One of New Zealand’s top intelligence analysts came in from the cold over the weekend and debated intelligence policy with academics at the Otago Foreign Policy School.
Dr Anthony Smith is the Assessments Manager in the National Assessments Bureau in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Bureau analyses raw intelligence provided by the so-called Five Eyes Intelligence Partners — the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand.
Dr Smith’s appearance, the first such public appearance by a member of the Bureau, is part of what appears to be a wider opening up of the Government Security agencies, the SIS, GCSB and the Bureau.
Explaining how the Bureau worked he said it relied on several layers of intelligence. It began with what was publicly available — journalism, material on the internet and academic commentaries.
Then it looked at Government material such as reports from diplomats and the Defence forces.
From there it went to human intelligence; material collected by “well placed sources” or agents or the SIS and then to Signals Intelligence such as communications gathered by the Government Communications Security Bureau.
And it looked at satellite imagery.
All this material formed the sources for the analysts in the Bureau.
“The fact is the raw intelligence does not speak for itself,” he said.
“Someone has to make sense of it; someone has to put the pieces together.”
However he said analysts faced one major problem – human bias.
“We go to a lot of trouble to overcome this,” he said.
“There are all sorts of methods, but essentially it’s really important to try and challenge your own conclusions.
”Concepts like devil’s advocacy are critical to the process.”
Earlier in the conference, former diplomat and Ambassador to the United Nations, Terrence O’Brien questioned the position of the National Assessments Bureau inside the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
He called this a “small cameo” of the structures in Washington where external relations authority was centred at the White House with closely related intelligence and military powers. He said the defining characteristics of the US national security state combined staunch threat mentality with a firm conviction about the utility of hard power.
“Diplomacy in the shape of the State Department is displaced to a secondary role,” he said.
“Given that soft power is New Zealand’s sole attribute and that soft power is the instrument of diplomacy it seems counter intuitive to so weight New Zealand institutional arrangements for external relations in terms of a national security state model.”
But Dr Smith said the Bureau needed to be disinterested in policy outcomes.
“I mean that in a sense of neutrality<” he said.
”It’s not our job to make foreign policy recommendations.
“It is our job to illuminate situations so that our decision makers have an advantage.”
Former CIA consultant and University of Auckland academic Paul Buchanan worried that the small size of the New Zealand intelligence community meant it was far too subservient to its Five Eyes partners.
He said New Zealand had about 600 active collectors and analysts of security and about 5000 – 6000 people cleared for “top secret” documents.
“That’s a very small community,” he said.
But Dr Smith maintained that the Bureau could be independent.
Ultimately, he said, its job was “to speak the truth and come up with conclusions.”