9 Jun 2019

Intelligence agencies' white supremacist blind spot

10:22 am on 9 June 2019

Insight - New Zealand's security agencies are increasing their focus on the white supremacist threat since the Christchurch mosque attacks. But as Phil Pennington has been finding out, questions remain over why they belatedly awoke to the dangers, with the far right on their radar only for several months before 15 March.

sideways white map of NZ on black background with blue graphic eyes peering through.

Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

Otago law professor Andrew Geddis wishes the words he wrote in a chapter in a book on extremism just before 15 March were still true.

The pages being printed the week of the shootings read: "New Zealand is fortunate that terrorism represents more a latent threat than a lived reality."

There was no time to change it.

New Zealand is now in the middle of what its allies in the UK, US and Australia have been through before - an inquiry into whether there was an intelligence failure that might have cost lives.

In the United States, the failure to "connect the dots" by the CIA and FBI before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Centre in 2001 is well documented.

There are also reports over how the US spent years largely ignoring the far-right threat growing within its own borders.

The US leads the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that New Zealand also belongs to.

New Zealand has historically been a "fast follower" of counter-terrorism priorities set overseas and this helped shape priorities here, Prof Geddis says.

Professor Andrew Geddis of Otago University's Law School.

Professor Andrew Geddis of Otago University's Law School. Photo: Supplied: Otago University

"The fact that they've got this international cross-border collaboration can't help but colour what they see as being a threat and where they see those threats coming from."

Another guiding light has been the United Nations, Prof Geddis says.

The UN's terrorism register lists 2500 individuals and organisations, but not a single white supremacist or far-right group.

Meanwhile, US priorities have been fixed on the Islamic fundamentalist threat for two decades.

The minister responsible for the SIS and GCSB intelligence agencies, Andrew Little, says the white supremacist threat in this country began to get serious attention only since mid-2018.

By 15 March this work had not progressed to the point of looking at individuals or organisations.

The accused in court

The accused in court Photo: NZME

"Having decided that extreme right-wing activity is a potential risk, they then start the process of gathering intelligence, scoping it out, scanning it, talking to agencies around the world about it," Little says.

"And that followed the events in the US ... Charlottesville, the Virginia attack, and the rise of the rhetoric that was coming out of the US and other parts of the world. And in Europe, obviously, the rise of far-right political expression."

During the clash of protesters and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, one person died.

New Zealand's security organisations took note of that, but not of the massacre in Norway that left 77 dead six years earlier. Government documents obtained by RNZ showed there were no internal emails within the SIS and GCSB, from then till now, that had the white supremacist perpetrator Anders Breivik as their main subject.

"I can't speak for them from back in 2011," says Little.

Andrew Little at Pike River Mine re-entry delay announcement

Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Little stresses the difficult balance in a democracy - judging at what point you step up the response to perceived threats - and considering that security agencies had come in for plenty of criticism in recent years for "over-reaching".

But after the March attacks there are different criticisms.

Massey University security studies lecturer and ex-Army Major, Terry Johanson, faults the entire national security system for not having an overarching strategy and a convoluted framework.

"As an ex-military person who has studied strategy and done Staff College with the Americans, I was going, 'What? There are no linkages?' "

The lack of meaningful public consultation on how the system was set up and what it does, meant threat priorities were subject to too much political influence, says Johanson.

The country has struggled to weigh threats ranging from earthquakes to plague to terrorism under its all-of-government broad brush approach.

"It's the security of everything, at the same time as the security of nothing," says Johanson

The task of coming up with a national risk register proved too much for a panel set up by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in 2014. It folded in 2017.

It was "tricky stuff", according to its chair Murray Sherwin, who says the panel had no understanding of what the security agencies were up to.

Official documents, obtained under the Official Information Act, show Sherwin's panel was at one point told that domestic extremism had been highlighted in previous system-wide risk identification work but "had not been specifically analysed".

Johanson is bemused.

"You would think there would be some sort of tracking of that risk to see that it wasn't developing. And it suggests here that there isn't - it was highlighted, it was identified, and then let go."

The warnings over following too closely to the lead set by the US is coming not just from local experts such as Geddis, but also some based in America.

Janet Reitman is investigating the US response to far-right activists for the New York Times Magazine and is writing a book about it.

A klaxon call went up in 2009, she says, that was not just ignored, but actively rejected in Washington.

The warning came in a Department of Homeland Security report by its tiny domestic terrorism team.

It predicted that the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, combined with the financial crisis and the return of many disenfranchised military veterans from the Middle East, would lead to an explosion of white supremacist recruiting and violence.

The report was politicised by the mainstream right wing and, ultimately, rescinded.

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Photo: Supplied / Twitter

"So this kind of focus on domestic terrorism was very, very small to begin with, but at least there was a sort of dedicated unit; there was no longer this little dedicated unit."

Briefings, meetings and training keyed to the report were all canned.

The report's warnings came true. Data from multiple sources shows the rate of murders or attacks by white supremacists since 2008 in the US is far outpacing Islamic extremist violence.

Yet billions of dollars have continued to pour into combating the jihadist threat and, by contrast, according to Reitman, "there was absolutely no effort that has ever been made … to understand the language of the far-right on the internet".

"And, in fact, money for that kind of study has been taken away from programmes that had been granted money under Obama.

"So, there's this kind of gigantic intelligence gap across not just cops - it's police, it's federal law enforcement, its Department of State, it's politicians."

The US is "clueless", Reitman says.

She advises New Zealand to begin looking elsewhere for lessons on how to respond to the 15 March attack.

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