Intelligence community review: what are we supposed to be doing?

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July’s review of the so-called ‘Intelligence community’ by the State Services Commission only thinly-veils that these agencies don’t know what they are doing or why.

It isn’t as if these agencies were invented yesterday. The NZSIS was created in the 1950s, and the GCSB in 1977. The 19-page declassified summary repeatedly states that “NZIC awaits both tighter specification of New Zealand’s security and intelligence priorities,” and “currently the national security and intelligence priorities are inadequately defined.”

That these sorts of statements litter the document, and are echoed by the agencies in their responses within the paper point to an ‘intelligence community’ with no clear idea why they exist. And that isn’t hard to see why: on one hand, the document says plainly that New Zealand occupies “an apparently low threat environment” – meaning that any threats are virtually non-existent so the spending of $100 million dollars on at least four different agencies conducting roughly the same sort of information collecting must be hard to justify even for them. And in spite of the fact that the paper goes on to say that threats are “rising and becoming more complex, with the nature of the threats changing markedly,” they don’t bother to specify why changing threats necessarily mean a rising threat level except to blame it all on the internet.

On the other hand, the lack of clarity in the role of the intelligence community must come in some part as a result of the fact that the GCSB is essentially a US proxy agency. The report says of the NZIC attempts ‘to mirror the service coverage of international counterparts;” this means that the organizational structure of the GCSB is set-up like a mini-NSA in order to best meet the US’s needs. It is well documented that the intelligence collected by the GCSB is done so at the behest of the United States (and to a much lesser extent, other Five-Eyes partners). So it would not be surprising that some members of the GCSB are confused about New Zealand’s ‘national security’ since they are actually working on US security priorities, not New Zealand’s (if in fact, there can be said to be ‘New Zealand security interests,’ itself a dubious idea).

The report goes on to say that the major job of the agencies is re-tooling themselves to be valuable to their ‘customers’ and convincing the public of their usefulness. So the intelligence community isn’t meeting the needs of other government agencies for information, and the public thinks that the work they do is largely useless. Instead of winding back what these agencies do, giving the money to someplace like the National Library (who actually do know what information people use), taking away their enormous budgets and staff, the intelligence community is going to come up with a marketing plan to better sell their schlock, and to sell their brand to the rest of us.

This ‘rebranding’ of the Intelligence agencies as a conscientious, law-abiding, and useful to humanity is likely to be a hard sell. The report notes “partner agencies are determining how best to respond to public concerns in the light of the Manning and Snowden cases.” The public concerns are that our privacy has been massively violated for years with no legal oversight, and that it continues unabated with no political ability to change it. The reality is that the ‘Intelligence community’ here in New Zealand or in the US is not about to stop mass surveillance, instead, they are just seeking new ways to spy on every one of us without getting caught. Snowden and Manning are hardly the first ‘leakers’ of US documents showing massive abuses by intelligence agencies. And what we know of the history here, things aren’t much prettier: the Aziz Choudry break-in in 1996, the Ahmed Zaoui case, the spying on member of parliament Keith Locke from age 11, the Kim Dotcom affair, the revelations that 88 New Zealanders were spied upon, and lest we forget in these dark days of yet another Iraq war, the US demanding its Five-Eyes partners spy on the United Nation to secure support for its imperial warmaking.

This tiny little summary of a much larger (classified) report is an astonishing indictment of the whole of the New Zealand ‘intelligence community.’ They don’t know what they should be doing, or who they should be doing it for. They are beholden to foreign powers in intelligence alliances and have shoddy management and financial practices. It isn’t just the closure of the GCSB we should be calling for, but the whole ‘intelligence community;’ let’s replace the spooks with some decent librarians.

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