The Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) spy base at Waihopai, near Blenheim. (Photo: RNZ)

It’s not often we get any insight into our government’s surveillance and intelligence collection.

But the recent report from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security on the hosting of a foreign agency’s spy system by New Zealand’s own spy bureau sheds some light. It also raises concerning questions about our role in the Pacific, says Pacific historian Marco de Jong. Here he is talking to Teuila Fuatai.


The startling thing about New Zealand’s spy bureau hosting a “foreign capability” isn’t that this activity happens.

We already know that the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) shares intelligence and technology with its “partners”, the US, Australia and the UK. What’s shocking is the lack of democratic oversight of these arrangements.

We now know that, from 2013 to 2020, a spying system controlled by a foreign agency operated from within the GCSB completely unchecked.

According to a report from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the independent watchdog that keeps an eye on our spy agency, neither parliament nor the New Zealand public were made aware of or consulted about this system’s existence. The minister responsible wasn’t informed of its installation either.

Even the GCSB had “lost sight” of the system and didn’t know its full purpose. It was only “rediscovered” following equipment failure. And despite no one knowing about it, this was all lawful, thanks to lax legislation and overly broad ministerial warrants.

To really grasp how that undermines our own democratic system, as well as our standing in the Pacific, we need to look at the GCSB’s wider role in the Five Eyes intelligence network.

First, the GCSB’s area of operations centres on the South Pacific. Within the Five Eyes alliance, it’s responsible for capturing signals intelligence transmitted by satellite or undersea cable from this area. This includes many of our Pacific neighbours, among them, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Sāmoa, Fiji and Tonga.

Reportedly, this includes a “full take” of communications, which means that every call, message, and browse of the internet coming from the Pacific is picked up.

Once that information is captured, it’s filtered by specialised computers for certain keywords, phone numbers, or relevant metadata like location. As we’ve seen, the GCSB also collects intelligence on behalf of others, passing it on to the relevant Five Eyes partner or partners.

New Zealand has little or no knowledge of the contents of the information it hands over. Nor does it know what it may ultimately be used for, and what other information a partner may have.

While last week’s report from the Inspector-General didn’t identify the partner responsible for embedding the “foreign capability”, it’s likely to be the US’s National Security Agency, the senior partner in the Five Eyes network.

In this instance, while much of the detail about the foreign spy system remains classified, we know that it was used to process communications and identify remote targets. Reporting this week also links the technology to a top-secret US spy system used in capture-kill operations.

Like other pieces of information that have emerged over the years regarding the GCSB’s activities, the Inspector-General’s inquiry raises a whole host of legal and political ramifications around New Zealand’s culpability as a contributor of information.

Specifically, the inquiry found that the GCSB “could not be sure the tasking of the capability was always in accordance with Government intelligence requirements, New Zealand law and the provisions of the [Memorandum of Understanding establishing it]”.

We must ask whether New Zealand has unintentionally and unknowingly been a party to war crimes.

Beyond that, exposure of the foreign spy system brings to the fore the contradictory nature of New Zealand’s identity as a Pacific nation and our membership of the Five Eyes. Here we see a continuing discrepancy between a “stated” and “shadow” foreign policy, each containing distinct visions and alignments for New Zealand.

In one scenario, we consider ourselves firmly a member of the Pacific family. We subscribe to the shared Pacific security priorities and vision for the region as outlined in the Boe and Biketawa declarations and the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent.

Publicly, this is the idea of New Zealand in the Pacific that we’re often sold, in which we operate alongside our neighbouring island nations and play an important supporting role in the region.

Strategically, over the last decade, New Zealand has invested a huge amount of political capital into the Pacific Reset and Pacific Resilience frameworks.

The previous foreign affairs minister, Nanaia Mahuta, believed these frameworks “enabled New Zealand to do more” in the region. The “layered, whole-of-government approach”, she explained, was “partner-led” and “built an indigenous traditional knowledge and gender equity opportunity to go beyond trade, hard security or defence arrangements to support the aspirations of the Pacific as they exist”.

In the context of increasing geostrategic competition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also hoped the frameworks would reaffirm New Zealand as a “trusted partner of first choice” to Pacific nations. That intention was reflected in the language of diplomacy, which almost always talked about “family” or “friends” among Pacific nations. It was used across different aspects of New Zealand’s relationships with Pacific countries, such as the provision of healthcare and immigration, where identity was leveraged to bolster New Zealand influence.

The alternative shadow scenario sees New Zealand as a kind of Britain of the South Seas. It places us firmly alongside the “western alliance”, and outside the Pacific family. In this outlook, New Zealand can only find security outside the region by working with, or for, so-called “traditional partners” like the US and the UK. And because we’re a junior partner, their needs override ours.

As I’ve said previously, this view leaves no room for Pacific priorities and Pacific-led regionalism. It disconnects New Zealand from our Pacific heritage and geographical location. As for our espionage activities, subscribing to this outlook also justifies and encourages our membership of an Anglosphere alliance, which is an anachronism fit for World War Two, not 2024.

It makes it okay to capture every communication in the Pacific and feed intelligence directly to other network members, even when we don’t know what it’s being used for.

The government is still considering New Zealand’s involvement in AUKUS, a military technology-sharing agreement designed to contain China. The GCSB inquiry raises further concerns around the lack of control and oversight New Zealand has of what we contribute to through shared intelligence and defence information.

Recently, the AUKUS members (Australia, the UK and the US) have run military systems that use surveillance drones which feed into AI-powered software for remote targeting by missiles.

These systems are a revolution in next-generation warfighting. They use advanced technological communication systems to achieve immediate military results. Chillingly, they are described as “freely flowing data from sensors through to deciders, through to effectors”. These effectors may be autonomous, or even nuclear, weapons systems.

New Zealand, as a participant, would likely have little or no control over such outcomes.

Notably, the Inspector-General’s report also found that the foreign spy system’s military applications were “moderated significantly by the geographical limits of GCSB”. In other words, the spy system was in operation during a relatively stable geopolitical period in the Pacific region.

I don’t think many would make the same assumption today.

New Zealand must come out of the shadows and stand by what we say when it comes to the Pacific.

Our allegiances and priorities are increasingly being questioned. This time, it’s less about the US and China. It’s about our values and understanding as a Pacific nation.

We can’t claim to be a trusted partner when we spy on our Pacific family on behalf of others. We also can’t claim to have an independent foreign policy when outside interests operate within our spy agency. If there is no democratic oversight of that, we risk undermining our laws and foreign policy priorities.


Dr Marco de Jong is a Pacific historian at the Auckland University of Technology. Last year, he completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the history of the environmental movement in the Pacific Islands with a particular focus on anti-nuclearism and climate change. He is also a co-director of Te Kuaka, an independent group promoting a progressive role for Aotearoa in the world.

As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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