The sharing of security intelligence with the Leader of the Opposition is a rare and valuable requirement in our system of government. It is a slender safeguard against the risk that the state's secret agencies may be used for partisan political purposes. The system depends on directors of the SIS dealing fairly and professionally with leaders on both sides. It also depends on both leaders resisting any temptation to use their knowledge of what the other has been told.
John Key broke that rule in July 2011, when he made it publicly known that the Opposition leader, Phil Goff, had been briefed by the SIS on Israelis who had been in Christchurch when the February earthquake struck. Mr Goff had denied being briefed and when he continued to deny it, a member of the Prime Minister's staff helped blogger Cameron Slater make an official information request for evidence held by the SIS director at that time, Warren Tucker.
Mr Tucker bears the brunt of the blame apportioned yesterday by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, after an exhaustive investigation of the incident. She makes no criticism of Mr Key, and lets former political staff members Phil de Joux and Jason Ede off lightly.
But Mr Tucker, she said, was under an obligation expressed in the NZSIS Act to ensure the service "does not take any action for the purpose of furthering or harming the interests of any political party".
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Cheryl Gwyn has found his actions towards Mr Goff in July-August 2011 to have been unfair and unprofessional. He took the unusual step of releasing his briefing note because he considered Mr Goff's denial to be a slight on his integrity. He did so after Mr Goff had met him in July to clarify what had happened at their discussion in March. Mr Goff had conceded the subject had been raised though he said he had seen no paper on it. Mr Tucker was sure he had shown him a paper and Mr Goff had read the first page.
The Inspector-General has been able to demand extraordinary material, including records of phone calls between the SIS and the Prime Minister's Office. She reports one in which Mr Tucker told Mr de Joux that Mr Goff had asked for a delay in the release of the briefing note to Slater. "He is clearly very nervous about where this puts him," said Mr Tucker. "Well, he shouldn't have lied," Mr de Joux replied. "No, no, I know, but now he is in a hole," Mr Tucker agreed.
The former SIS director has accepted he made significant errors of judgment. Perhaps the most surprising was his unawareness, according to the report, of the nature of Slater's blog. He thought the information request had come from a "private individual" and that was the reason it was dealt with in a different way from requests by news media for records of the Goff briefing. Those had been refused.
Mr Tucker erred, badly. But it was the stimulation by the Prime Minister's staff of the official information request that prompted the whole sorry episode.
None of the protagonists are still in their positions except Mr Key, who was in America when Mr Tucker released the note. Cheryl Gwyn did not summon the Prime Minister to the inquiry and has let him off too lightly. Under criticism by Mr Goff over the Israelis story, he needed to do more than invoke his own advice from the SIS.
Three years on, it seems a trifling issue, but non-partisanship in the intelligence agencies is important. The Prime Minister should have shown better judgment and been discreet. His office should hold higher standards. Shabby politicisation of security information must be avoided.