Gordon Campbell on why the SIS need operational ground rules

e2b555d9003ed968003aThis is bad, right? Apparently the SIS used its powers illegally when it raided journalist Nicky Hager’s cell phone and extracted information that still failed to identify one of the key sources for Hager’s 2011 book Other People’s Wars. In that book, Hager had revealed hitherto unknown aspects of New Zealand’s involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Earlier this week, Hager was issued an apology, and awarded $66,000 in compensation. About $24,000 of that sum will go towards the legal costs he incurred in the course of bringing the SIS to justice.

At this point, the real $66,000 question is… What rules are the SIS now going to follow to ensure the same sort of thing won’t happen again? Obviously with Hager, the SIS didn’t respect the legal boundaries. If only to re-assure the public… Don’t the SIS now need to openly state the guidelines that the agency promises to comply with in future, on the rare occasions (one would hope) when it chooses to investigate journalists and their sources? Surely we need to know what the rules of engagement will be for any future encounters between the Deep State and the Fourth Estate.

Secrecy is an essential part of many of the activities in which the SIS is engaged. That’s accepted. Yet it can’t be allowed to give the agency open license to do whatever it likes. In particular, we need to know the security agencies are working to keep us safe, and that keeping the secrets of the Establishment safe is only secondary to that purpose, and cannot be allowed to become an end in itself. Clearly, the SIS should not have used its powers to try and hunt down Hager’s sources, so that the whistle blowers could be exposed and punished. That’s the sort of thing we expect from Vladimir Putin.

The relevant SIS guidelines do happen to exist. Reliable sources have told me that the SIS made an offer to show their guidelines to Hager, but only on a “his eyes only” condition that he agreed not to reveal them to anyone else. Not surprisingly, Hager appears to have refused those conditions. After all, it is imperative that the public gets to see for itself that the SIS has learned its lesson, and can see what corrective actions the SIS has agreed to take.

Finale Fail

This incident has marked a pretty disappointing finale to Rebecca Kitteridge’s term as SIS Director. On the wings of a P.R. blitz, Kitteridge came into the job in 2013 promising to be a new broom, ushering in an age of candour befitting a modern security organisation facing 21st century expectations of transparency. Kitteridge, alas, proved to be a false dawn. On her watch, the SIS was evidently allowed to revert to its behaviours of yore.

For example: Incredibly, it appears that the SIS never bothered to seek legal advice as to whether their Operation Hagerphone activities were within the ambit of the law. Once it got caught out, the SIS then tried to retro-fit its actions by stretching the meaning of “espionage” contained within the legislation. That gambit failed. Not only had Kitteridge authorised the initial fishing expedition. After the agency was caught out, Kitteridge tried to argue publically that the SIS had subsequently changed its ways – even while behind the scenes, the agency was continuing to try to justify its original actions.

Rumours of Wars

Essentially, Kitteridge’s ‘new broom’ re-assurances had been in front of house P.R, while business went on backstage, much as usual. In similar ways, Hager’s book Other People’s Wars had been about the chasm between (a) how our Defence top brass were depicting the roles our military were playing in Afghanistan and Iraq and (b) what our forces were actually doing in those theatres of war. As Hager explained early on in his book, the p.r. dimension has become a significant part of how modern warfare gets waged:

“A generation earlier Vietnam had been a television war, where people around the world could follow events day by day and debate the rights and wrongs. Those at home learned what the troops were experiencing and got an impression of what war was like. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been public relations wars: more than ever before, military media staff were controlling what the public saw and heard.”

As Hager then demonstrated with chapter and verse, what the public (and government ministers) were being told owed a lot of its persuasive power from being so in sync with how New Zealanders like to see themselves.We’re the good guys, we’re the peacekeepers doing humanitarian work for the innocent civilians caught up in armed conflict. We build stuff, not blow it up. We’re the honest brokers who try not to take sides. In this way, the public is led to think that our armed forces function overseas almost like the Red Cross in uniform. This ‘peacekeeper’ public relations messaging has a useful tranquilising effect on public opinion.

Unfortunately, much of it is also self-deluding nonsense. As Hager fairly noted, our military have done some humanitarian work offshore, but usually only on the margins of the deployment. Some trenches may be dug, a few schools may be painted – but mainly to validate an armed occupation, as a part of the military’s hearts and minds campaigns. Meanwhile in both Iraq and Afghanistan we were actually being a very willing and active contributor to the US/UK military machine -in everything from loading bombs to helping to keep CIA choppers in the air.

