Parliament’s willingness to scrutinise the SISMarch 25th, 2009
This evening the new members of Parliament’s committee on the security and intelligence will meet for the first time. John Key, Rodney Hide, Tariana Turia, Phil Goff and Russel Norman have a rare chance to transform one of Parliament’s most embarrassing pieces of tokenism into a oversight committee that is fit and willing to deal with 21st century realities in security gathering and analysis.
To date, this committee has been a joke that meets for only about an hour a year. It lacks the powers of a select committee, and has essentially served as a mechanism by which the SIS and the Prime Minister can keep senior parliamentarians on board with their own agenda on security. In return for being sworn to secrecy, the MPs on the committee get absolutely nothing in return. They don’t get to scrutinise the SIS Director’s version of reality or check his files for accuracy, they can’t summon other witnesses, and they can’t publicly divulge what they have been told.
Such restraints are the relics of a bygone era. Around the world, the events of 9/11 and the Iraq invasion have exposed the shoddiness of much intelligence information and the extent of its overt politicization. At the same time, more and more domestic legislation is taking on a security dimension. Therefore, Parliament needs to play a far more active role in querying the security and intelligence dimensions of legislation. If it was properly resourced – and if it made contact with similar committees in Canada, the UK and Australia – this committee could play a very useful role as one of the state’s few oversight mechanisms on the performance of the security services.
The immediate task before the committee though, is how to handle the SIS spying on Members of Parliament. In his recent report to the Prime Minister, the SIS Inspector-General Paul Neazor recommended – as Scoop had advocated – that such files should be closed once an MP is elected. However, Neazor went on to say that a formula was needed if and when the actions of an MP required such a file to be opened.
Subsequently, Prime Minister John Key – in his capacity as Minister of the SIS – has indicated that he could arrange this in consultation with the Speaker.
This is really not good enough. Plainly, neither the public nor Parliament would be happy if any Prime Minister was allowed to arrange SIS surveillance of his fellow parliamentarians on the simple say so of a Speaker whom he has appointed. Because such spying would infringe on the work of Parliament – and especially on the constituency work of parliamentarians – it needs a much wider, multi-party mandate.
Therefore, the committee members should press tonight for it to be the body that considers and validates any such action. It should not be left to the Prime Minister in a secret arrangement with the Speaker, to give the greenlight to such surveillance. Robert Muldoon, during the Colin Moyle affair, stands as evidence of how a Prime Minister can abuse his access to secret information in order to destroy an opponent’s political career.
Being an MP is a unique occupation, and it requires special treatment. Parliament is the heart of our democracy and should be placed beyond SIS scrutiny. In the normal course of their work, MPs are required to be in contact with people from all walks of life. Their role as arbiters in community disputes and between the public and the bureaucracy requires them to be free to do that work unfettered by being spied upon by the security agencies.
In turn, members of the public need to know they can bring issues to an MP’s attention, without fear of such contact tainting their case by placing them under SIS suspicion. After all, the SIS is free to open a file on private persons of concern, but it should not be allowed to maintain a file on an MP directly – except under quite exceptional conditions that Parliament itself, via its multi-party committee on such matters, has mandated on the basis of evidence placed before one of its meetings.
The new committee is stacked 3 :2 with government appointees. Fittingly though, Tariana Turia has the swing vote. Domestically Maori activists have received an undue degree of SIS attention. As a result, Maori MPs are more likely to be in contact during their constituency work, with people whom the SIS view with concern. For both those reasons, Turia should be at pains tonight to ensure that it is the committee – and not the Prime Minister and Speaker – who gets to authorise any future spying on parliamentarians in general, and on any members of her caucus in particular. An assurance needs to be sought by the committee that any files on current MPs will be closed, immediately.
In future, security and intelligence issues are likely to play a far more important role in legislation. As soon as next week, the Immigration Bill may return to a House that is far different from the one that dealt with this legislation last year. Labour is in opposition, and the Maori Party are now in government. Turia and her caucus will have to decide whether they want to back and to own legislation that will give immigration officers far wider powers of search and detention of Pacific Islanders and Maori, while allowing the bureaucracy to operate under a much thicker blanket of secrecy.
