David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

'Free thinkers' target security risks

Business leaders, spy chief among group of 10 named to advise PM on NZ’s weaknesses.
New Zealand is far from security threats such as Isis, but still faces "things that bump in the night", says a top official.
New Zealand is far from security threats such as Isis, but still faces "things that bump in the night", says a top official.

A "group of free thinkers" has been chosen to detect unseen threats to New Zealand's national security, advising the Prime Minister of danger before it arrives.

Led by GCSB boss Ian Fletcher, the group of 10 have been drawn from public and private life to find weaknesses in New Zealand's armour.

The 10 include Fisher & Paykel Appliances chairman Keith Turner, Qualifications Authority chief executive Karen Poutasi and DairyNZ director Helen Anderson.

Former Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones is also on the committee, named the Strategic Risk and Resilience Panel.

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It is part of an overhaul of early warning systems for domestic and foreign threats and reports to one of the little-known and highly secretive groups which form "ODESC" - Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Co-ordination.

The ODESC group is within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and was developed to handle intelligence assessments, counter-terrorism plans and major civil defence matters.

The overhaul places it at the centre of extreme issues dealt with by all departments, including biosecurity risks and pandemics. It is intended to serve as the linchpin of coherent government in times of crisis.

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Papers released to the Herald through the Official Information Act show the advisory group was formed as part of a streamlining process and to help "in anticipating and mitigating strategic national security risks".

"It will be expected to test and examine systems and agencies" then offer advice of how to fix problems, the papers said. The area of expertise for the group was stated as "broad" but focused on "scientific, economic, environmental risks".

DPMC chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite said members of the group had been selected for their areas of expertise. "They're a group of free thinkers who between them cover the big risk areas."

He said it was hoped they would see risk from a different perspective to those in the system, giving more realistic assessments or seeing risks others did not.

He rejected suggestions threats were overstated, pointing to cyber fraud and the threat of Ebola.

"In some respects we're relatively benign but there are plenty of things that could go bump in the night."

Long-serving diplomat Terence O'Brien, who was ambassador to the United Nations and sat on the Security Council, said the overhaul showed the Prime Minister's desire to personally handle security matters.

"He believes ... we're living in the most dangerous times ever."

The committee

Ian Fletcher - head of the Government Communications Security Bureau
Sir Peter Gluckman - PM's chief science adviser
Therese Walsh - chief executive of the 2015 Cricket World Cup
Karen Poutasi - chief executive of NZQA
Keith Turner - chairman of Fisher and Paykel
Richard Forgan - consulting partner at PWC
Hugh Cowan - Earthquake Commission executive
Lt Gen Rhys Jones - former Chief of Defence Force
Helen Anderson - director of Dairy NZ, Niwa and Branz
Murray Sherwin - chairman of the Productivity Commission.

Q&A

What do the Prime Minister's "free thinkers" do?

They imagine the unimaginable dangers faced by New Zealand. It's been said of intelligence that "you don't know what you don't know" - they're supposed to fill in the "don't know" gaps.

How were they chosen?

The committee was selected for specialist expertise - science, finance, infrastructure and cyber awareness among them.

Are there threats?

Apparently, yes. There are natural disasters, as Christchurch has tragically shown. And, while low on the risk ranking for the world, international threats can be as personal as having your own computer hacked. At the other end of the spectrum, ODESC has put a lot of work into preparing for Ebola recently.

- NZ Herald

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