I’ve spent six years alternately begging major NZ journalists to investigate state-sponsored spying on activists including me, and, out of sheer necessity, reporting extensively on it myself from within the vacuum created by their inaction. So it is somewhat bemusing to now observe the belated unfolding of what ex-Member of Parliament and Greenpeace NZ Executive Director Russel Norman is describing as New Zealand’s “Watergate moment.”
In the wake of the bombshell release of a State Services Commission report into the affair, Norman wrote: “My key takeaway is that under the previous government, no one was safe from being spied on if they disagreed with government policy.”
This is a remarkable statement from Norman, who once sat on the very government committee tasked with oversight of New Zealand’s intelligence agencies. The futility of that lofty position was reflected in my 2014 piece “Glenn Greenwald and the Irrelevance of Electoral Politics“ which quoted Greenwald, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks, saying of Norman:
“You had the Green Party leader here in New Zealand say in an interview that I watched that he was on the committee that oversees the GCSB [ Government Communications Security Bureau – NZ’s electronic spying agency] and yet he learned far more about what the agency does by reading our stories than he did in briefings. They really have insulated themselves from the political process and have a lot of tools to ensure that they continue to grow and their power is never questioned.”
The sands are shifting: Over a dozen government agencies including the New Zealand Police are revealed to have been engaging private intelligence firms such as the notorious Thompson and Clark Investigations Limited to spy on New Zealand citizens engaged in issue-based democratic dissent, activism in general, or who were deemed to present an economic or political ‘risk’ to the bureaucracy or the private sector in New Zealand.
The media response has predictably walked the safest line – focusing on the egregiousness of the victimisation of the least politically involved targets such as earthquake insurance claimants and child abuse survivors, and honing in on the very bottom rungs of the culpability ladder. They are as yet failing to confront the international and geopolitical foundations that lie under the surface of outsourced state-sponsored spying in New Zealand.
The truth is that the roots of the issue go far deeper than subcontractors like Thompson and Clark. The chain of complicity and collusion leads far beyond the head of any department or agency, including the Head of the State Services Commission. It goes beyond even the Beehive (housing the cabinet rooms), the New Zealand Parliament and the Office of the Prime Minister.
At its core, this scandal is a reflection of fundamental flaws in the very fabric of intelligence gathering practices in New Zealand, its infrastructure and network – where the collected data flows, whom the collection of that data serves and to which masters our intelligence services ultimately answer.
I agree with Russel Norman that this could be New Zealand’s Watergate moment. But there are major aspects which to this day, have not been meaningfully addressed, if at all, by the New Zealand media – and of which the vast majority of the New Zealand public remain unaware, to their detriment.
Firstly: where is the data that is being collected by these spies really going? Secondly: who is directing New Zealand’s human intelligence assets and apparatus in foreign intelligence operations? And thirdly: what is the impact for Kiwis who unwittingly cross paths with our spy agencies in a country where the legal definition of ‘threat to national security’ has been removed?
1. ICWatch New Zealand
When the savant-like and (then) still teenaged M.C. McGrath, founder of the Transparency Toolkit, received an email from a member of the U.S. intelligence community threatening, “I promise that I will kill everyone involved in your website. There is nowhere on this earth that you will be able to hide from me,” he took the threat seriously. He had good reason to. His ICWatch initiative was using open source data to expose specific players, contracts and commercial relationships in the global intelligence community.
McGrath had discovered almost by accident that secret programs and projects, which would usually be hidden from public scrutiny, were often bragged about on the curriculum vitaes of current and ex-service members posted on LinkedIn. By pooling the publicly available data contained within their CV’s, he was able to shine light on many covert programs that we otherwise may not have ever known existed. Within the year he would resettle in Berlin, living in exile and his project rehoused at WikiLeaks. “Murderous spooks drive journalistic project to WikiLeaks” read the headline of WikiLeaks’ press release announcing their acquisition of ICWatch [. . .]