The Government moved last night to answer criticism of the announcement of a committee to advise on intelligence matters that included a number of well-known critics of the SIS and GCSB.
It was quick to assure that the Committee would not be trusted with any secrets.
Investigative journalist, Nick Hagar; Deborah Manning (the lawyer who campaigned for Ahmed Zaoui); David Fisher (a journalist who has written a biography of Kim Dotcom) ;and Professor Rouben Azizian (a former acting USSR ambassador to New Zealand are just four of 11 names of activists and academics who have been appointed to a group to advise the Inspector General of Intelligence.
It is her role to audit the performance of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
“The Group brings together people from outside government and the intelligence community who can keep us in touch with legal, social and security developments in NZ and overseas, inform our thinking about our work programme, and provide feedback on how we are performing our oversight role,”said the Inspector General, Cheryl Gwyn.
“My Office is relatively small, and the great breadth and diversity of experience among the members of the Reference Group will help us better ensure New Zealand’s intelligence and security agencies act lawfully and properly.”
Almost immediately her announcement raised eyebrows in Wellington.
The right-wing blogger, David Farrar, said: “I’m speechless”.
The Opposition spokesperson on the Security Services, Gerry Brownlee said the announcement meant the Inspector-General had serious questions to answer.
“The Inspector-General needs to explain how this group was appointed,” he said.
“That they have been appointed and met with the Inspector-General before their appointment was made public is worrying given the values she is supposed to promote.
“Will this group have top secret clearance? If so, how can we be sure the information they will have access to will be secure?
“Will the Inspector-General be sharing intelligence with them? Where will the line be drawn?
“And what role will this group’s opinions have in the oversight of our intelligence operations?”
POLITIK asked similar questions of the Minister in Charge of the Security Services, Andrew Little, and instead received a lengthy reply from the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.
“The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) is a statutory officer and is independent from the intelligence and security agencies,” the statement said.
“The IGIS advised the Directors-General of the NZSIS and the GCSB and the Minister responsible for those agencies (Hon Andrew Little) some months ago about the intention to set up the Reference Group.
“At her invitation, the Directors-General made some suggestions as to who might be included in the Group. ”
The statement said the group was not intended as a substitute for the Inspector General’s Advisory Group.
This is a statutory appointment of two advisors who do have to obtain a security clearance.
The terms of the two appointees Christopher. Hodson and Angela Foulkes ended in October 2016, but Brownlee said the Government at the time had decided to have them carry on given that they were less than 12 months away from an election.
“The Reference Group meetings are to create a forum to hear others’ perspectives, not a forum for the Inspector-General to give out information, whether classified or otherwise,” the IGIS statement said.
“Because no classified or otherwise sensitive information is being divulged it is not necessary for members to have security clearances.
“The members of the Reference Group were advised from the outset that the flow of ideas and information would, in essence, be one way – from the Group members to the IGIS. It is not a forum for the IGIS to deliver a presentation or present her views on any particular matter.
“No payment is made to members of the Reference Group who are contributing their time for free.
“Sandwiches, tea, coffee and a plate of fruit were provided.”
Brownlee was unimpressed with the IGIS office response.
“The parameters of New Zealand’s intelligence operations are going to be decided by a group who don’t have security clearance, sit outside it, and have very strong views in some cases about the value of the services in the first place.”
The Minister in Charge of the Services, Andrew Little, was more supportive of Gwyn’s appointments.
“I was shown the list, I thought some of the choices were interesting, but then I think what is important is that we are bold enough and brave enough to know that it is alright to have critics of organisations and of the government involved in this sort of exercise,” he told RNZ.
“It is a healthy thing in our democracy.”
He did have questions though about David Fisher’s appointment.
“I would have thought there is a question about a journalist complying with their ethics in doing so, but that’s a judgement call in the end that they have to make.”
The problem for the Government is that this comes on top of the Foreign Minister’s refusal to condemn Russia for the British spy poisoning, the Prime Minister’s equivocal statement on the bombing of Syria and is adding to a perception in the diplomatic community that New Zealand is starting to get out of step with its Five Eyes partners.