MUCH SOONER THAN IT SHOULD BE the Government Communications Security Bureau and Related Legislation Amendment Bill will be the law of the land. Driven through most its stages under urgency, with little or no time for public submissions, the new legislation will usher-in a national security regime of practically unlimited scope and dramatically expanded capacity.
At the heart of this regime will be the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) answerable until 2014, at least, to the incumbent Prime Minister, John Key.
Using the enhanced powers of surveillance bestowed upon it by the new legislation, and operating entirely within the expanded legal parameters it establishes, the “New Zealand Intelligence Community” (as Rebecca Kitteridge calls it) will very soon have the authority to spy upon organisations as old as the trade unions and as new as the groups determined to prevent New Zealand signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement. Greenpeace’s latest campaign against deep-sea oil exploration could also be targeted. The grounds? That it poses a direct threat to “the economic well-being of New Zealand”.
Protecting the economic well-being of the nation has been one of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service’s (NZSIS) objectives for nearly two decades. We simply do not know how many times it has been used to secure interception warrants directed at the activities of fair trade and environment activists. (The release of such information would, of course, prejudice New Zealand’s national security!)
Whatever the number, the amount of information gleaned by cameras, listening devices and phone-taps will pale into insignificance when set alongside the potentially massive information captures made possible by Key’s amending legislation. Once the GCSB gets involved, every single instance of electronic communication undertaken by a targeted organisation, along with its entire digital database, will very soon be at the disposal of the State.
From the GCSB the information can then be passed in any number of different directions: to the NZSIS; the Police; the NZ Defence Force; a private corporation; as well as to the various committees and groups operating under the auspices of the DPMC. These include the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Co-ordination (ODESC), the National Assessments Bureau, the Security and Risk Group, the Intelligence Co-ordination Group and the National Cyber Policy Office.
It is highly likely that, once begun, such electronic trawling for information will become dangerously self-reinforcing. The more the Intelligence Community gets to know about the intentions of targeted groups, the more certain they’ll become that they are protecting the economic well-being of the nation.
Suppose ODESC received information from the GCSB that the friends of some Greenpeace activists (whose cell-phone calls had been intercepted) were planning action against a Crown Research Institute involved in genetically engineering certain grass species to survive and flourish in New Zealand’s increasingly drought-prone climate.
How easy would it be for them to make out a case that any attack successfully carried out against the CRI should be treated as a direct attack on the nation’s economic well-being? Presented with such evidence, how hard would it be to persuade the Intelligence Community’s “watchdogs” to authorise further surveillance in the interests of national security?
Where would the line be drawn? At what point would the watchdogs decide that the electronic surveillance net had been spread too wide?
Last week, for example, 10 senior business leaders, representing some of New Zealand’s most powerful business lobby groups, including Business New Zealand, the NZ Chambers of Commerce, the Employers and Manufacturers Association, the Road Transport Forum and the Major Electricity Users Group, released an open letter to the leaders of the Labour and Green parties.
The letter urged the Labour-Green Opposition to withdraw what they called their “damaging” new energy policies. The proposal to establish NZ Power, they said, was already undermining investors’ faith in the economy:
“Rather than remote and intangible, this dampening of investment intentions will have a direct and real economic impact on those of all walks of life who seek to accumulate wealth by working hard to save, invest and grow. It causes interest rates to rise, depletes retirement savings held in KiwiSaver accounts and means that other economic opportunities such as first homes are foregone and new business ventures as savings are unexpectedly reduced. Individuals are less well-off as a result.”
In other words, the Labour-Green policy, in the eyes of these senior business leaders, at least, could very easily be presented as a threat not only to the “economic well-being” but also to the “international well-being” of New Zealand.
With the Secretary of the Treasury represented on ODESC, isn’t it possible that, following the strongest representations from both domestically- and internationally-based business leaders, Treasury might feel obliged to include the policies of the two largest Opposition parties on the domestic and external security agenda?
What would be the consequences for New Zealand as a whole if foreign corporations, believing themselves financially disadvantaged by the Labour-Green energy policies, invoked the penalty provisions of the WTO? How would that affect the country’s international credit rating? What would happen to the value of the New Zealand Dollar? To the domestic housing market? The financial position of the Australian-owned banks? Treasury would want answers to all these questions.
ODESC might very well ask: “How seriously should we take the Labour-Green election promises? Are Shearer and Norman serious?
The temptation to place both parties’ key personal and “information infrastructures” under GCSB surveillance would be enormous.
With New Zealand’s “well-being” at stake, what patriotic Prime Minister could refuse to give the order?
If you think I’m being alarmist, just take a look at the Government’s next brick in the “national security” wall: the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill.
If New Zealanders don’t rouse themselves – and quickly – they’ll soon find themselves trapped in a nightmare from which there is no awakening.