The dots still do not join up in the case of the incompetent spies

Last updated 05:00 29/09/2012

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OPINION: The Prime Minister taunted the opposition on Tuesday with being unable to join the dots in the messy interaction between the security services and Kim Dotcom, but the picture would be clear, he said, when Paul Neazor released his report. The report now has been released but the picture remains blurred. That is a misfortune for the Government and New Zealanders, but for different reasons.

For the Government, the obscurity promises that the affair will continue - perhaps a parade of revelations and embarrassments that will further damage its credibility. For the people of New Zealand, the obscurity promises the pleasure of fascination with political unravelling but the worry that their nation's security is insecure. It therefore is in the interests of both that the issues are cleared up. A wider and independent inquiry into the illegal spying on Dotcom and the legality of the security services' operations overall would do that.

The Government, by not initiating such an inquiry, is in effect saying that all the malfunctioning has been made public and that measures to prevent its repeat are being put in place. That, though, is wrong because the Neazor report was conducted by a participant in the events it attempts to clarify, is insufficiently informative, too narrowly focused and leaves important issues unsettled.

Paul Neazor, as Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, is charged with ensuring the legality of the operations of those services. It is a vital role because it is part of the pact between citizens and state: Citizens cede some of their rights, such as that to privacy, if the state does not exploit the ceding. It is the role of the Inspector-General to rigorously and independently ensure that the pact is upheld.

It is too much to say that Neazor should have detected the illegality of the spying on Kim Dotcom, because his position seems to be part-time and it would be impossible for him to check every fact in every file. But in his lengthy tenure in office he should have ensured the agencies understood and acted in accordance with the law that governs their operations. He failed to ensure the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) had grasped its limited warrant under its own legislation and the related matters of whom it cannot spy on under the Immigration Act. The failure is fundamental and implicates the agency and Neazor.

The possibility that he saw the Dotcom file early in the operation also undermines his position. His critics say he was potentially so involved in the operation that he cannot now bring uncontaminated judgment to its legality.

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Seriously further undermining Neazor's position is that an inquiry has had to be launched into the legality of past operations of the GCSB, a necessity presumably required because the Inspector-General had not checked a basic requirement of their legality - that they did not target New Zealand citizens or permanent residents.

Neazor might not have been inspecting enough in general or in particular. Even if the issues of credibility are put aside, the inadequacies of the Neazor report remain, prime among them its narrow focus. It does no more than explain the circumstances of the wrongful spying on Dotcom, without any reference to the associated circumstances - to what extent has the Government been pressing the security services to act with the FBI against Dotcom, did a police officer mislead the court about the involvement of the services, how rigorous are the intelligence services in ensuring the legality of their operations?

The narrow focus was forced on Neazor because of the terms of reference drawn up by the Prime Minister. They had the advantage, from John Key's perspective, of producing a quick report and denying scrutiny of the wider issues, but the result will be continuing revelations. Dotcom promises that, and so do his effective lawyers.

Another residual matter will dog the Government - Key's failure to take responsibility for his department's fundamental mistakes. They add to the perception of a politician not focused on the hard grind at his Beehive desk and too preoccupied with overseas travel, glad-handing and the smooching photo opportunity.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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