Reconfiguring the Relationship Between Intelligence Professionals and the Public: A First Step Towards Democratising New Zealand’s National Security?

Authors: Rogers, Damien & Mawdsley, Shaun1

Published in National Security Journal, 29 September 2021

DOI: 10.36878/nsj20210929.02

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Abstract

The secrecy surrounding intelligence work has meant the relationship between New Zealand intelligence professionals and the public they serve has always been somewhat problematic. Over the past decade, leaks, scandals and a deadly act of terrorism have certainly not improved the public’s trust and confidence in the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau. While the Government has undertaken several measures to strengthen the credibility of those agencies, including initiating public inquiries and bolstering governance arrangements, its current approach is rather limited, has reached those limits and could now be counterproductive. In light of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019 to increase public involvement in New Zealand’s counterterrorism effort, we argue that it is time for this problematic relationship between intelligence professionals and the public to be rethought and reconfigured. To that end, we identify several concrete actions that parliamentarians and university leaders could consider taking to actively support intelligence professionals as they foster a society of informed citizens and create new opportunities to bring national security matters into the heart of democracy’s deliberative processes.

Keywords: terrorism, public inquiries, official secrecy, transparency, expertise.


Introduction

It is an oft-cited but still lamentable fact of life that the politics of contemporary world affairs are violent and dangerous. Political violence is especially rife, with armed conflicts fought in faraway places, such as Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus and Tigray in Ethiopia, the situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain and war continues in Syria.1 Mass atrocities unfold in distant locales, such as Cameroon, Myanmar and Yemen.2 Acts of terrorism threaten to spark life into the dying embers of the Global War on Terror by encouraging another wave of reactionary state-based violence by liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. Closer to home, Brenton Tarrant, now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for attacking two mosques and killing fifty-one Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March 2019, demonstrated that New Zealand’s geographic remoteness from foreign theatres of conflict offers no shield from the harms associated with violent extremism.3 Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen’s knife attack at an Auckland supermarket on 3 September 2021 offers a stark and grisly reminder that the threat of terrorism remains. Danger, however, is not only found at the barrel of a gun or the edge of a knife’s blade, but lurks, too, at the touch of a keyboard. Transformed as cybersecurity challenges, traditional forms of espionage, sabotage and subversion take on added complexity, scale and dynamism. There is no shortage of state
and non-state actors with the capability and intent needed to undermine New Zealand’s democratic institutions or unduly influence its democratic practices.4

Under these intense conditions of insecurity, New Zealanders need intelligence and security agencies that can coordinate with other government agencies to protect them from harms associated with various forms of political violence and to ensure the integrity of their democratic institutions. During the Global War on Terror, both the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) received appreciable increases in funding,5 enlarged their respective workforces,6 were granted an array of greater information-gathering and surveillance powers,7 and provided stronger secrecy provisions for their work.8 It is very difficult, however, for intelligence professionals to demonstrate to the New Zealand public how or why these agencies’ recent growth enables the New Zealand Government to better prepare for routine as well as surprise or novel security challenges.

While the relationship between New Zealand intelligence professionals and the public they serve has always been somewhat problematic, due in large part to the veil of official secrecy that creates a widespread ignorance of intelligence work, the Government’s adoption in 2011 of an expansive definition of national security deepens this divide. Obfuscating the distinction between external and internal security threats, or indeed what can be considered a threat, fashions the conditions in which New Zealand citizens and permanent residents can be considered a source of, or conduit for, serious danger.9 This broad definition positions  intelligence professionals separately from, and at times antagonistically to, New Zealand citizens and permanent residents as some individuals and groups conduct unlawful and nefarious activities. Put simply, the insider group of ‘us’ as members of the New Zealand nation and the outsider group of ‘them’ as foreigners has the potential to become an insider group of intelligence professionals and an outsider group of the general public.10 We fear an effect of this estrangement may create a perception that intelligence work is becoming less about protecting all New Zealanders and more about predating upon some of them as a means of fortifying intelligence professionals’ status. Building on several recommendations to increase public involvement in New Zealand’s counterterrorism efforts made by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019, we argue that now is a propitious moment to rethink and reconfigure this problematic relationship between intelligence professionals and the public.

While a flurry of academic work examines various aspects of New Zealand’s counterterrorism effort in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attack on the United States of America11 and, more recently, in the wake of Tarrant’s attack in Christchurch,12 academics have also produced useful studies concerning New Zealand’s search for national security more broadly defined.13 The academic literature focusing specifically on New Zealand intelligence work has so far cast light on scandals and controversies,14 laws and governance arrangements,15 as well as organisational change and intelligence operations.16 However, this nascent field of New Zealand intelligence studies has not yet considered intelligence practitioners as a cadre of professionals, nor has it examined the important relationship between those professionals and the public they serve. We think this omission deserves to be remedied because the practices of intelligence work are, at heart, a social phenomenon.17 Taking a politico-sociological perspective on the study of intelligence also gives focus to the social (and sometimes transnational) dynamics informing intelligence work as well as to the social consequences of that work.

In what follows, we aim to fill that gap in the nascent literature by calling into question the relationship between New Zealand intelligence professionals and the public they serve. In our first section, we argue that this problematic relationship produces a widespread ignorance of intelligence work, and suggest that leaks, scandals and a deadly act of terrorism are factors that have suppressed the New Zealand public’s trust and confidence in the NZSIS and the GCSB over the past decade. In our second section, we examine several measures that the New Zealand Government has so far undertaken to improve the credibility of those agencies, specifically commissioning public inquiries and organisational reviews, strengthening existing public accountability measures, and increasing the transparency of agencies’ activities. But we find, in our third section, that this approach is rather limited because it ignores broader questions about the formational qualities of leadership of New Zealand’s intelligence professionals, the type of support those professionals provide to the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and the New Zealand Police, and their ongoing connection to US intelligence and security agencies. We suspect the current approach may even be counterproductive as it could generate concerns that collectively sustain a deep public unease about New Zealand intelligence work.

Our article aims to demonstrate the value of academic research on New Zealand intelligence work to intelligence professionals, security practitioners and their parliamentary masters. Academic freedom is vital not only for pure research that aims to advance collective understanding through the production of new knowledge, but also for applied research that speaks to communities of practice that lie beyond academia.18 Academic freedom is valuable because it enables an intellectually independent appraisal of New Zealand intelligence work, the surveillance apparatus underpinning that work, and the professional cultures and daily work practices of those employed within the intelligence and security agencies, though this value is not yet fully recognised by those committed to a whole-of-government approach to security. While we happily highlight the value of academic research, we are mindful that not everyone will appreciate our argument. This article, which tests conventional thinking and challenges received wisdom on the current relationship between New Zealand intelligence professionals and the public they serve, may prove unsettling for some individuals and groups within the profession. Nevertheless, taking our cue from John Battersby, Rhys Ball and Nick Nelson, who adopted a “critical approach, but [one] also designed to be constructive,”19 we close out this article by arguing the time is ripe to rethink and reconfigure this problematic relationship before we identify several concrete actions that parliamentarians and university leaders could consider taking to actively support intelligence professionals as they foster a society of informed citizens and create opportunities to bring national security matters into the heart of democracy’s deliberative process – where we think these important discussions and debates belong.

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1  Damien Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Massey University, Auckland. Shaun Mawdsley is a PhD Candidate in History at the School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication, Massey University, Auckland. This article draws on a larger research paper entitled “Turning the Dial from ‘Social Licence’ to ‘Democratic Security’: New Zealand’s Intelligence and Security Agencies and the Case for an Informed Citizenry.” Available on request by emailing D.R.Rogers@massey.ac.nz.