The Green Party is calling for the Opposition to be involved in the selection of the next director for the Government Communications Security Bureau following the resignation of Ian Fletcher. It is not a bad idea.
It is no reflection on the performance of Mr Fletcher, who has resigned for a "family reason" that the Prime Minister assured us yesterday is genuine. Mr Key would know; his acquaintance with the departing director goes back to their schooldays and he had perhaps too much influence in Mr Fletcher's appointment after the agency overstepped its powers under a previous director.
Mr Key also denied that a merger of the GCSB and the Security Intelligence Service is imminent, and that Mr Fletcher's departure has anything to do with the review of the intelligence agencies due this year. So a new director will be appointed and the person chosen by the State Services Commission ought to be subject to bipartisan approval.
That does not mean every party need be given a potential veto. An endorsement by the largest Opposition party would seem sufficient to satisfy most people that the appointment was apolitical. Since the SIS has long given regular briefings to the Leader of the Opposition as well as the Prime Minister, the appointee needs to have the confidence of both.
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The agencies have had a torrid time politically in the past few years, the GCSB for illegal surveillance of residents, the SIS for releasing a note of its briefing of an Opposition leader. Both agencies need to restore political confidence in their culture and operations at a time international security threats are running high. Jihadism spread by new technology needs to be met by new techniques of surveillance that are already politically contentious.
The SIS appears to have acquired a director with the degree of bipartisan confidence that will be needed. Rebecca Kitteridge, well respected on all sides as Cabinet secretary, produced a report into the GCSB that made no excuses for the external intelligence agency, despite its belief that it could lawfully assist the police and the SIS.
The law has since been changed to permit the technological surveillance capabilities of the GCSB to be used for that purpose and to extend the agency's role to countering cybercrime. The same law change in 2013 placed greater obligations on telecommunications companies to provide eavesdropping capability for the GCSB and consult the bureau on matters of network security.
The reach of spy agencies and their ability to retain and match the data they can collect is so much greater with digital technology that the public needs greater confidence in those put in charge.
The Greens have previously called for better oversight of the GCSB by making it answerable to a select committee of Parliament rather than the Government-dominated Intelligence and Security Committee, and for the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to be an officer of Parliament. Those are worthy suggestions too. A bipartisan appointment of its director, though, would be a good start.