Mark Gilbert, the departing United States Ambassador, is keen to reassure New Zealanders that Washington does not spy on Wellington.

He says CIA documents about New Zealand which this week saw the light of day came from note-taking in diplomatic meetings and not spying.

Perhaps some did, but a lot of the thousands of pages of previously classified material is the work of political analysts and do not read as if they were caught by a stenographer asked to sit in at a high-level encounter.

What's more, coding with some of the sensitive material indicates it was prepared for limited circulation within high levels of the US Government.


It is more likely that the US does not need to spy on New Zealand because its embassy staff have privileged access to the corridors of power. Cables made public seven years ago by WikiLeaks revealed that New Zealand officials routinely briefed the Americans on sensitive political and trade issues.

Reports of these briefings made it back to the US agencies and into their locked files, from where a vast amount spilled out when the CIA partly opened its classified doors.

The material about New Zealand bears the hallmarks of what a decently informed observer might produce, assisted by the deep background briefings helpfully provided by senior New Zealand civil servants.

Where information wanders into sensitive areas it remains hidden by redacted boxes. A lot of the almost 4000 pages which relate to New Zealand conceal the most interesting sections, and the file comes stamped 'Sanitized copy approved for release.'

The reports reflect Washington's anxieties and preoccupations: the Red menace, the anti-nuclear passion, left-wing politicians, racial tensions, political currents and references to the CIA's obsession with UFOs, which in New Zealand's case related to the famous 1978 Kaikoura light sightings.

What is not clear from the declassified files is who took the notes in this puzzling case.