John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: 'Intelligence' counts for little

Secrecy for spies probably hides how little they know

Spying has to have a purpose beyond outwitting another country's spies, doesn't it? Photo / Supplied
Spying has to have a purpose beyond outwitting another country's spies, doesn't it? Photo / Supplied

Spy stories have never appealed to me. At the end I'm usually left wondering what was the point exactly of all the secrecy, danger and intrigue? What was the "intelligence" that was so well hidden and precious the hero had to risk his neck for it?

Fiction writers treat this as a minor detail. If they bother to concoct a point for their plot it is seldom credible. True stories are not much better.

There have been countless books and articles on Britain's best-known spies, Burgess, McLean, Philby and Blunt, but even now, 20 years after the Cold War, I don't know what they told the Soviet Union. It has never seemed to matter.

It was enough for the story that they probably shopped on Britain's agents behind the iron curtain and supposedly caused their deaths, though it is equally possible those fellows got a tip-off as Burgess, McLean and Philby did.

Whatever, spying has to have a purpose beyond outwitting another country's spies, doesn't it? Sometimes I wonder.

I don't wonder for long. Life's too short to spend on riddles that are probably not important. Information that matters tends to be available to any interested mind and there is so much of it to read.

I can completely understand John Key's "brain fade" in a briefing by the Government Communications Security Bureau on its role in the Dotcom investigation. Likewise Bill English, standing in for Key a few months later and forgetting to mention to him that he had signed something to do with Dotcom for the GCSB.

I'm glad they had more important things on their minds.

This interminable spy story arrived at some sort of conclusion this week. Our mega-loaded German guest will keep it alive in the courts for a while yet but how many of us care that the external intelligence bureau went beyond its brief when it monitored a New Zealand resident?

There was always likely to be a reasonable explanation and so it turned out.

The Cabinet Secretary, Rebecca Kitteridge, looked into it and reported that the bureau had been acting in the belief it was permitted to help a legitimate police investigation of a New Zealand resident or citizen.

Common sense would say that, but in the view of lawyers the legislation governing the GCSB since 2003 does not. In that time it has spied on 88 of us.

This week the Government put a bill into Parliament that will ensure the bureau can monitor your communications and mine if the police or the Security Intelligence Service gets a warrant.

Should we care? I can't think of a reason. Nor can I fathom why the GCSB's job was ever confined to foreign communications. If it intercepts messages of concern they will often involve a New Zealander.

If Mr Dotcom persists with his court case on this issue we might even be told exactly what data the spies passed on. That would make a change.

There was a hint of it in Kitteridge's report. She mentioned that the agency had believed it did not need a warrant to collect "meta-data" which, she explained, was the sort of information contained on a phone bill.

That is probably the level of information spy agencies usually produce - fragments of "intelligence" that seldom add up to anything.

A nation's real intelligence are its diplomats.

Information of most value comes, I am sure, from contacts and confidences cultivated by friendly, perceptive, up-front diplomacy, not from telephone taps or manila folders slipped to secret agents in dark alleys.

It was infuriating to see Key's efforts for this country in China last week distracted by a leak of the Kitteridge report.

Those trips are busy, embassies arrange meetings and engagements for every available minute of a state visit.

Key had infinitely better things to do than face questions from home about domestic spying. If spies can find the leaker it would give me a little more faith in them.

My doubts that intelligence agencies really know very much dates from my first sight of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. It was quickly apparent that the West's knowledge of the Soviet threat must have come entirely from the Moscow cocktail circuit.

Outside, where diplomats needed permission to go, the country was creaking and the people dispirited. The system was rotten at the core and terminally weak. Yet Western intelligence was still pumping out the fear we had been fed since childhood.

Intelligence services have been no better in the era of "terror". For all the talk in the 1990s of a new stateless threat, the CIA had nobody close to al-Qaeda.

Kitteridge has let us see spies as public servants much like any others, except for their habit of secrecy that hides how little they know.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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