Secret documents reveal New Zealand’s electronic eavesdropping agency shared intelligence with state security agents in Bangladesh, despite authorities in the South Asian nation being implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.
Government Communications Security Bureau, or GCSB, has conducted spying operations in Bangladesh over the past decade, according to the documents. The surveillance has been carried out in support of the U.S. government’s global counterterrorism strategy, primarily from a spy post in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and apparently facilitated by the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Bangladesh spying, revealed on Wednesday by The New Zealand Herald in collaboration with The Intercept, is outlined in secret memos and reports dated between 2003 and 2013. The files were obtained by The Intercept from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
An NSA document that outlines the agency’s relationship with New Zealand, dated from April 2013, noted that “the GCSB has been the lead for the intelligence community on the Bangladesh CT [counter-terrorism] target since 2004.” The document added that the New Zealand agency had “provided unique intelligence leads that have enabled successful CT operations by Bangladesh State Intelligence Service, CIA and India over the past year.”
The specific Bangladesh “State Intelligence Service” referred to is not named in the document. Bangladesh has several agencies that focus on gathering intelligence, principally the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the National Security Intelligence agency and the police Special Branch. The lead agency that executes the country’s counterterrorism operations is the Rapid Action Battalion (pictured above). Each of these agencies has been accused of involvement in severe human rights abuses over a number of years.
In 2008, for instance, Human Rights Watch alleged that the Special Branch headquarters in Dhaka’s Maghbazar neighborhood was used to torture detainees. In 2009, the rights group accused the Rapid Action Battalion of extrajudicially executing hundreds of people and said acts of torture were routinely perpetrated by officials from the intelligence directorate.
In 2010, a prominent trade union organizer, Aminul Islam, alleged that the National Security Intelligence agency had tapped his phone calls, beaten him unconscious and threatened to kill him. Two years later, he was found dead in unexplained circumstances, his body showing signs of torture: His toes were broken, a sharp object had apparently been used to pierce a hole below his knee, and his body and legs were battered and bruised.
Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies and main security forces cooperate closely. Most notably, they work together as part of a notorious center called the Taskforce for Interrogation Cell, located inside a compound in northern Dhaka that is controlled by the Rapid Action Battalion unit.
In 2011, the Guardian reported that the interrogation cell was used as a place to extract information and confessions from “enemies of the state.” It was described as a “torture center” used for “deliberate and systematic” mistreatment of detainees. One British man detained there in 2009 on terrorism-related charges was allegedly hooded and strapped to a chair while a drill was driven into his right shoulder and hip.
Other torture methods used by Bangladeshi authorities, according to Human Rights Watch, have included “burning with acid, hammering of nails into toes … electric shocks, beatings on legs with iron rods, beating with batons on backs after sprinkling sand on them, ice torture, finger piercing, and mock executions.”
In February 2014, the U.S. government suspended its own support for the Rapid Action Battalion, citing “gross violation of human rights” committed by the force’s members. The same month, a case against the Bangladesh government was lodged in the International Criminal Court, accusing the country’s officials of waging a brutal campaign of “widespread or systematic” torture, killings, and other human rights abuses that amounted to crimes against humanity.
Bangladesh’s government did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The country’s officials have previously denied the abuse allegations; State Minister Asaduzzaman Khan stated last year that the government “doesn’t believe in the politics of killing and forced disappearance.”
It is unclear from any of the NSA documents whether New Zealand sought or received any assurances from Bangladesh over how intelligence it shared could be used for detentions and interrogations, or whether there was any effective oversight of how the country’s agencies ultimately used the information.
But the documents do reveal that the GCSB adopted a dual-edged approach: It shared intelligence with Bangladesh’s security agencies, and also secretly monitored the internal communications of the Rapid Action Battalion force.
A classified 2009 GCSB report contained an intercepted image of a battalion officer speaking on an internal video conference system. It said that the force “has been an active target for the GCSB in the past and this information could well be of high interest for future operations if the domestic security situation in Bangladesh were to deteriorate.”
Bangladesh has low levels of terrorist activity compared to many countries in that region. In 2014 it was 24th on the Global Terrorism Index (the United States was 30th). Concerns, as expressed in U.S. government diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, have mainly been that the country can be used as a transport route or temporary haven for militants active in other countries, particularly groups involved in the long-running India-Pakistan conflict in Kashmir.
New Zealand does not have a high commission or any other official building in Bangladesh in which to hide a covert listening post. The Snowden documents suggest the Dhaka unit may be located inside a U.S. diplomatic building with operations overseen by the NSA and the CIA.
The 2009 GCSB report said that the Bangladeshi surveillance was made possible through “the Dhaka F6 environment survey.” F6 is a designator used to refer to a joint CIA/NSA unit known as the Special Collection Service, which eavesdrops on communications from U.S. embassies and consulates.
The report noted that the listening post was mostly being used by the GCSB to intercept local mobile phone calls. “Site collection resources,” it said, “are in the main being used for the collection of productive GSM emitters.”
The CIA, the GCSB and the New Zealand prime minister’s office each declined to comment on the details in this story.
GCSB’s acting director, Una Jagose, said in an emailed statement that the agency “exists to protect New Zealand and New Zealanders.” She added: “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 authorised and subject to independent oversight.”
The NSA had not responded to a request for comment at time of publication.
Photo: Pavel Rahman/AP