David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Huge change needed to intelligence services

Chelsea Manning, left, and Edward Snowden. Photos / AP
Chelsea Manning, left, and Edward Snowden. Photos / AP

A dismal picture of New Zealand's intelligence services has been painted in an official report which has urged greater transparency and says huge change is urgently needed.

It says the intelligence agencies are unclear about what their priorities are while tolerating poor performance and questionable work quality.

The State Services Commission report into the intelligence community also underscores New Zealand's reliance on the United States-led Five Eyes grouping saying it is too expensive to have a "self-reliant" service.

The full Performance Improvement Framework report covered the three main branches of New Zealand's intelligence community - the electronic eavesdroppers at the GCSB, internal security and "human intelligence" agency NZ Security Intelligence Service and the strategic agencies operating out of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The entire report was considered "top secret" and too sensitive to release to the public.

It specifically withheld an assessment on the GCSB and NZSIS ability to reach its performance targets, saying doing so would place the security of New Zealand at risk.

But it did say there was a "huge amount of change to be undertaken" and it needed to happen with "urgency".

A declassified version of the report painted a grim picture of the work our spies were doing, saying "national security and intelligence priorities are inadequately defined".

While those in the intelligence community spoke of "a commitment to serving New Zealand", they also talked of the culture of the community as being "in a family with a forgiving and undemanding response to poor performance". It stated "poor performance often has been allowed to go unchallenged".

The report pointed to the massive intelligence leaks from US whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, saying it "will not help public trust and confidence in the sector".

It stated it was "hard to determine how much trust the public has" but there was a "widespread lack of awareness of the threats New Zealand actually faces".

It urged improved transparency, saying there was "evidence of intelligence agencies overseas being much more transparent and active in the media".

It said the Manning and Snowden leaks saw partner countries "determining how best to respond to public concerns" and New Zealand would likely have to "modify and upgrade its intelligence systems" to meet standards set by other Five Eyes countries.

The relationship was critical to New Zealand because it "could not deliver the current level of security and intelligence activity in a standalone, self-reliant mode".

It required "substantial investment" to allow continued access to "technology, support, and intelligence material and analysis from partners".

The report authors were critical of attempts to structure intelligence agencies in a way which mimicked partner agencies in the other Five Eyes countries; Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and United States. It "impedes high quality management" by having too many managers running team which were too small, it said.

The report also pointed to dysfunction between the GCSB and NZSIS, which now share a building in the new purpose-built headquarters in Wellington. Without naming the two agencies, the report said there was a "mutual lack of respect and a level of distrust".

There was a specific focus on the NZSIS ability to carry out efficient "vetting" of those applying for roles at more than 50 government organisations where a security clearance is required. It stated "excessive delays" had drawn "heavy criticism" from those organisations.

The report comes a year after a damning review of the GCSB by new NZ Security Intelligence Service director Rebecca Kitteridge.

- NZ Herald

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