SIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge with Security Services Minister Andrew Little after last night's speech

In a rare public speech, Security Agencies Minister Andrew Little last night came close to revealing some of the country’s most sensitive state secrets. But not quite.

Notably, he was emphatic that there was malign foreign interference in New Zealand.

And that our intelligence agencies were not only stopping spies and potential terrorists here but had provided vital information to help prevent at least one terrorist attack overseas.

“As we necessarily step up our protections against the terrorist threat, we must remain focussed on the other threats our intelligence agencies are grappling with,” he said.

“The threats of foreign interference and espionage are equally real.

“Let me say that again as the Minister who signs off every intelligence warrant – the threat of malign state activity directed against our country is equally real to the terrorist threat.

“Threats to our democratic institutions, including by placing pressure on expatriate communities and foreign-language media, are real.”

Later he explained that he had to be careful in what he said.

“We do acknowledge that there are these threats and risks; how far we can go about talking about the specifics at some point becomes counterproductive,” he said.

“So that’s why we are circumspect about many of those specifics.”

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But many in the audience, which included the Intelligence Agency chiefs and diplomats, knew precisely what he was talking about; China.

The line about placing pressure on expatriate communities and foreign-language media could apply only to China.

In 2019  a Parliamentary Select Committee heard a series of allegations from local Chinese and also the intelligence chiefs and University of Canterbury academic, Professor Anne Brady, alleging Chinese Government and Chinese Communist Party involvement in organising expatriate community support for the Chinese Government and sympathetic coverage of it in Chinese language media.

But China remains New Zealand’s largest trading partner. Little admitted that talking about the security issues was difficult.

“It’s about finding a way to talk about what those actions look like without sort of compromising the range of other international interests that as a government, we have to conduct,” he said.

“Butthere are countries who have adopted an aggressive, outward-facing kind of security posture that whether through cyber offensive activity, whether through engagement with expatriate communities in different countries and that happens here.

“And that is as much about getting intelligence and shoring up the state from where those influences originate as it is about understanding what’s happening in New Zealand and trying to direct or influence what happens inside New Zealand.”

Little is also Minister in Charge of the Response to the report of the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terrorist attack, and that will include creating an over-arching structure to co-ordinate and oversee the intelligence agencies.

But he said last night that Christchurch had changed the whole debate about intelligence.

“Much of the correspondence about intelligence and security issues that I received prior to the March 2019 terrorist attack was predicated on a fear of the agencies’ supposed capabilities to know everything about everyone,” he said.

“Literally overnight, it switched to outrage that our agencies did not know everything about everyone.”

Little wants what he calls a .mature and confident ongoing debate about security and intelligence.

“Kiwis should have this conversation in our characteristically empathetic and considerate way,” he said.

“What we do in New Zealand should be right for us and reflective of our national character.”

He said four premises guided the role of the intelligence agencies.

They were that New Zealand faced threats to physical and economic security and social institutions from forces and interests that would do us harm; those threats were foreign and domestic, and we needed the means to, as best as possible, identify and evaluate those threats in order to prevent harm.

“The efforts required must generally be carried out in secret,” he said.

“They also require relationships with trusted partners overseas, as well as with communities at home.”

And he said the Christchurch Royal Commission Report, with its emphasis on the need for social cohesion, suggested a fifth premise; “The government and our intelligence agencies must be as open and transparent as possible in order to maintain the social licence.”

As a consequence, he said, public input would be critical in the upcoming review of the Intelligence and Security Act.

“I have found that a discomfort with the existence of our intelligence agencies is often based on apocryphal anecdotes from the distant past. It is a fact that once upon a time, the NZSIS routinely refused security clearances to people it suspected might be gay,” he said.

“Today, the legal safeguards, oversight, and the culture of the agencies is entirely different. And, for what it’s worth, I’m proud that our agencies have the Rainbow Tick.

“Discomfort with the agencies can also be informed by their perceived failures, which are of course more likely to make the newspapers.

“But the secrecy of their operations means many of the agencies’ successes are not known. Here are just some of those successes:”

Little went on to list a number of achievements from the New Zealand intelligence services.

These included Intelligence collected by the agencies which disrupted terrorist attack planning overseas, and security intelligence investigations had seen potential terrorists identified and imprisoned or put on a different path.

Intriguingly Little also said the activities of an individual with links to a foreign intelligence agency and who was covertly attempting to form relationships with New Zealanders holding senior and influential positions were disrupted.

And people had been removed from trusted positions based on intelligence of the proven insider threat they posed.

That claim could cover the resignation last year of two Chinese New Zealand MPs; Raymond Huo (Labour) and Jian Yang (National).

POLITIK has reported that those resignations occurred after the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern,  and then- Leader of The Opposition, Todd Muller, were briefed by the heads of the intelligence agencies about concerns they had about both individuals.

Little also defended New Zealand’s membership of Five Eyes.

This became controversial earlier this year after Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said New Zealand would not join Five Eyes in issuing general statements on issues like human rights in China.

“The Five-Eyes is a partnership of sovereign nation-states. It is not a supranational organisation. No partner is superior or inferior to the others,” he said.

When we shared information with our Five-Eyes partners, we did so in accordance with our own strict policies, he said.

“Both the GCSB and NZSIS make unique and highly-valued contributions to these arrangements.

I have previously said that New Zealand intelligence has contributed to the disruption of terrorist attack planning overseas.

“I have seen the contribution New Zealand makes to the partnership.

“Our partner countries know this and value what we do, and the periodic opinion pieces claiming otherwise are just incorrect.”

Altogether it was a staunch endorsement of the work of the two agencies.

And what is clear is that Little wants the agencies and the public to get much closer together.

He will be helped in that by the fact that both agencies are currently headed by non-military people.

Both Rebecca Kitteridge at the SIS and Andrew Hampton at the GCSB are civil servants with previous careers at some of the most senior levels of the public service.

They are used to the processes of public and political accountability.

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