The TORTURE REPORT: New inquiry details our spies' role in the War on Terror - missile strikes, collateral damage and links to the CIA torture scandal

A frontal assault has been launched by former intelligence agencies bosses on an inquiry into our intelligence agencies and their links to the CIA's rendition and torture programme.

Three former spy bosses have come forward to reject criticism aimed at their time in charge of the spy agencies which stated they missed warning signs of the CIA's programme of abduction and torture early in the War on Terror.

In a series of statements, they have said the information on which the criticism was based was available to others in government, including Prime Minister Helen Clark.

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It is an unprecedented public move by those who have led our intelligence agencies and comes from former NZSIS and GCSB director Dr Warren Tucker, former NZSIS director Richard Woods and former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson.

The statements follow an explosive report from the office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security into our spy agencies' links to the Central Intelligence Agency's rendition and torture programme between 2001 and 2006.

It found our spies were not complicit or knew of the CIA's rendition and torture programme but says there was enough public information to compell questions.

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The report also details previously unknown aspects of our spy agencies' contribution to the War on Terror in Afghanistan, including GCSB staff providing intelligence used in support of military attacks.

The report came from Justice Cheryl Gwyn, who was Inspector-General at the time of the inquiry before leaving recently to take on the role of High Court judge.

The former spy agency leaders welcomed the report's finding there was no direct involvement - or knowledge - of the CIA programme, that the agencies did not act unlawfully and that they acted with "professionalism and integrity".

Former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson, during his time as Chief of Defence, with former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo / File
Former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson, during his time as Chief of Defence, with former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo / File

But they rejected Gwyn's claim there was information about the CIA's actions which emerged from 2004 onwards which should have compelled greater inquiry into our agencies' involvement.

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While conceding hindsight showed areas for improvement, the three former directors said they were not operating in isolation, and others - including the Prime Minister at the time - had the same information on which Gwyn based her findings.

They also pointed to Gwyn's role at the time as deputy and acting Solicitor General, saying "she raised none of the issues or concerns the report now says the directors should have".

They said the information was also held by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of Defence Force.

"No concerns about the policies and practices of the agencies were raised at the time by anyone."

Ferguson and Woods commented separately, releasing statements which targeted key areas of Gwyn's report.

Tucker rejected Gwyn's suggestion the origins of intelligence supplied by the CIA should have been probed, saying intelligence agencies guard sources for reasons including potential death if they are discovered.

"Any attempt by a receiving agency to learn more about the means by which intelligence has been obtained is met with closing doors, and a drying up of intelligence flows."

Former GCSB and NZSIS director Dr Warren Tucker, during a select committee hearing. Photo / File
Former GCSB and NZSIS director Dr Warren Tucker, during a select committee hearing. Photo / File

Tucker said relationships were still "fragile" after the 1985 Anzus rift and the damage done would have been in contrast to government demands the agencies prioritise intelligence gathering.

He said the decision on questions and how they should have been raised was a job for ministers, who had the same information which the spy agencies - and public - were receiving.

It would also have been a decision guided by a range of government departments - not the intelligence agencies alone.

Tucker said the idea it was down to the intelligence agencies to raise questions was "a highly simplistic accusation" when the enormity of doing so meant the responsibility sat with "ministers and of all the government departments comprising our national security system".

He also rejected the finding that GCSB staff were deployed without adequate support or training, saying they were visited by senior managers - including himself - on a number of occasions.

Tucker also took issue with Gwyn's assertion the spy bosses had not met public sector managers' duty to protect their organisations from risk, saying he did not accept the missions staff were deployed on with other Five Eyes partners were "inherently risky".

He said Gwyn's criticism of the agencies being at "legal risk" around links to torture was despite the lack of a formal position on New Zealand's obligations in relation to the law of torture and complicity in torture.

Work underway now was a result of Gwyn's attempt to do so attracting "extensive and scathing criticism from within government", he said.

Woods said the key period identified came during his leadership of the GCSB and any criticism should be aimed at him - although rejected the report's findings.

Former SIS director Richard Woods at his Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former SIS director Richard Woods at his Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He said the US government had denied during that time the activities later found to have been true in a Senate report in 2014. Like Tucker, he said deeper questioning would have been outside his legal role, and one which would have to be directed by ministers.

"It is now known that some of those reports were based on information obtained from people subjected to torture or enhanced interrogation techniques. But we did not know that at the time and there was nothing in the reports to indicate it."

He was also critical of the accusation a "legal risk" had been created when there was no definition as to what risk there was.

Woods said his statutory duty - spelled out in law - was to gather intelligence to protect New Zealand, including against terrorism.

"It would therefore have been inappropriate for me to have questioned my American counterparts about the allegations.

"To have done so would have risked jeopardising the receipt of intelligence relevant to New Zealand's security and required by the New Zealand government."

David Fisher is a member of a Reference Group set up by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to hear views on developments possibly relevant to the work of the oversight office. The group has a one-way function in offering views to the IGIS and receives no classified or special information.