Tuesday, 16 September 2014

“The Moment of Truth”: Too many agendas

“A proper government is the agent of its citizens, not the master. In its role
as the agent, the default should be openness, not secrecy;  in very few
contexts is it appropriate for the government to operate in secrecy. Only
when the government can convince its citizens that secrecy is necessary
for protecting their rights is it acceptable. With respect to the NSA [and
and SIS] surveillance programs, that burden has not been met.”

IT HAD BEEN BILLED by Kim DotCon as “The Moment of Truth” – "a political bomb" – THE moment when he would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that John Key knew about DotCon before the raid on his house, and by implication that Key had conspired to get him into the country so as to get him into American hands.

It wasn’t that moment. The shred of evidence DotCon floated earlier yesterday had already been shot down as fraudulent, and nothing more on that score made any appearance at all.

It was billed by Laila Harre as being “framed” by Hager’s #DirtyPolitics, hyped by DotCon’s lawyer as being “Watergate on emails.”

It wasn’t that either (and really never was).

And it was promoted by the likes of Martin/Martyn Bradbury as something that would make your head blow off.

It may well have done that for him (but how would the rest of us ever know the difference.)

There was a wrestle of agendas going on among an ill-sorted collection of folk: a copyright thief keen to make it about him; a political party leader and activists running an election rally; a public launch of the fat German’s “communications suite”; the fat German’s lawyer launching anti-corporate barbs and trying to turn it into an anti-TPPA rally…

Take away the puffery of these poseurs, and the rambling irrelevance of Julian Assange, and in the end what you had was a story presented by Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden that needs sober consideration -- but will hardly get them given the context in which they were put, and the company in which these two global figures allowed themselves to appear.

And there was still a glaring absence of smoking guns.

Snowden claimed NZ’s GCSB as part of Five Eyes has been ramping up towards a system of mass state surveillance which, if true, is worrying. But what was his evidence?

He said the American National Security Agency (NSA) has a base in Auckland “and in the north of the country.” Sounds ominous, but Paul Buchanan suggested this morning the Auckland connection is probably no more than an NSA agent at the American Consulate in Auckland, who may have the services of a satellite dish. The facility up north one assumes is the Warkworth satellite station, which he suggests by implication is subject to monitoring. This deserves further investigation.

Snowden claimed that when working for the NSA in Hawaii he routinely handled metadata from NZ’s GCSB, and could easily drill down into the metadata to investigate content. But he had no specifics, no documentary evidence, just a discussion (on which he had expanded in his Intercept article earlier yesterday) about a checkbox on the XKEYSCORE system used to compile and analyse data.

That solitary checkbox, the Five Eyes Defeat … is what separates our most sacred rights from the graveyard of lost liberty.

Snowden has always appeared genuine, and unlike others at this event appears to understand the importance and basis of “our most sacred rights” – not a gift from government, he said last night, but part of our nature as human beings.

When these things are collected, by any arm of government, without an individualised, particularised suspicion of wrongdoing, on the individual level, that is a violation ... of human rights -- that are not given to us by government,but are inherent to our nature.

He’s right, you know. But unless I missed it somewhere, he’s offered no direct evidence for his claims about mass surveillance in NZ than his testimony last night, his earlier documents about XKEYSCORE, and the reluctance of PMs, leaders of opposition, and former and present heads of GCSB to discuss XKEYSCORE.

He took a swing at the Prime Minister for his public claim that “there is not and there never has been any mass surveillance.” This is false, says Snowden, and only defended now by a Prime Minister “throwing classified documents in the air like Julian Assange.”

Clearly, Snowden sees himself as more careful with classified documents than Julian Assange, and the PM, but he still brought nothing more to back his claims but his cogent discussion and believable demeanour.

If there was a smoking gun last night, it was brought by Glenn Greenwald. While John Key was throwing classified documents in the air defending the non-commissioning of something called CORTEX, Greenwald was documenting a programme called SPEARGUN.

According to Greenwald, [and I’m relying for this summary on Keith Ng’s report] this project involved the "covert installation of 'cable access' equipment" on the Southern Cross cable (i.e. Tapping into New Zealand's traffic with the rest of the world). The existence of this capability cannot be denied.
    In response to the Southern Cross cable's operators saying that such a thing was impossible, Snowden (who videoconferenced into the event) asked (I'm paraphrasing): What makes the Southern Cross cable so special that it cannot be accessed undetected by the NSA, when everyone else around the world can be?
    The new documents show that the GCSB had a cable access project underway, followed by another document that Phase 1 was "achieved". More crucially, he has a message showing:

        (TS//SI//NF) New Zealand: GCSB's cable access program SPEARGUN Phase 1; awaiting new GCSB
    Act expected July 2013; first metadata probe mid 2013.

