Interview with a Boffin: Is it possible to shut down the GCSB?


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IN CHRIS MULLIN’S political thriller, A Very British Coup, Harry Perkins, the socialist prime minister, attempts to make Britain nuclear-free with help from a renegade boffin. (Watch a particularly chilling excerpt from the BBC television series here.) Sir Montague Kowalski, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, thwarts Ministry of Defence officials at every turn as they attempt to derail Perkins’ policy. Every one of the cold warriors’ objections is answered by Perkins with the information Kowalski makes available – information which all previous prime ministers have been denied.

Let’s imagine that New Zealand has (somehow!) elected a radical Labour-Green-Mana government with aspirations even more dangerous than declaring nuclear freedom. Let’s imagine that, following the exposure of extraordinary illegality on the part of the SIS and the GCSB, the new government has committed itself to decommissioning the Waihopai spy base and taking New Zealand out of the UKUSA Agreement.

Advising the Labour Prime Minister is a former senior intelligence official. Disgusted by the actions of his erstwhile colleagues, this boffin has made his inside knowledge of New Zealand’s national security apparatus available to the new prime minister.

High up in the Beehive, the prime minister and his boffin are considering how they might begin the dangerous task of detaching New Zealand from the Americans’ global intelligence network.

* * * * *

BOFFIN: Before we begin, Prime Minister, have you been in touch with the young man I suggested?

PM: Yes, I have. He and his team were in here yesterday. They swept the whole floor – and the Cabinet Room upstairs.

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BOFFIN: And …?

PM: And … it was just as you predicted. Listening devices everywhere. All gone now though, and his counter-measures are all in place and operating. We can speak freely here, Colonel.

BOFFIN: Excellent. But, just as a matter of interest, how long has it been since the last official sweep?

PM: Less than a week, Colonel. Any doubts I might have had about your warnings of a fortnight ago have been well-and-truly dispelled. So, now that nobody is listening-in, what’s our next move?

BOFFIN: You will have to move extremely quickly, Prime Minister. The sudden loss of their surveillance capacity will have alerted the Service that your government is not quite the sitting duck they were expecting. Even as we speak, they will be assessing the magnitude of the problem they face. You need to strike swiftly, before they recover their balance.

PM: Strike them? How?

BOFFIN: You’ve got yourself a new Police Commissioner. Can you trust him?

PM: Absolutely. He’s been feeding me information ever since the Ruatoki Raid in ’07. I’d trust him with my life.

BOFFIN: Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, Prime Minister. What you will have to entrust to him, and to a few dozen of his most trusted officers, is the execution of simultaneous raids on your own Department, the SIS and the GCSB.

PM: What!

BOFFIN: There’s no other way, Prime Minister. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet lies at the very heart of what Rebecca Kitteridge, two years ago, called “The Intelligence Community”. The strategic thinking, the tactical decision-making, the practical coordination of resources – it all happens within your own department. You’re currently surrounded by at least seven separate national security related committees, all of them beavering away on behalf of our American friends and their allies. You have to shut them down.

PM: How the hell do we do that?

BOFFIN: You do it the way Lionel Murphy did it in 1973.

PM: Which was …?

BOFFIN: Lionel Murphy QC was the Australian Attorney-General in Gough Whitlam’s Labour Government. He had asked ASIO – their equivalent of the SIS – for information about a series of terrorist bombings believed to be the work of fanatical Croatian anti-communists, and the spooks had declined to supply it. So Murphy sent a detachment of Commonwealth Police, armed with search warrants, right into ASIO’s Melbourne headquarters. Unprecedented – anywhere in the English-speaking world. But, he got what he was after.

PM: Jesus!

BOFFIN: There’s really no other way, Prime Minister. You need to know what they know, what they have been doing, what they’re planning – and the only way to secure that information is to march into the office of every single operative, order them to stand well clear of their computers, and seize everything. And, as that’s happening, you’ll also have to stand down your own departmental head and the heads of both the SIS and the GCSB. They must be made to surrender all codes, passwords, keys, cellphones – the lot. Our friends in the US and the UK must be left completely blind.

PM: And Waihopai? Tangimoana?

BOFFIN: Same procedure. Police in, GCSB personnel out.

PM: And – then what?

BOFFIN: Then Prime Minister, I suggest you have that young man and his friends ready to get to work extracting as much information as possible from the Echelon and Prism systems as they can before the Americans realise what’s going on and shut us out. Hopefully, they’ll be able to lay their hands on enough data to allow your government to strike a bargain with the other four eyes.

PM: A bargain?

