The Gwyn reports reveals much about the failings of the SIS, but it and the government's response to it also reveals much about the political machinations of this Prime Minister

President Harry Truman famously had a piece of walnut wood on his desk in the oval office that read, "The buck stops here", and when the president referred to it in speeches it was to say that he had to make the final decision and take responsibility for what happened on his watch. John Key, going by his response to the Gwyn report yesterday, lacks such a piece of wood... and such an ethic.

The report in great detail lays out the reasons Phil Goff yesterday got an apology from the SIS. The then spy boss Warren Tucker released information that made Goff look like a liar ahead of the 2011 election and which undermined his credibility; the report finds that Tucker released information that was badly redacted and the few words seen amongst the black chunks gave an impression of dishonest that wasn't true. When the release was perfectly reasonably misinterpreted by everyone from journalists to the Prime Minister's office, Tucker failed to correct that misinterpretation and, frankly, let Goff swing.

Inspector-General Cheryl Gwyn is very generous in her conclusions as to why that happened. She puts it down to a lack of resources, bad process and the lack of good media monitoring by the spy agency. As a result she draws the conclusion that Tucker had no partisan motives and there was no political collusion between the SIS and the PM's office.

While I find it hard to believe that Tucker or his senior staff would have had to rely on media monitoring to see the headlines and bulletins generated by their release of information to Cameron Slater under the Official Information Act and find her acceptance of that excuse rather remarkable, I accept there's no evidence of collusion between the spies and the PM's office.

There's a lot of cock-up in this story, although Gwyn is generous not to put some of it down to ego, pride and the political environment swirling around this. You could argue she fails to join some political dots in this report, but perhaps she would argue that's not her job.

So where does Key and his office come into this? Here's how I interpret it...

When Key came to office he made his deputy chief of staff Phil de Joux the main point of contact in his office for the SIS. That was, Gwyn explains, unprecedented. In retrospect it looks like a poor decision indeed. Intelligence agencies had always dealt direct with the PM. And it was asking for trouble.

Why? Because as Gwyn reports, de Joux was not politically neutral and there was no expectation for him to be neutral. He was a National Party activist. So while she's clear he didn't mis-use classified information, it seems in this case he couldn't resist using sensitive information from the spy agency for his master's political ends.

When the Southland Times ran a story claiming that some Israelis who quickly escaped the Christchurch earthquakes may have been spies, Tucker briefed both the PM and Goff as Leader of the Opposition. And Tucker – who seems to have been far too chatty with the PM's office – told de Joux about the Goff briefing.

So when Goff publicly denied being briefed, de Joux and his offsider Jason Ede saw their chance for a king-hit. It was an election year and you can imagine the thrill.

They had caught Goff in a lie. Boom!

The temptation to use the information from Tucker proved too great, even though the briefing from Tucker to the Leader of the Opposition would usually be in confidence. And even though they would be using security information for political gain, as Gwyn has found.

The problem for them now is that, while they went back and check the information and got the supporting paperwork,Tucker's version of events was wrong.

Tucker says he felt he was between a rock and a hard place, and you can have some sympathy. He wanted the SIS to be more open and presumably he felt the need to be honest and open with the person who the PM had made his main point of contact; that was an important relationship to manage. However he also had obligations of secrecy.

You might think he should have been able to trust the person he was briefing in the PM's office to respect the confidentiality of the information he was sharing. After all, in the past it had always been the PM direct. But in this case it was a political appointee who had no such scruples. A rock and a hard place indeed.

The problem for all involved was that the information Tucker was providing was, in Gwyn's words, "misleading". Tucker had it wrong and admits now, for example, that his notes saying Goff had read the briefing merely meant he had been given it and his eyes would have passed over it. Such is the fine line a person's credibility can rest on.

So the fault is mostly Tucker's. No doubt about it. But the question remains, should de Joux and Ede have been using this information for political gain? And should Key? Gwyn notes that Key rang Tucker direct to confirm that Goff had got the same briefing he had, and when Tucker said yes, he too must have felt he had caught his political opponent red-handed. Key had no qualms making that confirmation from Tucker public.

Key could argue he had checked the facts about an opponent's claims and was putting out information that was in the public interest. But de Joux and Ede, in helping Cameron Slater put in an OIA requesting those badly redacted documents and using their inside information to ensure maximum damage to Labour, were acting purely in the interests of their master and party.

