SIS reveals secret files

22:31, Feb 09 2009

The release of Security Intelligence Service (SIS) files on individuals has revealed for the first time how far the shadowy service reached into the lives of activist and non-activist New Zealanders.

In response to the SIS relaxing its approach to redundant files, the word has got out.

A flood of files is reaching the people spied on, with most of the clandestine reporting referring to legitimate protest and political activity.

In November, Murray Horton, a former railway worker, applied for the file on the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (Cafca), an organisation he helped found.

He received 400 documents, including a cover letter from SIS head Dr Wayne Tucker. It said the spying had stopped.

The file presented a "fascinating and disturbing pattern of systematic covert state surveillance of many, many organisations and many hundreds, if not thousands, of people over decades", Horton said.

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He had seen other files. One showed the SIS had started monitoring an activist when she was 10.

An SIS spokesman said the service had adopted an archives policy in 2003 to aid "the proactive declassification of historical records".

"A key element of the archives policy is that the SIS will deal impartially with information, regardless of whether it reflects unfavourably on the service or shows the service in a good light," he said.

"Subsequent publicity has led to an increase in requests for access to personal information ... The service has made every endeavour to be forthcoming."

The greater openness had been well-received, with 26 people being sent their personal files last year.

"Recipients of declassified SIS reports have generally viewed them in their historical context and realised that the service's methods and information-collection priorities have altered over the years as the nature and perceptions of threats to security have changed."

The identity of agents and sources of information was deleted from the files, the spokesman said.

So much for democracy, Horton said.

"Our own little country has been proven to behave towards its dissidents in much the same way as the Communist police states that it used to rail against," he said.

The worst of it was that the Cafca file and others released indiscreet and personally damaging material about named third parties who were not the subject of the surveillance but simply caught up in its net, he said.

"A lot of it is salacious gossip, with analyses of named people's marriage problems, drinking habits, etc, etc," Horton said.

"Some of it is laughable, like a report dedicated to the likely impact of feminism and different gender views on abortion on the marriages of named couples."

One report contained this reference to Horton: "He likes the sound of his own voice and keeps interrupting the other speakers."

Bill Rosenberg, 57, who is a member of Cafca, told the Press he had received his personal file, some of the file kept on his late father, Canterbury University economist Wolfgang Rosenberg, a refugee from Nazi Germany, and also the file on his mother.

The deputy director of the centre for teaching and learning at Canterbury University said he had never been a member of a political party but had been in several anti-war protest groups since his youth.

His father's file showed he had been followed when he went around the country giving talks to groups. His mother was also monitored because of her membership of the New Zealand Communist Party in her youth and her involvement in organisations such as the Housewives Union.

His father's application for a professorship at Victoria University was noted, and he wondered if the SIS had intervened to ensure it failed.

The files reflected the paranoia of the McCarthy era but also the particular views of SIS staff, Rosenberg said. "The release of the files marks a significant change in that degree of paranoia and that view of the world."

His file contained mainly comments about him by Socialist Unity Party and Communist Party members at private meetings. Most disturbing was the car registration numbers taken when people visited his house after he had returned from overseas.

The picture emerging from the files was a "huge mixture of time-serving stuff" and reports about innocuous events, Rosenberg said.

The lack of sophistication was startling and little analysis was done on why activities were suspicious.

The vast majority of reporting was about "perfectly legitimate political activity by people who had a different view to the status quo", Rosenberg said.

The Press