Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Spies, whistleblowers, and oversight

This morning the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) pointed people at an article on "Playing Hide and Speak: Analyzing the Protected Disclosures Framework of the New Zealand Intelligence Community" by Caitlin Macdonald, Rhys Ball & William James Hoverd. The authors were trying to look at how the whistleblowing framework (set by the Protected Disclosures Act) works for spy agencies, backed by an OIA request for policies and interviews with the two spy agency directors and the IGIS. Its an interesting read, but there's several disturbing points. First, the spy agencies' internal protected disclosure policies mislead employees about their rights, placing an emphasis on internal disclosure to management and downplaying the ability to take issues directly to the Inspector-General. Which is problematic, because the Inspector-General is quoted as saying that internal disclosers can face retaliation:

if you go internally then they think you’re about to leak externally and they do certain things.

It is unclear whether this has actually happened, or whether the IGIS is simply reporting on an institutional mindset, but it doesn't encourage disclosure or reporting of problems (which is perhaps the point). Related to this is that there is no institutional reporting to the Inspector-General of such internal disclosures, and so no monitoring of whether they are properly investigated or whether staff suffer retaliation. Which seems like an excellent subject for an own-motion IGIS inquiry...

But most disturbing is the GCSB Director's claim that "IGIS’s recently established reference group of uncleared and harsh critics of the intelligence community may harm the legitimacy of the IGIS among agency staff". If there is such a perception, then it is something that could be countered by strong leadership from the Director about the role of the reference group, and the importance of oversight and how it builds public legitimacy for the agency. The fact that he is instead spewing this suggests that this is, if not his view, then at the very least tacitly supported by him, and that he is attempting to actively or tacitly delegitimise his primary oversight agency and encourage staff to view it as the enemy. And that is simply not an acceptable approach from a public servant responsible for an agency with hugely intrusive powers.