Tuesday, February 10, 2009

SIS - saving us from ourselves

The SIS has been getting some uncomfortable attention recently. Late last year saw the exposure of informant Rob Gilchrist, who had been spying on various activists groups - including targeting my own office when I was an MP. While he was run by the Police Special Investigations Group, it would be surprising if the SIS were not recipients of information gathered by him, and some suspicion fell on them at the time.

(Actually, it wouldn't be that surprising if they saw nothing from it. The various branches of the US 'intelligence' services and law enforcement are renown for their infighting and sabotage of one another)

More recently attention has been on the files kept by the SIS on Green MP Keith Locke since the age of 11. A number of people have expressed outrage about surveillance of a sitting MP (although unsurprisingly not Kiwiblog and friends).

It is true that SIS surveillance of an MP both undermines parliamentary democracy and cuts across his work as foreign affairs spokesperson for the Greens. It is especially bad in that 55 years of files have turned up no evidence of illegal activity or anything other than a strong social conscience and a determination to do something to make the world a better place.

In my mind it highlights a fundamental polarity. Some people see it as totally legitimate for the SIS to spy on people who disagree with the government. They see the order of things as basically good, and anyone wanting to change things in any fundamental way as subversive and dangerous. Of course they are right - such people are threatening to the vested interests that benefit from the status quo.

Others see it as illegitimate for the 'intelligence' machinery to target people simply because they are active in making change. As long as they aren't plotting armed insurrection, basically, they should be left alone to go about their democratic business. This view sees dissent as the lifeblood of democracy, not its nemesis.

Part of the problem seems to be the limited world-view of many in the intelligence community. Judging by the simplistic and naive analysis of information that appears standard (though its hard to really tell because access to such analysis is obviously limited) any radical thinking does appear subversive rather simply critical.

Of course it really boils down to whether you think the state is there (or should be) to preserve the status quo on behalf of the powerful and wealthy, or there to represent the interests of the people. I don't think we can get past the fact that MPs, cops, judges etc currently swear allegience to the Queen. They are not allowed to swear either to the people of New Zealand, or to our most important constitutional document Te Tiriti o Waitangi. As one who will be happy to see the Crown of England melt in the fire, I guess I'd better see what the SIS is keeping on me!


Mr Dennis said...

"It is especially bad in that 55 years of files have turned up no evidence of illegal activity"
Actually, I think that is a very good thing. Wouldn't it have been a lot worse if they HAD found he was doing something illegal? Keith Locke could take this very positively and say that it proves he really must be squeaky-clean, despite what some might want you to believe. But he has chosen to take the opposite approach.

Personally I believe that the SIS needs the freedom to investigate someone they believe may be a threat, even if they are an MP - why should an MP receive a special privilege (freedom from investigation) denied to others?

Remember that much of this surveillance occurred during the cold war, when communism really was a serious military threat, and if someone was suspected of having links to communist organisations it was important to keep an eye on them. The fact that the SIS have stopped investigating him and released the files shows that the situation has changed - the greatest danger now is probably Islamic terrorism.

I would much prefer the SIS investigated more people than necessary and actually identified those few who are a real threat, than that they didn't investigate enough and allowed a terrorist attack to occur. In fact, the SIS are welcome to investigate me if they like, I'll consider it my patriotic duty!

Nandor Tanczos said...

With respect, that's the kind of thing said only by people who don't have an SIS file. Its easy to be blase when you know you don't have a government paid voyeur watching you.

I might agree with you more generally if they also kept records on the private lives of economic saboteurs like Faye and Richwhite, but the point is they watched Keith for a long long time after it should have been apparent that he wasn't up to anything genuinely dangerous. It appears to me this isn't about security so much as about insiders and outsiders to power.

Mr Dennis said...

"With respect, that's the kind of thing said only by people who don't have an SIS file."

Actually, you are completely right about that, I am a bit out of line. It must have been very disturbing for Mr Locke to have found out they had been spying on him for so long and had so much information on him. So on further reflection I can understand how he would be personally highly upset.

That doesn't undermine the practical reality that communism was a threat and needed investigation (whether or not this particular investigation went on too long), but I do need to be more sensitive to the feelings of the actual people involved. Thanks for pointing that out.

David Farrar said...

I did comment "On the face of it, the SIS should not have been monitoring Locke once he became an MP, unless there was clear reason to suspect his involvement in something sinister"

That isn't outrage, but it is disapproval.

Cameron said...

Even if one believes NZ communists were a threat during the Cold War and needed spying on, spying on Keith Locke does not make any sense. He was a Trotskyite, involved in the Socialist Action League (SAL). The SAL and Trotskyites everywhere hated the governments of China and the USSR. Had Keith lived in either country he would have been imprisoned by those so called 'Communist' governments.