The Royal Commission into the Mosque shootings has opened the doors into our security agencies and their political and bureaucratic masters, and what it has found there is not pretty.
This is despite the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) along with the Police being found to have no direct responsibility for the massacre on March 15, 2019, which killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch.
The report is emphatic that the failure to detect the killer, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, before the shooting was not a failure of intelligence.
But what it did find was that the intelligence and security agencies had systemically failed over the years adrift on a leaderless sea of bureaucratic confusion and blinkered judgements
“We find that the concentration of resources on the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism is not why the individual’s planning and preparation for his terrorist attack were not detected,” the Commission found.
“Given the operational security that the individual maintained, the legislative authorising environment in which the counter-terrorism effort operates and the limited capability and capacity of the counter-terrorism agencies, there is no plausible way he could have been detected except by chance.”
The report makes a strong call for a more enlightened and open public debate about security and intelligence and the legislative framework within which the security sector operates.
It makes the point that neither SIS nor the GCSB has the resources or the legal mandate to engage in mass surveillance of groups of New Zealanders or the country as a whole.
A report on an internal SIS Review included with the Commission papers at the media lockup finds that even if it had wanted, the SIS would not even legally have been able to hack into Tarrant’s computer.
“The Review considered the most likely (possibly only) way the NZSIS might have discovered Tarrant’s plans was if NZSIS had gained an intelligence warrant and mounted a covert technical attack on Tarrant’s computer and emails to acquire a copy of his manifesto,” it said.
“Through a mock investigation, the Review concluded that, even if NZSIS had acquired the lead information obtained through subsequent investigations, NZSIS would not have met the threshold for a warrant.”
The internal review isuggested the SIS explore with Government its view and appetite regarding some level of data-mining.
“The Review understands there will likely be some reticence regarding this in New Zealand,” said the report.
“In any event, there would be benefit in having a clearer Government view on its position to data-mining.”
There are also issues with the Privacy Act.
The report says that currently, agencies like the SIS and Immigration New Zealand can only request information off each other on a case by case basis.
“Twelve government departments have negotiated an information-sharing agreement to enable them to share information and intelligence to reduce gang-related harm to individuals and New Zealand society.
“There is no equivalent information sharing agreement for counter-terrorism purposes,” the Commission found.
And the Commission found there was a frequent “over-classification of information.
“We received a package of Cabinet papers classified Top Secret New Zealand Eyes Only from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,” it said.
“This reflected the classification of the highest classified document in the package.
“One of the individual papers that was the subject of the Top Secret New Zealand Eyes Only classification was publicly available on the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s website.”
But making a public case for the security agencies and perhaps advocating some loosening up of the legal restrictions under which they operate is going to present a political challenge for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who, after all, is also Leader of the Labour party many of whose supporters have been sceptical about the role of the security and intelligence agencies in the past.
“I would hope that every political party in this parliament wants New Zealand to be an inclusive place,” Ardern told a press conference at the report’s launch.
“We have to find a way to be able to have this discussion in such a way that we achieve both goals.
“So I’m not one to shy away from the need for us to talk about whether or not our intelligence and security system currently is doing more to keep us safe and has the public permission to do that.
“We can’t shy away from that debate, but we also must be careful that we do not alienate.
“We do not stigmatise; we do not stereotype.”
Ardern said yesterday the Government accepted “in principle” all of the recommendations in the Commission’s report.
Those include a proposal to establish a new National Intelligence and Security Agency which would oversee and coordinate the activities of the National Assessments Bureau (NAB), the GCSB and the SIS.
The case for this is made at length in a 250-page section of the 891-page report which sets out to assess Government agencies counter-terrorism effort.
This the heart of the report in that it defines the systemic and structural failings that inhibit the agencies from dealing with terrorism.
The Commission attempted to establish who was responsible for leading the effort to assess the terrorism threat in New Zealand.
“The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) told us that it, together with New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, had been identified as the risk coordinating agencies for terrorism since the beginning of the development of the National Risk Register framework in 2015,” the report said.
“In contrast, the Security and Intelligence Board’s December 2018 report on Better Management of National Security Risks identified New Zealand Police and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service as the risk coordinating agencies, but not the DPMC.”
However, the Director-General of the SIS, Rebecca Kitteridge, told the Commission her agency was not a lead agency and that it was the DPMC who was in charge.
She also said the Police were not suited for the role because they were not a police agency and as an operational agency with a law enforcement mandate, they were not best placed to lead at the softer end of counter-terrorism activities, such as social inclusion and countering violent extremism.
Not surprisingly, the Commission concluded that “there is no common understanding about the leadership of the counter-terrorism effort and what it means in practice.”
Central to the leadership issue was the establishment of the National Intelligence Priorities; the brief that the security and intelligence agencies were supposed to work to.
