A quaint, carefully-phrased little denial was issued this morning by a government spokesperson: “To the best of the PM’s knowledge, the GCSB acted within the law during his time as its Minister.”
But as the old press corps saying goes, “The scandal in Washington is not what’s illegal, it’s what is legal.” And the scandal is not just in Washington, it’s in Wellington, too.
The Government Communications Security Bureau has been hoovering up every single digital communication in over twenty countries in the South Pacific including Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru, and two French territories: New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Using a scheme known as “full-take collection”, endless reams of data are gathered, funnelled through the infamous Waihopai facility, before being shipped off to the United States National Security Agency.
Let’s be clear: these are not targeted wiretaps or warrants granted to monitor the computers of a terror cell. This is not ‘spying’ as we knew it before the first releases of the Edward Snowden documents.
Proof is now available that every form of electronic contact possible has been collected: mobile phone calls, emails, social media messages, and the like. This program is, in the lingo of reportage, “mass surveillance” – a policy many have suspected the GCSB of carrying out against New Zealanders.
There is only one country on that list which could possibly warrant “full-take collection”: Fiji was, until late last year, in the sway of a dictatorship which exploited racist sentiment. Spying on government and military figures is understandable and possibly justifiable. Yet after September’s free and fair election, the need to constantly monitor an unstable regime disappeared.
A single legitimate act of surveillance does not vindicate all others.
One is obliged to be astounded by the immensity and scale of the operation, traversing continents and oceans and sovereign borders. Long gone are the days when enemy spy agencies sought to one-up each other with trickery and subterfuge. When double- and triple-agents were commonplace. When defectors stole state secrets and couriers were put to rest with barbed umbrellas.
Things are a little more callous now, a little more subtly brutal though no less secretive. Still, the excuse and the justification for this kind of spying is as old as liberty itself.
According to the Prime Minister, the spies “share information” to “keep New Zealanders safe… I think New Zealanders would expect me to share information.” No doubt he’s right. But today’s revelations go far beyond what any public would expect of its government, especially in the name of “national security”. Far beyond what could reasonably be called “sharing information”.
Notice how the justification is always followed by a denial. Then an attack on critics, who are irrelevant yet also wrong.
"Last time he came out with all this stuff,” Key said of Nicky Hager, one journalist involved in today’s story, “he was categorically wrong, he'll be wrong this time as well…My very strong advice to New Zealanders is discount massively everything you hear from Nicky Hager.”
It’s a strange thing to say, despite how unsurprising his tactic is. Everything that Hager wrote in Dirty Politics has been proved correct. Cheryl Gwyn’s report into the wrongdoing of the SIS vindicated certain parts of Hager’s reporting.
When faced with a brazen and full-frontal assault, it is still astounding to see how the Government’s PR wing strong-arms the public. When Key branded Hager a “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist” the country bought the fib whole-heartedly (National’s election victory speaks to this quite presciently). When Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and his cohort at The Intercept revealed the tapping of the Southern Cross cable to extract metadata (not to mention the prospect of mass surveillance within our own borders), the nation was swayed not by the reporting, but by Greenwald’s loose association with the interfering mass of Kim Dotcom.
It really tells you something about the attitude of a nation when a dishonest government is favoured over the work of honest reporters with hard evidence and concrete proof of immoral actions. It tells you something when the intellect of a nation is unable to pick apart fact from fiction, truth from untruth.
When faced with the best evidence yet of massive invasions of privacy, the population turned away and shrugged, just as they had done with Dirty Politics. One might blame apathy. One might blame acceptance. One might blame reluctance. Either way, objectively, this is hardly a state of affairs that can continue.
There is a grave risk that an immense collective shrug will happen again after today, and nothing will be done to rein in the near-almighty power of our ‘security services’. If public opinion does not stand against it, the authorities will have their license to continue.
One can only hope that, far from the incessant denials on these shores, our Pacific neighbours, tied together by a shared culture and heritage, might decry and condemn the systematic interference in their societies more honourably than we have.