Return of SIS files

10:43, Apr 05 2009

A whiff of the musty battles of the Cold War years was recalled this week with news on the release of files held by the Security Intelligence Service on activists and others in Christchurch, writes The Press in an editorial.

 Under a policy adopted by the SIS six years ago to allow the release of material that is now only of historical interest, the ageing Left-wing agitator Murray Horton and Bill Rosenberg, the son of the late Marxist economist Wolfgang Rosenberg, have obtained their own SIS files.

According to the director of the SIS, Dr Warren Tucker, 26 people received their personal files last year and they had welcomed the service's greater openness. As the events with which the files deal recede into the past, the SIS's proactive declassification of files and impartial release of the information is to be commended. It not only helps understanding of our recent history, it can increase confidence about the way in which the SIS itself has carried out its functions.

The activities of the security intelligence services have been a particular hobgoblin in Left-wing circles at least since the SIS caught William Ball Sutch passing material to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It continues to this day with the agitation against the spy base at Waihopai. Horton is inclined to find the old files on him and his Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa organisation sinister. In a wildly hyperbolic flourish, he claims it shows that New Zealand has behaved towards dissidents in much the same way as communist police states.

Horton needs to become better acquainted with how the Soviet KGB (even the present Russian FSB) operate. It is somewhat rougher than the mere collection of snippets of rather dull personal gossip and subscribing to activists' newsletters. In communist countries during the Cold War, dissidents and activists were jailed or exiled, or worse.

As Tucker correctly noted, the SIS files have to be viewed in their historical context. The service's methods and those it is interested in have changed over the years. During the Cold War, its target was foreign attempts at subversion, which have since been well documented, often through legitimate political organisations. The SIS would have been remiss if it had not directed itself at that just as nowadays it would be remiss if it did not pay attention to the activities of religious extremists.

To judge from the file on Cafca that Horton has obtained, the SIS's interest in the organisation does not seem to have been very great and appears to have been at its height during protests and such, when there might have been the possibility of legitimate security concerns. By the mid-1980s the SIS recognised that Cafca was of "minimal security interest" and stopped spying on it.

Rosenberg suggests that the file on his father reflects a McCarthyite mindset and wonders whether it impeded his father's application for a professorship. There is no evidence of that. In fact, far from having his career ruined, as happened to many of the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy's victims, Wolfgang Rosenberg, who was for many years an active supporter of the communist autocracies in North Korea and elsewhere, had a long and uninterrupted career as a senior academic at Canterbury University, and was frequently employed by state radio. McCarthyism has never formed much of New Zealand's mindset.



The Press