By AUDREY YOUNG political editor
An internal Immigration Service document suggests there may have been a conspiracy to lie about the detention of a suspected Algerian terrorist in Auckland last year.
The document, written just days after Ahmed Zaoui was arrested by Immigration officials and taken to Paremoremo prison, states that "everyone had agreed to lie in unison" about his detention.
Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel said last night that the language used in the document was "highly regrettable" but defended the spokesman who wrote it.
She did not believe the department had conspired to lie and said she had not been party to lies.
"I do not lie to the media and I have never been party to any arrangement to lie to the media."
When the Herald first learned on December 12 of Zaoui's detention at Paremoremo, it made inquiries about him through Immigration Service spokesman Ian Smith. It transpires he was in the Beehive at Ms Dalziel's office Christmas Party at the time.
He told the reporter he was not aware what the Herald was referring to.
"Normally if there is anything untoward they would let me know and I haven't heard anything."
A short time later, Ms Dalziel contacted the Herald. She would not confirm the identity of the man being detained but said a man was being held under the Immigration Act and there were security concerns.
On the day the Herald broke the story about Zaoui, the minister, police and lawyers discussed the case openly but Mr Smith still said he had not heard of the man.
An internal Immigration Service memo circulated a few days afterwards suggests there had been an agreement to lie about the suspect.
The note, sent by Mr Smith on December 17, was a reaction to a Herald editorial of the same day. The editorial was highly critical of the way Mr Smith had handled inquiries about the detention, saying "the difference between saying nothing and telling untruths is clearly an elusive concept for some".
"I was let down badly," Mr Smith's note says at the bottom of a duplicate of the editorial. "Everyone had agreed to lie in unison, but all the others caved in and I was the only one left singing the original song."
Mr Smith said yesterday that he did not recall having written the comment. "I'll have to get back to you. I've got no recollection of the thing. It sounds like some sort of flippant aside, really."
Mr Smith, Ms Dalziel and Immigration Service general manager Andrew Lockhart were in unison with their choice of the word "flippant" to describe the memo.
A few hours after the Herald spoke to Mr Smith, Ms Dalziel rang and said she believed it was flippant.
"Because I know the individual concerned, I would say that the statement in the letter, knowing him, would have been flippant.
"He would have been angry at the editorial and staff members don't get the opportunity to respond to editorial criticisms."
Half an hour after she rang, Mr Lockhart responded to calls and also thought it was flippant.
"It was an internal memo and the remark was flippant and unfortunate in the circumstance.
"It certainly isn't our policy to lie, that's for sure."
Ms Dalziel said she had been briefed on Zaoui's arrival on December 6, earlier than previously thought.
"There was very high level concern around security issues."
She recalled a reporter ringing Mr Smith about the arrival of a suspected terrorist.
"I recall when the phone call came. I was having my Christmas party and the spokesman said he was told by the reporter that someone [a suspected terrorist] had come in last night. And he said, 'If somebody had come in last night I would have been told about it, I would know about it, and I haven't been told anything'."
Ms Dalziel said Mr Smith had told her about the call immediately and had not made the connection with Zaoui, who had come in the week before.
"He didn't actually answer the question untruthfully but, on reflection, he did know about Zaoui."
She rang the Herald later that night. She said there was never any justification for lying to the media.
"If I thought for a minute that any arrangement had been entered into between departments to lie about a matter I would be concerned, but I know that isn't the case."
Mr Lockhart said he would talk further to Mr Smith today but would not discuss any action he might take.
Zaoui is still being held in the maximum-security prison at Paremoremo. It is believed he was living in Hanoi, Vietnam, before entering New Zealand. He arrived on false South African documents, some of which were thought to have been shredded on the aircraft before landing in New Zealand.
He was refused asylum and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the Refugee Status Appeals Authority.
But he has also been issued with a "security risk certificate", a new classification which gives the Government greater powers to deal with him. It is thought he could be removed even if he wins his appeal.
Until the certificate was issued, he had been appearing weekly at the Manukau District Court for extensions to his committal warrant.
Media reports from Vancouver in 2001 linked Zaoui to Osama bin Laden's secret army in Southeast Asia.
How story unfolded
December 12, 2002
* The Herald learns that suspected Algerian terrorist Ahmed Zaoui is being held in maximum security at Paremoremo Prison.
* Reporter rings Immigration Service spokesman Ian Smith, who is with the minister in her office. He claims to know nothing about the case but says he would know if it were true.
* The minister, Lianne Dalziel, later calls the Herald to confirm that a man is being held in maximum security.
December 13, 2002
* Mr Smith still refuses to confirm that a suspect is being held, even though the minister, lawyers and police are discussing the case openly.
December 17, 2002
* Herald editorial criticises the department for denial and obfuscation.
* The editorial appears in an internal Immigration Service memo with the comment: "I was let down badly. Everyone had agreed to lie in unison, but all the others caved in and I was the only one left singing the original song."
By AUDREY YOUNG political editor