Value for money, John Henderson

Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network
Nicky Hager
Craig Potton Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 0 908802 35 8

In his sympathetic foreword to this provocative book, former Labour Prime Minister David Lange predicts that it will produce two responses: either “to dump” on its author — long-time peace researcher, Nicky Hager — or promote a rational debate on security and intelligence. This review is written with the latter objective in mind — to discuss the role intelligence should have in our foreign and defence policy. Like Lange, for whom I worked closely during his period as Prime Minister, I am broadly familiar with much of what the book describes but not able to confirm the accuracy or otherwise of particular details or Hager’s interpretations.

The book’s objective is to expose the functions of what is described as New Zealand’s “most secret organisation” — the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and, in the words of the subtitle, “New Zealand’s role in the international spy network”. But the essential details of New Zealand’s intelligence organisations and their international links were revealed more than a decade ago by the American academic, Jeffrey Richardson, and his co-author from the Australian National University, Desmond Ball, in their 1985 book with the more sober title The Ties that Bind: Intelligence Cooperation between the UK/USA countries: United Kingdom, the United State of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Hager gives full recognition to Richardson and Ball’s analysis and goes on to provide a very detailed account of the operations and people who work for GCSB. Richardson also contributes a generous foreword to Hager’s book and praises him for producing “the most detailed and up-to-date account in existence of the work of any signals intelligence agency”. But although the key “revelations” of the two books are similar, the tone and style are very different. While Richardson and Ball content themselves with presenting a largely dispassionate and factual analysis, Hager launches a full assault on the arrangements for intelligence cooperation and argues that New Zealand should finish the process begun with the non-nuclear policy of the 1980s and end defence and intelligence ties with out traditional allies, the United States, Britain and Australia.

The missionary zeal and detail of Hager’s writing tends to detract from identifying some of the most significant aspects of GCSB’s work. Hager is determined to reveal all — including such obscure details as office floor plans and even the university exam grades of one of GCSB’s employees. The objective is to give credibility to more important revelations — but as these are generally already in the public domain (thanks largely to Richardson and Ball) Hager’s eye for detail seems obsessive. This is a shame, as the issues he raises about New Zealand’s intelligence capability and accountability are important and warrant serious discussion.

Hager does not argue that New Zealand should abandon its intelligence gathering capacity. He accepts that “spying and other intelligence activities are not in themselves necessarily good or bad … issues of right and wrong arise in relation to who is being spied upon, who is given access to the intelligence and what they do with it.” He also acknowledges the importance of the government protecting the security of its own official communications. There are secrets worth keeping and Hager resists the temptation to reveal all. The book does not include information which he believes “would have damaged interests that most readers would agree are worth protecting…” His overall objective is to “help, not harm, the real defence and security of New Zealand”.

Of course there will be differences of opinion about what these “real” interests are. Hager accepts that most of those working for GCSB will not agree with his criticisms of their work but he feels no malice towards them. “Most of them sincerely believe they are working in the best interests of their country: they are ordinary people who just happen to end up with a job in intelligence.” Indeed, he seems to hold the former head of GCSB, Colin Hanson, in high regard, although the same cannot be said for the current director, Ray Parker.

Hager recognises that having access to good quality intelligence is vital to any successful foreign and defence policy. Unless New Zealand has its own intelligence capability it is destined to see the outside world through the eyes of other nations. But Hager argues that this is precisely what has happened as a result of New Zealand linking its intelligence gathering with that of its allies. He firmly rejects the official explanations that the GCSB defence satellite communications facility at Waihopai (near Blenheim) was constructed to enhance New Zealand’s own intelligence capability.

But clearly a small state such as New Zealand is going to look to its larger friends for information about developments that are likely to affect its security and economic interests. This does not mean that New Zealand should necessarily accept these views — which it will in any case be receiving in a different form from its own diplomatic posts and the news media. It is the responsibility of the government of the day to determine what New Zealand’s interests are and what information is relevant to the protection and promotion of these interests.

It is also inevitable that friendly countries will look to New Zealand for information on what is happening in our part of the world if they consider their interests are effected. There is an assumption in foreign capitals — not always justified —that New Zealand will be well-informed about Pacific island developments. There need be nothing sinister about this. It makes sense to know what is going on in one’s own neighbourhood. In the context of the mainly micro-states of the Pacific island region New Zealand is a large country. Not surprisingly, New Zealand is prepared to share its information on developments affecting the region with its friends — which of course include its Pacific island neighbours.

As Hager points out, our government’s knowledge of the region has at times been found wanting. The 1987 Fiji military coups were not predicted and French agents succeeded in sinking the Greenpeace vessel “Rainbow Warrior” in Auckland harbour. These shortcomings point to the need to strengthen our intelligence capability. This would better equip New Zealand to monitor wider regional developments which are of real concern to Pacific island states. These include France’s activities in the region as it seeks to defy history and maintain its colonies in this part of the world. It would also help to monitor major issues affecting the region’s environment — including waste-dumping and the protection of fisheries resources. Like New Zealand, Pacific island states are increasingly “looking north” to Asia for their common need for information on developments in the wider Asia-Pacific region..

The ending of the cold war has challenged intelligence agencies on both sides of the old ideological divide to justify their existence in an era when there may be no readily discernible enemies. But this has long been the case with New Zealand — which has not faced any direct threat for more than 50 years. Hager’s analysis is a reminder that in the past New Zealand may have been too ready to allow distant traditional friends to set our security agenda. However, looking ahead, there remains a pressing need to keep informed about regional developments that impact on the wider Pacific concept of security which embraces economic and environmental issues.

This raises the key issue of accountability, which is highlighted by Hager. His concerns are supported by Lange who in his foreword expresses his reaction to reading the book as “outrage that I and other ministers were told so little and this raises the question of to whom those concerned saw themselves ultimately answerable”. It is probably inevitable that those who work in the closed world of the intelligence community feel a greater affinity with their overseas counterparts than with their own governments. Nevertheless, intelligence chiefs usually have a sufficient sense of political nous — and self-preservation — to keep their prime ministers on side. On their part, prime ministers generally pay close attention to their intelligence briefings. There is something seductive about being one of a few to receive top secret information (even though much the same material can usually be gained through the news media). It may well be that the responsibility for not sharing intelligence information more widely with other senior ministers rests with the Prime Minister of the day rather than the intelligence chiefs.

Hager argues that accountability can only be achieved by opening up the process. “If a democratic society wants to control its secret agencies, it is essential that the public and the politicians have the information and the will do so.” While of course, as even Hager recognises, not all can be revealed without damaging national interests, there is considerable scope for opening up the foreign and defence policy process. The new MMP environment will demand this and Hager’s book is a valuable contribution to helping initiate a long overdue debate on the nature of New Zealand’s security interests, and how these should be protected.

Hager relegates his discussion of other intelligence organisations, the External Assessments Bureau and the Directorate of Defence Intelligence, to the book’s appendices. What seems to be needed is an overall review of how the government spends its intelligence dollar and whether the country is getting value for money. The recent establishment of a parliamentary intelligence and security committee is a step in the right direction, although Hager is probably right to be suspicious of what appears to be a pre-emptive move initiated by the intelligence community to avoid too much probing from the new MMP parliament.

John Henderson lectures in political science at the University of Canterbury. He was head of the Prime Minister’s Department from 1987-89. 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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