SIS seeks varsity help in weapon watch

19:42, Nov 17 2009

A suggestion that New Zealand's universities might become involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is far-fetched and paranoid, peace campaigners say.

New Zealand's spy agency, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), wants universities to alert the SIS to any illicit science relating to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

SIS director Dr Warren Tucker met the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee (NZVCC) and sent university managers a letter and a brochure called A Guide to Weapons of Mass Destruction: Your Role in Preventing Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The move has outraged the Tertiary Education Union (TEU), the Green Party and a peace group which described the request as unethical.

Disarmament and Security Centre co-director Rob Green said the SIS inviting university staff to spy on their students and colleagues was thoroughly unethical and ill-advised.

"The SIS is showing signs of paranoia in order to please their United States masters, I suspect."

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Green believed the request was driven by other countries, including the United States, and was a matter of New Zealand trying to impress and keep up with the big boys. Such a request was extremely far-fetched to the point of being paranoid.

TEU president Dr Tom Ryan said asking university staff to report back to a spy agency would undermine the legislated autonomy of institutions, including the guarantee of academic freedom.

It could also lead to some academics being targeted because of their religion, nationality or ethnicity, he said.

The SIS pamphlet provided information and guidance for scientists, exporters and academics on how to identify proliferation-related activity and what to do should they become aware of such activity or have suspicions or concerns.

Tucker said of particular relevance to New Zealand universities was the potential application of knowledge or skills in the hard science, engineering, mathematical and medical fields to weapons programmes.

"Many technologies currently studied at advanced levels in these areas have dual-use applications relevant to weapons of mass destruction."

Canterbury University spokesman John MacDonald said vice-chancellor Rod Carr verbally informed his senior management team of the SIS request.

Carr did not distribute the letter or guide.

The NZVCC said the meeting with the SIS was a routine matter and was not in response to any perceived heightened threat to security.

Green Party human rights spokesman Keith Locke said it was unlikely New Zealand universities were doing any serious research into matters that were directly related to weapons of mass destruction.

"It just seems that the SIS is really trying to make work for itself given there are no terrorists or really dangerous people in New Zealand."

The SIS refused to answer questions from The Press and instead referred it to its website.

The Press