Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Sunday Insight: Far more cloak than dagger to agency

When the little-known GCSB founder Colin Hanson died last year, he had been working on a classified history of an agency whose secrets he knew better than anyone. As the intelligence bureau comes under unprecedented Parliamentary scrutiny this week, Herald on Sunday inquiries have prompted the GCSB to come clean on where some of its skeletons are buried

Colin Hanson, in a photo likely taken in the early 80s while working at the GCSB. Photo / Getty Images
Colin Hanson, in a photo likely taken in the early 80s while working at the GCSB. Photo / Getty Images

In the smoke and mirrors of the intelligence world, amid secrecy and denial, crucial figures can become forgotten footnotes in a dust-gathering classified file.

One such person is Colin Hanson, whose death last year, aged 87, passed without public eulogy.

Not only did he establish and lead the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) for its first 11 years, but it was his unflinching ambition that steered New Zealand into its partnership with the four members of the global spying network known as Echelon, or Five Eyes.

Some say he "led governments around by a leash" to get them to agree to ever-deepening allegiances with the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

"It was his ambition, rather than New Zealand policy or anything like that, that drove New Zealand to have its own signals intelligence agency," says author Nicky Hager.

Rightly or wrongly, Hanson's vision gave New Zealand a place at the table, even if it was fed scraps.

GCSB activities have come under intense scrutiny since it was revealed to have spied illegally on New Zealand citizens.

And, as the wrangle over the future of the bureau rages, what would the man responsible for its very existence have made of it all?

Hanson's widow, Doreen doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

"I can't really see why people are getting in an uproar about their privacy," she tells the Herald on Sunday. "If you haven't done anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about. That's my philosophy."

Hanson was an expert in signals intelligence: the interception and analysis of electronic information. More esoteric than espionage, intelligence work is carried out by tech wizards and desk jockeys rather than Martini-drinking, Luger-toting spies.

From a tiny corner of Defence Headquarters in Wellington, Hanson built the GCSB into a functioning intelligence agency, oversaw the construction of secret bases at Tangimoana and Waihopai, and fed New Zealand's Five Eyes partners hundreds of thousands of pieces of raw data on everything from Argentinian naval communications during the Falklands War to Vanuatu trade talks. New Zealand intelligence capabilities expanded exponentially.

Even during the anti-nuclear split, when New Zealand supposedly was out in the cold, Hanson helped ensure the flow of information continued virtually unabated.

The GCSB continued to perform its role as deputy sheriff of the South Seas in the world's most powerful intelligence network.

You won't find any mention of Hanson in the recent online official history of the GCSB. That could be about to change, as current director Ian Fletcher reveals today that he is looking at releasing an official, unclassified history of "The Bureau". At last, perhaps, some recognition for the contributions of Colin Morris Hanson, OBE.

It began with a bang. Hanson's path into the intelligence world started when he was badly injured by an errant grenade in a training exercise after World War II.

RNZAF navigator Hanson lost sight in one eye and part of his hearing and, after a decorated flying career, this daring World War II veteran was confined to a desk.

His injuries did come in handy battling bureaucracy, says his close friend and publisher Errol Martyn.

"Colin did confess to me that, in dealing with officialdom, these handicaps proved advantageous in him being able to claim not having heard or seen all that was put before him."

After postings to Singapore, Melbourne and all over New Zealand, Hanson joined defence intelligence in 1962 and, by 1974, he was Director of Defence Intelligence.

It was then he began gathering the services spread over Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the spy agency, the NZSIS, to form a new agency in 1977.

"Colin was the mover and shaker behind the effort to establish an organisation to control New Zealand's signals intelligence, communication security and technical security interests," according to an unpublished official GCSB obituary.

Although the GCSB was established on September 1, 1977, its existence wasn't acknowledged until 1980 by then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.

In those days, Hanson's life was "about as disconnected from the rest of New Zealand life as you can get", says Hager.

The location and atmospheric conditions in New Zealand's corner of the globe allowed our modest NR1 station at Waiouru to plug a valuable gap in the eavesdropping on the world.

Doreen Hanson admits the latest Cold War developments were rarely discussed at the family dining table in Kiwi St, in the Upper Hutt suburb of Heretaunga.

Hanson was "self-contained" and didn't bring his work home, she says.

"His work was his hobby. He spoke of it at times but, naturally, there was a lot of stuff that we didn't know," she says. "I preferred not to know."

Hanson's personal life was marred by tragedy: one of his three sons was killed by a drunk driver in the 1980s.

His professional life was one that, by necessity, was kept secret from his wife and family.

But the one part of his working life that he could share with his wife and family was the travel.

Doreen would "trundle along" when her husband travelled overseas to meet the heads of the US National Security Agency, and the UK's GCHQ.

She paid her own fare and would tour local attractions while Hanson met his counterparts.

They both loved the overseas travel, especially Hanson, the Hutt Valley bureaucrat who would be feted as an equal among the top intelligence operatives in the world.

Tangimoana was opened in secret by Muldoon in 1982. Its existence in the sleepy Manawatu village better known for whitebait and horseriding was uncovered by peace activist Owen Wilkes two years later.

The public thirst for answers about these "secret squirrels" led to one of the key moments of Hanson's directorship of the GCSB. On June 12, 1984, the soon-to-be-deposed Muldoon told Parliament that the GCSB liaised closely with Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA.

It remains the only time a New Zealand Government has acknowledged the partnership, says Hager.

