Backgrounder (page A4)
Spies Blow Whistle On Operation Leaf
Agent says he was disgusted at having to spy on ‘decent law-abiding New Zealanders’
By ANTHONY HUBBARD
and NICKY HAGER
Scoop Editors’ Note: In co-operation with the Sunday Star Times, Scoop publishes this major series by Anthony Hubbard and Nicky Hager on Operation Leaf – how the SIS has bugged Maori MPs, groups and networks. This issue was first reported by Scoop’s Selwyn Manning on Thursday November 11 2004. See… Intelligence Sources Say SIS Investigating Maori Party
Courtesy of the Sunday Star Times: Agents claim they were hired to dig dirt on Maori leaders and iwi organisations
This article can also been viewed on the Stuff.co.nz website: Citizens targeted by SIS
A group of dissident spies has launched an unprecedented attack on the SIS, saying it has misused its powers by bugging law-abiding Maori for political intelligence. The SIS’s Operation Leaf, they say, has been used to find “dirt’’ on individuals, and intelligence about iwi divisions, finances and Treaty claims. Now they question the service’s leadership and strategy.
SPIES HAVE never before broken ranks in New Zealand. Now three have done so and say they have evidence of a scandal.
Their claim that the SIS has bugged “decent, law-abiding New Zealanders’’ has been made many times by liberal and left-wing activists. But now, for the first time, the accusation comes from within the intelligence community.
Their testimony also shows disagreements about the SIS’ strategy and its operation, and about its handling of major issues such as the Zaoui affair. Some also criticise the leadership of SIS director Richard Woods. This, too, is unprecedented news from inside the castle. It seems not all is well in the kingdom of secrets.
“Peter’’, one of the spies interviewed in an Asian capital, said he broke the SIS code of silence because he felt guilty.
His work on Operation Leaf – a widespread bugging operation against Maori individuals and organisations – had been a burden on his conscience and he felt “cleansed’’ by speaking about it.
He seemed in conflict about his role as whistle-blower. On the one hand, he remains a “loyal New Zealander’’ and a supporter of the service. But he says he was disgusted when told to bug ordinary people.
He offered to apologise to the Maori whose computers he had targeted. He had grown up in the area, he explained, and had friends in the Maori community.
Remarkably, the people whose computers he claims to have bugged agreed to co-operate with the newspaper and not to divulge his real name. The iwi organisation allowed the newspaper to do a thorough search of its accounts and computer records. Invoices and diary entries provided a paper trail of all Peter’s work on home and office computers over three years.
Spies live in a world of fog and fen, and are necessarily elusive. This newspaper began researching this story more than six weeks ago, and travelled to Australia and Asia to interview sources. It has agreed not to reveal the spies’ identities to protect them in the sensitive work they do.
The row erupts at a time when western intelligence services are under sustained attack. Officials in the United States, Britain and Australia have attacked the secret services for faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Here, the charge is about domestic politics.
The spies’ testimony raises the possibility that government agencies could confuse national security concerns with the political problems of the current administration.
It is a late echo of the scandals in the US in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it was revealed that intelligence services had routinely spied on and harassed people engaged in lawful politics. “It is naive,’’ one spy told the Sunday Star-Times, “to think that what spooks have done in other countries could not happen in New Zealand.’’
The claims about Operation Leaf raise acute issues of accountability. SIS operatives have been involved in infiltration of Maori gangs as part of a campaign against organised crime. But Peter says the net was spread much more widely: well beyond legitimate targets suspected of sedition.
He believes there is potential for Maori groups to be manipulated. “I don’t think that we will have bombings by Maori radicals, but it is possible that cyber attacks could occur in future which could knock out financial, military or civilian targets which could result in deaths.’’ There was also more chance of political subversion, and any government would try to prevent that.
But the reality of much of the operation was different. “It wasn’t said that it was for dirt collection,’’ he says, “but we could see that is what it was.’’
His remark echoes a famous part of the 1976 Church report of the US Senate, which exposed a series of scandals in American intelligence-gathering. Senator Frank Church and his colleagues detailed widespread bugging and harassment of politically active people, including Martin Luther King, and described how intelligence targets had a tendency to mushroom.
One witness told the committee the risk was that spies would “construe political considerations to be national security considerations’’. They would “move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.’’
Peter says he does not know who gave the orders to bug iwi organisations, nor does he know if there was a warrant for the interceptions: “. . . that is no concern of ours and you would look like a gherkin if you asked the handler that’’.
