The Surveillance State

The GCSB Bill, surveillance legislation and debacle

I have never worked for the GCSB. But I did work in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) in the early 1970s, a few years before the GCSB was established in 1977. I was an officer in the NZ Army at the time.

In those days before New Zealand gained its own full service SIGINT organisation (GCSB) we were seconded to Australia where all of the processing of intercepted communications was done. New Zealand contributed some intercept and received whatever processed intelligence it needed. We were part of what was then called the UKUSA Agreement between the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is now called the “Five Eyes Agreement” in the media at least.

It was very secret at the time, The UKUSA Agreement was a secret agreement and the SIGINT organisations in the five partner nations did not officially exist. The first public expose of NSA and the UKUSA Agreement was in Ramparts magazine in August 1972 (“US Electronic Espionage: A Mermoir”). James Bamford wrote the first full expose in “Puzzle Palace” in 1982. Their existence and their collaboration is no longer a secret as it was then. Our participation by working in and with Australia is also no longer secret. In his book “Secret Power” Nicky Hager has documented all of that history.

My involvement was in the early 1970s. What was different then compared to now was the World War II generation. I was trained by them and worked for them.

In the NZ Army the WW2 generation was still in command. In the Parliament then, until about 1984, many of the members and some cabinet ministers were WW2 generation. In the SIGINT organisation we few New Zealanders worked for in Australia it was still headed by the WW2 generation.

That generation and their predecessors in the WW1 generation had fought alongside England, Canada, Australia and the USA against Germany, Italy and Japan to protect democracy against various forms of totalitarianism. They had fought to preserve representative democracy, the rule of law, and the hard fought freedoms and rights that had been gained through centuries of struggle to break the hegemony of kings and bishops. In two brutal world wars those men and women had watched tens of thousands of their comrades die on battlefields and in hospitals in Europe and in the Pacific. Many more of their comrades were injured, physically and mentally, some of them debilitated for life. Almost every New Zealand family had lost someone.

During the Cold War from the end of World War II until about 1991 New Zealand was a member of the allied bloc that opposed the totalitarianism of the USSR and China. That too was a struggle to preserve representative democracy, the rule of law, freedom and rights from the encroachment of undemocratic forms of government.

Regardless of what one now thinks in hindsight about those 20th century hot and cold wars and New Zealand’s part in them, they were a continuation on a global scale of a struggle for liberty that began in the 16th century in Europe during the Reformation. The Reformation was a struggle for religious liberty and was followed across the centuries by struggles for political liberty, freedoms and rights. The rights and freedoms now codified in United Nations conventions and in our own Bill of Rights resulted from the allied victory in WW2 and the determination to preserve on a global scale what countless thousands of men and women had fought and died for with huge sacrifice.

The men I worked for carried the remembrance of that sacrifice with them. They rarely spoke of it and then only to those they knew would understand how they thought and felt, such as a young army officer who was a veteran of another more recent war. But in their every action and decision they demonstrated their total dedication to the democracy and rights and freedoms they had fought to preserve. Those were the men who trained me in signals intelligence.

In the political sphere some like war veteran Sir Robert Muldoon went overboard in their pursuit of the imagined enemies of democracy. He often chose to see his political enemies as enemies of democracy but he was the exception rather than the rule. The officer who commanded him in WW2, Sir Jack Marshall, and other war veterans in his Cabinet were more measured in their defence of democracy. The men I worked for in signals intelligence were politically conservative like a great many of their generation and were staunch in their commitment to democracy.

In the signals intelligence organisations in my time we would never have contemplated conducting surveillance of our own citizens, regardless of the perceived or actual threat they posed to society. That was the work of other agencies and we never assisted them in that work. Never. It was strictly forbidden and that restriction was honoured absolutely. We certainly had the means but we never ever used them against our own.

With the passing of the WW2 generation the dedication to democracy, the rule of law, freedoms, rights and privacy is weakening. The remembrance of threats to the democracy fades with the passage of time since the last external threat. But it has always been the internal threat that has had the most potential to erode democracy. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance we were told by one of the founders of the modern liberal democracy. The external threats in the form of wars have served to remind us from time to time that democracy is indeed exceedingly fragile and is always vulnerable.

Perhaps the erosion of democracy from within is exemplified by the attitude of the Facebook generation to privacy. It doesn’t seem to understand that in undervaluing and relinquishing privacy in the pursuit of identity, recognition and sometimes fame and celebrity, that generation is opening up a crack in democracy. Waiting outside to exploit that vulnerability are anti-democratic forces.

Those anti-democratic forces are the law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies that have convinced politicians of the two major political blocs in New Zealand to enact a raft of anti-democratic legislation since 9/11. The Parliament itself whilst being the protector of democracy, a bulwark against attack, is at the same time the most serious threat to democracy. It and it alone has the power to erode democracy if it so chooses. And it has chosen to do so, most recently in the GCSB Bill.

