On Fear and Terror: the Prime Minister's Justification for Expanded Spying
John Key accuses opponents of the GCSB amendment bill of making New Zealand less safe, and cites the flawed example of the Boston bombings as justification. The facts do not bear him out.
American-style political fear-mongering has come to our shores it seems.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time, given the Key government’s deepening of ties to the US, as well as its full-throated embrace of American policies such as the 'three-strikes' law, and now, the expanding of powers for the government to spy on its citizens. The Prime Minister’s recent pronouncements that those not supporting the bill to legalise the GCSB’s domestic spying were not “serious” and could make New Zealand less safe sound eerily familiar to the favoured playbook of the American Right. Need to pass controversial, state power-expanding laws? Smear opponents as weak, unserious, living in a fantasy world, and carelessly providing an open door to terrorists.
Key warned those opposing the legislation that they would regret their stands in the wake of an “equivalent to the Boston bombings in New Zealand.” Unfortunately, if he wanted to strengthen support for NSA-style domestic spying, he couldn’t have picked a worse example. Despite the colossal expansion of surveillance in the US, and the NSA’s storage of 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other communications a day, US intelligence failed to stop or even anticipate the bombings. In the end, the surviving suspect was apprehended not by trawling through billions of private communications, but by a phone call to the police from a concerned citizen who found what he took to be a bloody corpse on his boat.
Indeed, the idea that massive government surveillance is effective enough to be worth the privacy trade-offs is hardly clear. The NSA has claimed its program has stopped “dozens” of attacks, but only gave two examples, both of which appeared to have been foiled thanks to old-fashioned police work, such as the use of informants and tips. The rest remain classified, their details shielded from public scrutiny by a veil of secrecy, making it impossible to verify the NSA’s claims. However, as Peter Bergen has noted, the vast majority of domestic terrorist plots in the US were foiled by regular law-enforcement methods, indicating that the NSA’s spying program is not as indispensable as the intelligence community would have us think.
Moreover, despite the Prime Minister’s evocation of the horrific events in Boston, there is neither evidence nor reason why such an act would take place in New Zealand. Other than our recent involvement in Afghanistan, which has drawn to a close, New Zealand has neither the history of meddling in foreign countries’ affairs which make the US and the UK such frequent targets of terrorism, nor a very rich history of domestic terrorism. Aside from the period of the Vietnam War, incidents of terror throughout New Zealand history can be counted on one hand, and have tended to be directed at property more often than people, such as Neil Roberts’ suicide bombing of the Wanganui Computer Centre in 1982.
In addition to this, New Zealand’s geographic isolation and relative unimportance on the global stage would make it a bizarre choice for a terrorist attack. Terrorism is about influencing political change through fear, but it is unclear how exactly bombing New Zealand would alter America’s destructive policies in the Middle East. John Key is as coy as the NSA when it comes to details, offering only that “there are people in our country” with links to terrorist groups – but is that vague platitude reason enough to expand the GCSB’s powers to spy on New Zealanders? Remember that not long ago the Clark government detained Ahmed Zaoui for nearly two years based on questionable links to terrorism, even falsely accusing him of being connected to Al Qaeda.
John Key claims that “if people aren’t doing something wrong, then it’s very unlikely they would be falling within the remit of the GCSB’s activities.” But with the recent revelations about the activities of the NSA and GCHQ, this is not comforting. It pays also to keep in mind that “something wrong” is a broad and subjective term, particularly when it comes to the beliefs of those in power. History is littered with examples of state power being turned against those it felt misbehaved but who nowadays we might consider heroes, from civil rights activists and environmentalist groups, to anti-Apartheid protesters here in New Zealand and even now-storied whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg. In 1971, Richard Nixon ordered his ‘plumbers’ to break in to Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and steal embarrassing and damaging information about him in order to discredit his leak of the Pentagon Papers. Just think what they could have done with his browser history.
The empowering of the government to spy on us is as significant an issue as they come, and deserves to be debated with logic and a clear head. Let’s not let fear and hysteria be the issues which drive this debate.