Yesterday in preparation for the Hager/Snowden revelations the Prime Minister warned that whatever Hager said was all a lie. Today the talking point is that everyone always knew that the GCSB carried out surveillance in the Pacific, so who cares?
It’s true, we did know that. But we didn’t know it was mass surveillance, and we didn’t know that all of the data was simply forwarded to the US. The argument for the GCSB’s activities has always been that it safeguards our regional security interests. But now we know that its primary function is diplomatic. It collects data that the US can’t and forwards it on, and in exchange we get to be members of the Five-Eyes alliance.
Now, you could argue that Five-Eyes membership is a big win for safe-guarding our regional security. Maybe it is, I don’t really know. We’re not exactly beset by threats down here. But this is an area in which ‘national interest’ and the interests of politicians, diplomats and intelligence elites blur into each other. If you’re the Prime Minister or the head of the GCSB, or MFAT, then participation in this club is a huge win. Key gets to go to the White House and play golf with Obama. Our spies get access to global information networks. We get free stuff from the US. Totally awesome. No question that this is a great deal for them.
What’s unclear is whether any of this delivers any gains at all to the New Zealand public. Does spying on everyone in Kiribati and giving the information to the US keep us safe from terrorists, etc? Maybe in a super-indirect way it does! But it seems more likely – to me – that the benefits go to members of our political elite and the rhetoric about ‘keeping us safe’ is mostly nonsense.