Defence Force denies listening in

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 10:56 30/07/2013
jon stephenson
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
OVERHEARD: Journalist Jon Stephenson believes the military collected information from his phone calls while working in Afghanistan.

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US intelligence sources say that if the National Security Agency listened to journalist Jon Stephenson's phone conversations in Afghanistan it was probably part of standard monitoring of enemy communications, AP reported.

It comes as Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said he must accept assurances from the Defence Force (NZDF) that it did not spy on the New Zealand journalist.

Defence bosses said yesterday they had spent the weekend trawling through a decade's worth of records from the Afghan war and found no evidence NZDF had ordered surveillance on the investigative journalist.

Writing in the Sunday Star-Times, journalist Nicky Hager said the New Zealand military received help from US spy agencies to monitor phone calls by Stephenson and his associates while he was reporting on the war in Afghanistan.

US intelligence authorities and the White House declined to comment on the claims.

US experts and former intelligence officials told AP that if Stephenson's phone records were collected, it was probably done as part of a military intelligence sweep that was shared among allies in war zones, where there was little expectation of privacy in the hunt for enemy combatants and suspected terrorists.

Coleman said he had asked the NZDF if the spying had happened and he believed his chief advisers who said it had not.

"It wouldn't be a legitimate practice for them to do that and I've asked them very specifically - have they ever used US sources to monitor New Zealand citizens?" he said.

"They've told me that they haven't. You have to accept that as it's stated."

But he would welcome any evidence from Hager proving otherwise.

Hager said yesterday he was confident of his sources, but the highly sensitive nature of the intelligence material he was dealing with meant documentary evidence was extremely difficult to obtain.

"These are very secret things," he said.

Further revelations by Hager have shown, however, that NZDF was deeply distrustful of some journalists, and in a leaked security manual lumped them in with foreign intelligence agencies like the KGB, extremists and other subversives, as "hostile individuals".

Coleman said yesterday he had asked defence bosses to remove the reference, which was "heavy handed" and inappropriate.

The spying allegations follow defamation action by Stephenson against NZDF after it claimed he made up a story about visiting an Afghan base.

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During the court case, which ended with a hung jury, NZDF conceded the visit actually happened.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday New Zealand authorities did not monitor journalists.

"I've checked with both my agencies and neither the Security Intelligence Service nor Government Communications Security Bureau have undertaken surveillance on Stephenson," he said.

But he conceded there might be circumstances where a journalist's communications were collected in a wider net.

"That's likely to occur not because of the monitoring of a journalist but because of the hypothetical monitoring of a person perceived to be a threat to New Zealand forces in a war environment," the prime minister said.

An example might be a journalist who was in contact with a member of the Taleban who was being monitored by US forces.

Hager said that was not his understanding of how Stephenson's phone records were accessed.

"From what I had described to me this was focused on John and particular Afghan government people who were also on the chart of who'd been ringing whom - who he was in contact with," Hager said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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