As the camera is being set up, spy boss Rebecca Kitteridge laughingly notes it would be nice not to be filmed with half her face in shadow.

Apparently that is an occupational hazard, adding a more sinister spy-like ambience to interviews. "That's not really what I'm like: 'Rebecca Kitteridge in the shadows'. The least spooky person in the world."

This is one of what has become a regular six-monthly round of media interviews for the head of the Security Intelligence Service.

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This round marks Kitteridge's second anniversary as the head of the agency. In her former life she was a Cabinet Secretary and in 2012 reviewed the SIS' sister agency, the GCSB, on what was questionably unlawful spying by the GCSB on behalf of the SIS.

One of the issues she has raised is that the inherently secretive nature of the agencies' work meant the public did not understand much of it and that had fed suspicion. The SIS, apparently, is much misunderstood so she has effectively added a PR element into her job to try to demystify that work and reassure the public about the agencies' use of their powers.

It means she walks a fine line between giving the public more information that explains the agency's work without giving too much. A little bit of information is not necessarily a good thing and Kitteridge has already found out the spy agencies can be a bit of a political football.

You can't have the Security and Intelligence Service being the ones leading the work on building communities because we have a very specific role.


Kitteridge found that out after she revealed, in response to questions from the Prime Minister at a security and intelligence committee meeting, that a number of New Zealanders were in Islamic State-controlled areas as "jihadi brides".

She was criticised for over-egging the security risk of that by failing to mention that the women in question had all been living in Australia rather than New Zealand, so had presumably been radicalised and recruited in Australia as well.

She says now she was unable to reveal that aspect because it was information from Australian intelligence agencies and she had not been given clearance to reveal it at the time. She subsequently got that clearance as part of a Official Information Act request in March.

However, she maintains it was still worth raising the issue of those women and believed they are a security risk, not least because "if they survive" they are more likely to return to New Zealand than Australia. That is because Australia's anti-terrorism laws deny entry and even strip citizenship from foreign fighters and those associated with terrorist groups.

That would mean any women on the watchlist who tried to return to Australia would be denied entry and likely deported to New Zealand instead.

The latter was something Prime Minister John Key did not spell out in his own defence to accusations he "scaremongered" about the security risk the women presented.

Kitteridge is wary of getting dragged into the political debate around it, but when it is suggested Key had not made that clear she says "he might want to have emphasised that".

After that, the Security and Intelligence Minister Chris Finlayson held meetings with Muslim communities to build bridges because of their concern they had been unfairly tarnished. Kitteridge said it was appropriate for him to do that, but not for her to act in such a role.

GCSB acting director Una Jagose, left, and SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge during their appearance at the Intelligence and Security select committee at Parliament in December. Photo / Mark Mitchell
GCSB acting director Una Jagose, left, and SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge during their appearance at the Intelligence and Security select committee at Parliament in December. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"You can't have the Security and Intelligence Service being the ones leading the work on building communities because we have a very specific role."

She had met the head of the Federation of Islamic Associations and would continue to meet the group to hear any concerns.

It is almost two years since the SIS delivered a list of the top six security concerns for New Zealand to the returning National Government. Among them was violent extremism, cyber attacks, foreign spies, mass arrivals, and organised crime and instability in the South Pacific.

Kitteridge says those threats remain the same two years later. She remained concerned about the reach of Isis on social media and points to the arrest of an 18-year-old suspected of planning a terrorist attack in Australia this week.

"It appears that person was probably radicalised online so we shouldn't be complacent about it."

However, she is also wary of overstating the concern and says the risk of a domestic terrorism is something the agency has to be alert to but not something that should keep members of the public awake at night.

Kitteridge has to report every six months to the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence on the agency's work. The broader details are made public and the last report showed it had only once used a new power to conduct emergency surveillance without a warrant for up to 24 hours. A warrant was subsequently obtained to continue the surveillance.

Kitteridge will not say what that instance related to, or whether the person was still on the watchlist.

She was not surprised the power had only been used once in the first six months, partly because there was usually time to get a warrant. It helped that Finlayson, the Minister responsible for the agencies (and warrants), was based in Wellington and usually easy to get hold of. "I would always want to apply it only sparingly and only when we have to."

Change is coming for the agencies after a broad-sweeping intelligence review by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy recommended the agencies effectively work as one agency and the GCSB be given the power to spy on New Zealanders for itself rather than on behalf of the SIS.

That report also noted that the public outcry over the GCSB's possibly unlawful spying on New Zealanders uncovered in Kitteridge's 2012 review had made the agency reluctant to undertake such work for other agencies such as the SIS even after the law was changed to specifically allow it soon after that report. Dr Cullen noted that cautious approach opened New Zealand to possible threats over that period.

Kitteridge said it was understandable if the GCSB was more cautious. "It wouldn't be surprising if an organisation was very, very careful after going through what the GCSB went through. They didn't want to make any mistakes. I can quite understand why." However, she disputed that it had meant the GCSB could not have helped the SIS where it was necessary. "We do use GCSB to assist us on our warrant. We go through a very careful process about that. I don't think anybody should worry about an out-of-control GCSB, they are assisting us very carefully and lawfully where they can."

Kitteridge won't comment on the recommendations for reform of the agencies, saying it is up to Parliament to decide where to take it but the agency would abide by whatever law replaced the current one.

I think people totally get that it is normal for a country to have an organisation like this.


Nor will she say much about Dr Cullen's comments that some international students were undercover foreign spies, something that justified giving the agencies access to student data. She says only that "a very small number"of foreign spies are of interest to the SIS.

She had worked to overhaul the agency since taking it over. "It was quite an isolated organisation for quite a while and it doesn't feel like that now. It feels like a well-connected, well-functioning organisation that does operational things that must remain covert in some ways but in all other respects ought to behave like any other organisation."

She believes the public has a better appreciation of the agencies, saying there was "that sort of two-dimensional portrayal of what the SIS does, it's either Clouseau or it's Bond".

"But actually, from our own experience of asking for help from the public, which we regularly do, and also from surveys we've done about attitudes to the SIS, the overwhelming response is positive."

She does not believe New Zealanders are suspicious about the agency's work, saying 90 per cent of those who are asked for help agree to talk. Although much of its work is secretive, it is open when it goes to members of the public for help. "We say 'hello, I'm from the SIS and there's something I'd appreciate if you could help me with'."

"I think people totally get that it is normal for a country to have an organisation like this."

At the end of the interview, I ask if she has ever snuck a look at her own file at the SIS. There must be one - her current role and former role would have required the very same high-level security clearance the SIS does for the Government. She is appalled at the very thought she would do anything so improper. It appears the spy boss powers do not extend to spying on herself.