BOFFIN: Yes, Prime Minister. You will put it to the Americans that since your government has already proved it can’t be trusted to preserve the integrity of the UKUSA protocols, the other signatories have nothing to gain by attempting to hold New Zealand to them. They should also know that, as a now former participant in the “five eyes” agreement, your government has in its possession information that could prove extremely prejudicial to the national interests and security of the United States and its allies. The New Zealand Government would not, of course, allow any of this information to become public … unless … unless something untoward should happen, either to yourself, or to any other member of your government.

PM: And you reckon this is the only way to get out of UKUSA?

BOFFIN: Well, Prime Minister, I haven’t been able to think of another way. Were you to follow the accepted, orthodox and very lengthy processes of policy formation and implementation, the Intelligence Community would have time to block, divert and, ultimately, undermine your every effort. There would be leaks, Prime Minister. There would be embarrassing revelations, based on information supplied by … persons unknown … and acquired, well, I’m sure you can imagine how they would acquire it. No government that is unwilling to act in the unorthodox and decisive fashion I have just outlined could ever hope to defeat its own intelligence community. Go back and study the files from the Kirk-Rowling Government, Prime Minister. Download and watch The Falcon and the Snowman.

PM: The what?

BOFFIN: It’s a movie, Prime Minister, based on the true life exploits of a couple of young Americans who stumble upon the truth of what happened to Gough Whitlam’s Labour Government.

PM: Which was …?

BOFFIN: Whitlam, God bless him, decided that he was going to shut down Pine Gap – Australia’s Waihopai – because he had begun to suspect that it was fundamentally compromising Australia’s national sovereignty. Well, these two young Americans, discovered what their country was willing to do to prevent that from happening.

PM: Which was what?

BOFFIN: Whitlam’s government was deliberately and fatally destabilised. His ministers were set up by CIA “assets” and discredited. Sensitive information was constantly and damagingly leaked to the press. Finally, when Australia had become virtually ungovernable, the CIA’s biggest asset of all, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Whitlam’s government and replaced it with one committed to remaining a loyal member of the UKUSA Agreement.

PM: Jesus, Colonel, you’re frightening me!

BOFFIN: You’re right to be frightened, Prime Minister. These are dangerous people. And the resources at their disposal in 2015 are greater, by several orders of magnitude, than they were forty years ago, in 1975. The defenders of contemporary capitalism are now arrayed with powers we can scarcely imagine. All of us should be afraid, Prime Minister. Very afraid.


  1. The defenders of contemporary capitalism are now arrayed with powers we can scarcely imagine.

    So very true. And even more terrifyingly, have proven repeatedly that they are prepared to use them.

    Even the meekest, most likeable leader in the western world: his abiding, early-adopted mantra, motto, and consequent moniker? “Whatever it takes” and “Smiling assassin”.

    A world on from the unsophisticated “let them eat cake” and Zyclon B: now it’s “save them from dependency” and let them perish in gruesome anonymity anywhere far from the mesmerized mass.

    Bread and circuses garnished with the irresistable nectar of manufactured demons: commies, onelaw and loonygreen for the lazy lighter; devilbeasts, darkies and the mentally ill under every bed for the truly insecure.

    Outlook: dependent entirely on the young and whether or when they decide to stand up.

  2. The police? That’s a little rich Chris. They’re one of the organisations who works most closely with the intelligence services. I think it would be much more effective to send a broad and popular party rank and file to apprehend the people in question and occupy their headquarters. It worked in Egypt after all. They sacked a lot of those organisations and seized many documents. People tried to make out it was the mobs who torched the buildings, but a lot of the time they were ablaze when the crowds arrived due to the security services attempts to burn the evidence.
    The failure in Egypt wasn’t so much the protesters who parilised the security services but rather the govt who not only refused to prosecute those responsible for rights abuses and murder, but even reappointed them to their old positions! In short never send government agents to do the job of an angry mob. They’ll help burn the evidence.

  3. Chris – I ubderstand where you are coming from, but I think you’re being a bit of a woose. We’ve been here before (just prior to Rob sending us bankrupt).
    What needs to be done – will be done.

    I’m sure an astute new PM would be smart enough to assemble (by way of invite or summons) a Gov Gen, a Chief Justice, a Commissioner of Police, various ‘Heads’ – all alongside the people he/she can trust (as in blood is thicker than water) comprising constables and privates – with a ante room with the likes of the secondary (the Greg O’Connors for example). You keep the suss in sight.
    When ready, a quick call to Her Majesty.
    Gimme a call if becomes a problem.
    It’ll be a question of whether the spies want an orderly or a ‘disorderly’ shutdown.

