Key must press on to fix spy agency

John Key might have waved away every question about the GCSB's spying activities on Kim Dotcom, and it's to his credit that he did not.
John Key might have waved away every question about the GCSB's spying activities on Kim Dotcom, and it's to his credit that he did not.

It has not been fashionable to see anything much worthy about John Key's part in the Kim Dotcom spying saga.

But the prime minister deserves some credit for his willingness to turn over more information about the secretive spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), than has ever been the case before. Yes, the snippets emerged under duress after the embarrassing illegal spying on Dotcom was finally known, but he could have responded to this quite differently.

Some commentary on the Dotcom spying case in foreign press, for instance, has been almost incredulous about Mr Key's willingness to concede his agents mucked up.

Slate magazine described Mr Key's apology and his handling of the illegal spying case generally as "commendable".

"There are few governments in the world willing to candidly publicly acknowledge wrongdoing by their intelligence agencies, especially when it comes to high-profile cases," it reported. "When authorities commit wrongdoing the tendency is often to keep it under wraps in a self-interested bid to protect reputations. In this case, despite knowing it would cause controversy and a storm of negative reaction, New Zealand's government chose disclosure over secrecy. A rare example of transparency more countries could do well to follow."

And a United States political chat show was totally floored.

"Can you imagine a president of the United States apologising to anybody? Wouldn't it be lovely to live in a country where if someone is wrong, they admit it? And that they don't spy on their citizens - that's trippy," pundit Cenk Uygur said. "Kim Dotcom, if he lived here [in the US], he wouldn't get an apology, he'd get a one-way trip to Guantanamo."

The Young Turks show on which Uygur's comments aired is aggressively reformist and not exactly mainstream network stuff. But nor is it a tin-pot casual news broadcast - its online show averages about 250,000 views a day.

Uygur's remarks are almost certainly more of a grim reflection on the culture of prying in the post-9/11 US than they are on Mr Key doing the right thing.

But alongside the Slate piece, they help keep things in context. Mr Key might have hushed this whole episode up.

He might have been belligerent in defence of his spooks, pulled down the shutters and waved away every question.

Instead, he moved quickly on September 17 to have his GCSB scrutineer, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Paul Neazor, rip through a report on the episode. He made that report public.

The Neazor report highlighted possible problems in earlier cases. Mr Key had GCSB director Ian Fletcher review the organisation's files to draw out any problems. There were three red flags, which Mr Fletcher was forced to publicly admit.

The public awaits an explanation in all three cases, especially where police were told some level of detail about a New Zealand citizen's phone records by the GCSB.

So much for the response - the more important question is surely now whether Mr Key could have done more to prevent all of this.

It is easy in hindsight to say Mr Key should have snapped to attention sooner and asked pointed questions of the GCSB about what they were doing on the Dotcom case.

The leading charge against him on this point has been that he visited the GCSB on February 29, when Dotcom was briefly mentioned and his picture was flashed on a screen alongside 10 others. He could have leapt in at that point and asked how Dotcom - who he well knew was a New Zealand resident - came under the GCSB purview. But it wasn't as if the GCSB had not actually considered this point. They had - it was just that they had got the legal interpretation horribly wrong.

So if Mr Key had pressed the point at the time, he would presumably have been offered an explanation which would have to have been so inadequate that it made him go away and ask more questions. That's possible, of course, but then what? The illegal spying could not have been undone. It just would have been discovered to have been illegal sooner and by the prompting of the prime minister, rather than the courts.

That would have been a very significant intervention for a prime minister in relation to the GCSB. According to Nicky Hager's 1996 book on the GCSB, the organisation has historically done a whole range of things without any knowledge of the prime minister. According to Hager, Sir Geoffrey Palmer was told "practically nothing" about integration of the GCSB into the Echelon network of global intelligence sharing. But that is hardly an excuse for Mr Key.

Hager also quotes a GCSB officer who claims National governments ask fewer questions than Labour ones.

Mr Key himself would probably privately admit he has been more hands off with the GCSB - and all of his departments - than former Labour prime minister Helen Clark.

His style is to give ministers and departments space to get on with it. He is not exactly wildly indifferent to rules and conventions, but he does have a pretty casual acquaintance with process from time to time. His senior staff have previously been known, for instance, to laugh about how impractical and clueless rule sticklers such as State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie are.

But agencies like the SSC are there to keep the state sector sailing on an even keel. When its rules are occasionally overlooked for the sake of common sense, fair enough. But when they are left permanently on the shelf, departments risk drifting badly off course - especially one like the GCSB that has so little oversight of its activities.

As the GCSB minister, Mr Key - just like any other minister - actually has to lead his department.

If he doesn't, then who will?

Ministerial oversight does not mean, as Mr Key has suggested in response to critics, setting out exactly who is to be spied on and how. But it does mean imbuing a sense of purpose in the staff. It means reaching agreement on strategy and it means careful scrutiny of performance.

From what has emerged in the past fortnight, it appears that kind of leadership has been missing at the GCSB.

It looks like it has been allowed to drift into an over-familiar relationship with police and a professional malaise around important legal questions.

The logical next step to Mr Key cracking the door open on the GCSB's performance would be for him to take some ownership of what has been exposed.

He should be alongside the staff, promising to back changes that would repair the weaknesses. Instead, he is dumping on them.

Exposing the problems at the GCSB was only half of Mr Key's task. The other half is getting serious about fixing them.

The Dominion Post