Spying by the GCSB on those competing against National Government minister Tim Groser for the World Trade Organisation's top job has appalled a former foreign affairs and trade minister and astonished one of the country's most experienced diplomats.

An inquiry is likely into the actions of the GCSB after Labour leader Andrew Little said he would ask the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to investigate today.

The Herald and US news site the Intercept yesterday revealed a top secret GCSB document showing the electronic surveillance agency had been searching for email communications which mentioned Mr Groser, the Trade Minister, in association with names of candidates competing against him. The news broke as Prime Minister John Key and Mr Groser prepared to sign a Free Trade Agreement in South Korea, whose former trade minister was among the surveillance targets vying for the $700,000 WTO job.

Read the WTO document here

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Mr Key told reporters the South Korean hosts "wouldn't give a monkey's" and "wouldn't believe it" but refused to comment further. A spokeswoman last night said Mr Key was confident the inspector-general would investigate "any matters as she sees fit".

Mr Groser also refused comment but told TVNZ: "I assume that everything I say on the phone is being intercepted."

NZ First leader Winston Peters, a former foreign affairs and trade minister, said the apparent help Mr Groser got from the GCSB for the WTO bid was unlikely to fall within the legal purposes for which the bureau existed.

"It just stinks," Mr Peters said. "There's no way spying on competitors for the WTO job would remotely conform to New Zealand's economic purpose and wellbeing. What you have is people seriously breaching their authority to help a hopeless case for the job in the first place. Groser never had a hope in Hades of getting that job."

He said the GCSB had a role where there was "any hint of sabotage of our economic interest".

John Key says new claims around intelligence collection are wrong - but he won't say why. He also says the GCSB is acting legally - but won't say how. And he says we are spying - but won't say on who. The Prime Minister has fronted media after a day of controversy caused by the publication of documents taken by whistleblower Edward Snowden while a contractor for the United States' National Security Agency.

"That's not what it is being used for. What you have here is legitimate interest being seriously distorted and perverted for an illegitimate purpose."

He said surveillance on the Indonesian candidate was "truly repugnant for our long-term relationship" with the world's largest Muslim country. Terence O'Brien - former UN ambassador, ambassador to the WTO-Gatt and president of the UN Security Council - was stunned. "What on earth were they trying to do?" asked Mr O'Brien, a diplomat of 40 years.

"It sounds like an excessive enthusiasm on the part of the spies to show they were useful. I can't imagine what they were hoping to secure to help him conduct his campaign."

GCSB's brief
The GCSB Act says the purpose of the agency is not just to defend against terrorism. Instead, its brief is broad and includes "national security" as well as contributing to the "international relations and well-being of New Zealand".
Its final purpose is intended to contribute to the "economic well-being of New Zealand".

Read our special report here and The Intercept story here.