This shows that they had to wait for the GCSB Act to be passed before SPEARGUN could be used. i.e. The new GCSB Act - the one that supposedly wouldn't expand GCSB powers - expanded GCSB powers to allow them operate a metadata probe on the this cable which they'd tapped.

If there was a case to answer that was presented last night, then that was it.

THE BIGGER PICTURE TO all this is realising that the time-honoured protections against state intrusion into our lives has been breaking down philosophically, legally and politically, just at a  time when new technology makes the possibilities of this intrusion so much more widespread.

“We want to bring down Five Eyes,” said the fat German trying to get a chant going. Well, no “we” don’t. In a world with many threats, intelligence gathering is essential.

The reason we have state security is to protect our most sacred liberties – to protect them against the slings and arrows of war and outrageous criminality. That’s government’s job. But to protect our liberties against those agencies themselves, especially as the power of surveillance and analysis increases, we need more than just checkboxes. 

It is not a matter of left or right. Yes, the centre-right here are defending the GCSB’s alleged excesses and the left are running the argument against the abuse of power, but reverse political power and the positions would be reversed. The left are always against the abuse of power until they have it themselves. And remember too that this process started here under Helen Clark’s Labour, and has been carried out in US under the Democrats’s Obama.

The issue is not party political. It is protection against the state.

In “the old days” the need to obtain a search warrant was your protection against every state agency except the IRD. But we are now in a new age.

In this new age when searches of your data so much more easy than rummaging through your rubbish bins (as easy as tapping a cable, it seems), and analysis of data is as easy as writing a good data mining algorithm (still not that easy, to be fair) what separates our most sacred rights from the graveyard of lost liberty seems to be only the scruples of security agents themselves – and in New Zealand, so the claim goes, those scruples are being sacrificed for the excitement of being part of a world intelligence network in which New Zealand can be a player just as long as it supplies the (meta)data that keeps it in the big tent.

It is really a time for a new consideration of the checks and balances that tie up the agencies who act purportedly in our defence – and those who think it’s all okay now because a nice man is overseeing date collection might like to contemplate how they might feel if it were all overseen by the former PM, or her successor.

But that sober and serious job needs better “framing” than it did with all the agendas on display last night.

PS: I’ll be updating this post over the day as new info and analysis comes to light.



TWITTER, AS IT HAPPENED (oldest to newest)…


















  1. Our PM has won big here, and deservedly so. He's calmly weathered a tsunami of accusation under siege threat by the starpower of high profile international figures. And they ain't got nothing of substance. Hats off to him. Admirable quality.

    Also, hats off to the NZ spooks & the CEO of the South Pacific Cable who have spoken up through this. These are men doing their jobs as reasonably & best they can, with no wish to trick or deceive. We're not a corrupt country; these are good guys.

    David Cunliffe is not fit to be PM. He positioned himself on the wrong side of this & so chose political opportunity over the country's security interests. Looking likely he & his party will be punished come Saturday. Deservedly. Ordinary people get it.

    NZ must run some sort of intelligence gathering, and play its role in its security alliances with our friends. Perhaps the settings of the GCSB are not right. There is room here to submit a better policy and gather support for it. It's always going to be an opaque area which will require individuals of integrity & good judgement to operate. One thing to come from this circus I'd say is that we have individuals of this quality in place now.

    I still view Snowden as pretty genuine, but his judgement in taking a role here was lacking. I've never rated Assange. Greenwald I've had no view of, but he ain't stupid & knew what he was up to, so has diminished his credibility in my view. Of all countries in the world doing surveillance, NZ is probably the most squeaky clean. Being small we rely on the resources of our bigger friends & are, in the scheme of things, most likely a net beneficiary who works a bit harder to punch above our weight. To target us & our PM at election time shows poor judgement. They aligned with desperate political & private interests to discuss a non-political issue. Snowden & Greenwald would do well to apologise.

  2. Best thing about last night was the opinion poll showing Hone about to lose his seat; guess who was predicting that on pc.blogspot.com back in February? haha! (I told you so!)

  3. Snowden, Assange and Greenwald must of got GOT by the CIA. You lads had millions of docs and years to build your case and you give us............Wait for it......Waiting........SPEARGUN. Grrr!!! Very disappointing!
    I'm still of the opinion that Kiwis are still subject to mass survelance(hello spooks GCSB) in an effort to build dirt files for future political blackmail use.
    As to John Key, as much as I detest the man and believe he will be the ruin of this nation, I will say he has truly earned his title
    John The Teflon Don
    Ain't nothing stick to that cat


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