Cullen on virtual merger of GCSB and SIS

The security review was forbidden from suggesting a merger of our two spy agencies, SIS and GCSB, but it has gone as far as it can in recommending much closer links between the two.

Claire Trevett: A proposed ‘civil union’ of two intelligence agencies

Sir Michael Cullen has never been one to mince words so when he was asked why he and Dame Patsy Reddy had not simply recommended a merger of the two intelligence agencies, he was blunt: it was because the Government had not allowed it under the terms of reference.

That didn’t stop him recommending what amounts to a merger in all but name, which will see the GCSB and SIS remain technically separate entities but controlled by the same legislation with very similar powers – it was, as Dr Cullen said “a civil union”.

The most controversial aspect of it is likely to be the recommendation to allow the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders without requiring a warrant to do so on the behalf of other parties. It breaks a longstanding split between the SIS and GCSB under which the GCSB could only spy on foreigners and the SIS on New Zealanders.

The examples Dr Cullen gave of the virtue of extending that to the GCSB were rather sympathetic to his own case – he spoke of a New Zealander lost at sea and said the GCSB would not be able to use its cellphone tracking technology to find that person because they were a New Zealander.

In reality the split of powers had become increasingly redundant anyway. The review team also proposed a strong authorisation process to ensure there was not indiscriminate spying. In reality that split of powers had become increasingly redundant.

Sir Michael pointed out the SIS had the power to spy domestically but the GCSB had the technology to do so. In terms of the difference in the technology between the two, he said “it’s really a question of can you use Snicko and Hawkeye or can’t you in order to establish whether there was a no ball?”

Dr Cullen argued it was not a vast expansion of powers, but rather an attempt to clear up the current conflict for the GCSB. The legislation covering the GCSB already allows it to spy on behalf of other agencies with a warrant. One of Dr Cullen’s more surprising admissions was that despite the attempt to change the GCSB’s legislation to specify when it could spy on New Zealanders, the GCSB had only become more hesitant to do so. That happened after it was found to have unlawfully spied on more than 100 people due to confusion over its powers when acting on behalf of other agencies.

Dr Cullen said the GCSB and it had become overly cautious in the wake of that controversy to an extent it was impacting on its work. That had, he argued, almost put the Government in a position of failing in its duty to protect the lives of New Zealanders.

In short the review recommends a simplification of multiple laws, clarification of what powers the SIS and especially the GCSB have, and better oversight.

If the recommendations are followed – and they will need the approval of both National and Labour at least – it could leave two separate agencies but in practice sets up a virtual merger.

Balancing the need for effective security with the privacy of individuals will continue to be contentious.

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4 Comments

  1. Brown

     /  10th March 2016

    … security with the privacy of individuals …

    Alas, long gone. You can’t even move small sums of money overseas without the police sniffing. Everything is tracked and freedom is an illusion. Tyranny always starts off sounding so benign that what reason could you possibly have to be worried. We have no more real privacy than the Eastern Block Europeans were allowed in those dark days of the cold war. Our democracy doesn’t have the overt brutality of course but that is not the only sign of control.

    Reply
  2. Oliver

     /  10th March 2016

    The more rights and freedoms they take away from the people. The more the people will be anti – government. For every action there is a reaction.

    To think eroding people’s rights and freedoms will solve terrorism is the most idiotic mentality that’s ever come from government.

    People won’t just give away their freedoms without a fight. Especially when they have fought to have them in the first place.

    Reply
    • Brown

       /  10th March 2016

      ”People won’t just give away their freedoms without a fight.”

      Ah, but they already have – death by a thousand cuts and all that. Most don’t have a clue and trot out the old ”nothing to fear if nothing to hide” mantra while sleep walking to disaster.

      Reply
  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  10th March 2016

    The tragedy is that that supposed bastion of freedom, the US, has been by far the greatest destroyer of international freedoms and privacy.

    Reply

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