Christchurch attack: spy boss welcomes review

Rebecca Kitteridge. “There are important questions which need answers and we embrace the...
Rebecca Kitteridge. “There are important questions which need answers and we embrace the opportunity to learn from this terrible experience". Image: NZ Herald
The Security Intelligence Service is focused on reducing the risk of revenge or copycat attacks following the Christchurch terror attack, chief Rebecca Kitteridge says.

Kitteridge, the director-general of the SIS, offered her sympathies to people who lost loved ones in the March 15 attacks at two mosques in which 50 people died, and to Muslim communities.

She made the comments at the justice select committee at Parliament this morning where she was joined by Government Communications Security Bureau director-general Andrew Hampton.

In her opening remarks, Kitteridge said she welcomed the Royal Commission of Inquiry which will look at the actions of both the SIS and GCSB, as well as other agencies, in the lead-up to the attacks.

“There are important questions which need answers and we embrace the opportunity to learn from this terrible experience,” Kitteridge said.

The SIS had two main priorities in relation to the mosque attacks, in which 50 people were killed, she said.

“We are focused on supporting the police investigation and the resulting prosecutions. We are also focused on mitigating the risks to New Zealanders posed by possible revenge or copycat attacks.”

Kitteridge and Hampton were appearing at the select committee to answer questions as part of its inquiry into the 2017 general election and local body elections.

Such an inquiry is usual after an election but its focus this time was on foreign interference.

Kitteridge and Hampton spoke to the media following the briefing to MPs, most of which was held behind closed doors.

It is the first time they have held a press conference since the March 15 attacks.

Kitteridge said there had been a huge number of leads provided to the SIS and police following the mosque shootings, but said while most were not security concerns, there was still a need for vigilance.

Hampton said the risk of copycat or retaliatory attacks was not confined to New Zealand domestically but its interests overseas.

The spy agencies have been accused of “looking the wrong way” when it came to seeking out extremist behaviour and the Royal Commission will look at whether there was any inappropriate concentration or priority setting of counter-terrorism resources.

Kitteridge said the SIS’s approach to extremism was “ideology neutral”.

“Any extremist behaviour that tends towards violence is of concern to the NZSIS.”

She said right-wing extremism had been “bubbling up around the world” and its partners in other countries were also beginning to look at it.

Kitteridge would not comment on whether any white supremacists were on the SIS’s watch-list. But she reiterated that the alleged gunman behind the mosque attacks had not been raised as a person of concern with the SIS, nor its partners or police.

She also made the point that a huge victim of any Isis-inspired attack would have been the Muslim community.

“Those communities were really worried that there would be a huge backlash against those communities if an attack of that kind succeeded.

“The fact that these attacks were carried out in this way and that they were the victims of it is just horrifying to me, to the country, to the people of Christchurch, to the Muslim communities and my heart goes out to those families.”

Kitteridge said the intelligence services were deeply affected by the attacks.

She said the police investigation so far indicated the alleged perpetrator had acted alone.

“Of course it’s important that the questions are asked whether these attacks could have been prevented, so we will go into the Royal Commission fully, openly, offering what we knew, what could we have done, along with the other security sector agencies.”

Hampton said the GCSB had neither the resources nor the legal authority to constantly monitor the country’s internet traffic.

“You need to have a lead or hypothesis. You need to know what question to ask, otherwise you are quite literally looking for needle in a very big haystack.

“In this case, there wasn’t any evidence to suggest that this person was someone of interest.

“Similarly with regard to commentary around chat rooms or people uploading information on to the internet. You need to know where to look.

2017 ELECTION

On the subject of the 2017 General Election, Hampton said the justice select committee had asked Kitteridge and himself to comment on potential foreign interference in elections, including the hacking of emails and the issue of foreign donations.

Hampton said they were limited in what they could say to be able to protect their sources. It was also a practise not to specifically name countries that may be involved.

Kitteridge said foreign interference did not refer to normal diplomatic relations. She said foreign interference in elections was, and remained, plausible.

Most states had the ability to interfere in New Zealand elections. They also did not have to be successful to be damaging to democracy.

The committee was briefed on the potential to hack MPs' email and the use of traditional and social media.

Hampton said one of the main concerns during the last election was that hacked information could be used to influence the outcome. However, no activity of this kind was detected.

He registered the GCSB's ongoing concerns over local elections having online voting.

Cyber interference targeting voters had become one of the most common forms of interference.

To date, New Zealand had not been the target of widespread disinformation - but its occurrence overseas could have an impact here, Hampton said.

Kitteridge said the manipulation of expatriate populations by foreign states was also an issue.

Speaking about the issue of political donations, Kitteridge said the SIS became concerned about donations when their origin was unclear or obscured. She intended to write to all MPs offering advice on protective security around donations.

National MP Nick Smith asked Kitteridge and Hampton if they were satisfied they had all the legislative tools and resources they required to manage the risks.

Hampton said New Zealand legislation was fairly new and in some ways more enabling than some overseas legislation. However, he acknowledged that foreign interference was growing.

 

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