That was the question asked by Rachel Smalley on The Nation, who pointed out to civil libertarians arguing against the new GCSB legislation that she hadn’t done anything wrong, so the GCSB weren’t likely to spy on her. But today in the SST we learn that the state security services regard journalists as a ‘subversion threat’, according to a leaked New Zealand Defence Force security manual:
The manual’s first chapter is called “Basic Principles of Defence Security”. It says a key part of protecting classified information is investigating the “capabilities and intentions of hostile organisations and individuals” and taking counteraction against them.
The manual, which was issued as an order by the Chief of Defence Force, places journalists among the hostile individuals. It defines “The Threat” as espionage, sabotage, subversion and terrorism, and includes investigative journalists under the heading “subversion”.
Subversion, it says, is action designed to “weaken the military, economic or political strength of a nation by undermining the morale, loyalty or reliability of its citizens.”
It highlights people acquiring classified information to “bring the Government into disrepute”.
The story also reveals that our intelligence agencies have been spying on journalist Jon Stephenson:
The Sunday Star-Times has learned that New Zealand Defence Force personnel had copies of intercepted phone “metadata” for Stephenson, the type of intelligence publicised by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden. The intelligence reports showed who Stephenson had phoned and then who those people had phoned, creating what the sources called a “tree” of the journalist’s associates.
New Zealand SAS troops in Kabul had access to the reports and were using them in active investigations into Stephenson.
The sources believed the phone monitoring was being done to try to identify Stephenson’s journalistic contacts and sources. They drew a picture of a metadata tree the Defence Force had obtained, which included Stephenson and named contacts in the Afghan government and military.
The sources who described the monitoring of Stephenson’s phone calls in Afghanistan said that the NZSIS has an officer based in Kabul who was known to be involved in the Stephenson investigations.
And since early in the Afghanistan war, the GCSB has secretly posted staff to the main US intelligence centre at Bagram, north of Kabul. They work in a special “signals intelligence” unit that co-ordinates electronic surveillance to assist military targeting. It is likely to be this organisation that monitored Stephenson.
The government’s line is that the GCSB need to be able to spy on New Zealand citizens to protect us from terrorists. There are three problems here. (1) ‘The country is in danger’ is what politicians always say when they want to extend the power of the state over its citizens and (2) there is no actual evidence of a real threat. Other countries like the US have strategic enemies, a history of previous attacks, foiled attacks, arrests and court cases all indicating that there’s a real threat. We don’t have any of those things – just politicians and spies telling us that we’re in danger so they need to take away some of our freedom. Problem (3) is that every time – EVERY TIME – we get a glimpse into what our intelligence services actually do its totally unrelated to protecting us from external or domestic threats. In this case the taxpayers are funding intelligence operations that safeguard the reputations and careers of government bureaucrats and persecute their perceived enemies in the media.
I’m opposed to the GCSB having warrentless access to my smartphone data, phone logs and web traffic in principle, but really it wouldn’t have any impact on me. If I were a political journalist, however, I’d be a little concerned about a new law that gave the government the power to access my phone records without any judicial oversight. Being a journalist IS ‘doing something wrong.’