Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Labour, National agreed to US secrecy demands, cables show

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with NZ's Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with NZ's Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Cables from the United States embassy in Wellington obtained by WikiLeaks show that Labour and National Governments agreed to US demands to secrecy around specific improvements in defence and intelligence relationship.

And they indicate concern that the Labour Government was slow at embracing a new defence relationship proposed in 2007.

But none of the cables leaked so far contain anything like the political embarrassment the release of Australian-related cables last week caused.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advised by the US embassy in Wellington in January to offer a "no comment" to media on her visit here when asked about intelligence restoration - though they encouraged her to raise it with Prime Minister John Key.

That advice was offered despite the fact that Mrs Clinton had inadvertently already announced resumption of intelligence sharing in October last year, at a press conference in Washington.

About 1500 of the 250,000 diplomatic cables from US missions around the world and the US State department obtained by WikiLeaks are from the Wellington-based embassy.

Most of the cables from the Wellington embassy were written in preparation for high-level visits, by Mrs Clinton to New ZEaland and of the former Prime Minister Helen Clark to Washington in April 2007.

They have not been released on to the Wikileaks website but some were obtained by the Sunday Star Times.

Intelligence sharing with New Zealand has been restored very slowly since US reprisals against New Zealand anti-nuclear policy 25 years ago.

Full intelligence sharing did not take place until August last year.

It is understood that both countries agreed at that point to keep the full restoration under wraps but that agreement was breached by Mrs Clinton herself in October last year.

At a press conference in Washington with Foreign Minister Murray McCully, Mrs Clinton then referred to the restoration.

"We are resuming our intelligence sharing co-operation, which we think is very significant."

Despite her announcement, her own officials warned her three months later not to speak openly about it again.

"Our intelligence relationship was fully restored in August 29, 2009. while you should mention intelligence restoration in your private bilateral with PM Key and other New Zealand officials, this is a "no comment" issue when the media inevitably raises it."

The US requirement for secrecy about details of its improving relationship goes way back.

The cables show that in October 2007, seven months after Helen Clark's visit to president George W Bush in the White House, the United States had proposed a new defence relationship, outlined in a paper by deputy assistant secretary of defence James Clad.

By February 2008 the embassy was expressing "discomfort" at the delay to New Zealand's response - apparently by Helen Clark.

The cable was written by ambassador Bill McCormick after a meeting with two senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, John MacArthur and Carl Worker.

It suggests that when the response was finally delivered in time to be discussed at the annual talks of the Australian and US defence and foreign ministers (Ausmin), that it was positive about the changes to the waiver system (part of the reprisals) .

It also says New Zealand would say "we share the US assessment that there is no requirement for the advice of the outcome of the US review to enter the public domain."

NZ Deputy John McArthur is quoted as having said in a summary: "New Zealand is eager to avoid any publicity about this new approach, will only say anything under 'extreme duress' and will co-ordinate closely with the US side before saying anything."

[Deputy chief of mission Dave Keegan] thanked MacArthur and Worker for their efforts to secure this response. He noted that the extended delay in receiving a response could only make those on the US side wonder what lay behind the delay.

"Each of them said privately in the course of the day how frustrated they had been by the delays in securing consensus for this response.

"It was clear that even saying that much was sufficiently sensitive that neither wanted to say it in front of the other."

Ambassador McCormick concludes: "It remains clear though unstated that negotiating this response to our proposal was not as easy as we had thought it might be. Clearly there were those who were hesitant, either for political or operational reasons, and needed to be brought along."

* * *

Diplomatic cables about NZ held by WikiLeaks

January 6 2010
Deputy Chief of Mission Bob Clarke
Scene-setter for visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to New Zealand
Read it here

2 March 2007
Deputy Chief of Mission David Keegan
Scene-setter for visit by Prime Minister Helen Clark to Washington
Read it here

24 October 2008
Margaret McKean
After visit to NZ by Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Randall Fort
Read it here

24 November 2006
Ambassador Bill McCormick
On the resignation of Opposition leader Don Brash
Read it here

17 February 2006
Ambassador Bill McCormick
On NZ's acceptance of a US proposal on defence engagement
Read it here

3 May 2006
Ambassador Bill McCormick
On Journalists' visits to the US
Read it here

17 February 2006
Ambassador Bill McCormick
On possible changes to National Party policy on nuclear arms
Read it here

11 September 2005
Charge D'Affaires David Burnett
In the midst of the 2005 election campaign
Read it here

24 February 2005
Canberra Mission
After a meeting between Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and the US Commander of UN Command in Korea, General Leon LaPorte
Read it here

- NZ Herald

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