Opinion: GCSB watchdogs unlikely to make transparency a priority

The latest annual report of the Inspector-general of Intelligence and Security is not going to weigh down the briefcase of your average pie-eating, Penthouse-consuming spook.

With the type conveniently double-spaced, the document just manages to make it as far as a fifth page.

Some might find this surprising, given 2012 was a big year in terms of public exposure for the Government Communications Security Bureau and associated intelligence services.

Then again, the report covers the 12 months up to the end of last June and much of the public action occurred after that date.

There is a very brief generalised account of the inspector-general's interaction with the agencies under his purview, with a stress on trust and communication being necessary. That is about as exciting as it gets.

Otherwise, the report deals briefly with complaints about vetting procedures, employment matters and brief mention of the interception warrants issued to the Security Intelligence Service.

It all adds up to absolutely no bark and likewise no bite from this supposed public watch-dog.

The paucity of meaningful content in the report alone is justification for the overhaul of an institution which seems more at home in the 1950s than 2013.

The silence is puzzling, however.

Paul Neazor, the current inspector-general, has good reason to feel miffed.

In his 2009 report, Mr Neazor made particular reference to section 14 of the GCSB Act - the provision which bans surveillance of New Zealanders by the agency. He said compliance with statute law was ''a thread which runs strongly through the bureau's operation''.

We now know that was not the case. Mr Neazor is not alone in issuing assurances that turned out not to be worth the paper they were written on.

His predecessor, Laurie Greig, was asked by two prime ministers - Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley - to investigate the adequacy of safeguards to ensure only foreign intelligence was collected by the GCSB.

Mr Greig assured them it was a ''cardinal rule'' that the GCSB did not intercept the communications of New Zealanders and the agency was ''scrupulous'' about complying. Whether anyone believed the assurances is a moot point. But last year's revelations that the GCSB has had a longstanding policy of helping the SIS and the police monitor New Zealanders suggests when it came to trust and communication, the traffic was all one way.

The Dotcom scandal and the GCSB's long-running breach of its own law has forced the issue when it comes to oversight of the intelligence agencies. The question of who watches the watchers has reached a watershed.

Winston Peters is about the last person who could be accused of being soft on terrorism. So when someone like him argues for more safeguardsin the laws covering the intelligence agencies and that they face greater scrutiny when it comes to issuing surveillance warrants, then there has to be very good reason.

Unlike other party leaders, he did not hesitate in pledging his party's support for the Prime Minister's pending special legislation which will rectify the GCSB's decade-long breach of the law. But Mr Peters has made his support conditional on John Key agreeing to a major overhaul of the outdated and ineffective oversight mechanisms.

He is absolutely right. The external monitoring of the country's intelligence agencies is a complete joke.

The inquiry into the GCSB conducted by Cabinet secretary Rebecca Kitteridge found the agency's practice of helping other agencies monitor New Zealanders to be longstanding. It pre-dated the 2003 law which established the GCSB as a government department, and continued after the legislation's passage through Parliament.

The law was of enough concern within the GCSB, however, to warrant seeking legal advice from within the agency. That advice deemed it lawful.

No-one at the GCSB alerted the inspector-general, whose tasks include checking the GCSB's compliance with the law, along with the SIS.

The Prime Minister has responded by detailing steps to strengthen the two external watchdogs - the inspector-general and Parliament's intelligence and security committee.

Mr Peters says Mr Key's plans do not go far enough. Labour and the Greens have continued to call for an independent commission of inquiry.

The suspicion is that Mr Key is rushing things on an ad hoc basis to get the whole brouhaha off the political agenda rather than using the opportunity to introduce a truly rigorous oversight regime.

To take the parliamentary committee first, the changes proposed are little more than cosmetic. This body - chaired by the prime minister and also comprising the Leader of the Opposition and other party leaders - is covered by legislation which largely stipulates what it cannot do.

The committee sits rarely and briefly. It appears to glean little sensitive information and is forbidden to disclose any it receives. It is difficult to recall anything it has achieved during its 17-year existence.

In that respect, its designated function of providing oversight of the intelligence services and ensuring their accountability is a mirage. The committee may be doing that. But the public would never know. And beyond a new requirement for the committee to table its reports in Parliament, the public will still never know.

The news is better for the role of inspector-general. Ms Kitteridge's recommendations to turn that office into a version of its currently more ''muscular'' and ''robust'' Australian counterpart appear to have been accepted by the Cabinet.

Whatever happens, details of the agencies' specific operations will continue to be withheld.

Officials may talk about striking a balance between secrecy required for effective intelligence operations and meeting legitimate public expectations of transparency on the agencies' part.

The reality is that those running the show will always be inclined to come down on one side of the argument - that the national interest always outweighs the public interest.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald's political correspondent.

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