The parliamentarians of today are the Facebook generation of politicians who have no personal memory of the heavy cost of democracy. In their psychological distance from World War II and from the World War II generation most of them have an increasingly cavalier attitude to democratic rights. They take democracy for granted. They navigate to the “Democracy” page, click on “Like”, then pass legislation allowing the spooks to trawl through everyone’s Facebook details.

The world of secrets and secrecy is cult-like. Only the initiated are admitted. The price of admission is recruitment and selection to the fold, positive vetting (PV) or clearance by the SIS and the “need to know”. The more you are allowed to know the more important you are in that exclusive club.

Secrets and secrecy can be seductive, beguiling, even bewitching. When you are privy to highly secret information (or at least to information classified as highly secret) you begin to feel part of a powerful elite, one of the chosen few. The higher your security clearance the more beguiling it is. Unless you are a hard bitten down-to-earth war veteran like my mentors it could even give you a feeling of omnipotence, a wide-eyed all-knowing omnipotence.

That applies to politicians inducted into that exclusive world of secrets and secrecy by reason of political ambition and electoral chance. Politicians get themselves inducted and seduced.

Politicians may know some secret stuff but they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know about security.

Security is a trade off and there is no such thing as absolute security. Our politicians would serve the nation best by reading Bruce Schneier on security instead of mouthing meaningless inanities about national security. Schneier is a former NSA insider and acknowledged expert on security. The Parliament is forcing a whole nation to trade off elements of its democratic rights and freedoms to attain the unattainable without having any real say in the matter.

Politicians don’t know that our individual rights and freedoms are not theirs or the Parliament’s to trade off.

They don’t seem to know or understand that in a matter as fundamental as democratic rights and freedoms those rights and freedoms are not politicians’ or Parliament’s rights and freedoms to trade off in the pursuit of national security. Although Parliament is sovereign in our form of democracy the democratic rights and freedoms remain with the people. They are individual rights and freedoms. It says so in the United Nations conventions and in our own Bill of Rights.

Democracy is also a trade off. What we as individuals in a liberal democracy need to understand is that if we value democracy then we have to accept some trade offs. We cannot have absolute security if we are to have liberty. Democracy like life is a risky business and to have either we must accept the risk. In life for instance we accept that risk every time we drive on the roads, or eat a cream cake, or bungy jump. To live democracy we must do the same.

As a society we are being led to believe that risk can be averted by increasing the powers of the law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies. The risk of terrorism and organized crime has been vastly over-hyped and overrated. Whilst there is certainly some risk it is nowhere near as grave as we are being told, and much less than a liberal democracy can accept and sustain in order to preserve that democracy.

Politicians don’t know that we don’t need to trade off too many democratic rights and freedoms in order to sustain democracy.

We just need to accept the risk. Perhaps as I enter into my eighth decade of life I just have a better appreciation and understanding of risk and acceptance. Life is a risk.

In strategy as in life I have come to appreciate simplicity and elegance. They are two of the most important tools in life’s toolbox.

An elegant outcome is the one achieved with precision, cleanly and simply. It is the one achieved by focusing on what you really want to achieve, not just on what you can achieve with all the tools available to you. Even if you own a shipyard why would you build a ship when all you wanted to do was cross a river, and when a sleek and elegant canoe would do the job.

The elegant outcome seems to have been achieved easily with a minimum of fuss and effort. The elegant outcome is the one achieved by cutting through ambiguity and skillfully negotiating a way through a rapidly changing environment. It is not achieved by taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

There are simpler and more elegant ways to preserve national security without population wide surveillance. They can be found through the application of wisdom and intellect. Just because we can now use the tools of technology to know everything about everyone doesn’t mean that we should.

Politicians don’t know that there are many more tools in the box but that the agencies have handed them a sledgehammer and convinced them that there are only sledgehammers in the box.

They don’t know because they are naïve and gullible in matters of national security; babes in the woods in that world of secrets and secrecy and security. They are gullible because they have had their minds focused for them on national security by the purveyors of secrets. What we really want is democracy and all that entails. We need purveyors of democracy in our parliament. The preservation and protection of democracy is paramount. Any consideration of national security must come firstly from within the greater of the two competing ideas; from a consideration of democracy.

Being the Facebook generation the politicians are far removed from all memory of the struggle to protect democracy. They don’t know democracy. Not in their hearts they don’t. Just go to the Facebook page “Democracy”, click on “Like”, feel good and leave it at that.

I read in the overseas media that some of the old hands in NSA, the US surveillance agency, have been quitting in disgust at the lip service now being paid to democracy by their new masters in the world of spooks. Like me they were brought up to believe in democracy and to absolutely respect the privacy of our own citizens. They can only express their disgust by walking. Some of the old hands are speaking out.

That’s how I feel too. Viscerally disgusted.