It is impossible, in fact, to find who was responsible for the alleged abuses. The spies’ work is compartmentalised, with information shared on a strict “need to know’’ basis. Peter Wright, the British spy who made spectacular claims in his 1987 book Spycatcher about abuses in Britain’s MI5, said: “For five years we bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.’’
But abuses can occur at any level of the chain of command.
The three spies seem cynical about SIS accountability systems. One says all attempts to call spies to account through parliamentary committees or watchdogs like New Zealand’s inspector-general of security had failed. Secrecy could not co-exist with accountability.
Governments, he said, would always want information about political opponents. Spy services, he says, will “gather these fragments and store them up for a rainy day’’. For this reason, he says, he had helped plant covert video-cameras in high-class brothels in New Zealand, with the co-operation of the brothel owners. This would allow the gathering of information about “important people’’ who used prostitutes: “It’s the two oldest professions working together.’’
Peter says he knew that a new law had come in last year prohibiting the unauthorised bugging of computers. But, he adds, “deep down I knew that the service could find a way around it, so I don’t think it was seen as a threat, just a pacifier for Joe Public’’.
The spies have also revealed division within the service over its stance in the Zaoui affair. One says the service leadership made a bad call when the Algerian politician first arrived in New Zealand. It had also wanted to impress the Americans, and had foolishly painted itself into a corner over the affair.
There is also division about the orientation and leadership of the SIS, which he says is far too deferential to the larger western intelligence agencies, especially the Americans and the British. New Zealand, he says, needs to develop its own intelligence and security network abroad, instead of passively accepting what the other services told it.
Too often the message to New Zealand from the other services was, “Don’t you worry your pretty little heads about that,’’ he says.
Peter says the SIS should not be so beholden to its overseas counterparts. “I think that we do need a service, but not in the way it currently operates . . . We shouldn’t need to participate in things that please the cousins any more.’’
One of the operatives says the SIS told him to start an email correspondence with Maori activist Whititera Kaihau, a leader of the Ngati Te Ata tribe of Manukau.
He used the cover of a South Pacific embassy to try to spring what he calls a “Venus fly trap’’ in 2003. Among other things, he tried to suggest that Kaihau set up an operation to print passports. One “embassy’’ email, sighted by the Star-Times, dated July 18, 2003 and addressed to Kaihau, referred to the “difficult challenges’’ the iwi faced and called the New Zealand government “the occupying government of the British empire’’.
The SIS contractor says he encouraged the elder to communicate with him through encrypted email – which he did – to give Kaihau greater confidence about openly discussing his organisation’s private strategies and plans. The intelligence collected was forwarded to the SIS headquarters in Wellington, from where Operation Leaf was directed.
Kaihau confirms that the correspondence took place, but says he never pursued the passport option. He says he was suspicious about his email partner from the start. He had approached a number of overseas countries in an attempt to raise capital to help his tribe, and he thought the embassy might provide a link with China. China sympathised with the struggle of indigenous peoples, he said.
Kaihau travelled twice to Europe in the late 1980s to lobby United Nations organisations over Maori rights – trips that he says were criticised by the government. He had also practised civil disobedience by refusing to pay taxes, traffic fines, and refusing to accept a court verdict following an incident in which his dog allegedly bit a postie.
He says he does not recognise the sovereignty of the crown, but nor does he believe in the violent overthrow of the government. “I believe I can solve this through the courts.’’
The spies claim that the SIS targeted politicians and those active in the Maori Party. Peter says he was told by the SIS to cultivate a Maori MP. Another intelligence source says he was told in mid-2002 that another Maori MP was a “hot target’’ – SIS jargon for someone being bugged.
Maori Party leader Tariana Turia, interviewed by the Star-Times, could cast no light on the matter. However, she did say that in about March this year she had had trouble with the phone in her ministerial house. When speaking on the phone in the kitchen, the whole conversation “would come through the radio in the bedroom’’.
She had hired a security company recommended by the Parliamentary Service to sweep the house, “and they found that in fact it [the phone] had been interfered with’’.
However, the company had also told her it was unlikely the SIS had done so “because they had more sophisticated means of tracking’’.
When allegations surfaced on the Scoop website that the Maori Party had been bugged, Richard Woods had spoken to Turia twice, once on the phone and once in person, assuring her the allegations were untrue.
He also told her that he had spoken to Prime Minister Helen Clark and she had issued her statement calling the claims “laughable’’.
“I said, ‘Well, I hope it is laughable, Richard’,’’ Turia said.
She had accepted his assurances.