More than anything, our Defence top brass pursued those deployments in order to network with our traditional military allies, to contribute to their war efforts and to foster military interoperability with them, with future conflicts in mind. The sin committed by Hager’s source was that he/she helped to expose the martial reality behind the peacekeeping façade. That’s why NZDF were keen to identify and expel him/her, and that’s why the SIS were called in to use its powers to that end.

When it got caught out, the SIS had the gall to cry “espionage.” As if informing the New Zealand public about the realities of what is being done in our name in foreign conflicts, is the equivalent of a hostile subversion of national security.

Expecting better

There is circumstantial evidence – from the Zaoui asylum case 20 years ago onwards – that the SIS has wilfully chosen not to learn from their past mistakes. Primarily, it wants to learn how not to get caught out again. Down the years, the SIS ( and the Immigration Service) have been more inclined to put barriers in place to ensure that the next time they screw up, no-one will find out. IMO, that mindset is a risk in itself, to national security.

Footnote: On security and defence matters, there’s not a lot of daylight between Labour and National governments. Helen Clark and Winston Peters for instance, functioned in Parliament as something of a dis-information tag team during the Zaoui case, thereby helping to perpetuate its injustices.

That said, things can always get worse. Should there be a change of government next year, the Police and security agencies are likely to be given free rein. Civil liberties are at risk of being sacrificed on the altar of law and order.

By way of an example… A few months ago, the Police were caught out acting illegally, according to a report issued by two watchdog agencies, the Police Conduct Authority and the Privacy Commissioner. The Police had been taking and storing photos of young people (most of whom were Maori) without due legal cause. Incredibly, National’s justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell responded to these revelations with this comment:

“National is open to supporting a law change. If the Police are acting illegally, then we’re open to making sure they are acting legally. If it means legislation being passed, we’re very open to looking at that.”

Right. So…. If and when the Police act illegally, National will change the laws to make sure they can continue as before, regardless. If you think that’s a worrisome trend- and we all should – then unfortunately, the current Police Minister Chris Hipkins is every bit as bad on this issue:

Hipkins, speaking at the Police Association annual conference in Wellington on Wednesday, said “the pendulum has swung too far….

“I’m absolutely open to change. I do think that intelligence gathering is a core function of police and some of the intelligence gathering that’s happened, as of normal in the past, won’t be possible any more if we leave the IPCA, Privacy Commissioner finding unchallenged,” he said.

It took a youth worker to point out on Newsroom what was wrong with this bi-partisan readiness to stereotype young (and mainly brown people) as likely criminals:

In his stand-up [interview]Chris Hipkins questioned what harm was “really being done” through the practice of stopping young Māori and tangata moana and photographing them without their consent. What his comments failed to acknowledge was the harm our rangatahi experience when they are constantly treated as criminals simply because they are young, often brown, and don’t fit the stereotype of what a “good kid” looks like.

It’s important we clarify that, in many cases, we are not talking about young people who have been involved in any crime. We are talking about young people who are existing, in proximity to where a crime may have been committed, and are being detained, questioned, and required to have their photos taken, without their consent, and with the assumption they may be involved in illegal activity, with no proof or evidence outside the colour of their skin and youthful appearance.

Once again, as with the Hager incident we need to have transparent guidelines that the security agencies and the Police commit to observe. At the very least, these rules should set out the necessary conditions for the taking of such photos, and stipulate how long the Police can keep them before destroying them. Faint hope.

The hopeful romantic

For nearly 50 years Christine McVie seemed taken for granted as a permanent presence and the slow-beating heart of every group to which she belonged. That’s why her death yesterday felt unbelievable. It is hard to imagine how Fleetwood Mac can survive it.

From the outset in 1967 with Chicken Shack – back when she was still Christine Perfect – she was a commanding “Who is that?” presence. Chicken Shack’s semi-hit 1969 single “I’d Rather Go Blind” had her covering Etta James on one side, while the band did a worthy version of Willie Nelson’s great song “ Night Life” on the other. Great taste, for the late sixties.

Later, as Fleetwood Mac evolved from being Peter Green’s niche blues band into an arena-sized pop group it was her rendition of “Over My Head” that first put the Mac monster on the rails. Wild infatuation never seemed so calmly sensual:

Finally in 2017, she teamed up again with Lyndsey Buckingham to make an album that featured this poignant and coolly uplifting single…Farewell liberty, the lyrics went, maybe we’re lost without the cost of who we used to be. As she once said of herself, she wrote love songs, and even when the lyrics were fatalistic and dealt with loss, they also couldn’t help but feel optimistic :

In my world everybody stays

Nobody wishes for words they couldn’t say

Bless my soul

Let the night unfurl

Dancin’ spinnin’ dreamin’

Singing in my world