The minister in charge of New Zealand's spy agencies, Andrew Little, is refusing to deny he has signed off on embassy break-ins.
RNZ podcast The Service revealed today that New Zealand's security intelligence agency, the SIS, carried out multiple clandestine raids, breaking into foreign embassies in Wellington in the latter part of the 1980s.
Asked if the practice had ceased, Little said he could not comment on "operational methods".
"Most New Zealanders expect in a country like ours - that's interacting with the rest of the world, that has a set of interests that needs to be protected - they want our agencies focused on national security and those interests."
Asked if he was comfortable with embassy break-ins, he said, "I'm comfortable that we have intelligence agencies that do a very good job of protecting national security."
Little, who is responsible for the SIS and GCSB, said New Zealand now had a "much more rigorous oversight regime" than was in place in the 1980s.
He said security agencies operated within the law, which included international law that was incorporated into domestic law.
Helen Clark has also refused to rule out having signed off foreign embassy break-ins during her tenure as prime minister between 1999 and 2008, when she was also minister in charge of the intelligence agencies.
In an interview for The Service podcast, she twice said she could not comment on whether she had been asked to sign off on embassy raids.
Asked a third time, Clark said she could "neither confirm nor deny".
- Listen to the podcast: The Service
- News: SIS and MI6 raided Czechoslovakian embassy in Wellington
- Editorial: Why we are revealing SIS secrets
- First-person: John Daniell on growing up around spies
- Watch: The Service trailer
Clark said that despite being a stickler for international law - she rose to number three at the United Nations - she believed a 1986 raid on the Czech embassy in Wellington, revealed by the podcast, was justified.
"It might seem strange coming from me but I think it probably was," Clark said.
The Cold War raid was a joint operation between the SIS and the UK's MI6 to steal codes that would allow encrypted messages between Warsaw Pact countries to be decoded.
Given the serious prospect of nuclear war in the mid-1980s, breaking the codes of the Soviet bloc communist countries and gaining insights into their thinking would have been immensely valuable, Clark said.
Clark believed that David Lange, Labour leader and prime minister at the time, would have been justified in approving the raid on those grounds.
"I do recall very much the heated times of the nuclear arms race before there was any serious detente and before the collapse of the Soviet Union," she said.
"I would think that it was probably wheeled up to a prime minister in that context - that something very useful could possibly be found - and he said, 'give it a go'. That's my judgement."
Clark said that while entering a foreign embassy could breach international law, the motivation of the Five Eyes countries - New Zealand, Australia, the UK, the US and Canada - had to be considered.
"Context is everything and one would need to look at the very fine print of the Vienna Convention to see if there is any out clause with respect to a country's interpretation of its national security interests."
Gerald Hensley, chief of staff to Lange at the time of the Czech embassy raid, said the practice of breaking into foreign embassies stopped when officials became fearful of potential international fallout.
"We got increasingly nervous - when I say 'we', I mean the non-intelligence side - of the political repercussions of a failure, or something going badly wrong," he said. "We were fairly keen to abandon it after a few turned up nothing of any particular use. The risk, we felt, outweighed the chance of a return."
The story of the Czech embassy raid has been brought to light by Wellington writer and documentary maker John Daniell, whose mother and step-father both worked for New Zealand's SIS.
Daniell said his late step-father, who went by the pseudonym Jim Stewart, told him about his involvement in the raid before his death in 2005 and said the SIS obtained the codebooks from the Czech embassy.
Daniell, who produced the The Service podcast with RNZ journalists, recalls an MI6 officer being billeted in his family home in Wellington in the leadup to the raid.
Daniell's mother, who is not identified in the podcast, worked on the Russia desk for the SIS. His stepfather specialised in planting bugs and listening devices.
Hensley and the head of the operation from the New Zealand end - an SIS officer who cannot be named - each confirmed the Czech raid and multiple other embassy break-ins.
Both men also claim that the joint SIS-MI6 operation on the Czech embassy was unsuccessful and that they failed to get the codebooks they wanted to decrypt the communications of the Communist East.
The truth behind the success or failure of the mission remains in doubt as the security services refused to resolve the matter.
Security analyst Paul Buchanan said obtaining code books, even if they only allowed temporary decryption of Warsaw Pact communications, would be a "phenomenal prize".
He agreed with Clark that while breaking into a foreign embassy was a breach of international law, the worlds of diplomacy and intelligence were quite different.
"Many people think in the world of diplomacy, that things are black and things are white, but intelligence services operate in the grey," he said.
"So although the Vienna Convention is written in black and white terms, I don't think any intelligence agency that has an opportunity like this presented before it would refuse to take that opportunity, particularly given the stakes involved."
The Service was made with the support of New Zealand on Air