The Dim-Post

September 28, 2012

The coastguard?

Filed under: intelligence,Politics — danylmc @ 12:59 pm

I’ve never understood why intelligence oversight is the remit of the Prime Minister: historically, intelligence agencies in democratic countries tend to be the least competent and most corrupt sectors of the state, because their secrecy makes them less accountable than any other area of government. So you want to keep a close eye on them. But the Prime Minister is always going to be the busiest, most distracted member of Cabinet; traditionally our PMs have little experience in the portfolios that might be useful in running an intelligence agency (Justice, Foreign Affairs, Defense).

Australia’s intelligence agencies look like they come under the ambit of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General. That makes a lot more sense.


  1. I would imagine it is because the PM wouldn’t want his ambitious minister for the GCSB and SIS authorising his agency to spy on said PM then signing a warrant of secrecy over the spying on the PM so the PM would never know he or she was being spied on by his minister.

    In the light of the Kim Dotcom fiasco, i defy anyone to say it that isn’t possible.

    Comment by Sanctuary — September 28, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  2. Jesus H. Christ!
    Can you imagine the dystopian hell that would be unleashed if Stephen Joyce had ministerial oversight (seeing as he does for everything else)?

    Comment by Gregor W — September 28, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  3. Traditionally (not just in democracies), secret security agencies have reported directly to leaders rather than other ministers to prevent the formation of alternative concentrations of power that allow a coup.

    Comment by Deano — September 28, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

  4. @Sanctuary yep, I think that’s about it. Also, when these things were covert, only senior ministers would even officially know they existed.

    (During WW2 when the UK intelligence services grew, Churchill was Minister of Defence as well as PM and would have taken direct responsibility).

    Comment by richdrich — September 28, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

  5. I think that precisely because “intelligence” agencies “tend to be the least competent and most corrupt sectors of the state” is why they are remit of the PM.

    In the hands of a cabinet “colleague” the danger of a palace coup would be all too real. Not likely a bloody-shooting-coup in NZ, more the collection and release of compromising intelligence on the PM and his faction of party supporters, leading to strategic resignations.

    Even in NZ, our intelligence agencies really are one of the biggest threats to our “national security”.

    Comment by RJL — September 28, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  6. There’s no requirement for the PM to minister in charge. It’s just a habit. He can appoint anyone as minister for SIS/GCSB

    Comment by insider — September 28, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

  7. Somehow I don’t think any agency worth it’s salt would go through due process to formulate a domestic coup.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 28, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  8. @Gregor W:

    Which is exactly why an agency that operates in secrecy without significant oversight is the agency you want.

    Also a military coup is not really the risk (at least in NZ). The risk is a political coup enabled by the minister secretly using the intelligence agencies’ resources to compromise political opponents. If you are the PM a non-zero number of your political opponents include your cabinet colleagues — hence why the PM traditionally reserves GCSB/SIS for himself.

    Comment by RJL — September 28, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

  9. If you are the PM a non-zero number of your political opponents include your cabinet colleagues — hence why the PM traditionally reserves GCSB/SIS for himself.

    That’s a bit of a stretch. An internal change of leadership staged by your caucus colleagues is not a coup. It’s stock and trade politicking.

    A coup is “the sudden illegal deposition of government” (Thanks Wiki) implying external actors, though often as the historical record shows, with the active connivance of domestic intelligence agencies.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 28, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

  10. Muldoon the megalomania set it up that way for himself in the 70’s and it is too good for anyone since to want to pass up.

    Comment by Arkhad — September 28, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  11. (Justice, Foreign Affairs, Defense)

    Y’reckon matters would be improved by having the spook oversight performed by Judith Collins, Murray McCully or Jonathan Coleman? Seriously?

    Comment by Will de Cleene — September 28, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

  12. Part of me thinks the job of overall oversight of the GCSB should be the Gov General, but considering at present that guy also used to be the leader of the army, it seems like a bit too much crossover. Even more danger of a (real) coup.

    Comment by alex — September 28, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  13. There’s no-one else in the National Party that can do as much of a sterling job in this regard as the Prime Minister so obviously has. Can you imagine Hekia Parata overseeing the agencies? Walking into the room to greet them with her hip-swaying saunter?

    Comment by Dan — September 29, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

  14. I thought there was pretty good evidence that Muldoon used secret information against his rivals (in his party and opposition)? Given that precedent it seems reasonable that a PM wouldn’t want anyone else to have the opportunity.

    Comment by BeShakey — October 1, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

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