Gordon Campbell on the Royal Commission’s report into the Christchurch mosque shootings

0f64faca3a4ae62d769dae87f0e8074fFor an 800 page monster, the Royal Commission report into the Christchurch shootings has proved to be a strangely weightless affair. Everyone – the Police, the PM, the security services – has apologised but (allegedly) no-one did anything wrong. People lost their lives , but no-one appears likely to lose their jobs. Atrocities like this must be prevented in future but – according to the report – nothing could have prevented this tragedy, in that pure luck would have been our best and only hope of detecting the terrorist before he struck. Which raises a question the report didn’t address. Why should we spend well over a hundred million dollars annually on the SIS if (when it matters) the agency can provide the public with a counter-terrorism shield no better than chance?

Many pages of the report were devoted to suggesting ways to fix the system – from stricter firearms licensing to security agency reform – but there was surprisingly little (two pages in fact) devoted to proposals for helping to fix the people damaged by the events of March 15, 2019. Anyone looking for suggestions on reparations or victim support measures will need to look elsewhere. Crucially, one of the report’s major findings was that the SIS had mis-identified Islamic terrorism as being the main threat to the public, and therefore mis-allocated its resources into surveillance of the local Islamic community.

Yet we knew about this failing already. As soon as the terrorist struck, we knew that the local Moslem community were the actual victims of terrorism, and not its imaginary perpetrators. So… The value of the Commission’s report – in any forward looking, preventative sense – rests on how well it has diagnosed the systemic faults within our security agencies, and the solutions it prescribes. It has done a good job on both counts.

For the patient reader, there’s a grim fascination in seeing exactly how and why the SIS and other agencies (the GCSB, Police and DPMC) had programmed themselves to look in the wrong direction for the wrong kind of threat, with the wrong analytical tools. If the outcome wasn’t so tragic, the organisation described in the report would be comically unfit for the counter-terrorism role it purported to play. .

The SIS failure to recognise the right-wing terrorism threat can’t be blamed simply on our 5 Eyes allies and their focus on radical Islam, although that did strongly influence the SIS worldview. But as the report also pointed out, our intelligence allies had experienced right wing terrorism, and put an operational resources into countering it. We didn’t follow suit, until it was too late. The key question isn’t why we slavishly echoed the concerns of our 5 Eyes partners about radical Islam – although we certainly did – but why we didn’t share their concerns about right wing terrorism. This is a really damning paragraph:

Before 15 March 2019, there had been many extreme right-wing terrorist attacks in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, which showed that ideological thinking along the lines of the Great Replacement had the capacity to motivate some people to extreme violence. Right-wing extremist terrorism was exemplified by the Oslo terrorist’s attack in 2011, several mass shootings at places of worship in Europe and North America between 2012–2018 and a planned extreme right-wing attack in Australia that was disrupted in 2016 (see Part 8, chapter 2). In short, global events showed that right-wing extremism was a known phenomenon, with substantial potential lethality, was not confined to a single jurisdiction, had been around for a number of years and fed off a number of drivers to which New Zealand could not claim to be immune (including racism, Islamophobia, poverty, growing inequality, the radicalising role of the internet and immigration).

The only explanation for this failure is that the SIS had been blinded by their prior experience with right wing groups (notably, in Christchurch) which as the report indicated, they had dismissed as faction-riven and incompetent. Moreover, because of the online incompetence of the SIS (noted in the report) the agency then failed to appreciate the rise of a different generation of right wing extremists who had been recruited and radicalised online.

Resourcing and capacity

If the SIS was a flawed organisation as at March 2019, things had (relatively recently) been worse. The prior staffing situation was described in the report like this:

As at 30 June 2014, {the SIS] had 225 staff. Around 35 to 50 percent of these staff were allocated to security vetting and just 4.5 full-time equivalent staff (including the manager) worked on terrorism investigations.

You read that right. Only six years ago, there were just 4.5 full timers ( including their managers) working on counter-terrorism. Funding was then boosted :

From July 2016, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service received increased funding… This allowed significant growth over four years in its capacity and capability..

