The slow drip feed of classified NSA material taken by Edward Snowden and published by journalists Glen Greenwald, Nicky Hager, David Fisher and others in outlets such as The Intercept and the New Zealand Herald caused a stir when first published.

Revelations of mass surveillance and bulk collection of telephone and email data of ordinary citizens in the Five Eyes democracies and detailed accounts of how the NSA and its companion agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK spy on friend and foe alike, including trade partners and the personal telephones of the German prime minister and Indonesian president, caused both popular and diplomatic uproars.

In New Zealand the outrage was accentuated by revelations about the illegal GCSB spying on Kim Dotcom and the Government's extension of its spying powers even after it was found to have operated outside its legal charter in other instances as well.

But now, it seems, public interest in the issue has faded rather than grown.


Revelations that the GCSB spies on Pacific island states such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga as well as Pacific French territories, followed by news that it spied on candidates for the World Trade Organisation presidency on behalf of Trade Minister Tim Groser (himself a candidate), has been met not with street demonstrations and popular protests but by a collective yawn by the public at large.

Why is this so?

It appears that the New Zealand public is weary of the death by a thousand cuts approach used by Mr Hager and his investigative colleagues. Beyond the usual array of diversions presented by popular culture and media, the reason for this lack of interest seems to lie in the fact that the information released to date is seen as trivial, uncontroversial and never-ending.

For example, Snowden's files reveal the British spied on Argentina after the Falklands/Malvinas War and carried on until 2011. Is that really a surprise? What is the UK expected to do when Argentina remains hostile to it and has never renounced its territorial claims over the islands?

Similarly, since New Zealand is utterly trade-dependent, why not try to advance Mr Groser's candidacy for the WTO job using surreptitious as well as diplomatic means? Is it news that New Zealand spies on small Pacific neighbours who depend on it for foreign aid? Why not, given the levels of corruption and intrigue present in the region?

This does not mean there are no constitutional, diplomatic, security and trade concerns raised by the Snowden leaks coming into the public domain. My belief is there is much to be alarmed about in the Snowden files. But the way in which it has been presented to New Zealand audiences has induced fatigue rather than fervour.

Add to that the government's strategy of obfuscation, denial and attacking the motives, ethics and character of the journalistic messengers, and the result is a jaded public with little interest in spies or what they do and to whom they do it. In such a climate the old Nazi refrain "you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide" resonates quite well.

Unless Greenwald, Hager and their colleagues have bombshells that they have yet to drop, it appears that like Mr Dotcom's much-hyped "Moment of Truth" last year, their efforts have fizzled rather than fired. For the sake of their credibility as well as the public good, it is time for them to stand up and deliver something of significance that transcends the Wellington beltway or if not, to walk away.

Should Hager and company opt to deliver a bombshell, they need to consider one more thing: what good purpose is served by revealing the foreign espionage activities of New Zealand and its closest intelligence partners?

Will it advance the cause of transparency in intelligence operations and make some governments more responsive to public concerns about privacy? Will it curtail spying by the Five Eyes partners or any other nation? Will it encourage whistleblowing on illegal government surveillance? Will it advance New Zealand's interests in the world?


Or will it simply damage New Zealand's reputation and relations with the countries spied on? After all, the thrust of the most recent revelations has moved beyond domestic mass surveillance and into the realm of traditional inter-state espionage, which is not confined to the activities of Five Eyes and is an integral, if unspoken, necessary evil of international relations.

Given that hard fact, will bombshell revelations about New Zealand foreign espionage serve the public interest and common good? And will average Kiwis really care whether it does or not?

Paul G. Buchanan is the director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical and strategic analysis consultancy.