It could end with the resignation of a prime minister (although it almost certainly won’t) but that’s not what’s really at stake. What’s at stake is an international alliance built on controlling information for the purposes not of security, but of economic and political advantage. It’s an alliance that has ultimately come to view this control as an end in itself: a self-justifying hunger for total presence.
Over the past four weeks, both of the organisations that operate the vast majority of New Zealand’s newspapers published reports by Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher on the nation’s role within the Five Eyes network. These reports are based largely – though in Hager’s case not exclusively – on the analysis of documents obtained by Edward Snowden in mid-2013 and subsequently leaked to selected investigative journalists. Given that the currency of newspapers is the news of the day, these reports offer an unusually outdated snapshot not of the surveillance apparatus as it is, but as it was.
On one side, then, is our imperfect knowledge. On the other, the systematic obfuscation practiced by executive power in the exercise of these functions.
Take Prime Minister John Key’s solemn pledge – ahead of an August 2013 change in the law regulating the communications security bureau (GCSB) – that he would resign if his government were proven to engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders. According to reports by Hager and Gallagher, publicly corroborated by former GCSB director Bruce Ferguson, the bureau’s base in Waihopai has moved to ‘full-take collection’ of electronic communications in the South Pacific, which are then turned over wholesale to the NSA. ‘Full-take’ means both content and identifying information (metadata), in countries that include the Cook Islands and Niue – whose population has New Zealand citizenship. Faced with these claims, Key not only intimated that ‘collection’ is not the same as ‘surveillance’ (while refusing to admit to either), but questioned that words could even be found to refer transparently to the practices of our spooks. Pressed by radio journalist Guyon Espiner, he said this:
I don’t even know what you mean by mass collection. I have no clue. It is not a term I have ever used. It is not something that sits in something I see.
Thus, the prime minister. By contrast, the reports contained very circumstantial charges, building to an increasingly clear picture. Among New Zealand’s individual as opposed to mass targets – as evidenced by entries in the XKeyscore system supplied by the NSA, which operates as a sort of search engine for the collected data – are the governments and civil societies of friendly Pacific nations. An exemplary case is that of Solomon Islands anti-corruption campaigner Benjamin Afuga, whose information was extracted form the mass of data via search phrases such as ‘Forum Solomon Islands’, ‘FSII’ and ‘Benjamin Afuga’. But why? As Hager explained in a long interview with Selwyn Manning:
I do not believe that the New Zealand intelligence agencies are collecting information on Tonga because there is a burning foreign policy desire to have strong information and do the right things on Tonga. The reason that we spy on Tonga is the same reason we spy on Tuvalu, and the same reason we spy on Vanuatu, and that is, simply, that we have got we have got what’s called an area of responsibility in the Five Eyes alliance. They are just tokens of our allegiance to a US intelligence alliance. In other words the reason we spy on those countries literally – I’m really sure I’m right on this – the primary reason we do it is so that we can have an offering, a useful offering, at the table when we’re one of the Five Eyes intelligence partners.
Far from operating, as Key habitually claims in interviews, to protect the nation against external threats, then, the GCSB is principally tasked with spying on the South Pacific on behalf of Five Eyes, just as the Australian ASD does in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. It is allowed to do so by the vague objectives listed in the legislation – ‘national security’, ‘international relations’, ‘economic well-being’, all of which can be stretched to accommodate virtually anything – and by the poor mechanisms of oversight it provides for.
Especially tragicomic is the case of Tim Groser, current trade minister and former candidate for the chairmanship of the WTO, on whose behalf the GCSB turns out to have spied. Never mind that his bid was unsuccessful anyway: the more pertinent question is what the Bureau – and its political backers – thought they might achieve, other than risking a significant diplomatic backlash should their activities ever be discovered.
An extraordinarily clumsy attempt to argue for the legitimacy of the Groser operation by New Zealand Herald editorial writer John Roughan unwittingly highlights just how thin the justifications for such activities are. We spied on those other WTO candidates, says Roughan, on behalf not just of New Zealand but the world, for only Groser could be trusted to fight for a ‘fair global trading environment’. The sheer doublethinking gall involved in claiming that the nation pursues its national interest in the name of international fairness should be apparent to anyone but the most fanatical cheerleader of neoliberal economic doctrine.
The GCSB likely holds a document making such a case as part of its records for the operation. But it seems to me that spying of this kind, on trading partners and friendly nations, is almost a pathological reflex. We do it because we can: because we have the technical capability and a permissive enough legal and political framework. And so we treat XKeyscore as we might treat Google or Facebook, and the officials of other nations as we might treat co-workers or love rivals: everything and everyone is so easy to search for these days.
At the other end of the undersea cables, our American allies may not have much more use for the information than we do. But to them, too, it fits a purpose that is both technical and ideological: to funnel more and more data into the system, and thus – through a feedback loop – justify both the system itself and the political project that made it possible. This is what climate scientists in Antarctica, an anti-corruption campaigner in Honiara and the rivals of Tim Groser in Brazil and Indonesia have in common: a naïve expectation of privacy and failing to grasp the logic that turned them into surveillance targets.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!