He had an early exposure to the murky world of espionage when called on as director of the Office of Treaty Settlements to give evidence about claims the intelligence agencies had spied on Maori organisations and provided information to the Crown in their negotiations.
That was news to him at the time, says Hampton, and – as it turned out – news to the intelligence agencies also, given that it turned out to be a “complete hoax”.
“So I’ve not necessarily believed everything I read. But yeah, there was public concern so I wanted to reassure myself there wasn’t a basis for it. But people don’t need to take my word for it: the [Michael Cullen, Patsy Reddy] report did a really good job of looking at what GCSB does and concluded they don’t consider there is any mass surveillance underway.”
Hampton’s appointment is the next step in the evolution of the GCSB as it is brought blinking into the public glaze after years of living in the shadows. Like his predecessors – acting director Una Jagose and, before her, career public servant Ian Fletcher – Hampton’s appointment breaks with the tradition of GCSB directors drawn from the military and diplomatic worlds.
I think that has been a major beneficial change under this Government – that both the SIS and the GCSB are no longer run primarily by ex military staff. Nothing against those staff, but there was a culture that absolutely everything had to be secret, rather than assessing the balance between operational security and transparency.
Prior to the GCSB, he was at the Education Ministry (helping sort out the Novopay debacle), Crown Law and chief talent officer at the State Services Commission. And like his counterpart at sister agency the Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge, Hampton brings a public service sensibility to the job. He is focused on GCSB’s “customers”, and liberally uses words like accountability, transparency, and added value – things the GCSB was not so good at a few years ago.
The change has been difficult and necessary; the story of the GCSB’s bungled spy craft in relation to German entrepreneur Kim Dotcom is now history, but it remains dogged in controversy as the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, probes a series of allegations, including that the agency wrongly spied on Kiwis in the Pacific, and used its eavesdropping powers to snoop on rival candidates for the job of World Trade Organisation boss when our Government was backing former trade minister Tim Groser for the job.
Hampton says he can’t talk about the specifics of any of those inquiries but points out they are “legacy” issues, pre-dating not just himself, but his two predecessors.
But, as he is at pains to note, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the GCSB collects foreign intelligence.
“One of our three core roles is to gather foreign intelligence. That is what we are [tasked] with doing. It’s not for us to set out own intelligence priorities, they are set for us by the Government of the day. Nor is it for us to decide what to do with that intelligence. We are not an enforcement agency. But the fact we do seek intelligence about the intentions, capabilities, and activities of foreign parties shouldn’t come as a surprise. That’s one of the key reasons we exist.”
The Inspector-General reports will be interesting. I doubt much will come of the Pacific inquiry as from what I have read any material picked up accidentally from NZers in a foreign country is disposed of. The WTO inquiry could be more interesting as that will focus on whether gathering intelligence on that contest fits within the purposes of the Act.