National Leader Simon Bridges is calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch massacre, and he clearly wants it to be the precursor of a security clamp down on the internet.
But one of his own senior colleagues is warning that he must expect a debate on any big changes to our security laws.
In his statement calling for the inquiry, Bridges ays it would need to ask hard questions about whether our security and intelligence agencies had their focus in the right places.
“In 2013 the Government of the day made the decision to abandon Project Speargun which would have scanned internet traffic coming into New Zealand and given an extended degree of protection to all New Zealanders,” he said.
He said similar system were used in other countries but he went on: “It’s never easy to balance the rights of privacy against security but where we draw the line must now be reconsidered.”
In a way, he was picking up on a statement from GCSB Director, Andrew Hampton, on Monday night who said that the GCSB had not collected “or received from partners any relevant intelligence ahead of the terrorist attacks.”
And then Hampton suggested why his agency had not collected any information about the shooter.
“New Zealand’s intelligence and security agencies do not currently have the legal authority, technical means or resources to actively monitor all online activity that occurs in New Zealand.”
In a text to POLITIK last Wednesday Bridges said: “I see four issues arising from these attacks: gun reform; – Security & Intelligence Services Inquiry and potentially reforms. This is incredibly important; – the tech companies and social media reform and a wider issue around how we do politics and race relations etc. Now is a time for unifying not tribalism. “
It was clear from that that his focus was on changes to the security and intelligence agencies or legislation.
Perhaps aware of this, the former Foreign Minister and current National spokesperson on the security agencies, Gerry Brownlee, made an enigmatic statement about changing the law around surveillance to the House on Wednesday.
“I’ve not extensively engaged with the Muslim community; not through neglect, not through any particular reason, but more from my strong belief that the freedom in this country to be who you are and to lawfully go about your daily life unimpeded is exactly what everyone should be able to expect,” he said.
“This belief, I know, will be challenged as the inevitable legislation changes to our security laws and gun laws come before this House.”
He went on to warn that the Inspector-General (of Intelligence and Security) must recognise that the flexibility of black-letter law interpretation is a necessity in an exceptional time like this.
“To pretend otherwise when we have a high-security alert would be a mistake.”
The particular issue that both Bridges and Brownlee are addressing (albeit, it would appear, in very different ways) begins with the question of interception warrants.
Ironically the criteria for obtaining a Warrant to intercept the communications of a non-New Zealand Citizen (such as the shooter) are quite broad and basically require only the Minister in Charge of the GCSB or SIS to sign them off.
But the key to any interception warrant is that the agency must have a reason to obtain it.
POLITIK has been told that this means providing some tangible evidence such as the person making a threat to a politician or prominent person or being active in public social media.
A former security agencies’ Minister, Chris Finlayson, has previously said that the level of information provided when seeking a warrant was high.
But what the agencies cannot do is — as Hampton says — is to “actively monitor” online activity regardless of who produces it or where it comes from.
Thus the agencies cannot legally sit in on chat rooms (for example) or monitor people on Facebook without reason.
The logical extension of what Bridges is hinting at is that he would like to see the agencies given those powers.
As Brownlee has suggested, there would be challenges to proposals like this.
Whether Brownlee would support those challenges is unclear, but it would seem that his speech was intended as a warning; surrendering freedoms in the name of a security clampdown is not something that can be done easily or without debate.
What Bridges did not mention yesterday in his statement or in his text to POLITIK was any proposal to clamp down on hate speech or hate crimes.
ironically, the cataloguing of hate crimes would help the security services because it would enable them to spot individuals and patterns who they might legitimately be able to monitor under their existing legislation.
But this a potentially embarrassing issue for National whose Justice Minister (Amy Adams) declared in 2017 that there were not enough to warrant legislating against them.
National will also be wary of any Inquiry going too far into right-wing extremist politics after its own flirtation with the extreme right United Nations conspiracy theorists (like Right Minds) who it supported in their opposition to the UN Compact on Migration.
For the next few weeks, politicians will tread carefully in their response to Christchurch, but , Bridges seems to be foreshadowing some hard questions.