According to a February 2016 Cabinet paper, what capability the SIS had previously possessed to do counter-terrorism work had been largely limited to Auckland. Yet those problems were not resolved by more funds being poured into the SIS, and more staff being hired. As the Commission explained, building up capacity in an organisation like the SIS is no simple matter.

Growing capacity and capability in intelligence and security agencies is not straightforward. This was recognised by United Kingdom agencies in their response to questioning by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee inquiry into the 7 July 2005 London terrorist attacks. When asked whether agency heads ought to have sought a greater increase in funding in the previous year, the Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service said:“If you try to bring in more than a certain number of new people every year, you can literally bust the system… You can only tolerate a certain number of inexperienced people dealing with sensitive subjects”

Yikes. Was there an influx of inexperienced people dealing with sensitive subjects? You bet:

By 2018, a significant number of new investigators and some new collection staff had been brought on board and, as of late 2019, numbers had recovered considerably from where they were several years ago. A consequence of this sequencing is that the numbers of the current investigators and a certain category of collection staff is proportionately low and many have limited experience. The 2019 Arotake Review confirmed this view, noting that the majority of the investigators had less than one year’s experience at the time of the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack.

These new recruits were being poured into a decision -making matrix that as the Commission explained, was not merely trying to improve its internal systems for evaluating and operationalising the leads it was receiving. It was also still working out the best resource allocation balance between (a) collecting and analysing intelligence data and (b) launching investigations into them.

We heard that the limited experience of some investigations staff led to extremely valuable collection staff being deployed against lower priority intelligence requirements instead of developing more strategic access.

Staff turnover during this period – 2016-2018 was also problematically high, the Commission noted, for a security intelligence agency. Annual staff turnover was 12.1 percent in 2018-2019, up from 10.3 percent in 2017-2018. With an even higher turnover among its diversity staff. As mentioned, the competence of the SIS at working with online threats has remained limited throughout.

The Wrong Priorities

Unfortunately, all of the above formed only a relatively minor part of the inbuilt problems at the SIS. As the report indicated, this was an organisation ill-designed to detect and deter previously unknown threats. For starters, a notable imbalance existed between the counter-espionage work of the SIS and its counter-terrorism work. As the report says:

…Before 15 March 2019 approximately half of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s investigative resources were dedicated to espionage and hostile foreign intelligence with slightly less being allocated to counter-terrorism. The higher priority placed on espionage and hostile foreign interference meant that more experienced investigators tended to be concentrated on those threats.

Also, since many of the SIS leads originated offshore – via the 5 Eyes network – SIS resources had to be allocated into evaluating what relevance those leads had, if any, to the New Zealand context. In line with this general orientation, many of the priority areas of SIS work – eg diplomacy, trade security – were being driven by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Cumulatively, all of these competing factors induced the SIS to focus its counter terrorism efforts upon the known threats (eg Islamic State) and on monitoring a list of the known suspect individuals. The SIS was aware it had a problem in this respect:

Before mid-2018 the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service was largely focused on monitoring known individuals where the nature of the threat was understood.Rebecca Kitteridge, Director-General of Security, told us that this was unsatisfactory, as it tied up resources that should be actively seeking out unknown threats.

Basically, the SIS was an organisation where its system of obtaining leads and setting priorities made it almost inevitable that a previously unknown individual operating online (ie the Christchurch shooter) would go undetected, and would not be intercepted. In the circumstances, one can appreciate why the public might want heads to roll. Yet simply changing the leadership and pouring more resources into the same structures and expanding SIS powers will not fix what’s wrong with the organisation.

Foreign powers

That said, it is worth citing a few sections of the Commission’s commentary on the factors that pushed the agency into where it was facing in the wrong direction. Here is how the report described the general situation:

Up until 2018, the resources available to the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s counter-terrorism effort were devoted to what was seen as the presenting threat (as identified by lead information, intelligence collection, strategic assessments and international partner reporting) of Islamist extremist terrorism. These resources were almost fully engaged on the investigation of New Zealand supporters of Dā’ish seeking to participate in hostilities abroad to mount, or encourage or support terrorist attacks or undertake activities in support of terrorism in New Zealand.

