Lange's penchant for quips, nuclear policy fallout and Muldoon's finance flaws laid out in history of US spying.

An extraordinary database of CIA documents has been made available, revealing the United States' intelligence agency's history of spying on New Zealand.

The database was put online this week and reveals internal Central Intelligence Agency reports which detail the inner workings of New Zealand political parties, briefings on our Prime Ministers and the times we have upset the most powerful nation in the world.

It is a trove of both treasure and trivia, including:

• The CIA's belief former Prime Minister David Lange accidentally backed himself into a corner on the nuclear-free issue, and US concerns the policy could spread throughout the Pacific.
• That Lange told US officials he believed nuclear propulsion was safe.
• The revelation that New Zealand's nuclear free stance - for which we were punished for decades - didn't make any difference to the US from a military perspective.
• A detailed biography of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon and detailed accounting of his pro-US sympathies, including that Muldoon saw himself as a world leader in financial leadership despite "limited achievements" at home.
• The suggestion former US President Ronald Reagan tell Muldoon he was his favoured candidate to win an election during a White House visit.
• A McCarthy-era report into communism in New Zealand - a concern which was present throughout the documents into the late 1980s.

Advertisement

The database has been put online by the CIA after campaigning and legal action by a group called Muckrock, which was set up to help people file Freedom of Information Act requests.

Among the 13 million pages of records are almost 4000 CIA documents which reference New Zealand, dating from as early as a 1948 report on US claims to islands in the Pacific.

Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon watched by the Governor-General Sir David Beattie famously declaring a snap election in 1984.
Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon watched by the Governor-General Sir David Beattie famously declaring a snap election in 1984.

The most recent report discovered by the Herald is from 1988, when the CIA wrote of its perceived increase in "racial tension" as a result of Waitangi Tribunal findings.

The bulk of the CIA's previously top-secret reports come from the 1970s and 1980s with a strong focus on New Zealand's move towards becoming nuclear-free.

The pro-US leanings of Muldoon, Prime Minister from 1975, were detailed by the CIA but it was made clear to Washington he was no patsy.

In a 1978 report, Muldoon was described as "second to none in his high regard for the US" who believed "more than his predecessors" that NZ needed the US for security.

However, with "characteristic bluntness" Muldoon had told the US that he felt it did not do enough to balance out NZ's contribution to the Anzus relationship.

The CIA also noted Muldoon felt he had a contribution to make to US foreign policy and "hopes the US will accept well-meaning criticism" when it was offered.

The papers repeatedly mentioned Muldoon's appreciation of the relationship with the US and a 1981 briefing from the CIA to the White House showed it was reciprocated.

A memo to President Reagan pointed out Muldoon had a "difficult" election that year and the visit to the US was an "opportunity to show the New Zealand people that he is an international leader of some stature who is taken seriously in Washington".

It was suggested Muldoon would welcome an "expression of hope" from President Reagan "that he will emerge victorious".

By the time of the key 1984 election, the CIA prepared a full biography of Muldoon. It described Muldoon's success with NZ's economy as "limited" but said it had "not deterred him from preaching international monetary reform to world leaders ... at every opportunity".

"Now in his 14th year as Minister of Finance, he fancies himself as one of the senior statesmen on the international financial scene."

The CIA also warned that a Labour victory "would create difficulties in the US relationship". It was also concerned at the resurgent nuclear-free movement which was being pushed by Labour.

"Unable to come up with policies of its own to cure New Zealand's economic ills, Labour sees political benefit in identifying with a fear of nuclear contamination that is widespread and growing in New Zealand and which spans the political spectrum," the CIA report stated.

Other CIA reports show the agency had been assured by "foreign ministry officials" that a compromise would be worked out, one report said: "We are not so sanguine."

Prime Minister David Lange addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, 25 September 1984. Photo / supplied by UN.
Prime Minister David Lange addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, 25 September 1984. Photo / supplied by UN.

While it stated that "Lange has privately assured US officials that he is personally satisfied that nuclear propulsion is safe" and it was weapons over which he held concerns, the CIA stated that Labour's policy appeared to cover both.

A report after Lange became Prime Minister blamed "his penchant for speaking off the cuff in press interviews" which had "inched him into a trap from which he could not extricate himself". The CIA believe that sank Lange's expectation the US would be forced to compromise on his terms.

Pervasive through the reports was the CIAs fear that Soviet Russia would take advantage of the situation, with reports detailing suspected communist activity across the Pacific and inside the Labour Party.

The degree of detail was exhaustive. One report on the state of New Zealand under Labour carries pages of detailed Labour Party and trade union intrigue.

Ken Douglas - mentioned in the CIA reports - was in trade union leadership at the time and said he was not surprised to be mentioned. "That was just a reaction to the Cold War hysteria that was around at the time."

Muckrock won unfettered access for all to the "Crest" database - the CIA Records Search Tool - established after a 1995 order by former President Bill Clinton which required intelligence agencies to review records 25 years or older for declassification.

Muckrock sued the CIA, saying that its database was "technically public, but in practice largely inaccessible". Until now, access has been restricted to four computer terminals kept at a location the CIA has since admitted posed "an obstacle to many researchers".

The CIA initially said it would take 28 years to digitise the database, then appears to have folded after a Muckrock researcher began doing it himself from one of the four terminals.