Intelligence agencies' failures highlighted but no accountability sought

10:31 am on 11 December 2020

Several key security and intelligence agencies failed to do their counter-terrorism job well, or at all, but there remains no way of holding them to account.

The final report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques on 15 March 2019.

The final report by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques on 15 March 2019. Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

This is revealed in the report of the Royal Commission into the 15 March 2019 mosque terrorist attacks.

The commission's overall conclusion was that no one dropped the ball; its assigning of limited accountability for the many failings before the attack has upset the Muslim community.

It has also upset a historian of terrorist attacks, professor Joe Siracusa of Curtin University in Perth, who said the people killed and injured deserved better.

"These people are the innocent victims of the intelligence community's failures.

"It is failures - it's not something that just happened.

"I get tired of that story," said Siracusa, who has decades of researching declassified intelligence reports into terrorist attacks.

The system was run by people who must be held accountable, Siracusa said.

The commission concluded that no agency was at fault and none breached any required standards in not detecting the attacker's preparations.

But at the same time, it describes a national security system where the standards were often unclear, weak or not applied.

Even shortly after the shootings that killed 51 people, "only some of the 36 agencies who should have been briefed on the increased threat level and the actions they should take were briefed," the commission report said.

It was another three months, in June 2019, when the Counter-Terrorism Coordination Committee "agreed that information access and sharing were vital to understanding the threat" and then got the SIS involved.

Even now, the whole counter-terrorism effort was "not well understood by most ministers, other politicians, the wider public service or the New Zealand public".

Professor Joe Siracusa of Curtin University in Perth.

Professor Joe Siracusa of Curtin University in Perth. Photo: Supplied to RNZ

Confusion and lack of strategy

At the security system's head, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) comprises the Security and Intelligence Board.

This board was meant to scan all counter-terrorism efforts to identify "risks and gaps and provide advice to ministers".

"Despite this role being in the Security and Intelligence Board's terms of reference, it has not carried it out," the commission said.

The DPMC has its own national security policy team but it does not have this role.

Just six months before the attack, the Security and Intelligence Board agreed to a high-level framework for preventing far-right extremism.

Community groups were not consulted and "it was not clear what actions were to be taken, by when and by whom".

The report frequently returns to examples of confusion, lack of strategy and resources, barriers to communication, and describes how this persisted for years, but particularly from 2015 till the 2019 attacks.

And it adds, the system is impervious to performance checks.

"The current position is that there is still no performance framework in place to measure the efficiency and effectiveness" of the intelligence community or counter-terrorism efforts; or to measure their delivery against the National Security and Intelligence Priorities.

"There is no way to monitor performance" or to hold "public sector agencies to account if their contributions do not meet the standards."

A diagram of the national security system’s governance side.

A diagram of the national security system’s governance side. Photo: Screengrab from the final report.

'It just smacks of injustice'

Aliya Danzeisen, Assistant Co-ordinator of the Islamic Women's Council

Aliya Danzeisen. Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

That was not good enough for Islamic Women's Council government engagement lead Aliya Danzeisen.

"They're not focusing on what damage they caused," she told Nine to Noon.

"Clearly, there were failings, whether they want to outright say it or not.

"They're restructuring the whole system and everybody's issuing apologies, but yet they said: 'But we didn't do anything wrong'.

"It just smacks of injustice right there."

The commission recommended empowering the Auditor-General to check the agencies' performance as it does in other parts of the public sector.

But for now, the AG holds no sway over the intelligence sector.

It was at least the third time that security studies lecturer and ex-army major Terry Johanson had heard that leadership and direction were lacking over national security, and about "a blurriness" around "who's leading what and where", harking back to earlier reports in 2011 and 2016.

"So we're identifying these issues, but we're not actually resolving them," Johanson said.

The problems extended beyond counter-terrorism, he said.

"The same issues you're seeing within the report here, occur in all sorts of fields of national security.

"You need the same degree of examination that needs to be put on it."

The commission identified three dozen reviews of the sector across two decades.

These reviews pointed out the gaps to agency leaders.

A 2018 review told the Combined Threat Assessment Group, another part of the DPMC that was meant to assess domestic terrorism, of the need to expand efforts to look into such threats, in an echo of past reviews.

However, the National Assessments Bureau, like the Security and Intelligence Board, was also not doing all it was set up to do.

"We have seen no evidence of a coordinated national [risk] assessments programme since 2014, despite it being the responsibility of the National Assessments Bureau - as directed by Cabinet - to ensure there was such a programme," the Royal Commissioners said.

What priorities?

The report describes a series of aborted efforts led by the DPMC to set meaningful national security and intelligence priorities.

Priorities were set in 2015 to replace those from 2012 but were widely ignored. So they, and the coordination groups set up to see the public sector applied them, were scrapped.

By 2018, another round of priorities had been introduced.

These were "not designed to guide day-to-day operational and longer-term strategic decisions", the commission report said.

The commission was told these were "not helpful" and few agencies did anything with the priorities.

