30 Nov 2010

PM refusing to criticise US over leaked documents

6:15 pm on 30 November 2010

New Zealand's Prime Minister says it is up to the United States to defend itself against accusations it has broken international law by spying on top United Nations officials.

John Key would not criticise the US on Tuesday after Green Party MP Keith Locke called on him to condemn its conduct, as revealed by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

Diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks reveal the US government asked its diplomats to collect personal information on UN officials including credit card account numbers.

One of those is likely to have been New Zealand's former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who now heads the UN Development Programme.

Mr Locke believes the American action breaches international law. He says Mr Key helped Miss Clark get the job and should now be condemning the US for its spying.

Mr Locke says it is possible some of Miss Clark's communications could have been intercepted in New Zealand by the Waihopai spy base, which feeds information to the UN National Security Agency.

But Mr Key says he does not know enough about what happened and it is up to the US to answer questions about its actions.

However, he described the request to collect information such as Miss Clark's credit card details as odd and says the release of diplomatic communications will be embarrassing for the US, as they are obviously not intended to be a public document and can be full and frank.

A working group of officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Defence has been formed to look at the matter.

Key doubts documents pose risk to NZ

The Prime Minister says he has not had any briefings to suggest the information contains any risks to New Zealand.

"It's more likely to be the odd sort of comment which is colourful in nature - the sort of thing you might say to your mate round the coffee table, but not necessarily something that you'd want written down and read by the person that you're reporting on."

Mr Key says the release is unlikely to include any sensitive information, because New Zealand's positions on matters like Fiji and Afghanistan are already well known.

"I'd be surprised if there was anything there. It might be their interpretation of something and their general analysis - it doesn't mean it's necessarily correct.

"From a New Zealand point of view, I see bio-documents or reports that come in from our embassies and high commissions round the world. They always have a degree of colour and licence about them. I take them with a grain of salt."

But other countries are not so relaxed about the release of the sensitive information.

In Canberra, Attorney-General Robert McClelland has refused to rule out terminating the passport of WikiLeaks founder and Australian Julian Assange.

The US has called those responsible for the leaks criminals, while other Western nations have warned the release of the diplomatic cables will have a chilling effect on international diplomacy.