Intelligence merge is not new

In all but name the Intelligence Review recommended a merge of the key NZ intelligence agencies. The proposal put forward by Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy was to consolidate legislation governing the GCSB and NZSIS.

This idea is not new. In 2009 there was talk of merging the intelligence agencies. A Treasury official’s notebook had been found in central Wellington and in the pages were notes about a merge. At the time John Key confirmed a merge of the intelligence agencies was an option, “I drove the decision to have a look (at how they operate) because there is quite a bit of crossover.”  Value for money was also an issue he said. (The Murdoch Report was the result of this review)

Dollar value is a driving force and has already seen the building of the one-stop intelligence building, Pipitea House, in downtown Wellington.

The GCSB and NZSIS operating under a single comprehensive Act would ensure the agencies have the same purpose, same processes, same functions, same powers, same over-sight and even the same single co-ordinator. All the surveillance tools could then be shared inter-agency which would obviously save money. Intelligence is costly, the Murdoch Report noted that “it is worth considering this level of expenditure (the annual intelligence cost) not just as a cost in budget terms but in the context of the annual ‘subscription’ paid by New Zealand to belong to the 5-Eyes community.” (The 2015 Budget had the intelligence cost at $140million.)

The 5-Eyes were mentioned by Cullen and Reddy in the Intelligence Review but only from the aspect of how 5-Eyes surveillance affected New Zealanders, there was no looking at the role of the 5-Eyes and why we should be part of it. In fact, Cullen and Reddy praised the Five Eyes as “by far New Zealand’s most valuable intelligence arrangement, giving us knowledge and capability far beyond what we could afford on our own.

It is this ‘knowledge and capability’ that the Intelligence Review recommends be consolidated and shared inter-agency.

It could be pondered how much influence the US and the 5-Eyes had on the Intelligence Review: the head of the FBI was in Wellington the week the Intelligence Review was being analysed by the Intelligence Select Committee,  days after the Review’s release James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, was in town.

The Intelligence Review could have been a chance to look at the role of surveillance in society and especially at New Zealand’s role in the 5-Eyes. Instead we will become even more enmeshed in the 5-Eyes. As a result of the Review legislation will be passed through parliament consolidating the intelligence agencies and expanding surveillance and data-sharing between all agencies.

Chris Finlayson, the Minister in Charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, says the new legislation could be drafted by July 2016. At that stage there will be chances for people to send in submissions and participate in (as described by Finlayson in 2014) mere chit-chat with the select committees.

However, rather than engaging in chit-chat with the government about the 107 recommendations of the review, what is needed is debate on surveillance and its role in society.