The latest Snowden documents raise the question of whether New Zealand is simply an American trojan horse when it comes to intelligence gathering in the Pacific. Or, whether New Zealand has embraced a joint role in the Pacific to protect our interests and that of our island neighbours.

It's an important debate and one which is obscured by the current focus on claims that New Zealand is "spying on vulnerable island nations".

Many New Zealanders - judging by an informal survey on the Herald website - found little to quibble with in what's been disclosed to date in the latest Snowden dump.

The "Pacific Spying" article - prepared by Nicky Hager and Intercept writer Ryan Gallagher - confirms New Zealand's participation in a surveillance network across the Pacific which has funnelled electronic intelligence to the United States National Security Agency for analysis and storage.


It was based on the trove of documents that the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden stole from the agency and subsequently leaked to journalists.

The story has caused the usual furore at a political level which happens whenever Nicky Hager and Edward Snowden are protagonists in a major story.

The Prime Minister's response to the revelations has displayed a rote "so what" flavour, coupled with his repeated allegations that Hager "is a conspiracy theorist; his stories can't be believed" ... and so forth.

John Key's responses at a press conference were relatively lightweight when he could do so much better.

The Prime Minister should avail himself of the opportunity to spell out what New Zealand's role is. It may well be that far from "spying on vulnerable neighbours" (as Hager and Gallagher wrote) the surveillance is in fact being directed at other actors who do not have those nations' interests at heart. Those who would exploit cash-strapped island nations such as international money launderers, terrorists and P-manufacturers among others, as well as those who want to overthrow democratically elected Pacific governments.

Behind scenes this week there has been plenty of sotto voce talk that NZ's leaders are reluctant to name Pacific nations whose political leaders have welcomed a greater intelligence role by New Zealand to assist in maintaining national security.

If this is the case - and it is quite rational to assume island nations that have experienced huge turmoil might wish this - why doesn't Key simply outline the framework which his National-led Government (and earlier Labour-led Government of Helen Clark) have applied.

Also at issue is in whose other interests this surveillance takes place.


It is clearly in New Zealand's national interest that stability is maintained in the Pacific. Its military has been called on in the past - for instance in the Solomon Islands - to restore national order.

Where it gets more complex - and may yet require some polished diplomacy from Key and senior ministers - is the shared geo-political interests in the Pacific.

It's understandable that after the 9/11 attacks, surveillance of the Pacific stepped up. The US was concerned that the next terrorist assault might be delivered via a seaborne-carried bomb.

And the competitive interests of the great powers come into play.

China was a latecomer when it came to staking a major interest in the Pacific and its development. It has since developed a strong power base contributing to the development of island nations with cash, investment and its own labour force.

This disrupts the power balance in what New Zealand and Australia had previously considered their "backyard". It has aroused US interest.

There will be some concerns that later Snowden disclosures - which have been hinted at - will show New Zealand has also been keeping an eye on China (or it will be interpreted that way). New Zealand is in the position of being relatively economically dependent on China. It has been a mutually rewarding trading relationship.

But our values - and long-term strategic security arrangements - are still aligned with the West.

That's why we have a trade deal with China but not the US. And a Five Eyes arrangement with the US (and others), but not yet a trade deal.

It was the Five Eyes partnership - formed after World War II - which later established an international signals network to try to ensure our nations' collective security through prior intelligence.

China is sophisticated and understands New Zealand's positioning in Five Eyes.

But I suspect Hager and Gallagher will see it differently.

Key could save himself a great deal of angst if he explained simply to New Zealanders why this country participates in international security arrangements and what's at stake if it doesn't. It's a no brainer.

Getting hung up on Hager isn't.