The Secret Intelligence Service in New Zealand
In May, Secret Intelligence Service boss Warren Tucker announced a new strategy to work more closely with the Police in tackling international organised crime and terrorism. Salient Feature Writer Rob Addison investigates the details of this announcement and asks how much faith the public should place in the arrangement.
ONE wet and howling evening in 1974, in Aro Valley’s Holloway Road, two men, barely visible through the squall-like conditions, met to exchange brief words. The two parted, and the man who arranged the meeting, a Russian, returned to his chauffeured vehicle. Before the other could leave, police officers moved in on the scene. The officers arrested the man under suspicion of assisting a Soviet spy. The arrested man was head of the Trade and Industry Ministry, and was one of New Zealand’s top public servants. His name was Bill Sutch.
Soon after, Sutch was tried for espionage. The Police alleged that Sutch had given a package to the Soviet spy from the Soviet Embassy. The case became a widespread embarrassment for the authorities who were unable to determine the contents of Sutch’s package, where it was from, and how it was an act of espionage. In 1975, Sutch was acquitted from trial, but died from cancer soon after.
Long after his acquittal and death, Sutch’s innocence is still debated. At the time, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon said the charges stemmed from Sutch’s alleged association with the Soviet Embassy, the Soviet Union and KGB agents in New Zealand. The origins of these allegations, as well as the accusations of the Police, have never been confirmed. However, it is widely believed that the Police and the Prime Minister’s office were running on information supplied by New Zealand’s elite investigative agency – the SIS. Over 20 years later, on a tranquil Christchurch night in July 1996, local academic Dr. David Small paid a visit to his friend Aziz Choudry, an outspoken anti-free trade activist who had organised a conference to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). On walking to the entrance of Choudry’s home, Small heard unusual noises coming from the side of the house. Moving towards the clamour, Small saw two men who, once realising they’d been spotted, jumped a fence and began sprinting down a nearby street. Small chased the men, eventually catching one while the other got away, seeking refuge in a fleeing black SUV. Soon after, it was revealed the two men were SIS agents.
Only days later, both Dr. Small’s and Choudry’s houses were raided by Police looking for bomb-making materials. Although the Police found nothing and no charges were laid, the raids are thought to have arisen from the placement of a fake bomb outside the Christchurch City Council buildings after local officials had removed an anti-APEC feature from its window display.
Choudry and Small separately sued the Government for damages.
After a three-year court battle, the Government offered Choudry an undisclosed out-of-court settlement and a formal apology. Dr. Small successfully sued the Police for the raid on his house. The Sutch and Choudry cases each caused enormous embarrassment for the SIS and Police, seen by the public as evidence of how security networking can turn horribly wrong. Yet a recent announcement by SIS Director Warren Tucker suggests that there could be more SIS and Police collaboration in the future.
During the Director’s address to the Wellington Intelligence Seminar in May 2007, Tucker said: “we will assist, cooperate and collaborate with other agencies, such as the Police … to the fullest extent practicable in order to achieve the public safety and security outcomes which are the responsibility of Government to strive for.” Contacting Tucker turned out to be rather like a spy novel. After leaving a week’s worth of unreturned phone messages with his Personal Assistant, I finally received a call on my cellphone from his office. It was his PA, telling me that Tucker was happy to do the interview under the condition that it was done through the post. After I suggested an email interview as a better alternative, his PA insisted Tucker would only accept interview questions through the post – a process which, she admitted, would mean I’d have to wait at least a couple of weeks before getting a response. Realising I only had a couple of days before my deadline, I had to decline. I put my cell phone down in disbelief that Tucker insisted upon this condition, before realising that regardless of whether or not it was a deliberate stalling tactic, it was certainly a damn good one.
While Tucker may be tight-lipped when the press come knocking at his door, he seems pleasantly candid when making public addresses. Commenting in detail on the strategy to move into policing (the Police networking initiative), which is based on a similar move by British officials after the 2005 London bombings, Tucker says the threat of extremism has left local New Zealand authorities with no alternative. “The much shorter lead times involved in the radicalisation process which now seem to be the norm overseas is a particularly worrisome trend, because it means that the intelligence process has to be more agile and more focused and more systematic. No longer can we rely mainly on stationing a set of ‘pickets’ across key points in the domestic landscape to alert us to indicators of security concern. We must work closely and collaboratively with – in particular – the Police in order to gain a ‘rich picture’ of understanding the local dynamics, issues, tensions, and warning signs within communities.”
Tucker’s announcement has received a fair amount of support. The Prime Minister has given her tentative backing of the plan, while National’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Spokesperson Murray McCully has said any extension of the SIS’s ability is a step in the right direction. But not everybody is convinced.
Chairperson of the New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties Michael Bott told me the strategy would lead to problems. “There’s a completely different culture between the SIS and the Police. With the Police there are disclosure obligations and policies of openness. Also, the New Zealand Police are not answerable to in the Minister for the Police in the same way that the SIS is … answerable to the Prime Minister.” In other words, moving the unaccountable SIS into previously accountable work raises concerns that power may be abused without public knowledge.
