In August 2013, as evidence emerged of the active participation by New Zealand in the “Five Eyes” mass surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden, the country’s conservative Prime Minister, John Key, vehemently denied that his government engages in such spying. He went beyond mere denials, expressly vowing to resign if it were ever proven that his government engages in mass surveillance of New Zealanders. He issued that denial, and the accompanying resignation vow, in order to reassure the country over fears provoked by a new bill he advocated to increase the surveillance powers of that country’s spying agency, Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) — a bill that passed by one vote thanks to the Prime Minister’s guarantees that the new law would not permit mass surveillance.
Since then, a mountain of evidence has been presented that indisputably proves that New Zealand does exactly that which Prime Minister Key vehemently denied — exactly that which he said he would resign if it were proven was done. Last September, we reported on a secret program of mass surveillance at least partially implemented by the Key government that was designed to exploit the very law that Key was publicly insisting did not permit mass surveillance. At the time, Snowden, citing that report as well as his own personal knowledge of GCSB’s participation in the mass surveillance tool XKEYSCORE, wrote in an article for The Intercept:
Let me be clear: any statement that mass surveillance is not performed in New Zealand, or that the internet communications are not comprehensively intercepted and monitored, or that this is not intentionally and actively abetted by the GCSB, is categorically false. . . . The prime minister’s claim to the public, that “there is no and there never has been any mass surveillance” is false. The GCSB, whose operations he is responsible for, is directly involved in the untargeted, bulk interception and algorithmic analysis of private communications sent via internet, satellite, radio, and phone networks.
A series of new reports last week by New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager, working with my Intercept colleague Ryan Gallagher, has added substantial proof demonstrating GCSB’s widespread use of mass surveillance. An article last week in The New Zealand Herald demonstrated that “New Zealand’s electronic surveillance agency, the GCSB, has dramatically expanded its spying operations during the years of John Key’s National Government and is automatically funnelling vast amounts of intelligence to the US National Security Agency.” Specifically, its “intelligence base at Waihopai has moved to ‘full-take collection,’ indiscriminately intercepting Asia-Pacific communications and providing them en masse to the NSA through the controversial NSA intelligence system XKeyscore, which is used to monitor emails and internet browsing habits.”
Moreover, the documents “reveal that most of the targets are not security threats to New Zealand, as has been suggested by the Government,” but “instead, the GCSB directs its spying against a surprising array of New Zealand’s friends, trading partners and close Pacific neighbours.” A second report late last week published jointly by Hager and The Intercept detailed the role played by GCSB’s Waihopai base in aiding NSA’s mass surveillance activities in the Pacific (as Hager was working with The Intercept on these stories, his house was raided by New Zealand police for 10 hours, ostensibly to find Hager’s source for a story he published that was politically damaging to Key).
That the New Zealand government engages in precisely the mass surveillance activities Key vehemently denied is now barely in dispute. Indeed, a former director of GCSB under Key, Sir Bruce Ferguson, while denying any abuse of New Zealander’s communications, now admits that the agency engages in mass surveillance.
Meanwhile, Russel Norman, the head of the country’s Green Party, said in response to these stories that New Zealand is “committing crimes” against its neighbors in the Pacific by subjecting them to mass surveillance, and insists that the Key government broke the law because that dragnet necessarily includes the communications of New Zealand citizens when they travel in the region.
So now that it’s proven that New Zealand does exactly that which Prime Minister Key vowed would cause him to resign if it were proven, is he preparing his resignation speech? No: that’s something a political official with a minimal amount of integrity would do. Instead — even as he now refuses to say what he has repeatedly said before: that GCSB does not engage in mass surveillance — he’s simply retracting his pledge as though it were a minor irritant, something to be casually tossed aside:
When asked late last week whether New Zealanders have a right to know what their government is doing in the realm of digital surveillance, the Prime Minister said: “as a general rule, no.” And he expressly refuses to say whether New Zealand is doing that which he swore repeatedly it was not doing, as this excellent interview from Radio New Zealand sets forth:
Interviewer: “Nicky Hager’s revelations late last week . . . have stoked fears that New Zealanders’ communications are being indiscriminately caught in that net. . . . The Prime Minister, John Key, has in the past promised to resign if it were found to be mass surveillance of New Zealanders . . . Earlier, Mr. Key was unable to give me an assurance that mass collection of communications from New Zealanders in the Pacific was not taking place.”
PM Key: “No, I can’t. I read the transcript [of former GCSB Director Bruce Ferguson’s interview] – I didn’t hear the interview – but I read the transcript, and you know, look, there’s a variety of interpretations – I’m not going to critique–”
Interviewer: “OK, I’m not asking for a critique. Let’s listen to what Bruce Ferguson did tell us on Friday:”
Ferguson: “The whole method of surveillance these days, is sort of a mass collection situation – individualized: that is mission impossible.”
Interviewer: “And he repeated that several times, using the analogy of a net which scoops up all the information. . . . I’m not asking for a critique with respect to him. Can you confirm whether he is right or wrong?”
Key: “Uh, well I’m not going to go and critique the guy. And I’m not going to give a view of whether he’s right or wrong” . . . .
Interviewer: “So is there mass collection of personal data of New Zealand citizens in the Pacific or not?”
Key: “I’m just not going to comment on where we have particular targets, except to say that where we go and collect particular information, there is always a good reason for that.”
From “I will resign if it’s shown we engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders” to “I won’t say if we’re doing it” and “I won’t quit either way despite my prior pledges.” Listen to the whole interview: both to see the type of adversarial questioning to which U.S. political leaders are so rarely subjected, but also to see just how obfuscating Key’s answers are.
The history of reporting from the Snowden archive has been one of serial dishonesty from numerous governments: such as the way European officials at first pretended to be outraged victims of NSA only for it to be revealed that, in many ways, they are active collaborators in the very system they were denouncing. But, outside of the U.S. and U.K. itself, the Key government has easily been the most dishonest over the last 20 months: one of the most shocking stories I’ve seen during this time was how the Prime Minister simultaneously plotted in secret to exploit the 2013 proposed law to implement mass surveillance at exactly the same time that he persuaded the public to support it by explicitly insisting that it would not allow mass surveillance.
But overtly reneging on a public pledge to resign is a new level of political scandal. Key was just re-elected for his third term, and like any political official who stays in power too long, he has the despot’s mentality that he’s beyond all ethical norms and constraints. But by the admission of his own former GCSB chief, he has now been caught red-handed doing exactly that which he swore to the public would cause him to resign if it were proven. If nothing else, the New Zealand media ought to treat that public deception from its highest political official with the level of seriousness it deserves.
Photo: Mark Mitchell/AP