Gordon Campbell on the GCSB appointment, and bird flu scares in Beijing

In our political system, which has few checks and balances – a single chamber Parliament, no written Constitution, a weak Bill of Rights etc – a lot has to be taken on trust. For instance: there is a lack of any genuine oversight mechanisms on how the SIS and the GCSB operate, and if anything, security analyst Paul Buchanan was being kind on RNZ this morning when he called the parliamentary oversight committee a “toothless wonder.” This means that we have to take it entirely on trust that politicians will not subvert the powers of those agencies for their own political and personal ends. In such a situation, perception matters.

In the current furore over the appointment of GCSB boss Ian Fletcher the question is not so much whether Fletcher can do the job – although some have expressed doubts about whether he has relevant experience – but whether his appointment was done in a way that is above reasonable suspicion. It is not a matter of whether there is cold hard proof of cronyism, but whether an appearance of cronyism exists. And what we know is that everyone on a shortlist of four candidates drawn up by an expert panel was summarily rejected – none were interviewed – and a candidate known personally to the Prime Minister and with no prior experience in the field then became the only person interviewed, and was duly appointed. Such a procedure clearly fails the perception test of independence and integrity. Even if not cronyism, it looks sufficiently like it as to damage the public trust that we are expected to place in the security services, and on which the extensive powers we give to them depend.

Prime Minister John Key fed those concerns in his initial response to queries about the Fletcher appointment. Key cavalierly dismissed questions in Parliament on the issue, and then claimed to have forgotten that he has telephoned Fletcher about the job. Interestingly, a former GCSB boss (and former Armed Forces chief) Sir Bruce Fergusson has publicly raised concerns about Fletcher’s lack of a military background. While this could look like a piece of special pleading on Fergusson’s part – an attempt to keep the GCSB top post as a job for the boys in uniform – there is a kernel of truth to his comments. As Paul Buchanan says, the GCSB job originated from within the military and has traditionally been all about signals and military intelligence. Appointing someone with no experience at all in the field only raises the suspicion – how come people who did have that experience didn’t even warrant an interview, while a person known to the Prime Minister got the interview and was appointed. Perhaps the Prime Minister can be a more forthcoming about what exceptional skills Ian Fletcher possesses, as to justify such exceptional treatment.

To date, Fletcher’s performance on the job hardly suggests any latent superhero talents. By February 2012 at the very latest, he would have been aware of the dubious legality of the GCSB surveillance of Kim Dotcom. Yet he seems to have bought into the – erroneous – GCSB conclusion that everything was ship shape and legal about those activities, and so therefore the matter needn’t be brought to the attention of the relevant Minister, John Key.

Which raises an interesting point. Supposedly, it was Fletcher’s deep experience in legal /economic issues that counter balanced his lack of prior experience in military intelligence. Yet on the first substantive legal point that comes across his desk as GCSB chief – i.e. was it illegal or not for the GCSB to put a New Zealand resident under surveillance? – Fletcher made the wrong call. Furthermore, by not notifying the PM that there may possibly be a problem, Fletcher (inadvertently or otherwise) enabled Key to maintain a fallback position of plausible deniability for months, until the court ruled in September 2012 that the Dotcom surveillance was in fact, illegal. Foolishness or knavery? Either way, not a performance likely to foster public trust that this is the right man for the job, at least as the job is supposed to be done.

Of course, it would be almost reassuring if the main thing wrong with the SIS and GCSB was the manner in which their leaders were appointed. Yet as the illegal Dotcom surveillance (and Zaoui debacle) have shown, there are basic questions of competence and politicking involved in how these agencies function and malfunction. In that sense, the Fletcher affair is merely the tip of the iceberg.

China – Flu or Flight?

Next week, John Key and Minister-of-Everything Steven Joyce are off to China leading a business and diplomacy mission. This is occurring just as Bloomberg Business Week is reporting an avian flu alert in Beijing.

Following news that at least two men in Shanghai have died from the H7N9 avian flu virus—the first known human deaths from the virus—the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Health released a statement that medical facilities in China’s capital are now taking extra precautions to screen for the virus, as Xinhua News reported on Tuesday.

Beijing hospitals are already stocking up on relevant medical equipment, stepping up screenings, and preparing for the possibility of avian flu-related emergencies. No cases of avian flu in humans have been confirmed in Beijing as of Tuesday, according to state media.

The article quotes these preventative measures for any visitors:

Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, has this advice for people living in Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities where the presence of the avian flu virus is suspected: “Stop shaking hands, and wear gloves in crowded public places like subways or stairs. Wash hands before touching your face, and try to avoid unconsciously touching your nose, mouth or eyes unless your hands are clean. . . . There is no drug to take that keeps you from getting infected—anybody trying to sell you one is a thief.”

Got that, you politicians? No hand shaking. The Guardian has also reported on the precautions here. Time has the same story here. As the US Beijing Embassy advisory fact sheet says, in the unlikely event of a pandemic, those caught in country may not be able to get out of a quarantine situation for anything from two weeks to 12 weeks. Might we therefore be at risk of waving goodbye next week to John Key and Steven Joyce for anything up to three months? Quelle horreur.