OPINION: As prime minister, John Key is responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau. His oversight is one of the very few checks and balances to protect against the top-secret spy agency abusing its considerable powers.
The public expects him to take that responsibility extremely seriously. When it comes to the GCSB's illegal spying on Kim Dotcom, he has badly let the public down.
Mr Key's failure to realise the significance of what he was being told when a GCSB staffer mentioned during a February 29 meeting that the bureau had helped police before Dotcom's arrest on January 20 is inexcusable.
It emerged last week that the GCSB monitored Dotcom, who is classed as a permanent resident, for more than a month from December 2011. It is illegal for the bureau to spy on New Zealand citizens or permanent residents.
Until this week, Mr Key insisted the first he knew of GCSB involvement was September 17. He has now revealed, however, that a ''short reference'' was made to the bureau's role by a staff member during a presentation at GCSB headquarters on February 29.
Mr Key says he does not remember Dotcom's name coming up, but accepts it was mentioned as an example of co-operation between the GCSB and the police. He also accepts a slide-show included Dotcom's image in a montage, but he can only ''vaguely remember'' it as ''they just flashed through it''.
Mr Key hopes the public will understand his failure to notice the implications of what he was hearing as it was not discussed in detail. However, the public expects more.
The merest mention of Dotcom's name should have sounded alarm bells. Mr Key must have been aware that Dotcom held a residency visa because within days of the arrest he was commenting at length in defence of the decision to grant it to him, despite Dotcom having a criminal record.
On January 26, Mr Key was reported in this newspaper as saying that, on the facts known as they were when Dotcom was granted residency, he would have agreed with the decision. He was well versed, then, in Dotcom's status.
He should also have realised that the only reason the GCSB would have helped the police in regard to Dotcom was by monitoring his communications. Conducting electronic surveillance is the bureau's sole reason for existence.
And Mr Key would have known that the GCSB spying on Dotcom was illegal. The law that governs its activities places very few restrictions on it. First and foremost is the ban on spying on New Zealand citizens or the holders of residence class visas.
It is clear that Mr Key was not as engaged in the presentation as he should have been. That is an inexcusable failure from the one man the public most relies on to ensure the GCSB is being properly run.
The word ''oversight'' can have two meanings: to supervise or to be bereft in one's duty. Mr Key's oversight relating to the GCSB should be the former. On this occasion, it was the latter.
The case for a full independent inquiry into the entire debacle grows stronger by the day.
- The Dominion Post