Fran O'Sullivan: Papers' release a major step towards openness

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Kim Dotcom. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Kim Dotcom. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It's tempting to think New Zealand's chief spymaster, Rebecca Kitteridge, may have allowed herself a passing moment of schadenfreude as she put her signature to the release of declassified documents relating to Kim Dotcom.

The declassified documents demonstrate the NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS) tried to block Dotcom's application to become a New Zealand resident but dropped its objection 90 minutes after being told there was "political pressure" to let the Megaupload founder into the country.

Kitteridge - who has a deserved reputation as a straight arrow and won plaudits for her robust report into the Government Communications Security Bureau's (GCSB) own failings which had also been sparked by the Dotcom saga - didn't bother wrapping a protection blanket over the inept goings-on between SIS officials and their counterparts at Immigration.

The SIS documents are heavily redacted. But sufficient new details have been released to raise serious questions (not fully explained) about what form of political pressure was applied to Immigration to let Dotcom, who the SIS considered to be a "bad" man but not a security risk, buy his way into New Zealand under the Investor Plus scheme.

This is particularly so because it was known Dotcom was in the FBI's sights over alleged copyright piracy.

Cabinet minister Jonathan Coleman - who must know a great deal more than he has owned up to - has yet to front up on the issue. But it does expose another layer of complexity which has not come at a great time for National with the election pending on September 20.

The latest disclosures came about through a long-running Herald investigation.Investigative journalist David Fisher had sought detailed information before over the circumstances of Dotcom's residency approval. Armed with a privacy waiver from Dotcom, the journalist was finally successful.

The problem is that these disclosures - with the desultory Independent Police Conduct Authority report which upheld the police decision not to prosecute any officers from the GCSB for their illegal spying operation - simply adds more fuel to Dotcom's electioneering attempt to force the Prime Minister's resignation (otherwise known as his $3 million Mana-Internet Party).

At a time when New Zealand's intelligence community is under sharp criticism for failing to make New Zealanders fully aware of the reason for their very existence this just sets the clock back further.

It is one thing to have confirmed yet again that our intelligence agencies have proven to be woefully deficient and not mindful when it comes to observing the limits of their powers. But quite another, when the intelligence community's reputation is continuing to be blackened through these ongoing disclosures at a time when it is increasingly urgent that confidence needs to be rebuilt in those charged with protecting us from external and internal threats.

Far too many New Zealanders still subscribe to the notion that we live in a "benign strategic environment" as former Prime Minister Helen Clark used to chirp. The former External Assessments Bureau was the advisory body to Clark that made that confident call in 2001 in an annual strategic report published on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It has since been reformed as the National Assessment Bureau with a more domestic focus. But the subsequent reports that would have justified to New Zealanders why we do need an active and watchful intelligence community are no longer published.

Hence national debate over New Zealand's security environment is dreadfully one-sided.

The problem is this debate takes place in a vacuum over why we need security services in the first place and a lack of public understanding of the risks that New Zealanders face at a personal level and through newer threats such as cyber-terrorism.

This failure to tell the security story was highlighted in the recent State Services Commission review of the intelligence community agencies.

The agencies' standard response, "We don't comment on matters of national security", was a hindrance to understanding their role. It was counterproductive and had led to "suspicions and mistrust" which had "more room to flourish in the absence of information".

In Australia, Britain and the US the agencies have a much more high-profile role and the relevant spymasters are readily identifiable.

By declassifying the Dotcom documents, Kitteridge has taken another valuable step towards openness.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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