Spy bungles start to entangle PM

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 10:31 03/08/2013
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OPINION: Labour leader David Shearer claims the Government is donkey deep in the widening Henry inquiry fiasco.

Emails dumped late yesterday reveal the extent to which Parliamentary Service trawled through a Fairfax journalist's phone records, emails and swipe-card logs in pursuit of a government leaker.

The revelation that Parliamentary Service handed over emails between journalist Andrea Vance and politician Peter Dunne may not disprove the Government and the Henry inquiry denials that the private emails were accessed for the purposes of tracking down the leaker. But they make those denials harder to swallow.

So, too, does the revelation that Vance's phone records were handed over to the inquiry by a Parliamentary Service staffer, after a week of Government protestations that a low-level contractor was to blame.

The staffer was apparently CCed in on the phone records at the same time the Datacom staffer forwarded them to the Henry inquiry.

The parliamentary staffer emailed them again to the inquiry to make sure they were received. That makes the assurances of both Key and Speaker David Carter that the phone records were handed over by mistake ring somewhat hollow. Once is a mistake, twice is intent.

Carter was misled not once but twice over the circumstances surrounding Vance's phone records. He assured Parliament only last week that while the inquiry sought those records, they were never handed over.

What yesterday's email dump also shows is that the inquiry zealously pursued any records that might help it narrow down the list of suspects who might have leaked the secret report on the Government Communications Security Bureau to Vance.

It left the niceties up to Parliamentary Service as to whether it was within its power to say yes or no.

Parliamentary Service appears to have taken an extremely loose view of any boundaries around that information.

Key can't escape questions over what his chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, and his own department, DPMC, knew about the information being handed over.

The acknowledgment by DPMC chief executive Andrew Kibblewhite last night that he had known for a month that emails between Vance and Dunne had been handed over almost beggars belief. So too does his explanation that the prime minister was not informed till yesterday morning.

That appears to have left Key high and dry after a torrid week in the House where he was forced to conduct an almost forensic examination of contact between his office and Parliamentary Service.

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The involvement of Eagleson is also murky.

His intervention to ensure Parliamentary Service handed over the phone and email records of Government ministers was clearly interpreted down the line as a directive that the inquiry should get whatever it required.

In the parliamentary environment, that is a chilling assumption.

Journalists and politicians working around the parliamentary precinct are subjected to probably some of the most intrusive surveillance in any workplace in the country - barring, of course, the likes of the GCSB and the Security Intelligence Service.

Entering Parliament through the back door, which is how most press gallery journalists get to work each day, means running the full gauntlet of security.

Two cameras are trained on the entrance to watch people coming and going. A swipe card is required to open the door. Walk a few steps straight ahead and you must go through a set of double doors, which require a swipe card to get in or out.

Those doors take you to the Beehive. Or you can take the stairs. Turn left at the top and you enter the corridor where the press gallery is based.

There is a large door, again electronically controlled, but over the years journalists have taken to holding this open with a door stop so no swipe card is required. But it makes no difference since, if you turn right, you must pass through another electronically controlled door, and this one is always locked. This door leads to the old Parliament buildings.

To get in or out, a swipe card is required. If you decide to turn around and leave you need a swipe card to exit the building.

If an MP, or a parliamentary staffer, wants to visit the press gallery, they must also leave an electronic "fingerprint", by swiping their access cards. In short, the press gallery is sealed off tightly from the rest of Parliament.

No-one has ever doubted that there were good reasons for such intrusive surveillance - common sense suggested it was in the interests of national security and to protect Parliament from external threats.

But there is now a sneaking suspicion that in cordoning off the press gallery, officials were as much motivated by the view that journalists themselves comprised an external threat.

As the mounting scandal surrounding the Henry inquiry reveals, once those in authority are in possession of such intrusive powers, the overwhelming temptation is to use them for something other than their original purpose.

In that respect, the debacle over the so-called Henry inquiry, and its accessing of a journalist's phone logs and swipe card records, is a microcosm of the wider debate about legislation extending the reach of our foreign spy agency, the GCSB.

Like the GCSB, Parliamentary Service and the Henry inquiry seemed to have an extremely loose approach to the information they obtain.

The GCSB's interpretation of the law was so loose it managed to spy on 88 New Zealanders even though the law specifically stated it was not allowed to do so.

The mounting perception is that a wild west approach to private information is endemic across officialdom and the government's security agencies.

The danger for the Government if it fails to put some distance between itself and the latest scandal is that it looks just as lax.

That's the last thing it needs when public confidence in the legislation widening the GCSB's net is contingent on public trust and confidence that the Government is providing strong oversight.

- The Dominion Post

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