27 Nov 2014

Bulletin: The PM, the spy and the whale

9:04 am on 27 November 2014

Prime Minister John Key is adamant that he won’t stand down or apologise – and he’s not firing anyone either – in the wake of a report critical of the activities of his senior staff.

A report released this week strongly criticised the way the Security Intelligence Service released information embarrassing to former Labour leader Phil Goff.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn's report [PDF link] is damning of the SIS, saying it released inaccurate and misleading information to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater leading to unfounded criticism of Goff.

The report finds no SIS officer acted in collusion with Slater, who received the information under the Official Information Act.

The SIS released a briefing note which purportedly confirmed Goff had been fully briefed about alleged Israeli spies being caught up in the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011. Goff had denied he had been briefed, sparking a political row between him and Prime Minister John Key.

The NZSIS disclosed incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information in response to the Official Information Act requests by Mr Slater and others. It also provided much the same information, along with some further detail, to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office. These errors resulted in criticism of the then Leader of the Opposition, not only by Mr Slater and other commentators but also by the news media and others, such as the Public Service Association. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister made public comments in reliance on information provided by the NZSIS, and that information was at least partially incorrect.

Gwyn said a staff member in Key's office, Jason Ede, had provided relevant details of the documents relating to the-then SIS director Warren Tucker's meeting with Mr Goff and was speaking on the phone to Mr Slater as the latter made his request to the SIS.

The report reveals that when the argument between Mr Key and Mr Goff flared, Mr Key's then deputy chief of staff, Phil de Joux, said to Mr Ede the office needed to get the briefing note into the public domain using the Official Information Act.

Key told Morning Report the report completely exonerated him and he would not apologise nor would he sack anyone.

He said his office was also exonerated. “The report says that insomuch that there was any information passed, and that’s absolutely contested anyway, they were quite within their rights to do that, and actually there was no influence or collusion or compromise from my office.”

But the man behind the allegations – the Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager – disagrees. “John Key has claimed the IG’s report found no fault with his office. This is not correct,” he writes. “It was not the IG’s role to comment on abuse of power by the PM’s staff, but her findings confirm the abuse of power about which I wrote.”

Gwyn said  Goff was owed an apology by the SIS – which its director, Rebecca Kitteridge, has delivered. Goff says she offered a heartfelt and genuine apology, but he still wants an apology from the Prime Minister. “I’ve never said that it was the SIS that passed that material to Cameron Slater. I have always said that it came out of John Key’s office. This is proof positive that John Key’s office was involved, as Nicky Hager alleged, in dirty politics, did pass it on for political damage…And John Key [says] ‘oh no, it was Jason Ede telling Whale Oil not to do it’. Does anybody in New Zealand believe that?”

In Parliament, Key said the report did not find any indication of collusion and that the opposition was unhappy it did not fit its narrative, prompting an outburst from new Labour leader Andrew Little.

Little told Key to “cut the crap and apologise”

Goff is in a bit of hot water of his own, as he leaked the report to journalists. 

Slater (who won’t talk to the media), says Goff doesn’t deserve an apology and says all he did was request information under the Official Information Act. “Sure I got a tip off … but all the media and opposition politicians all outraged now all likewise receive tips … I mean how else did they get the story about the report yesterday and the details in it … that’s right from old Mr Phil Goff.”

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, John Armstrong says Gwyn let the Prime Minister off lightly. “Three years on, it seems a trifling issue, but non-partisanship in the intelligence agencies is important. The Prime Minister should have shown better judgment and been discreet. His office should hold higher standards. Shabby politicisation of security information must be avoided.”

On Stuff.co.nz, Andrea Vance argues that “for National, Slater was a useful Mr Hyde to Key's Dr Jekyll.”

Using a burner phone - like a character out of Breaking Bad - and deleting emails is not behaviour becoming of a senior adviser to the prime minister. Neither is drafting character attacks to be run on a notoriously vicious blog. Nor is leaking sensitive information from intelligence briefings for use in a pre-election smear campaign. The report reveals Ede recognised his behaviour overstepped the mark (even in his black ops role) remarking it may land him "in the s...". Still, Key continues to insist his staff acted professionally at all times. Perhaps that is because Ede and de Joux were doing exactly what they were paid for: the dirty work while keeping the boss' hands clean.

Cameron Slater: [journalist] gave it away to me ... Goff leaked SIS report Nov 24 Prime Minister: It's a joke isn't it. They will attack Jason for talking to u and they break the confidentiality agreement. Classic lab. Nov 24 CS: Yup ... I'm very angry ov

A re-enactment of the texts released by the Prime Ministers office. Photo: Unknown

Also at Stuff, Jane Clifton speculates that maybe Key, in believing the report exonerated him and his staff, had read an entirely different version of events. “He might have added that black could be a little bit white, and water could be somewhat dry.”

The pressure is mounting on Mr Key, over his contact with Mr Slater. To reporters, and during Question Time in Parliament, Mr Key had denied having any contact with the blogger over the matter, but says he misunderstood the question and thought it was about the Chisholm inquiry into former minister Judith Collins.

Late yesterday afternoon, a screen shot of an email conversation between Slater and another blogger emerged which mentioned that he had been texting Key the night before the report was released.

Not long after the screen shot emerged, the Prime Minister returned to Parliament to correct his earlier answer, confirming the exchange of text messages with Slater about the report.

“On Monday the 24th of November I received an unsolicited text message from Mr Slater with a reference to the IGIS report. There was a very short exchange where I briefly acknowledged that text message.”

Little says Key has misled New Zealand “All of this beggars belief, but it shows to me that we have a Prime Minister who has no ethical bottom lines at all, no integrity, no moral fibre at all - he just carries on as if there is no difference.”

Both Phil Goff and John Key may yet face questions from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn over their discussions about the report before it was released.