Paul G. Buchanan: The Curious Case of Mr. Tucker

Published: Wed 11 Feb 2009 09:52 AM
A Word From Afar: The Curious Case of Mr. Tucker
A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.
By Paul G. Buchanan

Intelligence officers normally shun the spotlight, preferring the cloak of anonymity conferred by the espionage apparatus. Warren Tucker is different. After years of quietly toiling in government, working his way up to Director of the Government Security and Communications Bureau (GCSB), he has stepped out in his new role as Director-General of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS). There is a reason for this, and it is not any curious penchant for celebrity on the part of the Mr. Tucker.
Mr. Tucker assumed leadership of the SIS in November 2006. At the time the agency was under heavy public scrutiny due to its mishandling of the Ahmed Zaoui request for political refuge (where it manipulated intelligence data to manufacture a case against Zaoui, only to have it discredited and eventually withdrawn under legal challenge).
That followed the embarrassment almost a decade earlier of the Aziz Choudry/David Small case, where the SIS was made to pay monetary compensation for the break-in and search of the peaceful activists’ houses in Christchurch (ostensibly to gain information about an indigenous rights activist from Mexico).
It also suffered blows to its credibility by not accounting for two decades for some highly sensitive classified material in David Lange’s personal files (material that named sources and techniques as well as targets) until alerted to their presence by Archives New Zealand; by being unawares of the presence in New Zealand in 2004 of Israeli intelligence contract assets procuring New Zealand passports until alerted by the Police; by being clueless about the presence in New Zealand in 2006 of a Yemeni flight school student previously associated with some of the 9/11 conspirators until alerted by a member of the public and Winston Peters.
It was caught by surprise by the Fiji coup and civil disorder in Tonga and the Solomon Islands in 2006, and it has been unable to thwart what it recognizes as well-established foreign intelligence networks in New Zealand (presumably, but not exclusively Chinese).
Because the SIS is charged with domestic as well as foreign intelligence collection and analysis in addition to counter-intelligence operations, the accumulation of failures across all three fronts suggested that by the time Mr. Tucker assumed the Director-General’s job, a major overhaul of the agency was in order. He was chosen to lead that task.
Since his arrival the SIS has engaged in something of a PR campaign, promising more transparency and pubic accountability in its operations. To that end, along with improving its web site and adding communications staffers to the payroll, it has declassified and released historical files detailing the surveillance and monitoring of “suspect” individuals, including unionists, academics, Left activists, economic nationalists and, as it now turns out, politicians.
As a product of their times, the files demonstrate the Cold War fixation on communists and socialists, but more recently, they also suggest a focus on human rights campaigners, environmental and indigenous rights activists and critics of the government and SIS itself. That may be due to the fact that with the end of the Cold War the SIS was left without real threats to counter, and so turned inwards to find new types of domestic enemies. If that is the case, it is disturbing.
It is disturbing because many of those recently targeted by the SIS domestic espionage program pose no threat to New Zealand’s national security. Focus on these types of “targets” also suggests that those who may pose a real threat to New Zealand (say, Chinese spies, anti-Zionist or anti-immigrant extremists) are not being monitored enough.
In fact, it appears that recent targets of SIS surveillance were engaged in nothing more than the democratic right to dissent or supported anti-status quo causes abroad. Considering that the SIS was most likely involved in the intelligence-gathering that led to the Urewera 17 operation, it may be the case that Mr. Tucker’s mere presence will not be enough to halt politically-motivated monitoring of people that the government of the day or the SIS do not fancy, even if they do not pose a threat to national security.
That is why Mr. Tucker needs to be applauded and encouraged. Although laudable, the external PR campaign is the least important part of his mission. By itself, releasing a few old files with the classified portions omitted is not a heroic, organisation-changing task.
But that is exactly what Mr. Tucker was brought in to do: to change the institutional culture of an agency that for too long held itself unaccountable to both public and parliament alike.
The Zaoui case was the final straw (and the country owes Deborah Manning, Richard McLeod and Rodney Harrison a debt of gratitude for that). As a professional intelligence officer (not a judge, general or diplomat, like his predecessors) who rose to prominence after the Cold War, Mr. Tucker knows exactly where the emerging threats are coming from and what the problems are within the SIS.
For those who may not, here are some starting points: New Zealand has few direct military threats, but faces potential security threats from a variety of actors in the Western Pacific Rim. Most threats are asymmetric and unconventional, that is, not susceptible to being countered by military means alone. They are criminal as well as political, and in some cases these overlap. In New Zealand, natural resources, technology and value-adding techniques of production are likely targets of attention from foreign actors, whereas in its surrounding sphere of influence natural events and unresolved social tensions can precipitate crises.
Violence-prone individuals with ideological agendas exist on domestic soil, and the potential for distant actors to extend their armed reach to New Zealand in retaliation for perceived offences cannot be discounted. As a strategic environment, New Zealand is benign only in an immediate physical or military sense.
With regard to SIS organisational problems, consider these: It has few foreign collection resources, relies too much on foreign liaison partners, and yet has too little expertise to adequately filter the intelligence streams that it receives from those sources.
