Gordon Campbell on Dotcom, spies and plausible deniability

Well, John Key promised us a different style of government than what we’d had from Helen Clark. No more of that being on top of every detail in every portfolio. Do that, and people not only get sick to death of you (no one likes a know-all) but you can held responsible for knowing what’s going on in every dark corner of your administration, and that can take its toll on your popularity, too. For a number of reasons, Key is just not a detail kind of guy.

But does that make the job any easier? Not at all. Because every week the list of “need not to know” subjects seems to get longer. Last week, Key decided that he needed not to read what was in the Police report on John Banks and his mayoral campaign contributions, lest he should find something that would inconveniently require him to revisit the issue of Banks’ credibility, or lack thereof. Long before that, there was the need to be kept out of the loop about the imminent Police raid on Kim Dotcom’s moment until the very, very last moment. And now to cap it all off… there has been the need not to know that the very security organization that reports to him – the GCSB – was carrying out surveillance illegally on Dotcom, at the behest of the FBI. Who knew? Who knew that our biggest security service seems to have been working more closely with agents of a foreign power than with its own Minister? Not John Key, even though most of the time, he (as Minister of the Security Services) is the guy supposed to be signing off the GCSB’s surveillance warrants. Is it plausible to try and insulate yourself from knowledge of the actions of the very organisation for which you have oversight responsibility?

One can only imagine the relentless thirst for plausible deniability around the Cabinet table in this administration. The Christchurch rebuild? Don’t tell him about it. Literally, don’t tell him, Gerry. Bill, you and Treasury have finally got a plan for economic growth? I really don’t want to know – just tell me its cost neutral and spare me the details. In the Dotcom case, the fact of illegal surveillance only came to light in court papers to do with Dotcom’s extradition proceedings, and it seems to have been only at that point that the GCSB informed their Minister, and thereby triggered an investigation by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Paul Neazor. It should be quite an exercise. What did the Prime Minister not know, and when did he not know it?

As yet, it is unclear whether the information provided to the Americans by the GCSB extended beyond locating the whereabouts of certain individuals. Probably more, but who knows? It is unclear whether Dotcom’s lawyers will be told its full extent – if they aren’t this would surely prejudice his right to a fair trial – or whether Paul Neazor’s full findings will eventually be made public.

The context for the actions against Dotcom are significantly different than what existed during the previous decade. What we saw in the 2000s under the Clark government was a covert effort by the NZ Defence Force to pursue a special relationship with the United States in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, regardless of the avowed independent foreign policy stance of the government of the day. That was the main thrust of the evidence collected by Nicky Hager in his book Other People’s Wars. Currently though, New Zealand has a conservative government actively engaged in seeking a special relationship with the Americans, and the task of collusion is therefore far easier to pursue. One can readily see why the GCSB might have had – or thought it might have had – a green light to do whatever would please the Americans, and enhance the wider relationship.

The formalities do have to be gone through, though. The need to restore even a smidgeon of public confidence in the neutrality of the security services makes it imperative that full disclosure of Neazor’s findings should occur. As things stand, there is an unsavoury looking trail here leading from corporate entertainment chiefs to US Vice-President Joseph Biden, and radiating back outwards to the FBI/NZ Police operation against Dotcom. To date, that hyperactive collusion in January between our Police and security services and those of a foreign power operating on our soil has resulted in search and seizure actions deemed by the courts to have been illegal – and those transgressions have now been compounded by an admission of illegal domestic spying. As yet there is no sign of anyone taking any Ministerial responsibility whatsoever for the series of screw-ups that has marked the Dotcom affair from the outset.

That lack of responsibility is partly due to the fact that everyone involved appears to have remembered not to forget not to tell Key beforehand what was going on. When it comes to some aspects of government, this Prime Minister appears to think it is smarter to be kept ignorant, thereby enabling him to stay inside a cone of plausible deniability. Given the level of (in)competence of those reporting to Key, one can readily see why.