Dr. Paul Buchanan, a Political Studies Lecturer at Auckland University and former consultant to the US Central Intelligence Agency, says the SIS’s interest in Police activity has been sparked by the ties between transnational crime and terrorist networking. This, Buchanan says, is part of the agency’s new outlook under its new director – which is a welcome change in Buchanan’s eyes. “Former Ambassador Richard Woods got on the anti-Jihadi bandwagon and he rode it for all it’s worth, even though the Jihadi threat to New Zealand is negligible or zero.” Buchanan says this was a deliberate tactic to exploit public fear after 9/11. “If you claim that there are terrorists in the midst you get bigger budgets [and] the SIS budget has almost doubled in the space of three years. So they’ve gotten bigger budgets, they’ve got more personnel so it was essentially bureaucratic self-justification to cry wolf when it came to Jihadis.”
Buchanan says Wood’s obsession with Jihadi extremism led the SIS to overlook recent turmoil in the Pacific, which according to Buchanan, is the agencies focal area. “The SIS is responsible for the intelligence collection in the English-speaking Western Pacific … [but] we didn’t call the rights in Tonga; we didn’t call the coup in Fiji; what they hell were they doing? This is our area, and it is an embarrassment because we were not passing up early, reliable warnings to our bigger intelligence partners, which are Australia, the United States and the UK. So everybody was caught off guard because of our failures.”
Woods’ intentions became clear to Buchanan when he was serving as an expert witness to the Ahmed Zaoui case, receiving manipulated information presented by Woods. “He was basically spinning things in a direction that he felt the Labour Government – and Helen Clark in particular – wanted to hear. That’s not on. The role of the intelligence collector is to provide the good news, the bad news and everything in between – to give an honest array of information to the policy makers. This guy was spinning and that’s just not on.”
Bott says the SIS has a history of this kind of bias, reciting the time Muldoon accused former Labour MP Colin Moyle of illegal homosexual activities – information that Bott says Muldoon gained through inappropriate use of the SIS. “Politicians have in the past used secret information to their own political ends. And the thing is, can we trust politicians not to do it again? I don’t think we can. After all, one shouldn’t entrust the running of the zoo to those locked within the confines of the monkey house.”
Buchanan is prepared to have a little more faith in Tucker’s leadership. This is unusual for Buchanan, who says his work has made him highly sceptical and mistrusting of people. However, he holds hope. “What we’ve seen is a shift in emphasis under Warren Tucker to traditional intelligence collection and analysis and counter espionage,” he says.
But Michael Bott assures me the new strategy is dangerous because it risks people’s right to privacy. “It could lead to a further move to a Big Brother type of society where Wellington, in a sense, looks increasingly like Stalin’s Russia and becomes known as Helengrad.” He also says it could reduce Police accountability. “If the Police find something too difficult because of their disclosure obligations, they could farm the job out to the SIS, or they’ll claim that because it’s secret information they can’t disclose their sources.” Bott says this makes it impossible to gauge whether or not the public should have faith in the SIS. “The thing is, how accurate do we know the SIS are when there’s no obligation in terms of openness to reveal their sources? And we don’t know if individual New Zealanders are being snooped on by the SIS and so I’m really not in a position to comment on the SIS. But I have little faith in organisations that are secret because you can’t judge them. With the Police you know how accurate they are with their disclosure requirements.”
Buchanan agrees with this, saying: “[The SIS] does not answer to the juridical strictures that the cops have to answer to. That’s the issue, because the cops have to answer to the court for everything they do. The SIS does not.” However, he is equally concerned with the country’s overall security structure, feeling the SIS may be doing more work than it should be. “I think it’s very dangerous to have one intelligence agency doing both internal and external, and then doing counter intelligence – that’s when you are spying on the spies. For example, we know that there are Chinese intelligence networks in New Zealand so the SIS is trying to keep tabs on them. But I doubt very much that you can do external intelligence, internal intelligence and counter intelligence, and do it competently.”
“In most liberal democracies you separate the external intelligent collection function which is spying abroad, getting information from abroad, either through liaison partners or directly.” He says the American FBI and CIA, which manage internal and external issues respectively, is case and point.
But Buchanan is determined to be optimistic. “Given the SIS’s medium and short-term track record, I would say we should be extremely concerned. But I also think that we need to give this new Director-General the benefit of the doubt. Although several security experts disagree with me on this … I think that we need to give Warren Tucker a chance to professionalise his agency. I think that the Zaoui case has been a gross embarrassment for the SIS. It has shown them to be rank amateurs when it comes to analysing foreign-derived information. And that’s why he’s been brought in, not necessarily to clean the house but to change the internal culture of the place – to make it more professional. And so although we should be extremely concerned about the past record of the SIS, we also need to give this Director-General a chance to prove that the SIS has gone back to the traditional concerns of intelligence agencies, which is, again, spying on external threats and working in countering intelligence operations on our soil.”
“What I find interesting is that people in New Zealand – with the exception of the left – uncritically accept whatever the security agencies say. I believe that the military operates, by and large, honestly, and I know that the SAS [Special Air Service] guys are extremely good soldiers and pretty righteous to boot. I can’t say the same thing about the SIS. I think that this is a problem. If we don’t have a public that doesn’t take an interest in being lied to, being manipulated, then we won’t have a Parliament that will ask the hard questions about these guys, which means they’re essentially irresponsible – these guys don’t have to answer the hard questions so they can basically go about their business as they please.”
One only needs to remember the Bill Sutch and Aziz Choudry cases to know what that can lead to.