New Zealand right to spy on Pacific Island neighbours

COUP LEADER: Fijian nationalist George Speight, flanked by armed gunmen, removes road blocks around the Parliament ...
PHIL REID / Fairfax NZ

COUP LEADER: Fijian nationalist George Speight, flanked by armed gunmen, removes road blocks around the Parliament Building compound a month after storming it in 2000. New Zealand was caught off-guard by the coup because of a lack of spying.

OPINION: 

It is not paradise out there in the South Pacific and while our friendly neighbourhood might be democratic and understand rugby's off-side rule, corruption, self-interest and idiocy stalks their capitals. 

And dangerously surprising things like coups, civil war and mutinies happen, and they have a real and direct impact on New Zealand. 

The Snowden Papers suggest spying in the South Pacific is something new, but the reality is that we have been spying on Pacific countries for decades.

Back in 1914 London asked New Zealand soldiers to invade German Samoa. We said yes, but asked if they could give us some details of German defences. London replied we would look it up in an encyclopaedia.

These days acting like that is not on.

Time-shift to today and pick a Pacific country that suddenly finds itself with people being killed, buildings on fire and assorted bad people breaking into police armouries – as happened in the Solomon Islands. 

New Zealand's Special Air Service was on the way to save lives - what are they expected to do for useful intelligence, Google it? 

As open as Pacific states can seem to be, it takes specialist knowledge and focus to know who the real players are. 

Mobile phone metadata does not provide that.

READ MORE:
* Snowden documents: NZ spied on Pacific Island neighbours
* NZ spied on Fiji military, WikiLeaks cables show
Live coverage
NZ spied on Pacific neighbours - Greenwald
Nicky Hager: Kiwis will be 'shocked' by spy claims
Q&A - Spying and NZ

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In the late-90s the Solomons was still known as the "happy isles" but some astute people were picking up whispers about dangerous people, one in particular, the little known Harold Keke. No one was spying on him but later he became a murderous warlord. 

So was Francis Ona, an obscure farmer who closed down the world's biggest copper mine and sparked a decade-long Bougainville civil war. Much later into that civil war, New Zealand did a lot of spying there. 

We should have, because we were putting unarmed New Zealand soldiers on the ground.

The Snowden papers suggest we are massively collecting metadata across the South Pacific and sending it to the US. 

If this is the extent of the spying, then New Zealand's tragedy is that we are not really listening at all to the Pacific.  

So often we have been taken by surprise. 

The only one that didn't surprise us was Voreqe Bainimarama's 2006 coup in Fiji - only because he flew into Auckland and told us two weeks in advance that he was staging a coup.

Fiji's Sitiveni Rabuka surprised us in 1987 when he staged two coups and in 2000 in Fiji, the coup by George Speight and his band of traitors came as a complete surprise to New Zealand. 

As the Speight coup went on, with politicians being held custody, few had a clear idea who was friend or foe. 

That became clear later, when the spies began listening to phones and collecting metadata across Suva. 

Surprising players emerged - some were seen publicly as friends of democracy and order – yet the intelligence showed they were secretly supplying arms to the rebels holding Parliament.

A large chunk of Fiji's population live in New Zealand and more may come if things ever go bad again. 

We need to be watching. 

Prime Minister John Key has not specified the nationalities of the people on the anti-terror watch-lists, but it is notable that the big Security Intelligence Service raids in Auckland two years ago were on Fiji Muslims. 

Officially we love Samoa and see it as a model, but in 1999 a cabinet minister was assassinated in a plot organised by two other ministers. Had we been listening that might have been avoided because it was mostly organised over international phone lines.

Tonga is more than just a cute Polynesian monarchy.

It used to sell its citizenship and passports to terrorists, and several times it provided flag of convenience to ships hauling al-Qaeda arms around the Mediterranean.   

It's become obvious that some Pacific politicians are more than ready to sell out their assets, and those of the region - Melanesia's forests and fish are being shipped off to China, and the next big game is undersea minerals.

And then there are the money laundering and tax-haven operations.

Samoa might play indifferent rugby, but their off-shore banks reputedly hide billions for people who would rather not be known about.

We need to be aware of who is stealing what and many Pacific countries have neither the resources nor the will to look too closely.

In the late Cold-War 70s I worked in the Samoan prime minister's office and talked with assorted spooks and diplomats from the Soviet Union (one in particular who was later expelled from New Zealand), Israel, the United States, France and Britain. 

Mostly the interest was in what their rival nations were doing. 

Wellington's External Intelligence Bureau (which later morphed into the GCSB) wanted to know why a Chinese acrobatic troop had shown up in Apia and was drawing in most of the population.

Over a beer, one of New Zealand's "spies" and I contrived a Top Secret analysis of the way China was leveraging off Bruce Lee movies to win the hearts and minds of Samoans.

If Snowden is right, and we are spying extensively on the Pacific, then we should be asking next, why are we so often getting surprised?

We're not listening at all.

 - Stuff

Related Links

NZ spied on Pacific Islands video

Live blog: NZ spies on neighbours

'Kiwis will be shocked'

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