In 2015 the Key- Cabinet revised these, and terrorist and violent extremist threats to New Zealanders at home and abroad were included in the high priority grouping.
Cabinet directed officials to report back in 2016 on progress to implementing the priorities.
There was no report.
Nevertheless, eleven cross-sector intelligence Priority Coordination Groups were established, each with a coordinator.
However, in October 2016, the DPMC reported to the Security and Intelligence Board that the “national intelligence priorities do not yet fully inform agency priority and planning processes.”
Faced with these problems, some Public sector agencies developed their own set of priorities.
“For example, the SIS compensated for this lack of clarity by developing its 10-Year Operational Strategy (Project Sterling) in 2016,” the report said.
Little wonder, then, that In 2017, the DPMC advised the Security and Intelligence Board that the intelligence prioritisation and coordination frameworks were not doing what they were designed to do.
So In December 2018, the new Labour-led coalition defined new National Security and Intelligence Priorities but said that the Priorities would not prescribe how different agencies should implement their intelligence work plans.
“We were told that the National Security and Intelligence Priorities may be used by some agencies as a point of reference, but their high-level nature means they are not helpful for providing guidance on how to prioritise both within and across the Priorities (for example, foreign interference versus terrorism),” the Commission said.
“We were also told that the 2018 restructure of the National Security and Intelligence Priorities into an equally-weighted alphabetical list made them less clear as priorities.”
It is against this background of confusion over leadership and priorities that the agencies conducted their counter-terrorism effort.
One agency, the National Assessments Bureau, and a group, the Combined Terrorist Assessment Group, located within the SIS, were responsible for assessing the terrorist threat to New Zealand.
The report says the threat of domestic terrorism was not a priority for the National Assessments Bureau, and it did not provide any assessments solely focused on domestic terrorism.
“We were told that before March 15, 2019, the vast numerical majority of [the Combined Threat Assessment Group’s] product [was] focused internationally,” the Commission’s report said.
“Of the products that did focus substantively on the New Zealand terrorism threatscape, most were tactical reports about security arrangements for visiting international dignitaries.”
“Threat assessments dealing with terrorism indicated that the terrorist threat to New Zealanders was greater when they were outside New Zealand.
“For example, in 2016, the NAB stated that international terrorism is almost certain to remain a serious threat to New Zealanders, mostly abroad.
“And in January 2018, the CTAG assessed that there was a higher general likelihood of a New Zealander being harmed in an international terrorist incident than one occurring in New Zealand. “
But the Police, who had secondees on CTAG had since the 1990s been examining and reporting on individuals and groups that were assessed to be white supremacists.
The SIS told the Commission that the Police assessments were not shared because they were not seen as having a direct link to national security.
“New Zealand Police told us that, at the time, they understood that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service had no interest in or mandate to examine the extreme right-wing and thus they saw no reason to share the assessments,” the Commission said.
In 2014, a New Zealand Police assessment titled “The Right-wing in New Zealand: Myth vs Reality” was published by the National Assessments Committee.
The paper assessed that while the actions of established extreme right-wing groups in New Zealand were confronting to wider society, there was no evidence to suggest they posed a national security threat.
Later in 2014, another New Zealand Police assessment titled Domestic Extremism: Unlikely but not out of the question was published by the National Assessments Committee.
In both of these 2014 assessments, New Zealand Police addressed the possibility of firearms being used in a terrorist attack, specifically by the extreme right-wing.
They noted a “propensity for [extreme right-wing] members to acquire and use firearms” and concluded that the relative ease of access to semi-automatic firearms in New Zealand meant that a lone actor terrorist attack remained a possibility.
The Police even conducted a tabletop counter-terrorism exercise in 2018.
One of the scenarios tested was an extreme right-wing attack outside a masjid in Christchurch.
This assumed terrorist attack, with a vehicle hitting pedestrians leaving what was described in the scenario as the “[an-Nur] Mosque adjacent to Hagley Park in Christchurch”.
The hypothetical attacker in the scenario shouted anti-immigration and Islamophobic slurs as he fled the scene.
In May 2018 the SIS began what it called a “baseline review” of its work and set out o try and identify extreme right threats from within New Zealand.
As part of this, the SIS started to produce quarterly “new Zealand Terrorism Updates”. One was published on March 5, 2019, 10 days before the shootings.
It said the SIS and CTAG noted that extremism existed on the fringes of non-Islamist New Zealand political, religious, and issues-motivated groups and could plausibly result in violence.
However, “the SIS is not aware of any credible threats from such groups.
The Commission concludes: “These assessments reflect the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s developing but still limited understanding of the threat of right-wing extremism in New Zealand as at March 15 2019.”
And that may be the verdict; that though the terrorist himself could not have been detected, our security and intelligence agencies were simply unprepared for any act of terrorism by right-wing extremists in 2019.
The Government now has a blueprint to remedy that.