Can Labour credibly oppose this immigration legislation that it fashioned and shepherded through Parliament – despite the misgivings of some in its caucus about the draconian powers it bestows on officials and the state? Since then of course, the Immigration Service has been its own worst enemy. There has been a cascade of revelations about the Immigration Service and its lack of accountability – especially within its Pacific division. This alone should require and justify a rethink by Labour about the wisdom of this Bill, and the desirability of Pacific Island, Maori and migrant communities to the state’s arbitrary exercise of power.
Turia of course, should be especially concerned about the Maori Party choosing to rubber stamp this particular government Bill. Only a few years ago, Turia drew attention to the perils of using secret information against an accused – and at the time, she likened the treatment of Ahmed Zaoui to the treatment of Te Whiti in the 1880s. In both cases, Turia argued, people were being denied due process, with their fate decided by an Executive that had ‘necessarily….been influenced by political and economic considerations. That was precisely the case with Te Whiti. He was denied access to the courts. The parallels are strong.”
How can Turia now possibly turn around, and support a Bill that will give immigration officers enhanced powers of detention and search, when she knows so thoroughly the content of the West Coast Protection Act of 1882, and the way that piece of legislation was used against her people ? “ The said Te Whiti and Tohu, or either of them, shall not be tried…[but] it shall be lawful..to keep the said Te Whiti and Tohu, or either of them, in custody at such place as the Governor thinks fit.,..” And to be re-arrested at will.
Maori and Pacific Island communities may need to remind the Maori Party about the content of the Immigration Bill, and the lessons of past and recent history.
The security threat over Afghanistan
The security concerns do not begin and end simply with immigration issues. Thanks to Helen Clark, New Zealand’s role in the war on terrorism has been cleverly tailored to minimize the security threats to this country. We did not take part in the invasion of Iraq, and our role in Afghanistan – once the UN forces had displaced the Taliban government – was limited to reconstruction work in the country’s most peaceful region, and to providing a few desk officers in Kabul.
That may now be about to change. The UN has signalled it wants troops from a wide spectrum of member countries to help with the August election in Afghanistan, and President Obama is switching his military and nation-building focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Australia has already publicly stated that it expects to be asked to contribute more troops. Are we expecting a similar call –from the US for our special forces, and from the UN for a regular troop contingent to police the Afghan elcction ?
If so, what do the SIS and GCSB consider would be the security repercussions for New Zealand of our more active and visible role in the wider war within Afghanistan ? Tonight, the committee should be readying an invitation to SIS chief Warren Tucker for him to give them a briefing on this situation. Party leaders need to have such a perspective – preferably before the call for such a deployment decision arises, and not afterwards.
Other issues the committee should address ? The availability of personal files. Under a general policy of greater openness, what steps are the SIS taking to make personal files more fully accessible ? Can the public – and archivists and historians – expect that the SIS will release its files into the public domain more quickly and thoroughly ? In other jurisdictions like the US, files from the 70s and 80s are being released. Here, the SIS is only grudgingly and partially releasing information from the 1950s and 1960s. Why is it dragging its feet ?
In other words, there is plenty for the committee to seek from the security agencies – that is, if it wants to be more than just a passive audience whenever the SIS decides to pop in for a cup of tea. Patently, the SIS need close oversight. It was only when foreign experts, like Colonel Mohammed Samraoui came here to testify for Ahmed Zaoui that the outright errors and shoddy analysis carried out by the SIS were exposed – at the cumulative cost of millions to the taxpayer, much damage to the country’s reputation and considerable suffering to all involved. Someone needs to hold these people to account.
All, in all, it should be an interesting committee meeting tonight. Even Rodney Hide, who paints himself as such a staunch foe of waste and unfettered state power, should be willing to give the committee some teeth.