It spends an inordinate amount of time and resources on domestic espionage of the sort mentioned above, and too little on monitoring the activities of extra-regional actors in its primary area of responsibility, the Pacific southwest. That reduces its ability to independently and autonomously assess threats from abroad, which makes it dependant on its liaison partners’ interpretation of events (an interpretation that may not necessarily accord with New Zealand’s perspective or national interest).
As a result, it has limited real-time or future forecasting capabilities on the external front. Its counter-intelligence operations derive from its internal and external collection capabilities, which means it is under-resourced to the point of depending on other agencies such as the Police, the GCSB, MFAT, Defense or Immigration for leads in that area. It has a culture of personalising vendettas against critics and spinning intelligence data to satisfy the whims of the government of the day.
This pattern of behaviour must end, simply because it has eroded the professional competence of the agency at a time when its budgets, personnel and powers have expanded as a result of the post-9/11 rush to be “tough” on terrorists (or at least impress larger security partners)—again, with little or no oversight from parliament, with little relation to the true nature of New Zealand’s strategic environment and with little regard for the impact this has on civil liberties, much less the ability to counter real threats at home and abroad.
Put simply: More money+more personnel+more legal authority+bureaucratic unaccountability+lack of professionalism=inability or unwillingness to provide objective and neutral intelligence data to policy-makers. Instead, what emerges is an institutional culture that uses organisational impunity in order to manipulate threat assessments for bureaucratic advantage. That is a recipe for disaster.
In releasing files that show that the SIS continued to monitor Keith Locke after he entered parliament even though none of his activities before or after his entry constituted a threat to national security, Director-General Tucker has positioned himself well to undertake, with government backing, a major overhaul of how the SIS conducts its business. Release of the SIS files has exposed its malpractice.
Mr. Tucker knew that would happen when he authorised the PR campaign that allows for the release of declassified files. He also knew that public reaction, to say nothing of the reaction of Mr. Locke, would force the incoming government to show its hand on the matter. By subsequently asking the Inspector-General of the SIS to review the procedures and policies governing SIS file collection (presumably on domestic targets only), John Key cautiously backed the move.
That is fortuitous, because what is at stake is not just the image of increased transparency that Mr. Tucker wants to project to the New Zealand public, but his ability to bring the SIS to heel in order to improve its performance in core tasks instead of the seemingly peripheral preoccupations of the recent past. That remains to be seen, although if the SIS annual reports after 2006 are anything to go by, the process of reorientation has begun. The fact that SIS monitoring of Mr. Locke stopped the year that Mr. Tucker assumed its Directorship may not be a coincidence either.
The National government campaigned on a platform of change. By releasing information on the dubious targets of SIS domestic espionage, Mr. Tucker has given the government a window of opportunity to authorise much needed changes to the way in which the SIS makes threat assessments and conducts intelligence collection and analysis.
That brief should be extended to a complete review of the SIS charter so as to determine if it is efficient to have one, relatively small (170 people) agency solely responsible for external intelligence collection and analysis, internal intelligence collection and analysis and counter-intelligence operations.
Given that the Prime Minister has the External Assessments Bureau to advise him on foreign threats and conditions, has military intelligence advising the government on military matters, has the GCSB providing signals and technical intelligence flows to and from its Echelon partners, and has the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) bringing in the expertise of MFAT, Immigration, Ministry of Defense, NZDF, SIS, GCSB, the Police and EAB to develop short and long-term threat horizons, the time is ripe for a thorough review of the way in which this smorgasbord of agencies conduct and coordinate their intelligence gathering with a view to streamlining the process, reducing jurisdictional overlaps and improving objectivity and timeliness of assessments.
Put into fiscal context, such a review is in order. In the resource scarce times under which government budgets currently operate, it should be an obvious recommendation of the so-called “razor gang” now controlling budgetary policy.
To not request such a review of the intelligence network would be at odds with the thrust of the budget-cutting focus of the National-led government and would appear unseemly given the budget-cutting going on in other state agencies. To be sure, the SIS will still have a central function to play within any revamped network, but it may do so under a redefined and refocused charter that better delineates areas of responsibility and priority for all of its component parts.
With political backing from the government on both budgetary as well as institutional grounds, Mr. Tucker can use his otherwise curious emergence into the public eye to spearhead the review and reorganisation project. But to do so he will need to canvass a broader swathe of interested parties rather than the intelligence community itself, since the latter have vested bureaucratic interests to defend regardless of their overall performance. Nor will an internal government review suffice, as politicians have neither the experience or the objectivity to undertake a comprehensive examination of the subject.
Their best role is to authorise the review, then call in the expertise. External participation in the intelligence overhaul effort, to include private security experts, academics, retired military, former intelligence officials, parliamentarians, legal scholars, civil rights advocates, and corporate risk professionals, is vital to getting an objective and dispassionate review of and recommendations for what has to be done to restore the image, if not the standard of professionalism and integrity that the SIS has lost over the last decades.
With that in mind, perhaps it is best to debate less the errors of the past as revealed in the declassified files and more the means by which such errors can be avoided in the future while simultaneously increasing New Zealand’s autonomous capacity to gather and utilise intelligence for the common, rather than partisan or bureaucratic good. The moment of opportunity is now because, as the honourable Mr. Tucker might say, failure to do so is no longer an option.
Paul G. Buchanan is a former US security analyst and consultant. On leave from the University of Auckland, he is currently Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.
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