The Dotcom deportation saga might not be the most serious item on John Key's desk this year but it is surprising nevertheless that he was unaware until very recently that the nation's external security agency was taking an active part in the case. The Government Communications Security Bureau operates in absolute secrecy; its only accountability is to the Prime Minister.
Mr Key needs to take that responsibility a little more seriously.
He declares himself "quite shocked" to learn of GCSB's participation in preparations for the January swoop on the Dotcom mansion.
The bureau is not supposed to spy on New Zealand residents, a status the Megaupload mogul has enjoyed since December 2010. Mr Key should be doubly shocked that his deputy, Bill English, came to hear of it last month when acting as Prime Minister in his absence and did not think to mention it when Mr Key returned. Did Mr English not think it important either?
As acting minister in charge of the GCSB he had to sign a certificate confirming its role in the case after questions were raised in court by counsel for Kim Dotcom. A memorandum for a court hearing on procedural matters today relieves the bureau of blame for spying on a resident, explaining that it was relying on advice from the police's white-collar crime agency that all targets of the raid, including Dotcom, were foreign nationals.
But none of the agencies or the ministers will emerge from this episode with much credit. The police's Organised and Financial Crime Agency should have known the immigration status of all its targets long before the raid. The GCSB should check what it is told before spying on anyone domiciled here.
The Prime Minister and his deputy ought to be taking a much closer interest in the activities of the spy agencies than they seem to be doing, and should ensure the agencies will keep them briefed on any activity such as this.
The Prime Minister, as minister in charge of the bureau and its internal counterpart, the Security Intelligence Service, is our sole democratic check on the state security apparatus. He carries more trust in this role than in any other since parliamentary oversight of the agencies is minimal.
And yet, as the Dotcom case illustrates, their role these days extends far beyond the security of defence intelligence or even sensitive state information. Trade and commercial security has been added to their brief. And it is not necessarily New Zealand's trade and commercial security; Dotcom's operation is of interest to international copyright security.
Dotcom has engaged one of New Zealand's best advocates in Paul Davison, QC, and Mr Davison has exposed clumsiness in the police investigation at every stage. But even he could not have anticipated the latest debacle when he asked about some anonymous officials who attended a meeting at the police national headquarters before the January raid.
The Acting Prime Minister signed a certificate for the courts attesting that they were from the GCSB. It was only after he had done so, according to the Crown Law Office, that somebody remembered Dotcom had residency here, as did another of those arrested in the raid. The bureau, therefore, should not have been monitoring their movements for the police, and the deportation case faces another difficulty.
Through all this we are still waiting for the FBI to make a case for Dotcom to face. The New Zealand police may have been sent on a fishing expedition, but the illegal participation of spies has taken the embarrassment right to the top.