Herald story triggers look at agency’s role in minister’s bid for top world trade job

A new inquiry into NZ's electronic surveillance service is being started as the country's intelligence watchdog tries to find out if it makes good decisions about who to spy on, and how it stays politically neutral.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, linked the inquiry to claims the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) spied on foreign diplomats competing against Trade Minister Tim Groser to lead the World Trade Organisation.

But she said it was unlikely she would be able to probe the allegations. Instead, she said, the inquiry would study the way the GCSB chose its targets, what its decision-making process was and how it stuck to its duty to be neutral in cases where there might be political advantage.

The Groser claims were among a string of stories broken by the Herald in a collaborative reporting project with investigative journalist Nicky Hager and The Intercept, the US news site with access to the trove of secret documents obtained by intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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It is the second inquiry to be started after the Herald published stories based on top-secret GCSB and National Security Agency documents. The first inquiry was into New Zealand spying in the Pacific.

Ms Gwyn said the new inquiry was instigated by her office.

"I consider the issues raised about the process followed when the GCSB considers undertaking particular intelligence activity are of sufficient public importance to warrant an own-motion inquiry.

"While it is unlikely I will be able to publicly confirm or deny the specific allegations relating to this process, I can inquire more generally into how the GCSB determines, within its statutory constraints, what intelligence activity to undertake and what policies and procedures are in place to regulate its activities."

Ms Gwyn said the inquiry would study how the GCSB established whether a proposed spying job fitted its legal role and New Zealand's needs.

It would also look at the GCSB analysis of benefits and risks, and how it handled situations in which there could be perceptions of political advantage.

It would also consider how the GCSB kept its minister informed in situations where there was a "potentially contested assessment" of the justification for the spying.

The Herald reported that the GCSB set up search filters to extract online references to those competing from other countries for the WTO job.

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Criticism was voiced after the story appeared over how this served New Zealand's interests as the WTO job is meant to be administrative and neutral.