Gordon Campbell on the Kitteridge inquiry into the GCSB

This sounds cosy. The second inquiry to be launched in the past ten days into the GCSB – this time, into its capabilities, performance and governance – will be carried out by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Isn’t it a small world? That would be the same department that used to be headed by Simon Murdoch, who was the GCSB chief when the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom was launched. So, if there is any retrospective blame-laying to be done here, Kitteridge will be required to pass judgement on her old boss. Not that blame appears to be on the agenda:

Kitteridge will review the systems, processes and capabilities underpinning the GCSB’s collection and reporting; build capability and provide assurance to the GCSB director that the compliance framework has been reviewed, improved and is fit for purpose; and establish new, specific approval processes for activity in support of police and other law enforcement agencies.

If she does feel the tiniest bit inclined to go into criticism mode, there would be blame enough for everyone to take a share. I loved that bit of her brief that goes “establish new, specific approval processes for activity in support of Police…” Translation: always assume that the Police are idiots, and double check everything they tell you. And tell the politicians even less in future than they currently get told. Reportedly, the PM met 16 times with the new GCSB head, Ian Fletcher, this year and – apparently – the illegal nature of the Dotcom surveillance never arose once, until very, very recently. Is that a compliance framework fit for purpose? I guess it depends on what the real purpose is.

Not that we will be left any the wiser at the end of all this. The results of the Kitteridge inquiry – which is expected to take three months – will not be made public, so public confidence in the security agencies will have to depend solely on the last week’s feeble and manifestly inadequate effort by the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence, Paul Neazor.

Not that Neazor was to blame, much. The inadequacy seemed inevitable given that Neazor is forbidden by law to investigate either Ministerial responsibility or GCSB operational matters. The public though, has a right to feel pretty aggrieved about being left in the dark. It pays these clowns, after all. As things stand, the public is being allowed to see only the report that can’t address what it wants to know, and it won’t be allowed to see the report that will (presumably) address the relevant questions about the GCSB’s role, and performance. Hey, we paid $74 million into the GCSB last year. Don’t you think that gives us taxpayers some right to be informed about what they’re up to, allegedly on our behalf – and whether they’re any good at it?

Fletcher, BTW, has a background of interesting relevance to the Dotcom case. While Fletcher’s early career was spent in the NZ diplomatic service, he was appointed in 2007 to head the British Patents Office, and in that job got to enact the so called Gowers Review of Intellectual Property that sought to modernise Britain’s copyright laws.

The Gowers Review contained some liberal features. It opposed, for instance, extending the time period a work is kept under copyright, which is a goal that the US is reportedly once again seeking to achieve in the ongoing Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations.

The Gowers Review however, also strongly advocated cracking down on illegal downloading and counterfeiting. In the person of Ian Fletcher, the Americans could hardly find a security agency chief in the developed world more conversant with the copyright issues raised by Dotcom’s business activities. Surely, isn’t this knowledge something that New Zealand should be tapping? Is Fletcher’s peculiar expertise – and his GCSB staff – being called in to evaluate the potential threat to New Zealand’s creative industries and to business innovation by the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement – and if not, why not? Arguably the TPPA has far more serious and long term implications for New Zealand’s economic security than the activities of one German-born entrepreneur. If the GCSB then published its findings on the TPPA, it might even go some way to restoring public confidence that the agency is working for all New Zealanders, and not mainly for the global brotherhood of spooks.

Alas, what the GSCB and SIS do – and for whom they do it – is likely to remain a mystery. No one would want to open the door to political abuse of security service operations by an over-zealous Minister, and Prime Minister John Key did point out those dangers yesterday. Yet the opposite tactic – of having no independent oversight of SIS and GCSB operations at all – seems equally dangerous. In that vacuum, the security agencies are being invited to function as laws unto themselves, free to define their own diplomatic, commercial and security goals, and operating behind a self-serving cloak of secrecy.

Why do we need a far more publicly visible inquiry into the GCSB and the Dotcom affair? Because the track record shows that when the SIS or GCSB screw up, they are inclined to defend those mistakes to the death – eg the Zaoui case – rather than dispel the mystique of expertise on which their existence depends. With Zaoui, the Wikileaks cables showed that as early as 2005, the government expected to lose the case. Yet to save face, it kept on with the charade until mid 2007.

Similarly, the Kitteridge inquiry bears the hallmarks of being primarily a face-saving exercise, and a means of getting Dotcom’s illegal surveillance off the front pages. One can safely bet that the GCSB’s annual budget will not be reduced, in its wake.