Thursday, October 22, 2015

The GCSB’s Moment of Truth

There has been much talk recently about the GCSB’s ‘charm offensive’ and how it is becoming more transparent, and how that is good for democracy. However, what is pitched as transparency and openness is in reality just spin doctoring.

On 11 September, the Privacy Commissioner John Edwards organised a ‘Privacy Forum’ at which GCSB director Una Jagose was going to “describe what GCSB does to deal with cyber threats, including outlining the CORTEX programme.”

At the start of the meeting, two activists of the Stop The Spies coalition (of which OASIS is a part) unfolded a banner reading “This is a Five-Eyes Propaganda Exercise”. That was enough for Jagose and Edwards to cancel the entire event.

It has since become clear just how stage managed the event, and its repeat on 29 September, were.

A response to an Official Information Act request for Una Jagose’s speech and associated correspondence revealed that “the communications are between the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. This is because communications function for the GCSB is managed by the National Security Communications team base in DPMC.” This means that every word we hear or read from the GCSB comes from the same people who write John Key’s speeches.

When asked what the role of the Privacy Commissioner was in providing a forum for an agency whose job it is to invade people’s privacy, Edwards replied on Twitter: “Come along to the next forum, and if you are prepared to behave like adults, and with respect for others, you'll hear.” According to the NZ Herald, he also said “I am not going to have a process of vetting, and I'm not going to have a security to drag people out.”

However, that’s precisely what he did. An email trail between the office of the Privacy Commissioner and the GCSB obtained under a follow up OIA request shows that when the office set out to plan the repeat of Una Jagose’s ‘moment of truth’ on 29 September, it did exactly the opposite of what Edwards had promised. First, the meeting was moved to a place that is not easily accessible and security was hired: “I’ve had a chat to Police about options and their preference is for a venue that is not as open, or as much of a public space, as the National Library. They are willing to provide two officers to be in attendance (we would likely ask them to be plain clothed).”

Next, they made sure no one associated with Stop The Spies would find out about the meeting: “We will notify the majority of previous registrants by email. […] We have gone through the list carefully.”

Now, spin doctors who are worth their money will probably have no problem explaining the apparent contradiction away between ‘no vetting’ and ‘going through the list carefully’, and between ‘no security’ and ‘two plain clothed officers’. John Key has managed to talk his way out of bigger issues. But is that transparency?