Fletcher's appointment defended by SSC boss

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 22:03 03/04/2013
LUKE APPLEBY/Fairfax NZ

Prime Minister John Key says he forgot about a phone call made to Ian Fletcher about the possibility of a job as head of the GCSB.

John Key DOM
BLAIR PATTINSON/Fairfax NZ
CALL MADE: Prime Minister John Key.
tdn ian stand
SPY BOSS: Ian Fletcher.

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State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has strongly defended the appointment of spy boss Ian Fletcher.

The process has come under intense scrutiny since it emerged Fletcher and Prime Minister John Key have known each other since childhood.

Key headhunted Fletcher to be director of the Government Communications Security Bureau in a phonecall after a short list of four candidates was rejected by Rennie in 2011.

Key has also stood by the process saying it was normal and it's not relevant that Fletcher has no intelligence or military background.

Rennie said tonight that he strongly refuted claims regarding the process.

He said Fletcher was an outstanding public servant.

"I am outraged that there has baseless attacks on the credibility of Mr Fletcher's appointment," he said.

Those who replied to a job ad in May 2011 were thoroughly considered, he said.

It is "normal" for recruitment consultants to make short lists and for the commissioner to make judgments on those selected and to seek out additional candidate, he stressed.

Fletcher was the only person interviewed by an SSC selected panel, which included former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet boss Maarten Wevers.

Rennie said there was a "high bar" for interviewees and "sometimes" only one candidate gets to this stage.

"For this position, and I want to make this very clear, it was not essential to have a military or intelligence background," he said.

"GCSB is a civilian agency, and the position description emphasised  the importance of leadership and change management expertise in this role. "

The integrity of the selection panel was "beyond question", he said.

The panel was aware that the Prime Minister and Fletcher knew each other and had spoken on the telephone, he said.

KEY: I FORGOT ABOUT PHONE CALL

Meanwhile Key said he’s forgotten about the phone call that led to  Fletcher applying to be the country's top spy. But he appears to be confused about who first suggested Fletcher for the job.

Asked why he didn't tell the full story last week, Key said: "I'd forgotten that at that particular time."

In Porirua this afternoon, Key was grilled about the sequence of events that saw Fletcher appointed as director of the GCSB in September 2011.

At first Key said: "Iain Rennie, state services commissioner recommended him to me... I rang [Fletcher] and said 'look, you know, you might be interested."

Asked again who first brought up Fletcher's name, Key replied: "Iain Rennie put it to me."

Later on, he was asked again who first mentioned Fletcher. "I would have mentioned it to him, I'm sure."

When pressed to clarify if he first suggested the name to Rennie, he said: "I'm sure I probably would have."

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Key insists the pair are not friends, and didn't see each other for about 30 years. They went to the same Christchurch school, Key was in the same class as his brother Alistair, and their mothers were best friends.

Since Key became Prime Minister he has had breakfast with him twice, and a lunch, which Fletcher can't remember.

Asked how he got his telephone number to make the call, Key replied: "Oh, well, I know his number."

Key defended the appointment process as "proper" and "normal".

He said he approached one other person about the job - who wasn't interested.

Fletcher was the only person interviewed for the job.

Key defended his record as a "glittering" civil servant in Britain and Australia, and said the head of the GCSB doesn't need an intelligence or military background.

He denied his intervention would have put pressure on the panel to recommend Fletcher.

"The fact that I might talk to somebody makes no difference. In the end, we went through a full process there was a full board of people that looked at him and they thoroughly recommended him... this isn't some bunny that's been pulled out of a hat... this guy is very successful civil servant."

He added: "I wouldn't change anything that I've said. We are not friends." 

CALL FOR INQUIRY

Labour leader David Shearer wants an inquiry into the appointment.

He said it was "incredibly shonky and it smells", adding the GCSB was the country's most unscrutinised agency.

"Having a mate in charge of it raises some serious, serious concerns ... what confidence should the public have in the chief spy," Shearer said.

Fletcher was appointed in September 2011 and took up the position early in February last year.

One of his first jobs was to attend a joint police-GCSB briefing about the raid on Kim Dotcom's rural Auckland mansion.

At that briefing the bureau learned it may have illegally spied on the internet mogul, who is accused by the US of internet piracy.

- Fairfax Media

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