So it comes down to whether you think they had every right to disseminate that SIS information as they saw fit or whether they were bound to a higher standard of behaviour.

What's fascinating, and is being criticised by so many, is that in his response to the report, Key had clearly opted for the former. Despite the fact his own deputy chief of staff used a security briefing for political ends, the Prime Minister will not take even a share of responsibility for the public being misled and Goff's credibility being unfairly undermined. No apology needed. Nothing to see here.

The buck doesn't stop with Key, but rather entirely with Tucker.

And more than that, this morning Key says de Joux and Ede wouldn't have been sacked for their actions even if they were still in his employee. The buck doesn't even stop with them (because, presumably, it if reached them it would implicitly reach Key himself).

This is a political gamble by Key. As with all of the Dirty Politics allegations he has decided to simply deny and mock all of it and concede nothing in the assumption that the public don't care and think he's no worse than all the rest. Whether voters will continue to accept that level of denial is a moot point, but it certainly suggests that political power plays and calculations – both then and now – rule supreme in this Prime Minister's office.

Where's that bit of walnut when you need it, eh?

Comments (31)

by Brent Jackson on November 26, 2014
Brent Jackson

I think John Key loves Responsibility.  He loves the wooshing noise it makes as it passes by him.

(With apologies to Douglas Adams).

by Anne on November 26, 2014
Anne

Pablo at Kiwipolitco uses the word "malfeasance" to describe John Key. Well, the last case of excessive malfeasance to hit the headlines occurred 40 years ago and it didn't end very well for that political leader. I refer of course to Richard Nixon. It was also a slow burning saga, but it ended in that president's resignation just hours before he was going to be impeached. Perhaps we will witness a similar outcome in the foreseeable future in NZ.

by Sharon Sweeney Lauder on November 26, 2014
Sharon Sweeney Lauder

Call me naive if you like but I can't get over the fact that as a member of a school Board of Trustees I am instructed that I can delegate responsibility but NOT accountability.  Why is the PM allowed to?  

by Charlie on November 26, 2014
Charlie

The then spy boss Warren Tucker released information that made Goff look like a liar ahead of the 2011 election and which undermined his credibility

Was he not actually proven to be a liar?  (or just forgetful)

He had been informed by the SIS but subsequently denied it. So there really wasn't much credibility to be undermined, was there?

 

 

 

by Nick Gibbs on November 26, 2014
Nick Gibbs

All this is nothing new. In 2004 Goff leaked details of a confidential briefing given to then leader of the opposition, Don Brash, about the "Gone by lunchtime" nuclear free legislation. That was dirty, so is this. If Key needs to fess up, so does Goff.

by BeShakey on November 26, 2014
BeShakey

In 2004 Goff leaked details of a confidential briefing given to then leader of the opposition, Don Brash, about the "Gone by lunchtime" nuclear free legislation.

A Foreign Affairs staffer leaked notes from a meeting between Brash and US officials. It did happen in 2004 though, so at least you managed to get one basic fact right.

by Tim Watkin on November 26, 2014
Tim Watkin

Charlie, you need to read the report to get your head around this. The SIS has apologised to Goff for a reason. What is laid clear in the report in page after page was that there was a briefing given to Goff but all the assurances the SIS and Tucker gave at the time were exaggerated or incorrect.

A line on the supposed Israeli spying was on the page of the briefing notes, but there's no evidence it was discussed or that Tucker highlighted it. Tucker is on the record agreeing that he did Goff wrong. Just go and skim the report and you'll see you're heading up a blind alley with that argument.

by Tim Watkin on November 26, 2014
Tim Watkin

Shakey,you're not entirely right either. The meeting involved both Brash and Lockwood Smith and it's unclear which of them said 'gone by lunchtime'.

Be honest though. Goff took information from a meeting that should have been in confidence and used it for political gain. He had the decency to front the attack himself (in the House, I think), rather than have a blogger do the dirty work for him, but how is the principle different?

by Anne on November 26, 2014
Anne

I have a recollection - admittedly vague because it happened a long time ago - that someone else present at the meeting (an American official?) confirmed it was Brash who said it. My recollection also is that the confirmation came well after the fallout from the incident had cooled down. However I readily confess I might be mixing it up with something else.

