Government accused of spying on WTO top job candidates

TIM GROSER: Ultimately missed out on the WTO top job to Brazil's Roberto Azevedo.
Fairfax NZ

TIM GROSER: Ultimately missed out on the WTO top job to Brazil's Roberto Azevedo.

Opposition parties have slammed the Government's reported use of its international spy agency to snoop on rival candidates for a top World Trade Organisation job.

Documents obtained by the US-based Intercept website purport to show the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) snooped on candidates for the WTO director-general job for which Trade Minister Tim Groser was in the running in 2013.

Groser ultimately missed out on the job to Brazil's Roberto Azevedo.

Documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden suggest Azevedo, along with other candidates, was spied on by the GCSB during the selection process.

Labour leader Andrew Little said it was a "highly dubious" use of an agency that was meant to combat security threats.

"This is outrageous," Little said.

"The GCSB is a foreign intelligence agency, not a recruitment agency. For all we know they also wrote [Groser's] CV.

"These actions are a massive misuse of an agency which should be focussed on our security threats, not the future employment prospects of a minister.

"As the minister in charge at the time, John Key must explain how he or anyone at the GCSB thought this was an appropriate use of the agency's resources."

At a media stand up this afternoon Little said the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, should undertake an inquiry. 

Ad Feedback

He said the revelations were embarrassing to New Zealand and "totally inappropriate". 

"I would have thought it would be unlawful," he said. 

"(The GCSB) is there to deal with security threats, it's not there to advance the career interests of select politians." 

A claim by Prime Minister John Key's office that deliberate misinformation was being given to Kiwis was a "convenient thing to hide behind," he said. 

READ MORE: Opinion: Claims GCSB spied on WTO candidates 'disturbing'

Green Party intelligence spokesman Kennedy Graham said the documents showed the GCSB was being used to further a National MP's personal ambitions.

"It is a dangerous slippery slope when the GCSB is used to gain a Cabinet minister a personal position," Graham said.

"We cannot have ministers using spy agencies as their private recruitment manager.

"The personal use of the GCSB is total political abuse of an agency that is meant to be working in New Zealand's national interest.

"The GCSB is meant to be working in our national interest, not the private interest of the National Party.

 "It is hard to argue that Tim Groser being the head of the WTO would gain any advantage for New Zealand, as the position demands neutrality as a fundamental requirement of the role.

 "This begs the questions why is the GCSB spying for Groser and where is the legal justification?"

Graham said the revelations also raised questions about whether New Zealand spied on rival nations while it was competing for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

"The Green Party has always maintained the laws that govern the spy agencies are too broad and they need to be tightened," he said.

An upcoming statutory review needed to address this issue "and rules must be changed to ensure our spy agencies are not used to further the personal interests of minsters".

 "It is not good enough to mar New Zealand's reputation and breach diplomatic conventions to give Cabinet minsters a leg up in a recruitment process," Graham said.

A spying operation in 2013 by the GCSB involved surveillance of candidates from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, Jordan, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico and South Korea, according to documents revealed in The Intercept.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager told Morning Report that while he didn't have any evidence, it was clear this was "the first story where John Key, minister in charge of the GCSB, had to sign this off".

Given the spying was for the benefit of a Cabinet colleague and was being done by an organisation Key headed, it was clear Key was in the loop, Hager said.

He also suspected Groser was aware the information-gathering was going on while he flew from one international capital city to the next to get support for his bid.

"The Government would say it's not against the law because under GCSB there's no laws against spying on other countries," Hager said.

"But there's a difference between something being legal and something being right."

Key was in South Korea with Groser where they were signing a free trade agreement that had taken six years to negotiate.

A spokesperson from the Key's office said the Government would not be responding to claims made from documents "stolen by Edward Snowden".

"As we saw during the election campaign, misinformation was put before New Zealanders in an attempt to damage the Government," the spokesperson said, adding it was possible some of the information being put forward was fabricated.

"To the best of the PM's knowledge, the GCSB acted within the law during his time as its minister, apart from the well-known incident regarding Kim Dotcom."

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback