Thursday, August 04, 2022

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

In the past there's been a few interesting data points about the New Zealand Intelligence Community's desire to covertly manipulate public opinion through media and academic mouthpieces. In 2015 the Council for Civil Liberties revealed the existence of an NZIC "Strategic Communications Group" tasked with persuading the public that spying was necessary and that the spies could be trusted. And earlier this year, a briefing on data ethics - all about the need to build "social licence" for stuff the SIS wanted to do (or was already doing) with our data - talked about the SIS being provided with the contact details of "good external thinkers" who could be used to "amplify certain messages we would like to get out". Which again sounds like covert domestic political propaganda, rather than anything acceptable in a democracy.

Today we have another data point: someone used FYI - the public OIA request site - to request emails between the SIS and various media outlets, as well as "University of Waikato Law Professor Alexander Gillespie" (who has provided pro-SIS commentary in a number of media outlets). Today, the SIS finally responded. While they released (non-OIA-related) communications with journalists (which are as boring as you would expect), they refused to release anything about Professor Gillespie, and indeed refused to confirm or deny that such communications had taken place:

In respect of your request for emails between the NZSIS and Professor Alexander Gillespie, as provided for by section 10 of the OIA, I can neither confirm nor deny whether we hold this information. To do so would be likely to prejudice the interests protected by section 6(a) of the OIA, namely the security or defence of New Zealand.

You should not infer this to mean that we have any correspondence with Professor Gillespie. While correspondence between media and our organisation holds a public interest, this is not translated to private citizens.

Which is... interesting. If this was simply a matter of privacy (as suggested by the second paragraph), they would simply withhold under that clause. But hiding behind "national security" suggests something else. As noted above, Professor Gillespie has provided pro-SIS comment in a number of media outlets (for example. Or this). In the past, I've said that where the spies are confirmed, a refusal to confirm or deny is effectively an admission of guilt, and the same applies here. The allegation of covert propaganda is so damaging to the spies that they would deny it if they possibly could. The fact that they are conspicuously refusing to do so therefore tells us something, and something that is potentially very smelly indeed. In 1999 politicians and the public were outraged to find SOE Timberlands was covertly manipulating public opinion using lobbyists and PR companies. For the SIS to be doing so would be far, far worse.