in some areas, and this is why you need robust independent watchdogs.

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