When the SIS comes to the Beehive it brings its briefing papers in a locked case and once the briefing is finished it gathers all the copies up, locks them back in the case and takes them away.

John Key's staff couldn't suppress broad grins when they mentioned this to me in conversations for Portrait of a Prime Minister.

I find it funny too - not silly, it will be sensible routine practice in the security world. But there is always something absurd about secrecy. Some people thrive on it, they relish letting you know they know more than they can let you know. The fact they are doing so usually tells me it is probably not important.

One or two of our Prime Ministers have appeared to take an unhealthy interest in their dealings with the intelligence agencies. Not this one. Key delegated the task to his deputy chief of staff from the beginning. It appears from the report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security this week that he is the first to do so.


"Under previous administrations," Cheryl Gwyn wrote, "the relationship between the NZSIS and the Prime Minister was conducted almost exclusively between the Prime Minister and the Director with very little involvement by officials or advisers. After the change of Government, the contact became more diffuse and Service staff engaged directly with political advisers in the Prime Minister's Office."

The only other elected person who has to be briefed by the SIS is the Leader of the Opposition. Key had two years in that role before coming to power and he obviously decided the routine intelligence was not worth a Prime Minister's time. Now he has delegated direct charge of the SIS and the GCSB to the Attorney General, Chris Finlayson, which seems much more functionally logical and politically healthy.

Key has made himself an overseeing Minister for National Security and Intelligence in which role he is about to rush legislation through Parliament to provide greater powers of surveillance and seizure of passports. He has been given intelligence suggesting we have 30 or 40 citizens, possibly more, who might try to join jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

The Inspector General, Cheryl Gwyn, thinks the division of roles will help the secret agencies avoid political controversies such as the one in 2011 over whether Phil Goff had been briefed on a group of Israelis in Christchurch at the time of the February earthquake.

Her inquiry was mainly interested in the SIS and the report has let Key off a bit lightly. It was he who mentioned on television that Goff had received the same briefing he did. He had been told so by the SIS Director at the time, Warren Tucker, and Gwyn has discovered Tucker's advice was not quite right.

But Key's comment was not one that previous Prime Ministers would have made. They and the Opposition Leaders generally avoided mentioning their own briefings, let alone the other's. That's Key's nature, he is seldom secretive on any subject.

Lately we have had signs that he wants agencies to become a little less mysterious. The GCSB admitted Campbell Live to its offices and the new SIS director, Rebecca Kitteridge, gave the Weekend Herald an interview four weeks ago. She gave another to John Campbell this week.

Kitteridge told Herald political editor Audrey Young she is not the head of a "spy" agency. "It's one of the things that drives me mad," she said. Their job was to protect New Zealand's security, "and we have to do that by covert means because when people are planning to do ill to the country they will try to keep that secret ... But the purpose is security, it is not to spy." Good luck with that. Campbell Live's piece on the GCSB spoofed up the cloak-and-dagger image, doing its best to ignore the fact that the semi-concealed "spies" it was talking to looked like fairly ordinary young policy analysts, which is pretty much what they are.


I have known people who worked for the agencies and they didn't skulk around in trench coats and sunglasses. They were gentle liberals who could as easily have worked for the Department of Conservation.

Other western security agencies have long worked under more public scrutiny than ours. We are accustomed to the SIS's annual reports to Parliament telling us nothing, and the GCSB's very existence was a state secret for many years.

The greatest surprise to me in the Gwyn report this week was that the SIS has communications staff. What have they been doing all this time?

Their job should not be to keep the agencies out of "politics". Without politics, the public would learn very little about subjects of national security. Lower the mask.