Editorial: All not well at GCSB

Last updated 08:11 19/10/2012

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OPINION: In what is turning out to be the drawn-out saga of the extradition of Kim Dotcom, the role of the Government Communications Security Bureau may be a minor irrelevance, but it appears it is about to claim its first scalp.

A senior official is reported to have been placed on leave while an internal review is conducted at the bureau. Whether the official is in any way responsible for the acknowledged errors made by the GCSB, and if so what sanction, if any, there should be, will no doubt be determined by the review and, if they are found to be necessary, any subsequent employment hearings.

In the meantime, however, it is clear that there are indications that all is not well within the organisation.

The GCSB became involved when it was asked by the Organised and Financial Crime Agency, an organisation established in 2008 within the police department to fight serious organised crime, to conduct surveillance over Kim Dotcom before the police conducted a raid to arrest him.

According to a report by the inspector- general of intelligence and security, Paul Neazor, the bureau was concerned not to gather evidence against Kim Dotcom but simply to establish where he might be and how he could be safely arrested. Kim Dotcom was wanted on a warrant from the United States issued after a 72-page indictment alleging serious financial crimes was handed down by a federal grand jury.

It should be remembered that he also had guards at his mansion, one of whom was subsequently charged with possession of a pistol for an unlawful purpose.

The involvement of the GCSB arises from a commendable drive under the Organised and Financial Crime Agency to co-ordinate the various agencies in the fight against increasingly resourceful and mobile criminal organisations. Regrettably, as has since become notorious, under its statute GCSB is not permitted to spy on New Zealand citizens or residents and Kim Dotcom had become a New Zealand resident.

The error is not, however, as straightforward as it at first sight appears. According to Neazor's report, under the immigration statute in force when Kim Dotcom was issued with his visa to stay here he could legally have been subject to GCSB surveillance. Shortly afterwards, though, the law was changed to make his visa one that gave him residency and so forbid GCSB surveillance. Obviously, GCSB should have known that. Whether the failure to spot the change is a sacking offence remains to be seen.

At the very least it has thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on to an organisation which by necessity shuns publicity. It has emerged that the GCSB has had three directors in the past 14 months or so and that a recent survey indicated a disturbing level of dissatisfaction among staff. If there are deeper problems, they should be sorted out quickly.

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To his credit, Prime Minister John Key, the minister in charge of the GCSB, has not attempted to conceal its shortcomings. Unlike the normal practice when intelligence organisations make errors - blanket refusal to comment - Key has shown a level of candour unprecedented either in New Zealand or elsewhere. He has also ordered reviews to get to the bottom of the GCSB's difficulties and install fresh oversight within the organisation.

If there are systemic problems in the GCSB they will not have happened overnight but, given the importance of its work, they must be fixed quickly.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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