Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Quick Look at Some Spying 'gone wrong'

At the annual NZIIP conference on Wednesday 15th July, the Privacy Commissioner said “... we've really only in the last 40 years had public scrutiny of things where things go really wrong, so the average view that people in the public have is of the examples such as Ahmed Zaoui, Aziz Choudry, such as Kim Dotcom, where the agencies have been seen to have been in breach of the law.”

It was good to hear that John Edwards acknowledged those three cases as examples of 'where things really go wrong' in New Zealand's security intelligence. But he needs to do his homework and read some history. The three cases listed may have 'gone really wrong' but there are others. 

New Zealand has a long history of things going wrong and laws been breached. Even the very beginnings of official state intelligence was mired in controversy.

The first official intelligence agency was the Security Intelligence Bureau, it kicked off in 1941 with the arrival of Major Folkes, a British MI-5 agent who only three years earlier had been working in real estate. Folkes was duped by a con-man named Sidney Ross. On release from Waikeria prison, Ross travelled directly to Wellington and spun tales of plotters and saboteurs in Rotorua planning to overthrow the government and kill the prime minister. For three months he was believed before finally been uncovered; he was never charged in relation to the deception and Folkes was fired and sent back to Britain. The tale only came to light when Ross appeared in court at a later date on an unrelated charge of safe-breaking. Ross told the judge the story and it became public.

Peter Fraser, PM at the time, when questioned in the House about the débâcle came out with the classic line “It is not advisable in the public interest to discuss publicly the question of the means adopted to ensure public security.” A statement very similar to that trotted out by modern PMs.

After Folkes left Wellington, the SIB was effectively taken over by the police but was reconstructed in the late 1940s after visits again by the MI-5 and then finally in 1956 the SIS was established. In 1969 the first NZSIS Act was passed.

But even when the SIS became legal there continued to be 'things that really go wrong'. The first director, Brigadier Gilbert, had to pay damages to an Auckland barrister for identifying him as a communist in a 1962 speech entitled 'Communist Cancer in our Society'. The barrister was not a communist but an anti-nuclear activist and member of CND.

Other mishaps include the ousting of an SIS agent at Auckland University in 1966. Godfrey, the agent, investigated numerous students and some staff, and even 'bundled a student into a car' to talk to him. This was the prelude to a law change governing enrolment of intelligence staff at universities.

There were also numerous instances of people losing their jobs – or not getting the jobs they wanted – because of active SIS harassment. People were not allowed entry into the US. Anti-racist and colonialism activists, anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid and anti-war activists were spied on. People who signed petitions were spied on. SIS employees infiltrated schools and universities to keep an eye on 'subversives'. Photos appeared in newspapers of bugging devices found in Communist Party, trade union and Labour Party locations. Several spies came clean and admitted to the spying.

In 1969 the Canterbury Council for Civil Liberties said, “A person can never be sure whether what he (sic) says or thinks in private or on legal occasions may not one day be used against him (sic). Let nobody think that these devices are only used against members of one party or that their use can ever be restricted once it has been admitted as a legitimate method of supervising dangerous thought.”

In the 1970s there was the Bill Sutch incident. Sutch was arrested in 1974; the SIS said they had evidence he had passed documents to a Soviet embassy officer. He was acquitted but died within a year of his arrest, it is commonly assumed his death was a result of the stress.

In 1981 there was the list of 20 ‘subversives’ provided to Rob Muldoon. The SIS were successfully sued for publicising incorrect information.

In the 1990s there was the incident of Aziz Choudry – agents were caught by pure chance in the act of going through private papers at his home. It was the first known time the SIS had publicly been caught breaking and entering. Choudry received an out of court settlement.

In 2002 Ahmed Zaoui was labelled a security risk by the SIS. Zaoui was jailed for two years, after five years the security risk assessment was finally withdrawn and finally in 2014 he was granted citizenship.

In 2004 a SIS agent quit because he believed the SIS was wrong in spying on different Maori organisations and people. Helen Clark, PM at the time, denied the operation existed – saying that she was the minister in charge (of spying) and would have seen the warrants. The allegations made by the ex-agent involved spying that would not have needed warrants.

In 2009 university staff were asked to keep an eye out for weapons of mass destruction. SIS Director Warren Tucker attended a meeting of the NZ Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and said, “We encourage you to raise awareness of the risks of WMD proliferation and illicit science and technology acquisition amongst your staff.”

Also in the 2000s the SIS released many files. Some people found they had been spied on as children, including Maire Leadbeater. Her file dated back to when she was ten years old. Her brother, Keith Locke, has notes on his files dating back to when he was a young teenager. Marie and Keith’s mother also has a detailed file, it includes accounts such as following her as she bought fish and chips.

And this is just a brief history of only the SIS, the GCSB is another story.

Boshier, Roger. (1969). Footsteps Up Your Jumper: The Activities of the New Zealand Security Service. (Perspective 6). Wellington: Farm Rd branch of the NZ Labour Party.

OASIS. (2009/11) Retrieved from

Parker, Michael. (1979) The SIS: The NZ Security Intelligence Service. Dunmore Press: Palmerston North, NZ.

Rolfe, Jim (2003). Threats from abroad: organising for the secret war: Jim Rolfe discusses the evolution of New Zealand's Security Intelligence Service. NZ International Review, 28, no. 3 (May/June 2003): 16-19.

Wharton, Miriam (2012) The Development of Security Intelligence in New Zealand, 1945 – 1957 (Masters thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand). Retrieved from

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