Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: The GCSB is officially a mess - who is to blame?

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Prime Minister John Key during his media grilling over the appointment of GCSB head Ian Fletcher during his press conference in Porirua. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key during his media grilling over the appointment of GCSB head Ian Fletcher during his press conference in Porirua. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The GCSB is officially a mess. The only question now is who is going to wear the blame? There are plenty of likely candidates pointing their fingers at each other, but the 'prime' target is the minister directly and ultimately responsible for the agency. That is a big problem for National.

John Key reassured the public in September last year that the illegal Kim Dotcom surveillance was an 'isolated incident' writes Andrea Vance, and yet questions were being raised five months before then - see: Illegal spying kept secret for months. Vance has raised five very good questions that need answering:

1) Why did John Key not reveal these other 85 cases earlier?
2) Why did he not disclose this to MPs on Parliament's security and intelligence committee, which meets behind closed doors?
3) Why did the GCSB ask Bill English to sign a ministerial warrant?
4) Why is there no mention of these cases or the concerns raised by Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Paul Neazor in his September report?
5) Why did retired judge Mr Neazor, Commissioner for Security Warrants Sir John Jeffries, also a retired judge, or Mr Key not question how the law allowed the GCSB to spy on behalf of the SIS?'

For many more questions, and suggestions of what an independent inquiry might look into, see Selwyn Manning's Why John Key Is Part Of The Intel Problem Not The Solution.



Some of the answers lie in under-resourcing says Gordon Campbell, who some time ago thought that the Inspector General's office is 'the kind of watchdog agency you'd expect to find down at the $2 shop' - see: On the GCSB's practice of spying on New Zealanders.

The Government needs to avoid damage to the prime ministerial watchdog, and that has been the priority for some time says Nicky Hager: 'Right from the first publicity about illegal GCSB spying on Kim Dotcom, there has been a concerted effort by the government to try to avoid any blame or responsibility falling on Key. But that is where it ultimately belongs' - see: Who is really responsible for the GCSB shenanigans?. And it's Hager who might expect to be the number one enemy of GCSB, which is why cartoonist Chris Slane (@Slanecartoons) has playfully tweeted 'What's the bet those 55 kiwis spied upon were mostly Nicky Hager?'. Another Slane tweet: 'Top tip for govt agencies: break laws until you get more powers'. For other insightful or humourous tweets on the matter see my blogpost, Top tweets about the latest GCSB scandal.

Avoiding blame is now much complicated by still having to fix the mess. The idea of simply making legal now what was done illegally in the past is being advocated by ex-GCSB boss Bruce Ferguson - see: GCSB laws need changing - ex-spy boss - and by the Prime Minister himself. This is also the pushed strongly by David Farrar in An excellent report - namely that any errors, while wrong, were a mistake and the Kitteridge report is evidence that the Government is committed to fixing the problems. Requiring the SIS to do the snooping without the help of the GCSB would be a wasteful duplication of resources. But the fix may be making the situation worse according to Gordon Campbell: 'the cleaning out of the former military old guard at the GCSB, and the installation of a "change manager" in Ian Fletcher who has personal links to the PM. This amounts to a concentration of the security services, bringing them more closely in line with the PM's policy agendas'.

Danyl Mclauchlan says the proposed solution should sound familiar as it 'is the same as National's previous response when the police were caught illegally spying on New Zealanders. No one gets held accountable, and the law is changed to enable the previously illegal activity' - see: Now you'll be humming that 'No one is to blame' song for the rest of the day. See also Mclauchlan's post: Implausible, blatant lie of the day, morning edition.

There is much skepticism over the claim that the problem is one of legal interpretation. The relevant clause is actually quite clear and easy to understand says Scott Yorke: 'The GCSB's website boldly proclaims "Mastery of Cyberspace for the security of New Zealand". It is a grandiose claim, but it rings a little hollow when the organisation cannot even understand a basic piece of legislation. The GCSB should focus more attention on mastering their legal obligations - see: Mastery of legislation should come first. Colin Espiner is similarly dismissive: 'Given the spectacular incompetence of the GCSB over the Kim Dotcom raid, its inability to read even simple legislation, and the damning report by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge, I sure as hell don't want them going through my rubbish' - see: Fixing a broken law.

It was not a legal technicality when the legislation was introduced by Labour's Michael Cullen with assurances that GCSB spying on citizens was a 'myth'. 'Time to dig out the tinfoil hats, because it turns out the conspiracy theorists aren't so mad. The GCSB spied on Kiwis, we now know, under the guise of acting for other domestic agencies' writes Tracy Watkins' Conspiracy theorists had more than a glimmer of truth. And in terms of conspiracies, another one is put forward on The Standard, arguing that John Key deliberately arranged so that Bill English signed the infamous GCSB Ministerial Warrant to suppress in court the illegal spying information. Such a theory would normally appear utterly absurd and silly, but in the context of recent cover ups and shambles, perhaps it's not all that farfetched - see: The fix is in.

The leak of the report has added to the prevailing sense of incompetence and farce. There is suspicion that the Government itself leaked the report to coincide with John Key being of the country - a claim denied by both Key and English. John Armstrong says: 'English had better be right. If he is found to be wrong and has misled Parliament, he will be in big trouble - and the Government will be more than shaken, if not stirred' - see: Mystery over leaked report.

Whatever the political outcomes, it appears big changes are afoot for our spies. Opposition parties are increasingly strident in calls for a complete overhaul - see TV3's 'Whole system is corrupt' - Norman. Similarly, I went on TV3's Firstline this morning and argued that the dysfunctional spying agency is out of control and needs to have it wings clipped, not extended - see: Inquiry into GCSB needed - Edwards. But perhaps the strongest critique comes today from the Southland Times, which says the Government's plans to make the GCSB's illegal acts legal 'must be ardently resisted' - see: Sorry state of spydom. The paper lampoons the potential thought processes going on inside the Government as amounting to 'political syllogism': 'It's those three quick and careless steps: 1) We must do something. 2) This is something. 3) So this is what we must do'. A wise warning.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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