John Key says new claims around intelligence collection are wrong - but he won't say why.

He also says the GCSB is acting legally - but won't say how.

And he says we are spying - but won't say on who.

The Prime Minister has fronted media after a day of controversy caused by the publication of documents taken by whistleblower Edward Snowden while a contractor for the United States' National Security Agency.

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He refused to talk in specifics but said: "Some of the information was incorrect, some of the information was out of date, some of the assumptions made were just plain wrong."

The documents were published in the Herald today in a collaborative reporting effort with investigative journalist Nicky Hager and the US news site The Intercept, which has access to the Snowden documents.

It showed New Zealand's electronic eavesdropping agency, the GCSB, was moving to "full take collection" of the Pacific in 2009 with a British intelligence document saying by 2012 "we can access both strong selected data and full-take feed" from the GCSB's Waihopei satellite dish base.

The phrase is one seen in previous Snowden releases and means all communications is being collected.

"I'm not going to critique your stolen emails and information," he told the Herald.

He told another reporter: "Be very cautious about the assumptions you might make."

Mr Key said the term "full take" was a "technical term".

"With the greatest of respect I don't actually think you understand the technical term and it's not my job to explain it to you."

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He did confirm collection of information on New Zealanders but said it was legal.

"We do gather information and we do use our foreign intelligence services but only within the law and the law forbids us - other in very minor circumstances - from gathering information about New Zealanders."

He would not detail the legal circumstances but said they were contained in the GCSB Act.

Asked if there was an Islamic State threat from the Pacific, he said: "I'm not going to identify what threats might or might not come."

Information gathered by New Zealand was shown to have been gathered by the GCSB, passed to the United States then accessed through the XKeyscore system.

Previous Snowden documents have shown the system able to trawl through massive amounts of data to find personal information.

Mr Key, who has always refused to comment on XKeyscore, continued to refuse to discuss it despite the documents stating the GCSB used it.

Meanwhile, the legal safety net our intelligence agencies used to screen foreign spies wanting to use New Zealand-held surveillance databases was on a questionable legal basis for more than three years.

Documents released today show the electronic eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, used an an online shopping-style system for partner intelligence agencies wanting access to computers which held intercepted email, internet and phone traffic from the Pacific.

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The extent and the scope of the surveillance was revealed in today's New Zealand Herald in a partnership between the paper, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and The Intercept news agency, which has access to the Edward Snowden trove of documents taken from the United States (read The Intercept article here).

Among the documents was details of the test for foreign intelligence analysts, based on a little-known guide called NZSID7 - short for New Zealand Signals Intelligence Directive 7.

Former Cabinet secretary Rebecca Kitteridge, in her April 2013 review of the GCSB's legal compliance, said: "NZSID7 is well understood and is available online on the internal website. It is considered to be completely authoritative and staff rely upon it much more than the GCSB Act, which is not commonly referred to to ensure legal compliance in their daily work."

• Join the Twitter debate: #snowdenNZ

But Ms Kitteridge also said a Crown Law Office review of the NZSID7 guide found "not in all aspects entirely consistent with the law".

Her review of the GCSB, which aimed to find if it was compliant with the law, came after the revelation alleged copyright pirate Kim Dotcom had been illegally spied on.

In studying NZSID7 and the legal review, Kitteridge said "some basic aspects of NZSID7 were based on some interpretations of the Act that are no longer accepted.

"Unfortunately the version of NZSID7 that was in force when I arrived incorporated some assumptions and interpretations of the GCSB Act that have since been found to be incorrect or at the very least open to serious doubt."

She said the document had been amended to reflect the legal advice received from September 2012.

Copies of the NZSID7 document were obtained by the NZ Herald through the Official Information Act and show it was first published in December 2009 then republished in February 2013. Some information has been redacted from the versions of the documents, which is likely related to intelligence gathering techniques. It could also be this aspect of the guide which was unlawful.

Snowden's documents show New Zealand moved to "full take collection" of communications in the Pacific in 2009 and gained access to the XKeyscore computer program which allowed the information to be searched.

It was foreign access to XKeyscore which required the NZSID7 test, as described in a British intelligence document held by Snowden.

The guide said: "To query the data on these sites you must first have a briefing on NZSID7, the law that governs what the GCSB can and can't do."

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The foreign staff were told to read a written briefing then take an online test on the GCSB rules. They would then have to copy the results into a Word document.

"All queries against these databases must be NZSID7 complaint and will be audited by the GCSB."

Foreign intelligence analysts were then able to use an online shopping-style menu to choose which surveillance material they wanted, with an "add to cart" option".

The GCSB has now dispensed with the NZSID7 guide, in part substituting it with a "Nationality Policy".

Since 2009, the GCSB intelligence base at Waihopai has moved to
Since 2009, the GCSB intelligence base at Waihopai has moved to "full-take collection".

A GCSB spokeswoman said yesterday: "Everything we do is explicitly authorised and subject to independent oversight."

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said he believed the bureau had acted legally during his period as minister.

2009 report from the GCSB's signal intelligence division discussing interception and training on NSA's XKeyscore system (app users tap here to view)