New Zealand's illegal spying on Kim Dotcom was put forward as a reason for the world's most powerful network of intelligence agencies to stop refusing to "confirm or deny" what they did, according to a newly declassified document.

The official briefing paper put the case of the Megaupload founder alongside United States' whistleblower Edward Snowden and urged a seismic shift in terms of openness to the public.

It saw New Zealand lead the argument for the world's most secretive government agencies to create a "compelling intelligence narrative".

US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking by video in Auckland in 2014. Photo / Brett Phibbs
US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking by video in Auckland in 2014. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The document was declassified and released to the NZ Herald through the Official Information Act and serves as an insight into New Zealand's involvement in the Five Eyes spying network.

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As the smallest and weakest partner to the other nations - Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States - it saw former intelligence agency minister Chris Finlayson setting the agenda for a new way of operating.

Finlayson, the first politician to hold the role without also being prime minister, was briefed so he could "lead discussion" with his heavy-hitting counterparts, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, Home Secretary at the time.

Finlayson was told "the need for a compelling intelligence narrative" came after the "Dotcom incident".

Kim Dotcom was unlawfully spied on by the GCSB spy agency. Photo / Richard Robinson
Kim Dotcom was unlawfully spied on by the GCSB spy agency. Photo / Richard Robinson

Dotcom, wanted by the United States over alleged copyright breaches through his website Megaupload, was spied on by our Government Communications Security Bureau prior to an FBI-inspired raid in January 2012.

When the spying was discovered, it quickly emerged it was unlawful because the GCSB was banned in law from using its powerful Five Eyes surveillance tools on New Zealand citizens and residents.

Finlayson's briefing said that the "resulting political furore" was relevant to all Five Eyes countries.

"It was made worse in New Zealand by the fact that GCSB reported directly to the Prime Minister, and so the resulting debate was very quickly politicised."

The briefing did not directly name Snowden, instead referring to the "subsequent media leaks episode".

Then prime minister John Key taking questions over the unlawful spying on Kim Dotcom in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Then prime minister John Key taking questions over the unlawful spying on Kim Dotcom in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The timing of the discovery of the unlawful spying on Dotcom and the meeting makes it certain the "media leaks episode" referred to Snowden's decision to copy and leak masses of secret files to the media.

Finlayson's briefing said "the intelligence community needs to be able to explain what it does, why" and what oversight existed. It said there was a need to do so "compellingly and continually".

The briefing, which does not carry the author's name, said it meant "we need to see the communications effort as a core function for each of our intelligence and security agencies".

It also suggested communications teams for each of the agencies needed to work together to get the message across.

Dotcom - who is currently suing the GCSB over unlawful spying - described the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies as the world's "largest criminal conspiracy".

He said he was sceptical of claims about greater openness. "They are saying that they need to do a better job responding to leak scenarios."

Chris Finlayson, New Zealand's former minister in charge of the intelligence agencies, briefed spy partners on Dotcom. Photo / Stu Munro
Chris Finlayson, New Zealand's former minister in charge of the intelligence agencies, briefed spy partners on Dotcom. Photo / Stu Munro

But Massey University security studies lecturer Dr Rhys Ball said the public had greater knowledge than ever before of the actions of the intelligence community.

"Gone are the days where you can get away with saying you neither confirm or deny. It's not tolerated and not necessary.

"You need to explain what you do as much as you can. They had to do something and they had to make a genuine effort."

He said the change had caused "pain" but the security services were better for it.

Dr Paul Buchanan, who runs a defence and intelligence consultancy called 36th Parallel Assessments, said a good "narrative" helped show the agency in a positive light, meaning it was less subject to criticism.

"What they are doing is trying to shift the narrative from … 'we are bad guys intruding into people's lives' to 'we are the good guys getting out in front of threats'.

In New Zealand, the "narrative" rolled out from between 2013 and 2017 when the new Intelligence Security Act was passed into law. It did with support across the house - a marked contrast to the street protests seen four years earlier when earlier legislation was tweaked.

Pipitea House, Wellington, which houses the NZSIS and GCSB. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Pipitea House, Wellington, which houses the NZSIS and GCSB. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The New Zealand "narrative" included the agencies setting up websites, public discussion of threats and threat levels, the release of details about threats to New Zealand and interviews by the director of the NZ Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge.

Around that time, the NZ Herald was provided through the Official Information Act the "year one" communications strategy for the intelligence community and an interview with one of our most senior intelligence officials who explained that the traditional "neither confirm or deny" was no longer enough.