As mentioned above, this focus on Islamic organisations and individuals was not simply the byproduct of an ideological ( and geo-political) hostility to Islam. The fixation on Islam also happened to suit the analytical model commonly used in SIS investigations:

The 2019 Arotake Review noted that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had long employed a “classical model” for its investigations, which is lead-based. This model is well suited to assessing known threats using established intelligence collection techniques but is less well suited to the development of a detailed picture of emerging threats in the security environment (see Part 8, chapter 10). The 2019 Arotake Review found that the classical model had served the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service well in relation to Islamist extremist threats. These threats largely…dominated the New Zealand terrorism threatscape until early 2018.

As mentioned, the SIS had earlier dismissed right wing extremists as being too faction-riven and incompetent to pose a significant threat. Yet after our foreign allies took a renewed interest in right wing threats, the SIS belatedly launched a review (in May 2018) and a limited work programme (in July 2018) on right wing extremism in this country. Unfortunately by then, the Christchurch shooter’s planning for his attack was already well underway, and the SIS came to the table with little or no institutional knowledge about this aspect of the domestic threatscape:

In July 2018, the right-wing extremism project produced a report detailing information and intelligence requirements for collection units to pursue. The report also described the “Current Intelligence Picture”, which indicates that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had a limited understanding of the right-wing extremism environment in New Zealand at that time:“At present, little is known about the extreme right-wing environment in New Zealand…The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service is currently unsighted to any individuals or groups who espouse an extreme right-wing ideology and promote the use of violence to achieve their objectives.”

For help to bring it up to speed, the SIS hooked up with a “key partner” overseas with expertise in the area. Unfortunately, this proved to be too little, too late :

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s baselining project on right-wing extremism in New Zealand was not complete as at 15 March 2019. This meant it had a developing but still limited understanding of the threat of right-wing extremism as at 15 March 2019.

Since then, things haven’t got all that much better:

After 15 March 2019, the Counter-Terrorism Unit within the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service established a dedicated target discovery team. This team is in a “developmental stage” and has been scoping and re-scoping a number of discovery projects and engaging with other agencies who may be able to assist efforts.

Overall, the Commission summarised this dire situation in these terms :

For the period between mid-2016 when the Strategic Capability and Resourcing Review money became available and mid-2018 when baselining began, the national security system was carrying a risk – the threat of non-Islamist extremism – the nature of which was not understood in any detail.

Exactly. So… What should be done about it?

Termination, and Rebuild

To its credit, the Commission did not portray the array of shortcomings as something fixable merely by giving this failure-prone agency more money and wider powers – both of which would impose a significantly higher cost on taxpayers, and would entail a further loss in civil liberties by the public that the SIS is supposed to protect.

Without going into the nuts and bolts of it all, the Commission was looking at an SIS that still routinely prioritises national security over domestic security issues, puts the monitoring of known threats above the detecting of unknown threats, rates counter-espionage ahead of counter terrorism and…has inadequate analytical tools and online expertise to do any of the above with basic levels of competence. Similar shortcomings and thinly spread resources were identified by the Commission at the GCSB, and within the Police counter-terrorism unit. For all those reasons, the report has (among other things) called for the creation of a wholly new and integrated security agency, which would bring all the available expertise under one roof.

New bottle, old wine

While the Ardern government has said it will implement all of the Royal Commisison recommendations, there has to be a question mark over just how far a Labour (or National) government would be willing to allow its rebranded spy agency to change its spots. After all, New Zealand remains part of the 5 Eyes network. That means we still have incoming leads from our foreign intelligence allies to process and prioritise. We still have counter espionage, diplomatic and trade security interests that MFAT will want the new agency to pursue and protect. The international security dimensions, and the roles that compete for priority with the domestic counter-terrorism effort will remain.

