When Edward Snowden defected with thousands of classified US intelligence documents, he claimed that he was doing so in order to expose the massive scale on which the United States government spied on its own citizens.
The first tranche of documents leaked to selected media outlets supported this claim, as it detailed the scope of National Security Agency signals intelligence gathering within the US on citizens and non-citizens alike, including wholesale phone tapping and internet surveillance.
The ensuing uproar prompted congressional hearings into the extent to which signals intercept programmes such as PRISM and XKeystroke were used by the NSA in violation of US domestic law and constitutional guarantees on the right to privacy. Arguments about the legality of the NSA's domestic spying continue, with more information on the close relationship between the FBI and NSA over domestic signals espionage.
Whatever the merits of exposing the NSA's domestic espionage activities, Snowden has subsequently released documents that reveal the means and targets of signals intelligence collection efforts by the US, Australia, Canada and the UK as well as partners like Singapore that assist the so-called "5 Eyes" network (which includes New Zealand).
The targets of 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection identified by Snowden include the private telephones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indonesian Prime Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the email systems of the Brazilian Ministry of Energy and Mining and Brazilian energy companies, Mexican politicians, Arab dictators, Malaysian government agencies and Chinese telecommunications firms.
These are just the tip of the data iceberg that Snowden has sequestered with the help of organisations such as Wikileaks and journalists such as Glenn Greenwald and Nicky Hager.
Snowden's leaks identify means of 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection outside the US. They detail that Australian, British, Canadian and US embassies serve as signals intelligence collection points, and that the US, Canadians and Singaporeans have used local telecommunications firms as silent partners in their espionage efforts.
The revelations have caused major diplomatic rifts between the 5 Eyes countries and publicly identified targeted governments, as has recently been seen in Brazilian, German and Spanish government protests over US spying and the Indonesian suspension of military co-operation with Australia over the telephone interceptions.
Leaking information about the larger 5 Eyes network exceeds what Snowden originally said he would do, and is not related to internal US politics in any event. It compromises the security of the 5 Eyes partners by identifying their means, methods and targets. It damages the foreign relations of the countries identified as signals interceptors, involving subjects that have nothing to do with the US.
Snowden's revelations facilitate the counter-intelligence operations of rival espionage agencies like those of the Russians and Chinese who, coincidentally, are competitors of the US and therefore primary targets of the signals intelligence gathering efforts of the 5 Eye partners. It also helps armed extremists, such as those affiliated with al-Qaeda, to avoid electronic surveillance.
Why did Snowden do this? What purpose is served by these revelations other than to hurt the foreign relations of the "outed" countries? Given that the NSA has ample information on Chinese and Russian espionage, why has Snowden chosen not to divulge their operations?
Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then sought political asylum in Russia. That adds to suspicions that he may not be the whistleblower that he claims to be. US intelligence officials speculate that he may have been a Russian mole recruited during his tenure in Geneva as a CIA computer security technician, who then used the weak security vetting process of the private intelligence contractor that employed him to infiltrate the NSA and gain access to its document stores.
There is a precedent for this speculation. In 2012 the Canadian government admitted that Russia had "turned" a Canadian naval officer with high-level security clearances who was working for the Canadian signals intelligence community. For several years until his arrest Jeffrey Paul Delisle, compromised critically sensitive information collected by the 5 Eyes network under the Stoneghost data-sharing programme.
The damage done by his treason was considered to be "irreparable" by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and prompted urgent meetings between 5 Eyes partners in order to implement effective damage control mechanisms as a result of the breaching of Stoneghost.
If Snowden is in fact a Russian spy, for diplomatic as well as security reasons, the US and its intelligence partners will not admit it. But whether he is or not is immaterial, as intelligence officials have already said that the harm caused by his theft is immeasurable.
It is not a matter of if but when Snowden makes damaging revelations about New Zealand's role in the 5 Eyes network, including whom the GCSB spies upon at home and abroad. Prime Minister Key has already admitted as much, but maintains that he is unconcerned.
He should be.
Espionage is a sad necessity in world affairs. New Zealand has pushed its reputation as an independent and autonomous international actor, yet it is a partner in a signals intelligence collection and sharing network operated by some of the most powerful Western nations. With that role come rights as well as responsibilities but, most importantly, it marries New Zealand's security interests to those of its larger partners. The latter brings significant benefits, but invites serious costs in the event New Zealand's espionage activities are exposed.
Unlike its larger intelligence partners, New Zealand is more vulnerable to the reprisals of aggrieved foreign governments. Some of these may be current or potential trade and diplomatic partners, yet targets of 5 Eyes. New Zealand does not have the counter-leverage needed to resist the punitive sanctions of countries that it has spied upon. Its hard won reputation for independence in foreign affairs could become subject to challenge, which will jeopardise its international standing at a time when it is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council.
Given that possibility, the Government needs to prepare contingency plans for the diplomatic fallout that inevitably lies ahead.
Paul G. Buchanan is director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultancy.