David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Snowden revelations: John Key failing leadership test with terrorists-under-the-bed response

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John Key speaks to the media last year as Security and Intelligence Minister Christopher Finlayson looks on.
John Key speaks to the media last year as Security and Intelligence Minister Christopher Finlayson looks on.

John Key worked to undermine the spying revelations before he knew what they were.

Even before the New Zealand Herald approached his office for comment, he offered a "guarantee" the revelations today would be wrong.

Then, exactly like those in the United States, he pulled out the terrorism bogeyman, presumably as some sort of cure-all for allegations of over-reach by our intelligence agencies.

It's a hackneyed line that was trotted out early overseas and - two years after the initial revelations from Snowden - there has not been a single, sustainable example to justify the extent of the surveillance carried out.

Our partner Five Eyes nations latterly took a more grown-up approach. There have been parliamentary inquiries, public hearings and greater degrees of information made available.

READ MORE
How New Zealand spies on its Pacific neighbours
The price of joining the Five Eyes club
• Join the Twitter debate: #snowdenNZ

But we get the terrorists-under-the-bed response.

It should be noted that here in New Zealand, the State Services Commission urged the Government in July 2014 to make more information available to the public.

SSC reviewers told the intelligence community: "It is hard to determine exactly how much trust the public has in the New Zealand intelligence agencies. What is clear, however, is the widespread lack of public awareness of the threats New Zealand actually faces, and of the extent to which NZIC helps counter them.

"Suspicions and mistrust have more room to flourish in the absence of information."

Some activities need to be protected, it said, but "a much more transparent approach could be possible in other areas".

There has actually been an improvement here by the actual intelligence agencies but the responses to the Snowden documents from the Prime Minister does not dignify the hard work done by some officials in that area.

There should be no doubt that surveillance is necessary. Intelligence is critical. That is not the debate. What has grown in the Five Eyes nations, by stealth, is the extent of that surveillance.

WATCH: Snowden reveals NSA has Auckland facility

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In prior times, it was restrained by technology. Snowden's documents reveal that, now, there is no technological restraint. Now, there are almost no limits to what we can know. That is why, from 2009, we started taking everything from the Pacific and sending it to the United States.

Once it became technologically possible, the fear of not knowing what we don't know - to mangle US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's famous line - drove the intelligence agencies onward.

But the question is not "can we", but "should we".

At what point do we surrender the ongoing burden we all bear in maintaining our democratic and free society.

Mr Key has spoken of New Zealand paying "the price of the club". Well, there is a cost for democracy and freedom, too. It is a burden, and that is the responsibility to accept the possibility some within that society will abuse those freedoms.

There is effort required to counter that, but to remove it completely requires the surrender of democracy and freedom.

In one of his last speeches as director of the GCSB, Ian Fletcher spoke of the rise of privacy as the issues of the data revolution. He quoted Thomas Hobbs in 1651 in Leviathan, in which we surrendered our "private right to violence to the state in return for a framework of order". He quoted historian Ian Morris: "War made the state, and the state made peace."

Fletcher, who brought the first non-military eye to the GCSB in its existence, was right to put these concepts forward.

The "data revolution", as Mr Fletcher termed it, poses similar questions. Do we surrender our private right to privacy in order to be free of the fear of modern-day war in its anarchic, asymetric forms?

Do we give the Government the right to look inside our homes in order to feel safe? In order to be marginally more safe? Do we double-deal, as it seems we have done, and tell the Pacific we are a benevolent and friendly nation while trampling its sovereignty and selling its privacy to pay our "price of the club"?

The answer could well be "no", as it was when David Lange rejected the United States and its nuclear weapons.

Then, as now, the shadow of fear was cast over New Zealand.

It is 30 years ago this month since Mr Lange delivered his address at the Oxford Union - a large step towards our maturity as a modern nation with a truly independent foreign policy.

Mr Key would do well to read Mr Lange's address, and the issues raised by Mr Fletcher.

Refusing to have a debate is not leadership, and a truly free and democratic society needs leadership on this issue.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

David Fisher started as a journalist in 1989 and has worked in community, provincial and national newspapers in New Zealand and abroad. He has won a number of journalism awards, twice been named New Zealand’s Reporter of the Year and been made a Press Fellow to Wolfson College at Cambridge University. PGP Key here.

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