Gordon Campbell on the failures of the Neazor report

As predicted in yesterday’s column, the restrictions in the Inspector-General’s own guiding legislation have prevented him from reporting adequately on (a) issues of Ministerial responsibility or (b) the scope and significance of the information obtained via this illegal surveillance (c) who has enjoyed access to it, and (d) whether such mistakes are symptomatic of wider failings within the agencies involved. Everything from (b) to (d) would qualify as operational matters within the security services, and the Inspector-General is prevented by law from going there. All he can do is assess whether the issuance of warrants met the legal test. It didn’t, he has concluded. But we knew that already.

For those reasons, for Prime Minister John Key to ask Inspector-General Paul Neazor to carry out an inquiry was always going to be an inadequate response. Like a highly qualified Mr Plod, the I-G has now established the obvious – that the deceased is indeed dead, m’lud. Or in this case that the initial mistake by the Police as to Kim Dotcom’s residency status was indeed committed by the Police and was then not picked up the GCSB as it should have been. But the extent of the subsequent surveillance, the nature of the information gained and with whom it was shared, whether the data can and should be expunged from the extradition proceedings, whether the two Ministers directly involved (Police and the Minister of the Security Services) were notified in a timely fashion and responded adequately etc etc etc are matters that remain entirely up in the air.

In fact, acting Prime Minister Bill English has formally prevented access by the Dotcom team to that kind of information – and outrageously, English has since defended his actions in signing a certificate that blocked information about the GCSB role and the scope of its (illegal) activities.

Bill English told Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report programme on Friday he was right when acting as Prime Minister to sign the certificate.
“In a situation like that I would sign it again. It’s just part of the normal way of dealing with an intelligence agency.”

Right. Secrecy at all costs, no matter the damage being done to natural justice. The abnormal becomes the norm. English is clearly a lost cause, but Minister of Police Anne Tolley also has some explaining to do. It seems that the allegedly crack anti-terrorism unit within the Police is not able to recognize its basic legal boundaries. That’s a worry. The definition of anti-terrorism now extends to the investigation of crimes that may affect the economic security of the nation (a definition that means the late Alan Hubbard could conceivably be defined as a terrorist) and therefore, we all have a vested interest in the competence of the Police unit involved to do its job. Ditto with the security services. It is now eleven years since 9/11, and the immediate post 9/11 phase is over. A fresh and wide ranging inquiry into the Dotcom breach would serve the useful purpose of establishing whether our Police anti-terrorism efforts and our security services are properly focussed on the realities of the post–post-9/11 world.

How to effectively monitor the security services is a global problem. For obvious reasons, both the SIS and GCSB like to promote a mystique of secrecy about the job they do. This extends to keeping their intelligence traffic and actions out of public sight, and beyond scrutiny in the courts. Yet in reality, very little would be lost if security breaches were treated as criminal matters, and prosecuted in open court. Arguably, we would all benefit if security information was exposed to sanitizing daylight and more independent corroboration. The series of debacles that occurred over the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq go to show that we have far more to fear from secrecy itself.

In fact, a string of security service bungles in the US, UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Australia and here has shown that the main purpose of the secrecy that is routinely dropped over security matters (like a blanket over a budgie cage) is the stifling of public debate about the relationships involved, and the purposes being served. Well….Kim Dotcom is not waging jihad against Hollywood, fellers. Our economic security and sense of wellbeing is probably less at risk from Dotcom than from the Hollywood types who still insist on putting zoning restrictions on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.

To dispel the secrecy mystique, we need a properly resourccd, truly independent office of the Inspector-General with its own in-house investigative staff. Just as the intelligence agencies maintain a network of contact with their brother agencies overseas, so should our watchdog office be actively liaising in parallel with similar organizations overseas (eg, Liberty in the UK, or its equivalent organization, Justice) that evaluate legislation on security, policing and immigration issues and actively contribute to public debate on trends in those matters. If he is to be an effective public watchdog, the Inspector-General has to be adequately resourced and assisted to play a similar role here. Popping in occasionally for afternoon tea and cakes at the GCSB and a quick scan of the warrants clearly isn’t good enough.

BTW, these definitional matters that tripped up the Police and GCSB can be tricky. The media reporting on their mistakes seem to be calling the current Inspector-General “Justice” Neazor. While a retired judge, he is now apparently Mr Paul Neazor. Or so he sharply informed me once in the course of correspondence with his office over the Ahmed Zaoui case.