All that hanging out with the All Blacks clearly hasn’t taught Prime Minister John Key a thing about the ethics of playing the ball, and not the man. Still, in slagging off Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald as “Dotcom’s little henchman” Key is being consistent with the politics of character assassination that has been the hallmark of his office for some time, with and without the help of Key’s own henchman, Cameron Slater.
Before getting onto the specifics of Key’s defence, the change in his relationship with the GCSB is, literally, incredible. The John Key of last year has vanished in a puff of smoke. Remember the Key who claimed to be unaware of what on earth the GCSB was up to – trust him, he knew nothing, nothing about the joint Police/FBI/GCSB operation being mounted on Kim Dotcom’s home until virtually the day it happened? All gone. Now we are being expected to regard him as the eagle-eyed monitor who crisply intercepted the GCSB’s proposed new modus operandi and knocked them back when they presumed to step over the line. He’s onto it, except when he isn’t. So, which John Key has been running the GCSB – the one who doesn’t know and can’t be held accountable for what it does, or the one who micro-manages its every intention?
Of course, the answer is: whatever is politically convenient for Key at the time. We’re expected to take him on trust that whatever Greenwald reveals tonight will be out of date and never implemented – old hat stuff that might once been on the GCSB’s wishlist at one time, but thanks to Mr Hands On it went no further, and the correct balance between surveillance of terrorists and intrusion into the privacy of ordinary citizens has been safely maintained.
The problem with Key’s belated plea for trust – and with his claim that Kim Dotcom is the only person here disclosing information for political purposes – is that Key patently did not behave honestly last year when the GCSB legislation was being was going through Parliament. For example: New Zealanders were never told that the GCSB was scoping out a system of mass surveillance, one that had got to the stage of power points and pdfs and a working relationship with the NSA to enable its implementation. Instead, Key was assuring us that a system of mass surveillance was not an issue, never had been etc etc And that the GCSB law change was merely a matter of tidying up the previous law.
Tonight we will see Greenwald’s evidence. Yet in terns of basic logic, Key’s claims appear implausible. First, it seems by his own account that he was asleep on the job during the period when the GCSB was creating and developing this plan ( and having it signed off by Cabinet!) before he heroically intervened. Secondly, what over-ride powers is Key claiming to possess – that he alone, after the NSA has implemented the initial intercept phase of the programme, can step in and shut down the operation?
Think about it. It may seem (marginally) plausible that Key should suddenly backtrack on a GCSB programme that he would surely have known about since its inception. Yet could he also in the process, significantly abridge a surveillance system seen as integral to the Five Eyes arrangement ? Logically, that seems highly unlikely. We like to think that we punch above our weight, but outpunching the NSA and unilaterally pulling the plug on a system that has been endorsed by our Five Eyes partners – such that they then wouldn’t be able to implement the system as a whole ? This would be the security intelligence version of withdrawing from the ANZUS pact. Key’s explanation simply doesn’t make sense.
For now, Key is resorting to semantic distinctions. Its all about cyber-protection, not surveillance, Key told Corin Dann on TVNZ’s Q & A programme yesterday morning. Thus, the GCSB should really be thought of as just “a Norton Anti-Virus at a high level” that’s keeping nasty things at bay.
The trouble with this argument is that there is compelling evidence that the GCSB’s role is not primarily defensive, and mainly to do with cyber protection. It is not engaged in targeted surveillance either, of citizens known or suspected to be a security risk. It engages in pro-actively (a) gathering and (b) sharing the metadata of private citizens, at the very least. The GCSB does so via New Zealand’s Five Eyes security arrangement, and that’s what its membership requires and sustains. Five Eyes is a Cold War relic that has been adapted as a tool of mass surveillance to promote and protect the political interests of the state, and as a tool of economic espionage to promote and protect the state’s trade interests as well – even if this involves spying on our friends and trading partners in the Pacific, and beyond.
