Our spies monitored email and internet traffic about international diplomats vying for the job of director-general of the World Trade Organisation – a job for which National Government Trade Minister Tim Groser was competing.
The spying operation was active in 2013 and called the “WTO Project” by New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), according to a top secret document obtained by the Herald and United States news site The Intercept.
The operation involved covert surveillance of candidates from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, Jordan, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and South Korea.
The ‘realist’ response to this is: well, duh. Spying on foreign politicians for diplomatic and trade purposes is what intelligence agencies do, and the GCSB is an intelligence agency.
The problem with this is that the GCSB is a very controversial agency. It’s been caught breaking the law. It’s oversight is near non-existent, and its been granted several expansions of its powers on the grounds that we should just trust it, because they’re trustworthy people and they keep the public safe. But, yet again we find it engaged in dubious activities that have nothing whatsoever to do with public safety.
In fact, none of the revelations we’ve heard about this agency have anything to do with security – even though that’s the justification for this agency’s existence! That could be because Hager and the Herald are cherry-picking stories to make the GCSB look bad. Or because they’re being responsible, and not publishing stories that might jeopardise ongoing operations, yadda yadda yadda. But I suspect it’s because there aren’t any.
This story also illustrates (a) why we’re members of FIVE EYES. It gives our politicians, diplomats and spies the ability to spy on anyone in the world! (b) How our elites conflate the interest of New Zealand with their own personal and career objectives. We spent a ton of taxpayer money trying to get Groser his dream job, and it was always on the basis that it would be ‘good for New Zealand’ in a nebulous way that was never actually explained, just accepted and repeated by establishment commentators. So breaching diplomatic conventions and spying on his political rivals in a bunch of friendly trading partners to get him a top job was also ‘good for New Zealand’, somehow, and justified on that vague basis. And (c) it didn’t actually work. Groser is still our Trade Minister and we’re still paying for his epic minibar bills.
The activities of this agency aren’t secret because of ‘security’. They’re secret because they’re not justifiable to the public. This agency has cost about half a billion dollars over the last ten years, which would be fine if we had dire security threats and they were protecting us from them. But that’s not what’s happening. The half a billion dollars funds intelligence operations against Tuvalu, Kiribati, Antarctic research scientists, anti-corruption campaigners in the Solomons and the Trade Minister’s career rivals.