Friday, March 19, 2010

The PM's private spy agency

While the public has been focusing on the acquittal of the Waihopai Three, there's been a quiet revolution in our intelligence community. The Prime Minister has got himself a private spy agency.

OK, so he's always kindof had one. Since 1990, the External Assessments Bureau, part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has been providing assessments to the government on foreign events. This was pretty uncontroversial - EAB had no operational role, was focused strictly on analysing information, and its target was strictly foreigners. It could not be considered any form of threat to the New Zealand public.

Now, thanks to the Rugby World Cup, its been renamed the "National Assessments Bureau", and has got itself a domestic focus. As well as looking at the politics of other countries, it will be looking at those of New Zealand. As well as looking at foreigners, it will also be "assessing", and advising the government on, the beliefs, actions, and plans of New Zealanders.

This should be deeply worrying. The Police and SIS are bad enough, without another bunch of spooks sniffing everyone's underwear as well. What's worse is that the organisation has no statutory basis, and operates solely on the royal prerogative. Overseas - as with MI5 in the 70's - that has been found to be a recipe for unlawful behaviour and gross human rights abuse.

The problem is compounded by the lack of oversight. Unlike the SIS and GCSB, the NAB is not subject to the "oversight" of the Intelligence and Security Committee, or of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Not that those safeguards are worth very much - the ISC meets for about half an hour a year, where it is mushroomed by those it is supposed to oversee, while the Inspector-General has been shown to be just a pawn of the SIS. But NAB has no controls at all. It does not even have to issue an independent annual report giving a broad idea of the scope of its activities. And when they are assembling dossiers on New Zealanders for the Prime Minister's consumption, that is simply unacceptable.