Thursday, March 21, 2024

Institutional traitors

One of the strongest narratives about "our" spy agencies is that they are basically institutional traitors, working for foreign powers (or just themselves), without any control or oversight by the elected government. And today, we have yet another report from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security which explicitly confirms this.

The short version: the GCSB hosted a signals intelligence system controlled by a foreign spy agency for years. But despite this system being able to be used to support military operations - which reading between the lines, means "drone murders" - they never told the Minister or sought Ministerial approval, despite the obvious human rights and foreign policy implications. On top of that, having agreed to host it, they then apparently forgot they were doing so, thanks to the usual recipe of secrecy, deliberately poor record-keeping, and incompetence. They only noticed again when it broke - at which time they did the right thing, turned it off, and contacted the Inspector-General.

The IGIS finds that while the hosting, data-sharing, and required collection were (mostly) authorised and lawful under the "manifestly inadequate" authorisations of the day, the failure to tell the Minister was utterly improper, violating the (then) statutory requirement of Ministerial control as well as the "no-surprises" policy.

It gets worse. Because despite the agreement with their foreign "partners" saying that the GCSB would have full visibility and would exercise due diligence over the system, they just didn't. They kept no records, weren't told what it was being used for, didn't bother asking, and of course never did any audits or reviews. They were so shit that after the agreement was signed and the system was installed, the knowledge was not passed on to new directors or senior leaders - meaning they had no idea of what they were doing (I am wondering how much of this was due to the switch from the old Defence-MFAT mafia to civilian leadership). Which means that if it was used for drone-murders, in likely violation of both New Zealand law and our foreign policy, they had no fucking idea. Which leads to this bit from the IGIS:

I have one further observation to make. There is one scenario contemplated by the MOU that I have no doubt would have been outside the scope of the various collection authorisations and, therefore unlawful and improper. Action from GCSB on a request from the partner operating the capability to collect signals not already tasked by GCSB, for the purpose of supporting a military operation, would have been outside the scope of the stated purposes of the authorisations. I would hope this never happened but, given the inadequacies in the GCSB’s monitoring and record keeping of the capability in action, I have no comfort that it did not.
We deserve something more than"hope" that "our" spies didn't break the law. Unfortunately, apparently that is all they and their oversight mechanisms can give us.

The good news is that the Inspector-General thinks that this is unlikely to happen again. I'd like to believe that, and it certainly looks like the culture and acceptance of oversight at GCSB has changed. Unfortunately, given their level of secrecy and the prohibition on the Parliamentary Intelligence and security Committee from inquiring into "operational matters", we will never know. Unless we see another report like this in a decade's time.