Editorial: Lift lid on crime fighter

19:48, Jan 20 2013

Details of the Government Security Communication Bureau's surveillance of Kim Dotcom and his business partner, Bram Van der Kolk, remain under wraps. But the public knows the search warrants for the raid on the internet entrepreneur's Auckland mansion were invalid and the GCSB's surveillance of him was illegal.

More information may emerge, after Justice Helen Winklemann late last year ordered the "discovery" of documents related to the operation and allowed him to sue the police and GCSB for damages.

But now we learn of our Defence Force playing a role in law and order matters, too. According to a newspaper report last week, Air Force planes with hi-tech military equipment are being used to help investigate crimes.

Again, the public has only a whiff of what is going on. An air force publication is quoted as saying one of the aircraft was kitted out with full motion video gear to assist with maintaining law and order during the Rugby World Cup, but it was never used.

This seems innocent enough, so how is the plane used in domestic policing operations? The air force won't provide details on the grounds that disclosure could hamper efforts to detect, investigate and prevent offences. Details could also affect the ability of people facing charges to receive a fair trial.

The police were no more forthright, saying operational support from the military was a long-standing arrangement. But requests for air force help were subject to approval at senior level by both police and the Defence Force "and must comply with all legislative requirements".

Defence chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones emphasised legalities, too: the requesting agencies were responsible for ensuring surveillance warrants were obtained and that it was within the law. The Defence Force was not covered by the legal definition of "law enforcement agency" under laws which controlled powers of search and surveillance but was "mindful of the need for compliance" with the laws.

We know this help involves the air force in fisheries patrols, search and rescue and disaster relief. Whether it should extend to law enforcement raises deeper issues. The Government needs to address those and statutorily spell out the role it expects the Defence Force to play - if any - as a crime fighter.