Ummm , I'm not with you Tim Watkin. What meeting are you referring to, and what was the 'information' he revealed?

 

by Alan Johnstone on November 26, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Keys response to this suggests to me he's made his mind up not to seek a 4th term.

He's got his mandate and won his 3rd election. This kind of stuff can now be ignored with very little consequence to him

 

by Charlie on November 26, 2014
Charlie

Tim: Tucker is on the record agreeing that he did Goff wrong

He has to say that - he's a civil servant after all. One wonders what he's saying to friends over dinner... ;-)

But outside of the 'chattering classes', nobody really cares.

Meanwhile Rome burns for Labour. Are they so intent on making pointless attacks on National, that they have forgotten they need to create some cogent policies on important issues?

by Peggy Klimenko on November 26, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@Tim Watkin: "Be honest though. Goff took information from a meeting that should have been in confidence and used it for political gain. He had the decency to front the attack himself (in the House, I think), rather than have a blogger do the dirty work for him, but how is the principle different?"

I've read the Gwyn report, and I recall the 2004 leak. The two situations don't seem to me to be analogous. But even if they were, that wouldn't make either of them unexceptionable. And - as you point out - at least Goff himself led the attack; it wasn't palmed off to some sympathetic blogger to go public with it.

@Charlie: "But outside of the 'chattering classes', nobody really cares."

Yet here you are, proffering an opinion. Perhaps more care about it than you claim. Or are you also one of the reviled "chattering classes"?

by Lee Churchman on November 27, 2014
Lee Churchman

He had the decency to front the attack himself (in the House, I think), rather than have a blogger do the dirty work for him, but how is the principle different?

One was about what would have been the most important NZ foreign policy change in decades, and the other was a piece of character assassination. I guess for some of us there is a clear difference between highlighting a significant policy issue and  merely seeking a temporary political advantage over an opponent. 

by Lee Churchman on November 27, 2014
Lee Churchman

But outside of the 'chattering classes', nobody really cares.

That's actually a lot of people. If you want to see what happens when a significant portion of the population starts believing that its political opponents are treating the integrity of the democratic system as instrumental to their own goals, then go look at Thailand or one of the other democracies that is slowly becoming ungovernable (like the US). 

NZ is lucky in that even the people such as myself who think our political parties are basically hopeless and incompetent wouldn't go so far as to claim that the integrity of the democratic system (in the most expansive sense of that term) has been fatally compromised.

by Nick Gibbs on November 27, 2014
Nick Gibbs

Lee

Both instances were about breaking confidence for political gain. If you sanction one you sanction both and encourage the dirty politics which you denounce so vigourously elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Charlie on November 27, 2014
Charlie

Lee: You're not wrong. Actually, I think it happened here not so long ago.

Looking back at the days of the Clark government during the 2005 election with her dodgy 'credit card' election funding, the 3rd party electioneering issue and the subsequent Auditor General's investigation, I knew several normally non-political people who were motivated to march down Queens street in protest. I think that may have been the last nail in the coffin for the Clark government.

So yes, it can become a real election issue. However, I think this current issue is mostly just smoke. The Chisholm report found nothing substantive, confirming the majority opinion: The Dirty Politics was actually the book itself and the theft that enabled it.

 

 

by Lee Churchman on November 27, 2014
Lee Churchman

Both instances were about breaking confidence for political gain.

Politicians are in the business of political gain but here is an obvious difference between a politician seeking advantage by pointing out his or her opponent's views on policy (which is what politics is supposed to be about), and mere personal attacks. 

_____________________________________________________________________

Looking back at the days of the Clark government during the 2005 election with her dodgy 'credit card' election funding,

How is that dirty politics? It was done in the open with the perpetrators easily identified unlike Mr. Brash's secret agreement with pamphleteering religious nutters. Labour thought it was above board, but it wasn't, and they were held to account. 

by BeShakey on November 27, 2014
BeShakey

He has to say that - he's a civil servant after all

No he's not. He is now retired, and given his eagerness to 'defend his reputation' while he was a civil servant I can't imageine retiring would make him more reluctant. I suspect he doesn't question the report because when given the choice between corruption and incompetence it went for incompetence.

If you sanction one you sanction both...

