Labour leader David Cunliffe has questioned whether Prime Minister John Key is discussing the details of the work of New Zealand's intelligence agencies as a smokescreen in case of leaks about New Zealand from Edward Snowden.

Yesterday Mr Key responded to questions about New Zealanders involved in fighting against the Assad regime in Syria by confirming a small group were involved while others had their passports removed to prevent them going.

Mr Cunliffe said Mr Key's usual practice was to refuse to discuss security issues.

"Why has he varied from that now? Is it to cover for a less than spectacular performance in Australia, or a less than muscular response on whaling? Is it because he is worried about Snowden leaks? We'll see over the next few days."


He said he was simply questioning what Mr Key's motivations might be, but said it was an "unusual step" for him to discuss security matters after refusing to do so relating to the GCSB's role leading up to the Kim Dotcom raid.

Mr Key said he had discussed the Syria issue partly because he was asked and believed it was important to explain to New Zealanders how the situation was dealt with. He said it was also important to demonstrate that the GCSB's work was necessary and important after last year's criticism about its role.

"One of the points I was making was that the GCSB provides assistance to the SIS in exactly these circumstances."

Mr Key and the GCSB were criticised last week year following revelations the GCSB had potentially unlawfully spied on New Zealanders while assisting the Security Intelligence Service and NZ Police. That led to a law change to specify the circumstances in which the GCSB could spy on New Zealanders for those other agencies.

Labour MP Phil Goff, a former Foreign Affairs Minister, said there was no case for removing the passports of every New Zealander who wanted to fight in Syria.

He said if New Zealanders aligned themselves with Al Quaeda or other extremist groups, they needed to be monitored closely and action taken. "There are equally cases where New Zealanders may be going to fight for the cause of democracy against tyrannical despots that have murdered tens of thousands of their citizens. I don't see why their rights in this should be negated."

He said in the past, New Zealanders had gone to fight for democracy in other countries such as the Spanish civil war.

"In retrospect, the people that went to fight for democracy against Franco's fascism in the Spanish Civil War were right. I can understand why a Syrian family wanting democracy and a better life for their children might want to go and defend their families in Syria."

He said he was not condoning terrorism and was totally opposed to extremism. "But you have to differentiate the situation by the case you're looking at."

This morning Ali Akil of Syrian Solidarity New Zealand told Morning Report that two brothers had been prevented from leaving New Zealand as they tried to make their way to Syria and questioned why Mr Key would "criminalise" those who decide to fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime, which is known to have used chemical weapons against civilians.

Mr Key denied the Government was unfairly targeting Syrian New Zealanders in passport confiscations. He said those who had been stopped were New Zealand nationals believed to be heading to fight in Syria.

"And we would have concerns about who they would be associating with."

He said some of those affected had also later agreed it would have been "silly" for them to have gone. Passports had also been removed from people aiming to travel to other areas to fight, including Yemen.

"If we believe people are intentionally putting themselves in harm's way, we'll do our best to do something about that. And I think we have a legal response which is about right."

Mr Key said those who were fighting for Al-Quaeda or other known terrorist groups could be dealt with under the Suppression of Terrorism Act upon their return, others who were involved in groups such as the Free Syrian Army may not be covered by that because such groups were not listed terrorism organisation.

It was likely such people would still be monitored to ensure they had not been 'radicalised."