An "innate tension" in the current law has stopped the Government Communications Security Bureau help other agencies by monitoring New Zealanders' private communications, the new director of the intelligence agency says.
Andrew Hampton, who has been in the role for almost a month, said the current legislation contained an "innate tension, or some would say a contradiction".
"On the one hand saying we are prohibited from intercepting the communications of New Zealanders, but at the same time it says we are able to help agencies do [so]. So I think that tension probably drives a bit of conservatism."
Mr Hampton, 46, said another reason the bureau had acted conservatively was after "challenges" in recent years.
That would include the public outcry over the GCSB's possibly unlawful spying on New Zealanders, uncovered in the 2012 review by Rebecca Kitteridge.
"We now have a very healthy culture of compliance. I am satisfied that everything that the bureau does, there are systems and processes in place to ensure that it is both in accordance with the law, and in accordance with our national interest.
"But, one of our three roles is to support other agencies. So a priority for me is ensuring that when one of those specified agencies comes and asks us for help, and we are satisfied that it's legal to do it and within the priorities that the Government set for us, that we will provide that support."
A recent 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 Security Intelligence Service (SIS).
The report noted that the outcry following the Kitteridge report had made the agency reluctant to undertake intelligence work for other agencies like the SIS, even after the law was changed to specifically allow it soon after that report.
Dr Cullen noted that cautious approach opened New Zealanders to possible threats over that period.
Asked about that view, Mr Hampton said having only taken the reins on April 26 meant he could not comment.
"But certainly no particular instances had been brought to my attention ... I do think the current legislative framework does create some challenges about how we can best work together."
Mr Hampton grew up on a farm south of Ashburton and has previously been deputy secretary courts for the Ministry of Justice, deputy chief executive of Crown Law, deputy secretary for Education and director of the Office of Treaty Settlements.
He was most recently the Government chief talent officer at the State Services Commission.
His interview with the Herald and other media is part of a PR effort by the intelligence agency to be more transparent about some of its work.
New Zealand was one of the most peaceful and secure countries in the world, he said, but the Government needed to be vigilant as it is not immune from having citizens radicalised over the internet by groups such as Isis, or other threats such as cyberattacks.
The Government hopes to have Labour's support on any new intelligence agencies legislation -- which could be introduced as early as July -- stemming from the intelligence and security report, which contained 107 recommendations.
Investigative journalist Nicky Hager has previously told the Herald that, without knowing how exactly any legislation would be worded, he suspected the move to free-up the GCSB to monitor New Zealanders was to clear away any barriers to the collection of Kiwis' metadata.
Mr Hampton said he had seen nothing to suggest that the GCSB was in any way involved in the active monitoring of a mass population's communications.
"We are not in the mass surveillance business. Even now, the GCSB does have the ability with the appropriate authorisation to intercept the communications of New Zealanders.
"But that is quite specific, it is not general. The tension we have got is in the current law, in one breath it says we are prohibited from intercepting the communications of New Zealanders, but then has these other exceptions."