Just as importantly, those roles will also continue to compete for the resources deemed adequate to keep the public safe, no matter what the new agency is called, and regardless of whether Rebecca Kitteridge gets to head it, or not. The taxpayer is quite likely to be facing a hefty price tab for bringing the new agency’s counter-terrorism role up to parity with its counter-espionage efforts. There is also the very real prospect that the Christchurch failures will see a significant increase in the powers of the new agency, with a corresponding loss in civil liberties. The public will pay more, and be less free. The security “experts” who failed to protect the Moslem community in Christchurch are very likely to be given a vast increase in their budgets, while the victims of this failure will have to go cap in hand to the government for the assistance they deserve.

St the end of it, will the public be any more safe? Probably not… Ultimately, how truly independent would any government allow the Brand New SIS to be of the same Big Power pressures and priorities that helped to divert the SIS into a fatal and foolhardy emphasis on radical Islam – thereby allowing the Christchurch shooter an almost free run to his targets? Hardly.

It seems unlikely that any current and future Labour (or National) government would want New Zealand to become more independent and more domestically oriented when it comes to security intelligence matters. Yet unless we were willing to significantly reduce our deference to the security interests and priorities of our 5 Eyes allies, it seems inevitable that we will remain vulnerable to the sort of risks that became realities on March 15, 2019.

Footnote One: Decrying the SIS emphasis on Islamic radicalism is not to deny that the recruitment efforts here of Islamic State here should have been entirely ignored. As the Commission report points out, between August 2015 and January 2018, eight passports were cancelled, and New Zealand Police arrested 17 individuals of national security interest for a variety of offences and issued 40–50 warnings for extremism-related objectionable material. The point is that this emphasis distracted SIS from the more dangerous threat form non-Islamic extremism.

Footnote Two: I’ve focussed in the column on the SIS. But as the Commission has reported, the Police can be validly criticised for the operation of a firearms regime that did not prevent the shooter from amassing his armoury of weapons. Also, on the day, the Police response did not prevent the shooter from leaving the initial scene of carnage, and making his way to the Linwood mosque, which had not been alerted by Police to the threat headed its way. Incredibly the Police have just reviewed their own responses and declared them to have been exemplary. Just as incredibly, some gun advocates are still opposing the Police attempts to tighten and implement our gun licensing laws.

Aiding Trump’s Con Job

Yes, US President Donald Trump is still claiming last month’s presidential election was stolen, and is still providing the courts with no credible evidence to support his claims of election fraud. But instead of implying that Trump is losing his marbles, maybe the likes of RNZ’s Simon Marks should be paying more attention to the stone cold logic involved.

Because… It is only by continuing to assert that the election was stolen that Trump can continue to fraudulently solicit millions of dollars of donations for a “legal defense fund” ostensibly to fight the election result, while the vast bulk of the money is being channelled into paying off Trump’s campaign debts, and other expenses. For weeks, this scam has been operating in plain sight.

In reality, there is no election defense fund; the donations are siphoned into a mix of various committees. Up until Tuesday, some of the money was being used to pay down the Trump campaign’s debt. As of Tuesday morning though, the formula was changed to funnel most of the money into Trump’s new leadership PAC called Save America….

In the fine print of the fundraising blasts, it lays out that 60 percent of the contributions will first go to the new PAC, up to the maximum contribution of $5,000. The remaining 40 percent goes to the Republican National Committee up to the maximum $35,500. If that first 60 percent of the donation exceeds $5,000 the remnants go to the campaign’s “recount account”; if the 40 percent exceeds the $35,500 RNC maximum, only then does it go to the RNC’s legal defense fund.

Not a penny is dedicated to a legal expense account unless donors have maxed out their contributions to the first two committees, $5,000 to the leadership PAC and $35,500 to the RNC,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause.

There’s more on the con here, in the New York Times. It may boost ratings to portray Trump as some Gothic madman still living in denial in the White House. But that sort of mainstream media disdain mainly just boosts Trump’s ability to keep on scamming his followers.