The SIS simply set up its priorities.

Police resisted, not wanting to spend money complying with the national priorities.

Police's grasp of domestic terrorism questioned

The commission found the police "were not well placed to understand the [far-right] threat and how to identify it".

At least four weaknesses stood out that persisted till 2019, and are even today being caught up on:

  • a limited capacity of the investigations team
  • a degraded intelligence function
  • no assessments of the far-right or strategic assessments of domestic extremism
  • no counter-terrorism strategy

"By 2015, New Zealand Police's intelligence function had degraded, limiting what it could contribute to understanding the domestic terrorism environment," the report said.

This was despite the police holding information on the far-right.

In 2013-14, police and the SIS had contributed high-quality assessments on the extremists, to the DPMC.

Late 2014 and early 2015 saw a controversial security focus thrown on Islamic State, "foreign fighters" and ['jihadi-brides'-claims "jihadi brides"' by then Prime Minister John Key.

The rise of ISIS was "a game-changer for New Zealand", Sir John said in late 2014, as he sought to gain support for a bill to clamp down on "foreign fighters".

He spoke of the security services having 30 to 40 people under round-the-clock surveillance.

Yet the Royal Commission report shows that at this same time, the police counter-terrorism unit was struggling to do surveillance.

The National Security Investigations Team - one such team with four units of experienced investigators nationwide - lacked staff, so had to call on other parts of police to help with intensive operations like surveillance, it said.

"Pressure of work meant that the ... team did not have the capacity to develop a formal operating model."

Consequently, from 2015 to 2019 the unit was not using updated far-right indicators when assessing leads.

Plus there was "no leads case management system".

One impact of this was that police in the districts, who were closest to community groups that provided many leads, had "no obvious place" to record information about people of national security concern.

The districts were not the only ones not getting through, the report showed. The National Security Investigations Team's case profiles were inaccessible "until recently" to intelligence analysts at police HQ because of multiple databases at odds with each other.

Officials knew if this but did not act.

The Security and Intelligence Board had "comparatively little focus ... on discussing the resourcing of the overall counter-terrorism effort", the commission said.

This meant other public agencies "remained unaware" of police's counter-terrorism resourcing gaps and their consequences.

The board in 2018 developed a two-page internal counter-terrorism strategic framework.

But this framework "did not assign leadership and responsibility to specific public sector agencies for counter-terrorism prevention and reduction activity".

"This was the only contemporary document guiding the counter-terrorism effort before 15 March 2019."

Johanson said Sir John's stress in 2014-15 on the Islamist threat had undoubtedly set the direction that occluded efforts to combat the far-right.

His own research suggested the whole national security set-up got more, not less, confused in 2016 when the government put out a new handbook about who did what.

"You're getting a duplication of effort there," he said.

Professor Siracusa said it was time to "go back and look at human agency, we have to look at the people who blew it".

"Eternal vigilance requires the best people to try to figure out what's going on."

Intelligence communities around the world, historically, had regularly missed key signals that warned of pending attacks, whether 9/11, Pearl Harbour or the Lindt cafe attack in Sydney, and always resisted individual accountability afterwards, he said.

"So when someone tells me it's the system, or, you know, these things will get through, I don't believe it for a minute.

"I don't think we should let anybody off the hook."

Entrenched bureaucrats typically ran the agencies, and were threatened by original thinkers, while rewarding "groupthink" which was usually conservative, Siracusa said.

To break with groupthink required recruiting "heretics" who thought outside the box, Siracusa said.

Aliya Danzeisen has experienced another bureaucratic hurdle.

"We encountered in the years in advance of the attacks, a public service that was fighting amongst themselves [for resources] and worrying about their own job security rather than worrying about the public security," she said.

The Royal Commission recommended recruiting into intelligence agencies from ethnic communities and setting up a whole new counter-terrorism agency.

No caption

Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The minister in charge of the government's response to the Royal Commission's report, Andrew Little, told Morning Report the intelligence community needed "one point of responsibility, one point of accountability".

The lead strategic direction "has always been somewhat opaque, and we need to do something about it", Little said of the agencies he was minister of for three years.

"So, an agency that is doing the strategic stuff, a national security and intelligence advisor, that is the apex of the system and is the focal point of responsibility and accountability. That's what we lack at the moment. That's what we need," the minister said.

"We need to be talking about threats. And we need to be talking about how we deal with those threats. And we haven't."

Another recommendation would reactivate the job of national security advisor, created in 2011, then scrapped in 2016.

Johanson advocated someone who was experienced but was not already in the bureaucracy get the job.

These recommendations showed a break with "the mindset of tinkering", he said.

"We've tinkered with what we currently had, and it hasn't worked.

"So you go, 'right, this actually isn't fit for purpose' - and that's the language they're using in here - 'we'll design an agency that's fit for purpose' ... to have accountability, and clarity, and policy that's directly focused on the security intelligence side of national security operations in New Zealand."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs