Media ‘hiccup’ derailed GNS spy firm plans

Crown research institute GNS Science almost hired controversial private investigators Thompson & Clark to provide security for an offshore research project - only to pull the pin over fears of bad media coverage.

Documents released under the Official Information Act via the FYI.org.nz website show a series of meetings and correspondence between GNS staff and TCIL spanning 2016 and 2017.

In June 2016, a Thompson & Clark employee wrote to a GNS staffer pitching for work and highlighting a “snippet” of negative comment regarding plans to carry out scientific drilling on New Zealand’s seafloor as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP).

“Over the past 13 years, we have worked for a lot of organisations who are either currently or have been in the sights of issue-motivated groups and have developed some mitigation strategies and tactics which may assist your planned operation,” the Thompson & Clark employee said.

After a series of emails, the private investigator met a GNS employee in October 2016 at MBIE headquarters - “all very cloak and dagger” - the investigator quipped in a message confirming the location.

In a follow-up email, the Thompson & Clark employee sent a link to a video of protesters shutting down a Dunedin meeting between Shell and business groups in 2013.

“It was never going to go well and a good example on why not to hold these public meetings and instead hold an information week at venue and allow people to walk through and ask questions to prevent a flash point,” the private investigator said.

In May 2017, the Thompson & Clark employee sent an email to GNS staffers asking for a meeting “to try and get GNS on board”.

The email highlighted an intelligence report from the company which said “issue-motivated group” Climate Justice Taranaki had claimed there were “sinister motives” for GNS’ offshore research drilling.

It appears there was another meeting in July 2017: “Good sharing a beer and a chat last week,” the private investigator said in an email.

The next month, the Thompson & Clark employee sent the GNS staffers a proposal for the IODP, saying: “As discussed, it's focused around security planning, vessel port call support and a normal response to operations whilst at sea.

“There is the ability for the deployment of our Forward Information Officers to vessels at sea if the threat should increase, but as discussed and as will be shown in our threat assessment we believe the threat to be low whilst at sea based on the current threat picture.”

Thompson & Clark had agreed to reduce its standard fees for GNS because of the project’s importance, their employee said.

“The exec are worried about the various angles that the media might take if we (GNS) were to adopt your plan and start working with you.”

The next day, a GNS employee emailed back to say there had been a “hiccup” after they and another employee had briefed their immediate line manager, a member of the GNS executive.

“The Exec are concerned about how the GNS Board and our stakeholders might perceive our research activities if we (GNS) were to adopt your plan and start working with you.

“Our ability to conduct research depends on good relationships within government and the public. For now the decision is to continue to work with our own resources and our international partners.”

An earlier draft of the email, sent from one GNS employee to another for review, said the executive’s concerns were a result of “your recent appearance in the media” - an apparent reference to a NZ Herald story about Greenpeace claiming to have caught Thompson & Clark spies “in the act”.

“The exec are worried about the various angles that the media might take if we (GNS) were to adopt your plan and start working with you.”

In a letter accompanying the OIA documents, GNS said it had “never accepted a business proposal from Thompson and Clark and has no commercial arrangement or other relationship with them”.

In March, the State Services Commission launched an inquiry into the use of Thompson & Clark by Crown-owned company Southern Response following allegations it had spied on Canterbury earthquake victims .

In June, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes announced he was expanding the inquiry to include the entire state sector, saying there were “serious questions” to be answered as both the Ministry of Primary Industries and the NZ Security Intelligence Service launched internal inquiries into the conduct of their employees.

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