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Felix Marwick: Laying out facts over SIS documents

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| Thursday, August 21, 2014 4:13 PM

John Key, and the letter sent to Newstalk ZB's Felix Marwick by Dr Warren Tucker (Getty Images and Felix Marwick)

John Key, and the letter sent to Newstalk ZB's Felix Marwick by Dr Warren Tucker (Getty Images and Felix Marwick)

For those of you who’ve been paying attention to our story about how Cameron Slater obtained SIS documents and whether or not the Prime Minister was personally  involved (and judging by the way my twitter feed went nuts, there’s a few of you) I’ll try to explain exactly how all of this has unfolded in the way that it has.

Back in July 2011 ZB, like other media outlets, were covering the political argument between John Key and then Labour Leader Phil Goff over whether or not Mr Goff had been briefed by SIS Director Warren Tucker on the activities of Israeli nationals in Christchurch.

The Prime Minister said his opponent had. Mr Goff was, and still is, adamant he hadn’t been.

This sparked a series of Official Information Act requests to the SIS to find out what, in fact, had gone on. History shows Cameron Slater got his response well ahead of those of us in the press gallery. In fact some of us (me included) got no response at all. The explanation I subsequently received from the SIS was that because my emailed request did not include “OIA” or “official information” within it. A subsequent ruling by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security found the SIS was wrong to treat it in this manner.

In light of the non-response I lodged a formal complaint with the Office of the Ombudsmen in order to resolve what I felt to have been shoddy practice by the SIS. It was thanks to their intervention that four months later I did receive a letter from then SIS boss Warren Tucker outlining part of discussions that were held regarding the Slater OIA.

Now as you can see from the letter it confirms a verbal briefing did take place and that Dr Tucker notified the Prime Minister of his intended actions under the “no surprises rule”. On the face of it this did appear to show a direct briefing of the Prime Minister had taken place.

There were also further documents that appeared to support this supposition. The correspondence I exchanged with the Office of the Ombudsmen in my efforts to uncover what had happened.

You can see from these papers the term “discussion” is used repeatedly in the context of an interaction Dr Tucker had with the Prime Minister.

The response from the Prime Minister and Dr Tucker has been that when the SIS informs the prime Minister’s Office of significant OIAs on a no surprises basis, this is considered to be informing the Prime Minister. It is an assertion the Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverly Wakem, has corroborated when I spoke to her to determine what she understood the discussion to have been in terms of the investigations she had undertaken on Newstalk ZB’s behalf.

The Prime Minister’s also made it clear that he was out of the country at the time the briefing happened and that there are a number of staff in his office that have clearance  to take such briefings. But Mr Key is not identifying who these people are.

However it should be also noted we’ve spoken to former spy boss, Sir Bruce Ferguson, about how he handled no surprises briefings when he was in charge of an intelligence agency. His position is he was always expected to talk to a Minister, not to their staff. He’s told Newstalk ZB chief executives in security always talk to the minister personally.

All I can do is lay out the facts we have, the documents we’ve obtained, and the responses from those involved. I leave it to you to make your own judgements on whose version of events is right and whose is wrong.

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