No Right Turn blogs:
The Prime Minister has got himself a private spy agency.
OK, so he’s always kind of had one. Since 1990, the External Assessments Bureau, part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has been providing assessments to the government on foreign events. This was pretty uncontroversial – EAB had no operational role, was focused strictly on analysing information, and its target was strictly foreigners. It could not be considered any form of threat to the New Zealand public.
Having worked in the PMs Office, I got to see the occassional EAB analysis. They tended to be of two types – a country report or a person report, the persons generally being Heads of States and Governments.
They did not tend to use top secret information, from spying. In fact much of what was in the reports, you would find on the Internet. However they were sensitive because they would offer observations that can be blunt, and could upset other countries. Of course, there were probably some reports that did use more classified information that I didn’t see, but the vast majority was based on public sources.
So really, their job is quite straight forward – taking information from multiple sources, and doing summaries for the PM and/or other Ministers. They are often widely distributed within MFAT also – so again these are not generally top secret stuff.
Now, thanks to the Rugby World Cup, its been renamed the “National Assessments Bureau”, and has got itself a domestic focus. As well as looking at the politics of other countries, it will be looking at those of New Zealand. As well as looking at foreigners, it will also be “assessing”, and advising the government on, the beliefs, actions, and plans of New Zealanders.
Now this is a significant change, but it does not mean they are suddenly a spy agency. They have no powers, and AFAIK no field operations at all – they just analyse information and write reports based on it.
I guess the reason their role has been expanded, is because there was no one clear agency who was responsible for domestic security analysis, and there may have been a silo problem (such as the US had prior to 9/11).
As all the EAB, now NAB, is analysis, I don’t think portraying them as a new MI5 or SIS is helpful. Again, they have no powers. They can’t get warrants like the SIS. They can’t intercept communications like the GCSB. They can’t arrest people like the Police. They can’t shoot people like the military.
Having said that, the change is not insignificant, and where I do agree with NRT, is that there should have been some greater transparency around the change, including a better explanation of why the change was seen as desirable. Why, for example, would the Police not be in charge of domestic security analysis?
But NAB has no controls at all. It does not even have to issue an independent annual report giving a broad idea of the scope of its activities. And when they are assembling dossiers on New Zealanders for the Prime Minister’s consumption, that is simply unacceptable.
It has no controls as it has no special powers. It is part of the Department of PM and Cabinet and hence subject to the Official Information Act, the Privacy Act, the Ombudsman etc.
And they do publish an annual report – it is part of the DPMC report.
The NAB website says:
NAB is an unusual organisation. It has no role in providing policy advice to the government and no operational functions, and nor does it provide services to the public. Its mandate is sharply defined: NAB’s role is to provide assessments, not advice. This means that it seeks to explain events and developments, but it does not offer advice on what actions the government might take.
Having said all that, I am interested in the rationale for change, and think there should be a fuller understanding of what “gaps” in analysis there were, that this change will plug.
To that end I have just filed an OIA request with the DPMC for any information about the change of name and mandate for the EAB to the NAB. I have no doubt parts of any papers I receive will be redacted, but I hope to gain some better understanding of the change, and will blog it when I get the response.
, John Key
, No Right Turn