Muldoon said the Tangimoana station did not monitor "New Zealand's friends in the South Pacific".

Years later, a former Tangimoana signals worker told Hager that Hanson had ordered the antenna switched off at the moment Muldoon made his speech, thus making the "no spying" assertion fleetingly true.

Another revealing insight comes in the GCSB's annual report from 1985/86, which came to light in 2006, in which Hanson describes the relationship as "a mixed state of official cautiousness and private cordiality". The volume of overseas intelligence reports increased by 33 per cent on the previous year.

That report, found in David Lange's archives after his death, lists the countries and agencies the GCSB was spying on, including UN diplomatic communications, Argentine naval intelligence, Egypt, Japan, the Philippines, Pacific Island nations, France, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Korea, East Germany, Laos and South Africa.

Hager says even the Prime Ministers of the day, Muldoon and Lange, would have barely known what was going on. Their oversight of Hanson was "limited". Lange famously (and controversially) claimed to not know much of what the GCSB got up to - a claim strongly refuted by one of Hanson's successors.

Warren Tucker, who worked for Hanson at the GCSB and became a close friend, also defended the agency against the claims of its critics that it was a "lackey of US or UK puppet masters".

When Tucker eventually succeeded his mentor as GCSB director, he issued a statement: "I am aware of no circumstance where the GCSB has put its own interests ... ahead of those of New Zealand."

In his 1996 book Secret Power, Hager says Hanson was not so obsessed by security as some other GCSB directors, and enjoyed playful correspondence with those who made requests under the 1982 Official Information Act. But Hager also saw a single-mindedness to build his agency as he saw fit, to make it a "proper" agency, "the junior equivalent of the NSA and the GCHQ".

A former GCSB colleague says the basic structure of the GCSB has remained much the same since Hanson's time. "But the range, sophistication, and amount of work has evolved considerably, particularly as the technologies involved have evolved," he adds. "For example, the [communications security] area has needed to increase far beyond what was originally envisaged in order to deal with the issues of cyber security."

Hager says Hanson would constantly push his Government masters for more resources. "They started to do analysis work of translating and writing reports and setting them into the system and then codebreaking.

"One by one, different parts fell into place."

The GCSB budget grew to $63 million in the 2011/12 financial year.

Hanson's "final baby" was setting up Waihopai monitoring station in 1988, bringing New Zealand's capabilities into the digital age.

"All of that was driven by his ambition to go from overseeing a stand-alone agency that would grow and grow," the colleague says. "When it's rolling along in a way that would be hard to stop, it's very hard for a government to think 'Why are we doing that?' and stop it again."

Hanson retired later that same year, and David Lange's retirement followed in 1989, but both seemed determined that GCSB secrets not go to the grave with them. When Lange died, he left information on the GCSB to be found in his private papers.

In one of his last interviews before he died in 2005, Lange told the Herald on Sunday that New Zealand obtained secret communications intelligence about the Soviet Union that was key to ending the Cold War.

"I facilitated New Zealand becoming a receiver of intelligence that they [the Eastern bloc] did not wish to be in our hands, and that limited the ability of the Eastern bloc to communicate with each other," he boasted.

Hanson had not been willing to wait so long. At Warren Tucker's request, he had already accepted a commission to write a classified history of the GCSB for the intelligence community.

"It would be fair to assume that he was up against people further up the food chain who thought the money establishing the Bureau would have been better spent on more traditional military hardware like tanks and rifles," Tucker says now. "It is a tribute to Colin's networking and diplomacy that he was able to successfully advocate and influence the bureaucracy. It was outstanding. He was a visionary."

During his research for the Bureau history, Hanson discovered there was no comprehensive record of Air Force awards and medals, so compiled one. By Such Deeds was published 11 years later, and remains the authoritative work on the subject.

Among the thousands of exploits painstakingly chronicled in the book is that of Flight Lieutenant Jim McCaw, grandfather of one Richie McCaw, who flew at least 308 sorties and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

When Hanson eventually returned to the GCSB history, his health was beginning to fail and it sat uncompleted. The unfinished manuscript gathered dust for more than a decade.

The Herald on Sunday learned of the existence of this history this year and requested a copy under the Official Information Act.

In response, GCSB director Ian Fletcher said the GCSB held a collection of classified notes covering the post-World War II period but they were "not ordered into any publishable chapters".

"A decision on whether to produce an unclassified version for wider release was never made. Unfortunately, due to ill health, Mr Hanson was never able to complete the book," Fletcher explained.

As a result of the newspaper's inquiries, Fletcher says he has begun a feasibility study of producing an unclassified history of the GCSB.

In the past year, the modern-day workings of the GCSB have become more public than ever before. New Zealanders have learned of such mundane details as the staff cafeteria where the spooks eat their sandwiches and brief the Prime Minister; of how they secretly monitored Kim Dotcom and 85 other New Zealanders; of John Key's claims that the Bureau has stopped terrorists using New Zealand technology to build weapons of mass destruction.

But much of Hanson's role - his years founding, leading and documenting the GCSB - remains mysterious and revelatory to his family.

While he was still privy to so many of New Zealand's secrets, Colin and Doreen Hanson took their three grandchildren camping - like so many Kiwi families.

Doreen says her grandchildren didn't recognise the man who was described by former GCSB colleagues at his funeral. "At his funeral," she says, "my grandson stood up and said, 'The man you've spoken about is not the man I knew'."

- Herald on Sunday

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