National Portrait: Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn.

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn.

Cheryl Gwyn knows she could be seduced by the spies. There is a risk, says the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, "that you become seduced by the secrets, that you feel important that you're part of that world."

One "surprisingly useful" aid against seduction is Twitter. Twitter, she says with a smile, can be brutal, and that's good.

Tweets help burst the bubble world where spy watchers risk starting to think like spies.

"I may have been under surveillance," she says. "I don't know and I haven't checked." - Cheryl Gwyn.

"I may have been under surveillance," she says. "I don't know and I haven't checked." - Cheryl Gwyn.

Gwyn is the official spy watchdog, and she bites. .

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Her report on the "dirty politics" scandal involving blogger WhaleOil and the Prime Minister's office was humiliating for then-SIS director Warren Tucker.

She found the SIS had released incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information that led to misplaced criticism of Labour leader Phil Goff. Tucker "failed" to correct that impression.

The SIS had to say sorry.

Gwyn has begun a series of inquiries which ask dangerous questions about both the SIS and the other intelligence agency, the GCSB.

Gwyn herself is a controversial figure, a former Marxist activist who would once have been of great interest to the spies.

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Gwyn is a modest character with a lawyer's precision and a sense of humour. The traditional face of intelligence is an ageing robot – spy-master, spy-watcher or politician - telling the public to mind its own business.

That's not Gwyn.

As a young law graduate and freezing worker she belonged to the Socialist Action League, a far-Left group closely watched by the SIS. Her comrade Keith Locke, later a Green MP, gained access to his file and found the spies had been following him for decades.

"I may have been under surveillance," she says. "I don't know and I haven't checked." As inspector-general, of course, she has access to all the SIS files.

But in those days, "there was much more of a sense that political dissent… was fair game for security surveillance and I think we have moved on from that in New Zealand."

Is she still a socialist?

There is an unusually long pause.

"I have I suppose what would be characterised as liberal views. I'm interested in social democracy, in fair play in a general sense, um, rather than fitting into a categorisation."

In an email later she says she wants to avoid labels "because focusing on my personal views becomes a distraction and risks compromising the ability of my office to do an effective job."

This sounds more bureaucratic than she usually is.

Gwyn was raised on a dairy farm near Whangarei and didn't get her Left-wing politics from her Social Credit parents. She became politically active at Auckland University and joined SAL, which encouraged its members to join the workers.

At Whakatu freezing works in Hawke's Bay she campaigned for women to become butchers on the chain, eventually winning the right to be "bored to death" processing eight lambs a minute.

She left and rose rapidly through the ranks of law and the government, ending up as deputy solicitor-general.

In that role she helped lead the government's action against Algerian Ahmed Zaoui, declared a security risk by the SIS and jailed. A long legal battle eventually led to his release.

Does she think that was the right outcome? "No comment."

Her inquiries could cause a lot more trouble for the spies.

Did the GCSB use its powers to help former Trade Minister Tim Groser in his (unsuccessful) bid to become head of the World Trade Organisation?

Were New Zealand spies involved with the CIA's torture of prisoners between September 2001 and January 2009?

Does the GCSB snoop on the communications of New Zealanders working or holidaying in the South Pacific?

This could be a breach of the law preventing the GCSB from bugging New Zealand citizens or permanent residents. It was the bureau's illegal bugging of permanent resident Kim Dotcom that lit a firestorm under the GCSB.

Is Gwyn making enemies of the spooks?

"I don't think so," she says, but with a beefed-up inspector's office "asking more questions, requiring more of them… that does put a strain on them. That's something that has from time to time created a tension in our relationship."

How about political enemies? If Gwyn causes too much trouble, Prime Minister John Key can just decline to renew her three-year contract when it ends next year (although Sir Michael Cullen's just-released review of the intelligence laws recommends the inspector be appointed by parliament not the PM).

"It's possible that I might not be reappointed - or that I might be offered a reappointment and decline," she says coolly.

The opposite risk, she notes, "is that an Inspector-General wanting reappointment could decline to or be reluctant to inquire into things that ought to be inquired into."

There's also a risk that the spy agencies could "deflect hard questions by saying, 'Well, you should be reassured we are acting lawfully because the Inspector-General has full access to everything we do.'

"[But] a small office such as mine can't possibly scrutinise every decision and every action of the SIS and the GCSB."

Of course "there are findings we reach that may not show the agencies in a good light and no-one's going to like that".

"No-one likes their auditor."

Gwyn would like the agencies to disclose what actual powers they have. Historically spy legislation is "pretty opaque".

Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden's disclosures, showing the agencies scoop up enormous quantities of digital information, had led to a "really important public debate about what powers do the agencies have".

SIS head Rebecca Kitteridge called Snowden a traitor. "I didn't say he was a traitor," says the Inspector-General.

Gwyn says there's a gap in the intelligence world. Snowden revealed how closely the international spy agencies work together, but their oversight agencies can't do this.

"How do I know that what the [Kiwi] intelligence agencies get from other jurisdictions is lawfully and properly sourced?" she asks.

"[And] how do we know what use other jurisdictions put our intelligence to?"

The ultimate solution, she says, would be to allow, say, the Inspector-General of the CIA and her to carry out a joint inquiry.

Watchdogs of the world, unite.

 - The Dominion Post


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