Spies mum over US cash questions

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 09:04 24/02/2014

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The Government's spy agencies have refused to tell Parliament's intelligence and security committee if they receive funding from the United States.

Both the Government Communications Security Bureau and the Security Intelligence Service also declined to reveal if they have hired controversial US big data company Palantir.

It is the first time both agencies have agreed to respond to written questions from the committee - usual practice for other Government departments.

The ISC provides oversight of the intelligence community, but most of its meetings take place behind closed doors.

The agencies' responses to questions were provided to the committee late last week.

Both GCSB and the SIS refused to answer questions about funding from the United States Government, or any other nation which is part of the Five Eyes spying alliance.

US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed last year the National Security Agency provided $200m in secret payments to the British GCHQ to secure access and influence.

Both agencies cited legislation which forbids the ISC enquiring about matters which are ''operationally sensitive'' and that relate to ''intelligence collection and production methods or sources of information.''

They also refused to say if any foreign government, or the NSA, paid for any position within the bureaux, or if there were any secondees.

The committee asked if either the GCSB or SIS awarded a contract to Palantir Technologies in the last financial year, but the information was withheld.

The Silicon Valley tech firm is the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement world and has the CIA and FBI among its customers.

Last year it denied it was behind the NSA's contentious Prism data-mining programme.

The GCSB spent $1.7m on contractors and consultants in 2012/13 but would not reveal the providers.

Nine contractors were paid just over $800,000 for IT work. One company was paid to $46,009 for services relating to investigations.

The biggest spend was just over $200,000 on HR services and advice. Restructuring of the corporate support services cost $679,000, and seven staff were made redundant in the 18 months to December 31.

Since 2008, the GCSB spent $1.7m on redundancy, severance or termination packages.

Answers also reveal the SIS awarded six contracts - to unnamed companies - in the last year to the tune of $2.1m.

It spent $256,141 on project management, $97, 526 on IT services and $74, 143 on legal services.

Six staff were made redundant in the last year, and the SIS spent around $1m on termination packages since 2008.

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The Green party was pushing for greater transparency from the security community and lodged the questions.

Co-leader Russel Norman, a committee member, said it was a step forward to get the written answers.

However, the fact that the agencies ''could not give a straight 'no' proved what many have suspected about US funding and Palantir,'' he said.  

A HEFTY COMMUNICATIONS BILL

They are the country's most clandestine agencies, their operations and budgets shrouded in secrecy.

But for two agencies that prefer not to spill their secrets, the SIS and GCSB have racked up a hefty bill for communications advice.

In the 2012/13 year a contractor was paid $10,155 for three months' work.

From July the agency employed someone full time ''to fulfill a communications and advisory role.''

The SIS also spent over $8000 printing three brochures since 2009, including ''A Guide to Weapons of Mass Destruction.''

A spotlight on the GCSB after revelations about illegal spying saw the agency take on communications professionals for the first time.

They employed three staff members, one of which was seconded from another department.

The number of Official Information Act requests to the bureau also soared last year, up from 12 in 2008/09 to 154 in 2012/13.

One complaint was investigated by the Ombudsman, and 21 were investigated by the Privacy Commission.

Correction: Earlier the story said the GCSB spent $17m on contractors and consultants in 2012/13. This has been corrected to $1.7m.

- Stuff

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