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Spies shine light on interference, in spotlight over terror

New Zealand’s spy bosses have outlined the threat posed by foreign interference efforts, while also defending themselves in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack. Their remarks on the former brought the issue alive in disconcerting detail, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the latter, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

On one level, the public views of the NZ Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau on foreign interference should be unsurprising.

The debate over New Zealand’s susceptibility to outside actors has been simmering away for well over a year, while our spy bosses were never going to give away state secrets in an open, unclassified briefing to Parliament’s justice committee.

Yet the information laid out by the NZSIS and GCSB about efforts to covertly or deceptively affect New Zealand’s political system brought the issue alive in striking, if somewhat disconcerting, detail.

NZSIS director-general Rebecca Kitteridge confirmed her agency was aware of efforts to mask the origin of political donations, covertly influence MPs and exert pressure on expatriate communities, while her GCSB counterpart Andrew Hampton raised alarm bells about any plans to trial online voting, as has been mooted for local government.

Justice Minister Andrew Little’s decision to bring the foreign interference issue within the scope of a broader review of the 2017 election is to be commended, but he could be forgiven for feeling some trepidation at how the select committee process may play out.

“What we’ve seen internationally is evidence that state actors have scanned electoral systems looking for vulnerabilities, so I wouldn't say it’s given me reassurance, it’s probably given me more reason for concern,” Hampton said.

Again, these issues are not new to the political discourse in New Zealand; just think of the claims made by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross about National leader Simon Bridges improperly concealing a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman (allegations Bridges has denied, but which are now the subject of a Serious Fraud Office investigation).

But to have Kitteridge and Hampton speak relatively frankly about the broader concerns at play gave a sense of the scale of the issue - and made one yearn to be a fly on the wall for the highly classified, closed-door briefing which followed their public appearance.

Justice Minister Andrew Little’s decision to bring the foreign interference issue within the scope of a broader review of the 2017 election is to be commended, but he could be forgiven for feeling some trepidation at how the select committee process may play out - particularly with Chinese influence expert Anne-Marie Brady given the opportunity to share her views after initially being blocked.

On the defensive after Christchurch

But the spy agencies were also on the back foot at points, with the committee meeting the first real chance since the Christchurch terror attack for the media to grill Kitteridge and Hampton about whether their agencies had failed in their duties.

Both were cautious in their remarks, noting that the Royal Commission of Inquiry would hold the intelligence organisations to account, but they also offered hints of their likely defence during those proceedings.

Kitteridge said the NZSIS’ counter-terrorism efforts had been “ideology-neutral” for some time, but there had been an increased focus on right-wing extremism in recent months as the issue was “bubbling up around the world”.

“Lots of people travel to Pakistan, lots of people have gun licences, lots of people unfortunately post not very nice stuff on dodgy websites - we need to have some lead, something to cause us to focus on a particular individual or a particular group.”

She also noted the difficulty of identifying and preventing a lone wolf attacker, a theme which Hampton picked up in part as he talked about the GCSB’s ability - or inability - to conduct mass surveillance as some expect it does.

“I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding in the public sometimes about the breadth of the capabilities of the agencies: we do not have the legal authority, the social licence, the technical means or the resourcing to be constantly monitoring the whole country’s traffic.”

Intelligence officials needed a lead, a hypothesis, he said, “otherwise you are literally looking for a needle in a very big haystack”.

“Lots of people travel to Pakistan, lots of people have gun licences, lots of people unfortunately post not very nice stuff on dodgy websites,” Hampton said of the alleged terrorist’s activities in the lead-up to the attack.

“We need to have some lead, something to cause us to focus on a particular individual or a particular group.”

That seemed to provide further reason to question Bridges’ calls for greater surveillance powers, something reinforced by Hampton’s response when pressed by National MP Nick Smith on whether our current spy law was fit for purpose.

“It actually is in some respects more enabling than some of our partners’ legislation: for example it enables the two agencies to work much more closely together, it allows my agency to provide cyber security services more effectively than we were previously.”

So if it was not a lack of spying powers, what was it - if anything - that led to the attacker slipping under the radar?

Unfortunately, that is one area where we do not have any clear answers - although there have been plenty of (rightfully) pointed questions about the agencies’ potential tunnel vision over the threat posed by Islamic extremism.

We can expect to see far more of the spy bosses in the coming months - and the spotlight on them will grow increasingly hot.

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