New Zealand has been used as a base by people wanting to learn about or make weapons of mass destruction, the retiring head of the Security Intelligence Service says.
Richard Woods, who steps down as the country's top spy today, would not expand on what those efforts involved and who made them but said they were not successful.
Previous SIS annual reports have said the service had investigated links between New Zealand and weapons of mass destruction programmes and people operating here to procure "dual-use" equipment for foreign governments.
Mr Woods' comments yesterday showed those investigations had had substance to them.
'We have to try to prevent New Zealand being used as a place in or through which knowledge or things used in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction can be obtained," he said.
"The risk is real. There have been such attempts during my time in the job."
Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is also Minister in Charge of the SIS, would not elaborate on Mr Woods' comments but did endorse them.
"Yes, the risk is real and New Zealand is vigilant against being used in any way in regard to proliferation," a spokesman for the PM said.
Mr Woods, a former diplomat, became SIS director in November 1999 for a five-year term, subsequently extended for another two years.
He said his job had changed enormously in that time with the September 11 attacks considerably increasing what was already an expanding area of work for the SIS - counter-terrorism.
"Counter-terrorism is our biggest single user of resources; it takes over 40 per cent of service efforts. Seven years ago, it took about 20 per cent of the service budget."
Mr Woods has presided over an SIS expansion that has seen its staff grow from 100 in June 2001 to 170 today.
"The risk of a terrorist attack on New Zealand itself is low," Mr Woods said.
"It is possible but is not expected. But we cannot assume that our geographical isolation somehow makes us immune to the risk of other countries' interests here being attacked and especially to the risk of people using New Zealand as a safe haven from which to facilitate, encourage or plan terrorist attacks elsewhere.
"The service devotes a lot of effort to preventing that happening."
During Mr Woods' time as director, he has been forced to drop the service's usual secrecy on several occasions, notably when called to give evidence during one of Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui's court appearances and when he urged the Prime Minister to comment on SIS operational matters when it was claimed the service was spying on the Maori Party.
Mr Woods said many public comments made by various people about aspects of the Zaoui case were "misleading, unfair or plain wrong" but it would be inappropriate for him to comment while the review by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security of the security risk certificate lodged against Mr Zaoui was unresolved.
"In the meantime, I have no regrets about having made the certificate in the first place."
Mr Woods said he had advised the Prime Minister to comment on the allegations the SIS was spying on Maori and repeat his assurance they were lies because they were so potentially damaging to the service.
"The Inspector-General [Paul Neazor], after exhaustive enquiries, said it was correct the allegations were a work of fiction," Mr Woods said.
"I trust the general public is aware of that and also that many of the other allegations about the service are equally without foundation."
His successor at the SIS is Dr Warren Tucker, who shifts from the Government Communications Security Bureau, an agency that operates secret listening posts in the Waihopai Valley near Blenheim, at Waiouru and at Tangimoana in the Manawatu.
* Studied languages at Oxford University.
* Career diplomat, served in Tehran, Moscow, Washington and Paris.
* Enjoys classical music and skiing. Aged 65.