Gordon Campbell on Ian Fletcher, Jon Stewart and the new avian flu

At this point, the Ian Fletcher affair risks getting lost in the‘angels on pinheads’ detail that fascinates the Beltway, and bores the pants off everyone else. What remains clear is that Prime Minister John Key intervened and changed the selection process for a spymaster’s job that – for very good consitutional reasons – is supposed to be kept at arms’ length from political interference. On this occasion, Key not only held a ‘brainstorming’ session about possible candidates with Iain Rennie, the person running the candidate selection process but took it on himself to solicit an application from someone he knew personally. Key needs to admit that was wrong, and should apologise for his actions, at the very least.

Yesterday, Rennie himself mentioned a cautionary precedent of sorts – the ministerial interference in the appointment of Clare Curran to a job at the Environment Ministry in 2007. Keep in mind the difference in scale here. One was a job doing work about the environment; the other is running the country’s main spy agency. Yet back then, National MPs felt that such intervention was outrageous, and especially if it involved phoning the applicant. Here’s how Gerry Brownlee painted the picture in a press release back in 2007:

Mr Brownlee says the full text of the inquiry [into the Curran appointment] shows a worrying culture of politicisation in the public service, to the point that few seem to understand how bad it has become…David Parker even rang Ms Curran himself to say he’d put in a good word for her.

Even David Farrar at Kiwiblog has been critical, and has pinpointed one of the reasons for concern:

I think it is unfortunate the Prime Minister phoned Ian Fletcher to suggest he applies…a phone call from the PM soliciting the application would carry weight with the State Services Commission.

Exactly. If and when Ministers send such a signal as to a preferred candidate that inevitably tips the scales. That’s one reason why Ministers are supposed to keep their noses out of operational matters, and the choice of who is to run the GCSB is the Mother Of All Operational Matters, one would have thought. That kind of finger on the scales intervention on behalf of a particular person is why the then-ACC Minister Nick Smith got suspended from Cabinet for a few months last year. Key claiming that he couldn’t initially remember phoning Fletcher is not only implausible but is almost beside the point: the call should never have been made, but (as yet) Key seems blissfully unrepentant. Which suggests that unless there is an inquiry by the Auditor-General to tell him otherwise, he’s likely to do it again.

Incidentally, one would love to know how Key described the job to Fletcher in that mid- 2011 phone call. Since Fletcher has allegedly been hired for his experience as a “change manager” rather than for his (non-existent) military signals expertise, that indicates Key already felt in mid 2011 that the GCSB needed a thorough organisational shake-up? If so, on what grounds? Because the need for the Kitteridge review supposedly emerged only in 2012. There’s a kind of retrofitting of Fletcher for the job going on right now. And that too, needs to be investigated. What was Fletcher told at the time about the nature of the job?

Of course, there is a plausible alternative theory for Fletcher’s selection. In mid 2011, the operation against Kim Dotcom was already being put on the rails. With that in mind and with a surveillance role for the GCSB envisaged, did the government wish to install a friendly face in the top role at the spy agency, rather than a ‘by the books’ military person who might raise picky objections to the GCSB involvement, which has turned ojut to be illegal. But….that theory would cast doubt on Key’s assurance that he first heard of the joint Police-FBI home raid (on the flamboyant millionaire living in his electorate) on the day that it happened. And we all believe that one, right? Right?

Which raises a final point – if Fletcher wasn’t told beforehand of the looming Dotcom operation, when did he first learn about it and how was it brought to his attention? Did someone take him aside and say “Look Ian, we know you were told this job is about military signals traffic and stuff that you know nothing about, but don’t worry, we’ve got that covered for you. But well…there is this OTHER small thing. We’re also engaged with the FBI in a surveillance and swoop on a German Internet millionaire living in the PM’s electorate. You OK with that, Ian? At morning tea the other day Bob, the courier chap said that he thinks this surveillance might be illegal, but don’t worry, we’ve got that covered…”

Plainly, an inquiry by the Auditor-General is now needed to restore some degree of public trust in the role of the GCSB. On the side, maybe the Auditor-General can tell the executive why it should keep its nose out of sensitive public sector appointments.

Jon Stewart Takes On Egypt

According to Salon, the US Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to the Daily Show’s recent takedown of Egypt’s leader Mohammed Morsi for the arrest of the satirical television comedian Bassem Youssef, who – by the way – has been described as ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’. This triggered an angry tirade by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry and a brief spasm of frantic back pedalling by the US diplomats. The good news is that Youssef has now been released, so all praise to Jon Stewart for his efforts. It goes without saying that Stewart’s current affairs brilliance – well researched, angry, hilarious – is unimaginable on New Zealand television. The link to the Salon story and to the Stewart item on Morsi is here, although you do have to scroll down to the second picture for the link to the Daily Show item.

Bird flu update

The avian flu outbreak in China mentioned in yesterday’s column is now being reported on in the mainstream media here. The good news is that – for now at least – this strain is not communicable between humans. The bad news is that it seems to be more lethal to humans than to birds. This means that detection is harder, since there is no prior trail of dead birds leading to the source of the infection and the culling of clearly infected birds is not an option. Looking further out, this looks like trouble, once the virus has figured out how to move between humans. This report in the South China Morning Post covers both the good news and the bad news aspects of the story:

The H7N9 bird flu virus is less likely to cause disease than the H5N1 virus that has killed hundreds of people worldwide, scientists say. But tracking the new virus is harder, as it seems to spread quietly among poultry.While the spread of H5N1 has been halted by culls of chickens, this will not work with the H7N9 virus, as it is not known to have caused widespread deaths among birds or other animals, says Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong. Though symptoms are mild in animals infected with H7N9, the virus seems to be more deadly to humans, having killed three of the nine people infected so far and left the others critically ill.

Currently, there is no vaccine for this new H7N9 bird flu strain. Finding a vaccine will need to become a priority, and be achieved perhaps by the next northern winter:

As for how H7N9 infections will develop, Yuen says human infections may disappear suddenly, sporadic cases may continue before the virus returns as a more severe strain next winter, or human-to-human transmission may occur.