John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: PM needs to come clean on bugging


A genuine mistake? Or a deliberate flouting of the law?

John Key was at pains yesterday to stress that the unlawful eavesdropping by the GCSB on Kim Dotcom was in the category of error rather than conspiracy. And a very isolated error at that.

Well, the Prime Minister would try to downplay this rather large embarrassment, wouldn't he? Especially given he is the responsible minister. Or is supposed to be.

Yesterday he was taking no responsibility for the illegal bugging on the basis that he was not informed of the operation until a week ago.

However - contrary to Key's assurances - this is not the first time the GCSB's exercising of its powers has recently come under question.

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Paul Neazor - the public watchdog with oversight over the intelligence agencies' activities and the person who will conduct the inquiry into the breach of the law by the GCSB - last year mentioned two instances which raised questions about whether the bureau was operating within its legal boundaries.

Unfortunately, the paucity of information provided by Neazor in his annual report makes it difficult to assess just how out of kilter the GCSB was with the law.

Still, the watchdog barked. It appears no one was listening. But Neazor's citing of his concerns means Key is consequently more responsible than he clearly wishes to be.

From the infamous "pie and Penthouse magazine" episode to SIS agents caught breaking into the home of anti-globalisation activist Aziz Choudry, the history of New Zealand's security services has been chequered by the ridiculous and the not so sublime.

The Dotcom bugging is right off the end of the scale in magnitude, however. It does not matter what you think of Dotcom. It matters that he is a New Zealand resident. The law could not be clearer. It is not the role of the GCSB to eavesdrop on Kiwi citizens or residents. That is the job of the SIS.

It is now up to Neazor to get to the bottom of this disgraceful business - and for Key to make public as much of the information Neazor comes up with as possible. Until then, the public will be left wondering whether it is funding an agency to the tune of $64 million this year which - as Labour's David Shearer put it - appears to have gone rogue.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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