New Zealand launched a covert surveillance operation targeting candidates vying to be director general of the World Trade Organization, a top-secret document reveals.
In the period leading up to the May 2013 appointment, the country’s electronic eavesdropping agency programmed an Internet spying system to intercept emails about a list of high-profile candidates from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico and South Korea.
New Zealand’s trade minister, Tim Groser, was one of nine candidates in contention for the position at the WTO, a powerful international organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that negotiates trade agreements between nations. The surveillance operation, carried out by Government Communications Security Bureau, or GCSB, appears to have been part of a secret effort to help Groser win the job.
Groser ultimately failed to get the position.
A top-secret document obtained by The Intercept and the New Zealand Herald reveals how GCSB used the XKEYSCORE Internet surveillance system to collect communications about the WTO director general candidates.
XKEYSCORE is run by the National Security Agency and is used to analyze billions of emails, Internet browsing sessions and online chats that are vacuumed up from about 150 different locations worldwide. GCSB has gained access to XKEYSCORE because New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes surveillance alliance alongside the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The WTO spying document shows how the New Zealand agency created an XKEYSCORE targeting “fingerprint,” a combination of names and keywords used to extract particular information from the vast quantities of emails and other communications accessible through the system. The document reveals that a fingerprint was specially tailored to monitor the WTO candidates and was “used to sort traffic by priority,” looking for “keywords [as they] appear in the email_body.” It is stamped with a “last modified” date of May 6, 2013, about a week before the new director general was to be announced.
Two different intelligence searches were carried out by the GCSB staff as part of what they termed the “WTO Project.” First, they looked for emails referring to Groser, the WTO, the director general candidacy and the surnames of the other candidates: Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen (Ghana); Amina Mohamed (Kenya); Anabel González (Costa Rica); Herminio Blanco (Mexico); Mari Elka Pangestu (Indonesia); Taeho Bark (South Korea); Ahmad Thougan Hindawi (Jordan); and Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo (Brazil).
Second, they zeroed in on the Indonesian candidate, Pangestu, that country’s former minister of trade and a professional economist. A separate XKEYSCORE fingerprint was created, headed “WTO DG Candidacy issues — focus on Indonesian candidate.” This was presumably because the New Zealand government was particularly concerned that the job might go to another Pacific candidate ahead of Groser.
The surveillance of Pangestu appears to have targeted all Internet communications (not just email) containing the name “Pangestu,” the words “Indonesia,” “WTO” and “candidacy,” and the other candidates’ names.
The searches had keyword instructions in English, French and Spanish — for instance “zealand,” “zelande” and “zelandia” — in order to catch communications from more countries. The intercepted messages were to be passed to the GCSB’s “trade team,” which would likely have had the job of collating intelligence for people in government involved in Groser’s bid for the WTO role.
The Intercept and the New Zealand Herald attempted to contact each of the named targets prior to publication. Several were not reachable or did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the WTO had not responded to multiple requests for comment at time of publication (update below).
Bark, the South Korean candidate, said he had no inkling that he was the focus of surveillance during his bid for the director general role. He told the New Zealand Herald he had received no intelligence agency support as part of his own campaign. “It’s a different world for very advanced countries,” he said.
Bark, now an academic at Seoul National University and South Korea’s ambassador-at-large for international economy and trade, added that he was not “offended” by the spying because he didn’t think it had any impact on the outcome of his effort to get the WTO job. But he predicted others would be stung by the eavesdropping revelations. “The Indonesian candidate would be very upset,” he said.
International economic law expert Meredith Kolsky Lewis, who specializes in the WTO, said she was “a bit shocked” at the allegation New Zealand had spied on emails about the director general candidates.
“I’m a little surprised that New Zealand used the surveillance power available to it for this purpose,” Lewis said. “It’s possible those who ordered the surveillance wanted to know who other countries in the region supported.”
Andrew Little, leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party, criticized the surveillance and described it as “completely out of order.”
“It just seems outrageous,” Little said. “I would have thought that [to be] a misuse of our security and intelligence agencies. It seems to me right outside the mandate of the GCSB. It’s nothing to do with security threats.”
It was in late 2012 that Groser was nominated for the position at the WTO.
The New Zealand trade minister launched a lobbying campaign as part of his candidacy bid, traveling to Europe, the United States, Africa, the Caribbean and around the Pacific Islands in an effort to win support from members of the WTO’s general council, which includes representatives from 160 countries.
However, his campaign was unsuccessful. Brazil’s Azevêdo (pictured above) was appointed the WTO’s new director general on May 14, 2013.
Three weeks earlier, when it had become clear that Groser was not going to make the final shortlist, New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, expressed his disappointment. “At the end of the day it was always going to be a long shot — so he gave it his best go with the support of the government,” Key said.
What the public didn’t know was that this support had included deploying the GCSB to spy on communications about the competitors.
At the time of the surveillance, Prime Minister Key was the minister in charge of the GCSB, raising the question of whether he knew about and personally sanctioned the electronic eavesdropping to help Groser.
A spokesman for Key declined to answer any questions about the WTO spying and instead issued a boilerplate response. “New Zealand’s intelligence agencies have been, and continue to be, a significant contributor to our national security and the security of New Zealanders at home and abroad,” the spokesman said.
Groser, reached by New Zealand Herald reporters late Saturday, said the government wouldn’t discuss “such leaks” because he claimed they were “often wrong, [and] they are deliberately timed to try and create political damage.” Asked if he knew the GCSB was conducting surveillance for him, he said: “I’ve got no comment to make whatsoever.”
GCSB also declined to comment on any of the specific revelations. In a statement, the agency’s acting director, Una Jagose, said: “The GCSB exists to protect New Zealand and New Zealanders. We have a foreign intelligence mandate. We don’t comment on speculation about matters that may or may not be operational. Everything we do is explicitly authorized and subject to independent oversight.”
Last week, The Intercept revealed that GCSB used XKEYSCORE to target top government officials and an anti-corruption campaigner in the Solomon Islands.
Earlier disclosures, which were based on documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, have exposed how New Zealand is funneling data into XKEYSCORE from a surveillance base in the Waihopai Valley and is spying on about 20 countries across the world, predominantly in the Asia-Pacific region, among them small Pacific islands and major trading partners including Japan, Vietnam and China.
The Intercept is reporting details about New Zealand’s surveillance operations in collaboration with the New Zealand Herald, the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times.
Update, March 22, 2015 at 17:30 ET: Reached by phone Sunday, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told The Intercept he was “learning about this for the very first time” and said he would not comment on the New Zealand spying until he had looked closer at the details. “Tomorrow morning I’ll go into the office and we’ll discuss it and we’ll try to figure out what’s going on,” he said.
Update, March 23, 2015 at 14:00 ET: Rockwell, the WTO’s spokesman, says the WTO will not be commenting further on the revelations and he refuses to explain why. “We will not have any comment on this story today or in the future,” he told The Intercept in an emailed response.
Photo: Martial Trezzini/Keystone/AP