NZ Spying In the Pacific: Bad Tactics Support Worse Strategy

New Zealand's lack of trust in regional countries, might backfire on her own efforts


Chances are the New Zealand intelligence service knows you are reading this now.

And, if you are in Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji or many other Pacific countries, they may also know what websites you visit (even the ones you erase from your history), and who you just texted, emailed and called.

This is according to documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden and covered yesterday in the New Zealand Herald and The Intercept.

According to the reports, at least up until the time Snowden left, New Zealand had a “full take” policy on interceptions from many Pacific island countries, including Tonga. That meant, for example, the New Zealand government could gain negotiating advantage by reading emails made by Tongan trade negotiators.

That means, that New Zealand intelligence might be privy to His Majesty’s travel arrangements.

Or gain leverage by listening on the conversations of the Prime Minister. Or even invade the privacy of the His Majesty the King.

This invasion of national sovereignty can greatly affect Tonga’s economic development, which will consequently affect its security. The same is for the rest of the whole region. Prime Minister Key has repeatedly shown it will put New Zealand’s best interests above those of its neighbours.

New Zealand also made the link between aid and influence for Wellington explicit when it folded NZAid into its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. According to the coverage, many of the intercepts were geared towards giving New Zealand an economic advantage in the region.

This should not be surprising. The New Zealand government was elected to protect the interests of New Zealand, not the interests of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, etc.  The only one who’s job it is to stand up for Tonga is the Tongan government.

The problem with the New Zealand strategy is that its approach is heavy-handed, greedy, and one-sided enough that economies across the Pacific are suffering, forcing PICs to look farther afield for allies and economic partners who (at least seemingly) won’t be so extortionate.

And so, while New Zealand may seem to be ‘in control’ in the Pacific, the tighter it grips, the more the region is slipping through its fingers. These latest revelations won’t help, but they also won’t be a surprise to most PIC policy-makers. Trust is already very low.

In Tonga, the news of the intercepts came on the same day that the country announced that, due to an aid agreement with Australia and New Zealand, yet another sworn New Zealand police officer was being appointed Tonga’s Police Commissioner. The last New Zealand officer left early. He arrived speaking no Tongan and was subsequently involved in a case in which it was alleged he facilitated the kidnapping of a girl who was exfiltrated to the US.

Former Tongan Police Commissioner Grant O'Fee

Former Tongan Police Commissioner Grant O’Fee

The combination of “full take” by Wellington and a New Zealand police Commissioner sitting in Nuku’alofa might mean at least two things.

First, investigations into New Zealand abuses of technological surveillance can get stalled, and the surveillance itself can be facilitated.

Second, the intercepted communications can be passed from the New Zealand government to the Police Commissioner, and so the Police Commissioner becomes a “political henchman” for the New Zealand government in Tonga going after people they might disagree with, especially the traditional leadership, or local business-people.

Wellington’s tactics are driving a wedge between it and the Pacific. It feels as though New Zealand intelligence views the relationship with the Pacific as ‘us and them’. To compound the ill feeling that generated, from the region, the policy can look very much racist.

If New Zealand wants to know what is going on in the region – a region in which so much of what happens is informal and non technology-based anyway – why not just approach its neighbors with respect, build trust, build lasting relationships, and just ask, as friends.

That way, the region can grow stronger together, rather than be driven by ham-fisted tactics guided by a flawed strategy.

This flawed intrusion is forcing diplomatic missions in the region, like the Chinese, to up-the-ante and upgrade to higher levels of encryption.

New Zealand’s Inspector General for Intelligence and Security, or the New Zealand government, has not even identified what aspects of the information it is going after, it actually keeps and accesses.

But this is too much power, in too few hands. Hands that are not accountable especially to the interests of the region as a whole. When Prime Minister Key stated: “Where we gather intelligence, particularly if a friend is involved, it isn’t to harm that country.” In what way is a ‘no-harm’ line drawn? And who is ‘watching the watchers’ of the region’s interests?

There is no threat emanating from the region, and the need for ‘full-spectrum trolling’ is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

It means that the region has lost its faith in the New Zealand government’s ability to unite and inspire the region into a safer, prosperous one. So much so, that New Zealand knows the only way to get information out of the region is to eavesdrop. That it can neither induce, command, nor control.

But it is in the New Zealand government’s interests to up-play its global role: by hyping the Pacific threat, and upping its ‘central’ role in it, when these are really delusional: none of it exists.

If there is anything for Five Eyes to worry about, it is the fact that most terror and transnational criminal organizations operating in the region, which are from abroad and not endemic in the region, emanate and/or are attracted to New Zealand and Australia in this side of the Pacific. Even with the ‘China Threat’, the countries in deepest integration with China are New Zealand and Australia! But to illegally eavesdrop on the islands is a continuation of the ‘Africanisation of the South Pacific’ narrative, and be convinced that the South Pacific is a source of problems, rather than solutions.

The strategy is flawed, and the justification is morally highly questionable, and what it will result in is greater division and mistrust in the region. There is no reason now for Fiji to asks for Chinese help in greater encryption technologies. Even Tonga. The fate of their democracies lies with the capacity to make private talks with their interests abroad.

It sounds like the New Zealand government is taking a little too much advice from China’s Sun Tzu, in striving to “know all” about friends and enemies, in order to prevail in the competition. The key to that statement is the wisdom of ‘good intelligence’, rather than overwhelming information-gathering. It might not be too long before New Zealand governments suddenly claims to have been ‘forced’ by its responsibility to the bigger Five Eyes brothers, and so have neglected government solemn duty to respect and uphold dignity of holy citizen, to cutting short political deals (that make them look important) at the cost of losing trust of both citizen and friend.

Already the Tongan and Samoan leaderships are showing signs of derision and ignorance of the matter: one says “waste of time”, the other “it’s a pity”. Both do not seem to care enough, even on such a high security issue!

What is strange though, is that up till now, Fijian Bainimarama has been eerily silent on the matter! And he would have been really vocal. He is after all, formerly a Commodore in the defense of Fiji. Esala Teleni, Chair of Fiji’s Defense Review Commission, said simply, “Spying is an old game!” Which means a lot, the least of all being dismissive. The rest of the security establishment in Fiji are equally dismissive and comfortably saying: “No comment!”

For Prime Minister Key, it is not enough to consider if mass surveillance is “legal” or not. Before authorization, this is a question of will and real statecraft. The obvious question is: does New Zealand have what it takes to move the region?

For Prime Minister Pohiva? This is the worst breach of sovereignty and the dignity of all Tongans, since all Tongan recorded history! His approach however shows he is either weak, or hasn’t truly appreciated the gravity of this issue. Can he secure the future of his country?

In the mean time, whatever foe the GCSB and New Zealand was looking out for out there in cyberspace, it is giggling at this moral blunder! And it is in the council of the mistrustful and estrangement, that one’s true adversaries thrive.


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