Relishing the secrets of a spy's success

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 05:00 03/10/2012
Waihopai spy base
MIKE CREAN/Fairfax NZ

The Waihopai spy base: a perfectly inconspicuous haunt for covert operations.

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Joe Bennett

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There has been a lot of ill-informed comment about the New Zealand secret service. I would like to add to it.

We live in a nasty world. It bristles with threats to national security. Our job in the secret services is to detect and thwart those threats. You have no idea how many times we have saved this country. Nor will you ever have any idea, because the beauty of a secret service is that it's secret. We cannot tell you what we do. You must just trust us and pay us.

History abounds with secret services who forgot to remain secret. Remember Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and his missiles just 45 minutes away? Such definite assertions and such wrong ones. A sensible secret service commits itself to nothing. It implies, it hints, it stays in the shadows.

Our job is to be the eyes and ears of the nation, and the task is ceaseless. But we do not expect to be thanked. It is reward enough just to keep you safe. You are our precious babies. We guard you while you wake and while you sleep. And while you sleep we proliferate.

Like Shiva we have many arms. Unlike Shiva, we keep growing new ones. You may know the Security Intelligence Service, and perhaps the Government Communications Security Bureau. But we also have an Intelligence Co-ordination Group, which reports to the Official Committee for Domestic and External Security Co-ordination.

Some of our agencies are too shadowy to name, but I can't resist mentioning the National Assessments Bureau. That title, so vague and so ominous, abbreviates beautifully to NAB. I'm surprised the KGB didn't think of it. All this for one tiny country. Did you know there are 90 Chinese cities with a population greater than New Zealand's? That's the sort of thing we know in the secret services.

We are popular with your tribunes. When you send them to parliament they think themselves incorruptible. They have soil beneath their fingernails and the people in their hearts. But the moment we whisper an invitation to an intelligence briefing you should see their little faces light up. They feel they're stepping onto the movie set of power. Their self-importance swells. It is a staple truth of espionage that everyone can be seduced.

Sometimes we play with the big boys. I cannot tell you how exciting this is. Recently we got a call from the CIA on the encrypted telephone. It was hard not to wet oneself.

They asked us to locate a German citizen whom they accused of running a website that bit into the profits of American corporations. We knew it would not be easy. All we had to go on was the man's name, several thousand photographs, his immigration papers, the schools at which his children were enrolled and his residential address. It was a needle-in-a-haystack job.

But no haystack is too large for the New Zealand secret service, nor any 20-stone needle too small. Our hi-tech surveillance gear swung silently into operation. It was our equivalent of the hunt for bin Laden. And just as the CIA eventually got their man when he toddled down to pay rates on the suburban fortress he'd been occupying for most of the past decade, so we rapidly tightened the noose on our target.

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As we eavesdropped and surveilled (does anyone know whether that's an actual verb, and if so, how to pronounce it? Replies in a black Samsonite briefcase, please, to be left in the phonebox outside Kirkcaldie and Stains) we began to discover the care he took to render himself invisible. A man who throws a half-million dollar fireworks party to celebrate getting a residence visa is not someone who wants people to know his whereabouts.

As is now common knowledge, it was this visa that caused a kerfuffle. Apparently we are not supposed to spy on New Zealand residents. But how were we to know that? It was buried in the legislation that governs our operations, so there was little reason for us to have read it. And in the general excitement it simply got overlooked by our resident legal team. I suppose, if you want to be picky, we broke the law, but it was a mistake anyone could have made.

''Human error,'' as the prime minister rightly put it. And there's an end to it, or should be. You don't issue speeding tickets to James Bond.

- The Dominion Post

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