Goff's response to that claim, for what it's worth: Telling the truth to the public is really important when you're a politician and when I heard Dr Brash lie about not reversing the nuclear free policy when he'd promised it to the Americans - I believed that the public had right to know that.

Initially you could have made the comparison, but the Gwyn report makes clear that Goff wasn't lying and that the information released was presented in a way likely to mislead people into thinking he was.

by Tim Watkin on November 27, 2014
Tim Watkin

Shakey, De Joux and Ede could argue that they were "telling the truth to the public" about Goff lying. Because of what Tucker and other SIS staff had said they thought Goff was lying about not being briefed. It just turns out the info they had was wrong, but they didn't know that at the time.

Lee, you're not really saying that Goff didn't release that hoping for and intending to make some political gain are you?

Charlie, seriously read the report.

by Charlie on November 27, 2014
Charlie

Lee: How is that dirty politics? It was done in the open with the perpetrators easily identified

It was election funding fraud on a grand scale. Enough of an issue to initiate a AG investigation.

It doesn't have to be covert to be dirty.

by Charlie on November 27, 2014
Charlie

Tim:

I suggest you list the factual points made in the report without embellishing them...

....and then list all the unsubstantiated claims/lies/smears made in the book.

I think that by now you're confusing the two because you're so wishing there was something material in all of this to suit your political perspective.

 

by Nick Gibbs on November 27, 2014
Nick Gibbs

@Lee

Politicians are in the business of political gain but here is an obvious difference between a politician seeking advantage by pointing out his or her opponent's views on policy (which is what politics is supposed to be about), and mere personal attacks. 

The OIA against Goff wasn't merely a personal attack. It was to highlight he was either a liar or incompetent. Both just as worthy of highlighting as dodgy policy. If your going to leak or smear then you have a sound motives. If your not going to leak or smear, then you are principled. Neither Labour nor National are principled in this area.

 

by Ross on November 27, 2014
Ross

He's got his mandate and won his 3rd election. This kind of stuff can now be ignored with very little consequence to him.

Too right. He'll go down as possibly the worst PM, and certainly the most dishonest and untrustworthy, since and probably earlier than Robert Muldoon. I am not sure he wants that on his tombstone.

 

 

by BeShakey on November 27, 2014
BeShakey

...De Joux and Ede could argue that they were "telling the truth to the public" about Goff lying.

Standard practice in all ministerial offices is for unredacted versions of all OIA releases to be provided so that the office can assess what has/hasn't been withheld. I don't know whether that was the case here, but it would be unusual if not.

I suggest you list the factual points made in the report without embellishing them...

Translation: it's Tim's fault Charlie's posts ignore the facts because Tim didn't read the report and provide Charlie with a summary, preferably one that supports his prejudices. Shame on you Tim!

by Tim Watkin on November 27, 2014
Tim Watkin

Shakey, I feel ashamed. Just ashamed. There's me having read the book and the report and Charlie hasn't and. it's all my fault! Again, Charlie, read the report with all its unembellished facts and you'll see it pretty much mirrors what I've written.

It's only 80 pages, I'm sure you can handle it.

by Peggy Klimenko on November 27, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

@ Charlie: "He has to say that - he's a civil servant after all. One wonders what he's saying to friends over dinner... ;-)"

You do realise, don't you, that this could be characterised as illustrating a want of political neutrality - or at least as creating such an impression. He is - or was - a senior public servant. He wasn't paid to be partisan, or to create that impression. Note the findings in this regard of the Gwyn report: paragraphs 14 - 18.

"The Dirty Politics was actually the book itself and the theft that enabled it."

You could carry on believing that. Or you could read the book.

"The Chisholm report found nothing substantive, confirming the majority opinion"

Well of course it found nothing: the terms of reference were so narrow that everything of moment fell outside the scope of the inquiry. See this:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=1136...

 

by Lee Churchman on November 28, 2014
Lee Churchman

Lee, you're not really saying that Goff didn't release that hoping for and intending to make some political gain are you?

It's fine for politicians to make some political gain out of highlighting problems with their opponent's policies – that's sort of their job. These are issues of substance. Calling your opponent a liar over some small matter that you aren't even sure he actually lied about has no public benefit – it just benefits the National Party at the expense of the truth and common decency. 

@Charlie

It was election funding fraud on a grand scale. Enough of an issue to initiate a AG investigation. It doesn't have to be covert to be dirty.

