24 Mar 2021

Andrew Little defends SIS, criticises media coverage

7:30 pm on 24 March 2021

The minister responsible for the SIS Andrew Little has mounted a spirited defence of the agency, after its annual appearance at select committee.

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Andrew Little says the country needs to have a mature debate about the role of agencies such as the SIS headed by Rebecca Kitteridge. Photo: RNZ

Little also lashed out at media, saying they need to pick up their game so New Zealand can have a "mature" debate about a difficult function of government, security and intelligence.

The pressure's been on the domestic spy agency and its head Rebecca Kitteridge since the release of the Royal Commission report into the mosque attacks.

She told MPs on Parliament's Intelligence and Security committee it had been a period of deep reflection, and changes had been made.

"We've listened, and have important and at times difficult conversations about how the Muslim community views the NZSIS - we must do better and we will."

Counter-terrorism efforts were now split 50/50 across white identity extremism and faith-motivated extremism, she said.

"We were looking at white identity extremism before March the 15th 2019, but yes there has been an increase in that kind of ideology, which is a concern."

However, when questioned how much attention was given to white extremism before the mosque attacks, Kitteridge would not say.

Recently it took a member of the public to report a bomb threat being made against two Christchurch mosques, on the website 4Chan, before action was taken.

Kitteridge defended the need to rely on public input, saying the SIS does not monitor the entire internet: "We are not conducting mass surveillance of New Zealanders, and we are also not focused on hate speech," she told the committee.

"Our specific area of interest and investigation is 'violent extremism or terrorism', where people are mobilising to [commit] violence in a way that's ideologically driven."

Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman said that was really concerning, as "extremism grows online and we know that the particular terrorist that we're talking about in terms of the Christchurch terror attack ... was radicalised online".

Looking at hate speech online should be a priority, she said.

Ghahraman said she felt Kitteridge should have stepped down following her response to the Royal Commission report.

Now she thinks that's "still a live question ... she [Kitteridge] seems to have made some improvements - so let's see".

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Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman is taking a wait and see approach to the future of the head of the SIS. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Kitteridge still has the backing of Little, who told reporters it was a difficult balance "talking about specifics, specific threats, and the specific work that they're doing because the last thing you want to do is tip off individuals and organisations who potentially pose a threat".

He did however admit there was room for improvement, especially getting more information out into the public arena - as long as that did not compromise the agencies' work.

"More information in the public arena, not just about what is happening, to the best extent that can happen without compromising their job, but the objectives of our security and intelligence agencies that requires a maturity of discussion."

That included "what powers they should have, the powers they shouldn't have, and the limits New Zealanders are prepared to tolerate", he said.

After being pressed by reporters about more transparency, Little took a swipe at the media.

"With all due respect to some of the organisations you guys represent, the public debate as expressed in some of our media outlets isn't actually, in my view certainly, not very well informed, and it's not a particularly mature attitude towards a very difficult function of government, which is security and intelligence.

"You can't just focus on little bits that give you a media headline, you've got to look at everything," he said.

"The way we have a debate about security and intelligence is not to focus on the titillation, but to actually look at everything that's going on."

Little denied "having a crack at the media ... just saying how it is".

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