Pacific spy revelations reignite debate

5:44 am on 6 March 2015

Jane Patterson, Parliamentary Chief Reporter -

Revelations of mass spying in the Pacific reignite the cat and mouse game over New Zealand's spy agencies that dominated last year's general election.

The characters are the same - Nicky Hager, Edward Snowden and John Key - and the allegations similar, that the New Zealand Government is carrying out mass surveillance, in contravention of domestic law.

Last year the 'Moment of Truth', sponsored by the flamboyant founder of the Internet Party Kim Dotcom, failed to deliver the promised king hit against the Government, in the week leading up to the September election.

US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowdon told the gathered audience, via video link from Russia, the NSA was already operating in New Zealand out of a facility in Auckland and one further north.

Edward Snowden talking via video link at the meeting.

Edward Snowden talking via video link at the 'Moment of Truth' event. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Furthermore, he said agencies could access masses of information was through a tool called XKeyscore.

Mr Hager has now resurfaced after working with the Intercept news site, which holds the Snowdon documents.

He claimed New Zealand has been carrying out mass surveillance on its closest regional allies around the Pacific.

The Prime Minister's first reaction was to dismiss the authenticity of the documents to discredit the source of the claims, a tactic employed before the election campaign.

As before the last election, John Key will once again be relying on public apathy to avoid having to deal with a huge backlash from the electorate, even if it is shown New Zealand agencies have either been pushing the boundaries of their mandate, or have been straight out in breach of the law.

True to form he has once again come out all guns blazing, dismissing the claims as untrue and inaccurate.

The fact these claims relate to the actions of New Zealand's security and intelligence agencies provides a handy cover to refuse to talk about operational details - that is the actions the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is taking, against whom, and where.

John Key speaking to media in Auckland.

John Key has dismissed the mass surveillance claims as untrue and inaccurate. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

New Zealanders are therefore being asked to trust in the oversight mechanisms that have not engendered a great deal of confidence in the past, the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence, and Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee headed by ... John Key.

Another aspect is that this concerns some of New Zealand's closest regional allies and neighbours.

One initial reaction was that everyone spies on everyone else and this really comes as no surprise.

What is more tricky for the Government is that specific information has become public, and the various countries involved then come under pressure to respond accordingly.

It has already been wryly noted that New Zealand campaigned for its place on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on its stated merits of having an independent foreign policy and because of its strict adherence to international and domestic laws.

The countries that are now allegedly on the wrong side of mass surveillance were some of New Zealand's strongest backers in its UNSC campaign.

Then there is the legality of what has been going on.

The GCSB is a foreign intelligence agency and is not supposed to carry out surveillance on New Zealand citizens, except under very specific circumstances and under warrant.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman was blunt, saying because New Zealanders communicate with people in the Pacific, live and work in the Pacific, and that people in the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau have New Zealand citizenship, the GCSB has been acting illegally.

The United Future Party and the Labour Party were somewhat more circumspect, saying it was not clear exactly what mandate the GCSB has been operating under; noting however that is a problem in itself.

One of New Zealand's closest Pacific neighbours is Samoa.

Its Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi was unfazed by the accusations saying he had not had time to have a good look at what was being alleged.

Samoa's Prime Minister and Rugby Union head, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi

Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi Photo: RNZI / Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia

Even if they were true, he said, spying is just part of the usual diplomatic game, where diplomats are the eyes and ears for their governments on the ground.

He said there was nothing secret in what his government communicates to other governments, and having it picked up by spy agencies just increases that transparency.

And the possibility all of the communications between members of the general public failed to move Prime Minister Tuilaepa beyond a somewhat contemplative response.

"I do not know what country would waste its resources listening to Tom, Dick, and Harry. It would be far-fetched to think that a spy agency in any country would waste their resources doing that kind of thing to Samoa."

Prime Minister Tuilaepa said he was in no hurry to get in touch with his New Zealand counterparts, saying it was not an immediate priority.

His response may well be reflected in the public mood back in New Zealand, where people have heard much of the same theme before.

Will the public get too worked up about these latest revelations? Probably not.

Should they? Probably.

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