  4. Yes Chris, you spell out well the logic for New Zealand of opposing the status quo, and where it goes: nowhere. Which might lead one to ask, is there some other logic that could go somewhere?

    As a useful starting point, might I suggest how these days, New Zealand clearly has to relate well to both the US and to its rival, China. Everyone realises, when they think about it, that we cannot afford to find ourselves pressured to side strongly with one against the other.

    Most importantly, also, in this nuclear age, and for that matter also this cyber-age, the future and flourishing of the region and the wider world depend on the safe management of their relationship.

    So I would like to put it to you that this new, unprecedented situation could open up possibilities for a new logic for your 1970s-Boffin.

    Namely, the logic of helping, as a nation that is independent of but trusted by both the United States and China, to build better relationships between them. New Zealand has excellent high-level contact with both. It could therefore begin to take practical steps in various diplomatic contexts to build up liaison roles and improve understanding between them.

    Maybe the New Zealand Left, along with the Right, could even begin to look, together, into how this might be done to good effect.

    There are about three dozen blogs on that begin to illustrate how, in various practical contexts, such diplomacy might be broached and developed.

    As an entre point, I suggest the blog, Welcome, Mr US Ambassador David Huebner – open letter @

  5. I’ve been giving a bit of thought to the GCSB bill and think there is another angle from to make a challenge.

    I haven’t actually seen any evidence that a cost/benefit analysis has been done on the GCSB Bill.

    Surely in this economic world we need to know how much it will cost the tax payers and also the financial benefit which will be gained by spying on our citizens.

    We seem to have all of the legal and emotional arguments, which are very good, but the accountants don’t seem to have been out yet.

    Could the money which will be spent on the actual collection of meta data, then the storage, monitoring, cost of privacy etc over a period of many years be justified? This will be a big, expensive project for which there is absolutely no justification surely.

    Perhaps the money would be better spent on improving health and safety so that we are not losing one worker each month in our forests?

    There are also many more justifiable and necessary calls on our scarce funds for health, education, job creation etc.

    Just a thought and maybe this can be used somewhere.

  6. Another thought following on from Mary-Ann –

    While looking into how to spend security monies per se, perhaps (ball park) per dollar cost comparisons could be made with investment in other ways of building security, ways that undercut, rather than lead to more intensive surveillance, policing and ultimately military interventions.

    For instance, by examining potential returns on investment in building meaningful, mutually productive local connections between already established groups and diverse immigrant arrivals, and more broadly, between Islamic and Western secular and religious ethoses (e.g. in interfaith studies and dialogues).

    I wonder what room there is in Left thinking for such ways of looking into and possibly doing things?

    Political policy-makers and practitioners need, above all else, to have constructive ways of doing things at their fingertips or, by default, they will be left with more populist and security lobby ‘solutions’ that leave all of us much worse off.

  7. Nice to see you’re up with the play Chris. But while ANTIPODEAN POSSIBILITIES says diplomacy is a solution and Mary Anne speaks of examining cost effectiveness, I think the bottom line here is the governing administration doesn’t give a toss as it seeks to rule by power alone as I discuss as the rise and spread of the forth reich

    I think that without the support of the people, any moves to turn off the GCSB and SIS would meet with strong arm measures from the US &; AU.

    As five eyes began right after WW2, the relationship cannot simply be ended. Diplomatic moves to severe the strings that bind us would likely result in the CIA introducing terror tactics and forcing the nation to obey. Such are the perilous times we live in.

    • To clarify my position, Suanqu:

      I am saying that there is a need and an opportunity for New Zealand to new develop diplomatic, and even international ICT services. Services based on this country defining a new position in the world, one that offers benefits to all rather than support for some against others (whether militarily or through cyberspying).

      When the United States and the Soviet Union confronted each other, places like Switzerland, Austria, Finland and Sweden were able to offer valued diplomatic services that were acceptable to both parties.

      Now, the United States and China are rivals, but there are no comparable nations to offer trustworthy diplomatic liaison and bridge-building services in the Asia-Pacific region.

      I believe that offering such services represents our most constructive potential option for contributing to the wider world.

      The lesson I also draw from Chris’ blog is that without some such offerings that are valued by all, it will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to get clear of historic GCSB-type entanglements that grown out of our aligned past.

      Ideally, I would like the current government to see such foreign policy changes as its best way of cutting through the mounting GCSB and other, diplomatic and economic difficulties, it is facing.

      If the current government doesn’t come to see things this way, it will be all the more important for a future government to be able to do so for whenever it is elected.

      So I consider it important for the members and supporters of any future government to understand not only what wont work, as per what Chris’ Boffin proposes, but also what could be made to work.

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