The pledge card issue was what Aristotle calls ignorance of the particular, rather than ignorance of the universal (which is morally blameworthy). Someone who parks in a no-parking zone on purpose when they know they aren't supposed to is ignorant of the universal. Someone who parks in the same zone not knowing that it is a no-parking zone is ignorant of that fact, not of the rule about not parking. 

Similarly, Labour didn't set out to intentionally commit electoral fraud. They just weren't properly aware that what they were doing was electoral fraud. They probably should have known, but the general consensus seems to have been that the rules weren't as clear as they should have been. 

In contrast, it now appears that Nicky Hager was right and that John Key's cohorts – with his approval – set out to run a smear campaign against their political opponents that couldn't be traced back to them. That is intentional, low-minded, dishonest, sleazy behaviour and they knew it was and thus tried to hide it. At least it's now obvious to even the most bovine New Zealanders that John Key is full of shit.

It's not as if those of us who knew the signs didn't know it was going on. It's always pathetically easy to work out what the right's latest evildoings are. You just have to look at what they are accusing others of. In this case the loud attempts to paint Lynn Prentice's blog as a means for Labour to spread muck. 

by Tim Watkin on November 28, 2014
Tim Watkin

Y'know the real argument to say the PMO's leak was worse than Goff's is that involves the SIS. Our intelligence agencies have such little oversight and are answerable almost exclusively by the PM, therefore the PM and his staff must be especially respectful of that position and the information they receive in that position.

To use foreign affairs information for political gain is bad, but to use security information for political gain is worse.

by Lee Churchman on November 28, 2014
Lee Churchman

To use foreign affairs information for political gain is bad

How is it bad, when it is something that New Zealanders want and deserve to know? The Brash led National Party set out to deliberately deceive the electorate about their plans for government - we know that because Nicky Hager was given their emails.

What Goff did was right and has an obvious public interest defence. His information was accurate, relevant and in the public interest. There's just no moral equivalence, even before you get to the misuse of the OIA and the SIS.

by Tim Watkin on December 01, 2014
Tim Watkin

Lee, I'm not arguing it's an exact replica and I get the differences of degree and circumstance you point out, but I'm surprised you can't/won't see the equivalence.

Goff had access to the MFAT info purely because of his position in government, just as Ede and De joux only had access to the information because of their positions in government. You can say the same for Key in his revelation that Goff had been briefed when Goff was denying it, though he simply said it when asked in an interview (with no leak or prompting either) rather than leaking it to Slater or misusing the OIA. (Though while the dictating the OIA request seems extreme it's true that this wouldn't have been the first time politicians suggested to a journalist blogger a certain line of inquiry via the OIA).

You argue there was a public good in Goff's use of official information for his political gain. Yet, again, you can't seriously believe he released that purely out of the goodness of his heart. But even if that was his at the heart of his motivation, why shouldn't Key, Ede and De Joux use the same argument from what they knew at the time? Remember, Gwyn found they were misled by Tucker and believed that at the time they thought Goff was lying. They genuinely thought they had caught Goff deceiving the public and were exposing a man who wanted to be PM in a bald-faced lie.

Now I agree whether or not Goff was briefed on some tourists who weren't spies is certainly less important than a much-loved policy of NZ identity such as the nuclear-free legislation, but they could argue they were releasing the info to show voters the cut of Goff's job... No, I don't believe that either. But then why believe it of one side and not the other? Isn't that your political slip showing?

Goff's accuracy was not down to any virtue on his part (or rather, Key et al's inaccuracy was not their fault). A lying would-be PM is always relevant. The Nats can also construct a public good defence. Key is not Brash.

So that does convince you of an equivalence?

(As I've said, the nature of the information makes it different - SIS. And the fact they were using a (then) pliant blogger makes some difference. As noted, Goff used the info himself. But English is right inasmuch that politicians try to smear each other all the time and leak information to journalists to do it. That has been happening for decades if not longer).

by Andrew P Nichols on December 03, 2014
Andrew P Nichols

Definitely Nixonian. What is really scary is that given a majority of that declining portion of the electorate who still vote reelected Key despite these revelations, one wonders what level of outrageous behaviour will now be deemed sufficiently unacceptable as to require a resignation. We really are going down a slippery slope.

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