To muddy the waters, Key has quibbled about the semantics of of what constitutes“ mass surveillance.” Has the GCSB been engaged in an exercise of mass eavesdropping on the actual conversations and reading the emails of ordinary New Zealanders? Probably not. Has it been engaged in the gathering and sharing of the New Zealand public’s metadata? Almost certainly, yes. This is what membership of the Five Eyes system entails. Does this constitute mass surveillance ? Absolutely. Is it really just a matter of cyber-protection for New Zealand firms? Hardly.
If cyber-protection was the prime role of the GCSB – and it isn’t – then Greens Co-leader Russel Norman made an interesting distinction yesterday. Clearly, New Zealand needs to prevent cyber-protection measures being willfully – or accidentally- confused with the invasions of privacy that are related to our defences against terrorism. Therefore, wouldn’t it foster greater public (and corporate) faith in the whole exercise if the two functions were separated?
“Mass spying and cyber protection are two separate issues. [Dr Norman said.] It is wrong for John Key to justify mass surveillance as being necessary for cyber security, it is not. “Cyber security is a real issue, and getting it right is critically important to New Zealand, however it is essentially unrelated to international spying which is the core function of the GCSB.”
It was “easy to get the lines blurred” when the GCSB was responsible for both spying and cyber protection, he said.
“The Green Party has always said that a separate agency, free from spying, should be in charge of New Zealand’s cyber protection efforts,” he said.
Frankly, the more evidence emerges that spy agencies have been tools of economic espionage – and Greenwald cited the example of Canada’s spying on Brazilian mining and oil companies – the more pressing it is to make sure that national security (and not corporate advantage) is what we’re seeking here. If we do need a huge Norton Anti-Virus, lets make it a stand-alone entity – and thereby ensure that our cyber-protection efforts are not blurring into the data gathering and data sharing that currently goes on between our Five Eyes security partners. .
This is a really important distinction for New Zealand. China is now our main trading partner. As we go deeper into what some have called the Asian Century, how could it possibly be in our own best interests to be systematically spying on China – and dutifully passing information about its economic activities – to its trading rivals, as defined by our old Cold War – era affiliations ?
Surely, we need an independent foreign policy and a security system that protects our own interests – and not those of the business rivals of our main trading partner? In this respect, the Trans Pacific Partnership (which pointedly excludes China) has always been a de facto defence and security pact as much as it is trade deal. Dig down one level with the TPP and you find that even conservative analysts such as Professor Jagdish Bhagwati regard the TPP as being driven by US corporate interests that bear little relation to free trade. Increasingly, the same can be said of the economic espionage activities that are now entwined with the operations of the Five Eyes arrangement. Lets see tonight what evidence Greenwald has about our economic espionage role within the Five Eyes. And also, about the extent to which this government has been complicit in the invasion of domestic privacy and personal freedom. Thanks entirely to Greenwald, we are getting the chance to know about this before we cast our votes on Saturday.
Footnote: Since our Prime Minister has been willing to use character assassination as his first line of defence, it’s worth pointing out that Glenn Greenwald has had an international reputation for accuracy and honesty that far transcends his current relationship with Kim Dotcom. It was because of Greenwald’s reputation and expertise on security issues that Edward Snowden contacted him to release the information that has been crucial to the public’s understanding of the systems of global surveillance. Greenwald brokered the release of that information with the Guardian – arguably the world’s best newspaper – and has since been hired by the Guardian as a regular columnist.
Another heavyweight in the country this week is the international lawyer Robert Amsterdam, now on Dotcom’s legal defence team. Previously, Amsterdam was the main legal advocate for the now-freed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. More recently, Amsterdam has represented Thailand’s former leader Thaksin Shinawatra – and also spoken out on behalf of the government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was recently deposed by anti-democratic forces, via a military coup. It may suit Key to try and depict such people as lackeys of Dotcom. In fact, we’re fortunate to have people of such calibre in the country at all, to debate matters of personal freedom and national independence on the eve of an election.