Glenn Greenwald's claims starting on The Nation this weekend have unleashed a flood of news. Can we process it in time? And what will it mean to a very pragmatic people?

It's going to be difficult for all the claims made by Glenn Greenwald to be properly reported, checked and debated in just the five days before the election, but New Zealand journalists are having a pretty good crack at it. In just two 24 hour cycles Greenwald's main claims have been laid out, rejected by the Prime Minister, and challenged again by Greenwald. And that's all before a single document has been released by either side.

Everyone has been preparing for this stand-off for months – in the PM's case, ever since Dotcom first claimed Key had lied about not knowing of him prior to the police raid on his house and the Snowden story broke. Now it's like the starters' gun has gone off and everyone is sprinting for an early lead.

But it's going to be one angle at a time, and the first one – rightly – is whether mass surveillance has been occurring. It was always going to be as much a semantic argument as one of substance, and we're quickly moving through that. Key is on the record denying "wholesale surveillance". Greenwald accused the GCSB of "massive and indiscriminate" surveillance. Key said the GCSB had considered mass surveillance as part of a plan to protect New Zealand firms from cyber attacks; he had asked for a business case to be prepared, but he later rejected it. 

Key had clearly been saving that line for months and thought it was a clincher. But Greenwald has some back with specific language around the surveillance being "underway". He says it went "far beyond" a business case. As I say, this is before we've seen the documents from either side.

Already Key has admitted now that the GCSB wanted to perform a type of surveillance that was probably illegal. Already there are claims our only international internet cable has been compromised by our own spy agency. Already we're deep into exactly what the GCSB reform bill allowed and didn't. And Greenwald says Ed Snowden has written an article about to be published claiming he used a lot of metadata from New Zealand.

Is it happening too quickly for the public to absorb? Journalists are moving the story on to make sure we can all get through the semantics to that subtance, but there's a risk that, as with Dirty Politics, the claims and counter-claims so fast that all the public see is a blur. Hopefully this week some media will pause to spell out those claims and counter-claims to allow people to catch up.

Can we debate what is illegal or not and what is moral or not in less than a week?

But the mass surveillance angle is only one. There's the claim by Greenwald that the GCSB is using XKeyscore, a programme that records every keystroke you make. Key has refused to confirm or deny this in the past. Greenwald claims New Zealand uses the same technology the US does and contributes to it as well. We are every bit as involved in Five Eyes spying as America, Britain, Canada and Australia.

Further, we use it to spy not only on those who are anti-democratic and might wish to harm innocents around the world, including terrorists, but also our friends and trading partners.

As Greenwald told Lisa Owen on The Nation on Saturday:

So, are we spying on anyone on behalf of America or any of the other Five Eyes countries?

Yes, New Zealand spies on a variety of countries on behalf of the United States.

Who are we spying on?

That's the reporting that we're still working on, and that's the reporting that we're gonna do very shortly. But I can tell you for certain that there are countries that the United States— The NSA is incapable of accessing certain countries because of hostile relations they have with those countries, and they use a variety of allies, including New Zealand, to spy on those countries for them.

So, you're talking about hostile relationships there. Would we be spying on China, then, for them?

The GCSB spies on both hostile countries and allies for the United States, for the United Kingdom as well. Countries that probably New Zealanders would expect to find on the list and then countries that New Zealanders would say, 'Why are we spying on countries like this that are our allies and are Western democracies?'

This is likely to be part two of the story. While the initial focus, less than a week before an election, is reasonably on whether elected representatives told the truth, the bigger picture is how successive governments have used our spies and the Five Eyes alliance. Are we using our spies not just to keep us safe, as our leaders always say, but also for economic advantage. Here's Greenwald to Owen again:

There is absolutely an economic imperative, trying to gain economic advantage. There's diplomatic reasons to do it, to try and work out what those other countries are doing, but there's also a question of democratic subversion — of controlling one's own citizenry by knowing what it is they're saying and doing.

Because the thing is, the Prime Minister has said before, and he said it again on this programme this morning, that he's saving lives, basically, in essence, in effect; he's saving us from a threat.

One of the things that government officials have been doing since the 9/11 attack is using terrorism to manipulate the citizenry, and they invoke the word terrorism or the spectre of terrorism over and over and over again to justify whatever it is that they're doing. It's extremely easy for politicians to say, 'What I'm doing is something I'm doing in secret. I can't tell you anything about it, but you should trust me to do these things, because I'm keeping you safe. And all the evidence we've seen over the last year and half is that by and large this spying system is not geared toward anything we would recognise as terrorism but is geared towards the kinds of corrupt motives that we typically associate with such programmes.

Now you might say economics have always been at the heart of espionage. But China may have something to say about that, and so might any allies we have spied on. Look at the row between the US and Germany when Angela Merkel learnt her phone had been tapped. What is our involvement in such strategies?

This is also pertinent given that we are in the midst of negotiations of the TPP – have we been spying on other countries at the table and are they spying on us? Do we need to keep negotiations secret from the public if everyone has spied out everyone else's bottomlines?

There are many, many questions our role in the Five Eyes alliance raises, but the first one to answer is whether our existing government has been "wholesale" in telling us the truth.

And of course only then can we judge how much New Zealanders care. I suspect the instinct of many will still be that "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear". No-one believes that even if a spy collects their emails to a mistress or anyone else they shouldn't be talking to will end up being used against them. New Zealanders tend to assume that "she'll be right", that those in authority can be trusted and that unless there's a direct and pragmatic impact on their lives, well, let's just get on with life.

Given the allegations in Dirty Politics, we also have to wonder if people have the appetite and energy for more complicated questions of integrity.

Unlike the US and Europe, we get much less upset about individual rights and respond less in principle to such news. As frustrating as that can be, it's a big part of who we are. Will this week's news change that?

Comments (13)

by Katharine Moody on September 15, 2014
Katharine Moody

Unlike the US and Europe, we get much less upset about individual rights and respond less in principle to such news. As frustrating as that can be, it's a big part of who we are.

I'd have thought standing as a small voice in opposition to immoral activity by larger nations has been quite outstanding in NZ history. At least it is the impression I get in reading NZ history that protest and other actions by New Zealand civil society have made signficant impacts in respect of initiating positive change on fundamental moral questions, both locally and internationally.

Perhaps the most recent example is the public uprising/show of unity which forced the government to back down on its initial position regarding synthetic cannabis. That's an individual rights issue - basically the right for our communities/neighbourhoods to be free from the legal sale of those products.

by william blake on September 15, 2014
william blake

the public certainly did have an appetite for opposing these kind of shenanigans when the bill was going through, it was, like the mining on conservation land, one of those issues that hit a nerve in the average Kiwi and I think Key understood this Hence the (supposed) backdown on the implementation of mass surveillance By the GCSB.

appetite and energy? Like dirty Politics, I think this will ensure a full voter turn out on the left and will push swing voters in that direction. No need for protest marches or petitions for non binding referenda, just a simple mark on the ballot paper.

this must be the last straw for Key, he has been looking stressed and tired after Hager's book, his performance on the Nation was lacklustre compared to Cunliffe looking like a winner, it looks like the Nationals internal polling is telling a different story to the public ones and rumour of Key quitting after the election emphasise the lack of real substance in the National. 


by Steve F on September 15, 2014
Steve F

@ William

" looks like Nationals internal polling is telling a different story from the public ones.."

We will never know what Nationals interanl polls are saying so it's no use trying to speculate. For a dispassionate view one needs to turn to the poll of polls as linked on this website. Their methods are pretty robust  and they adjust the included polls for variations such as poll size, proximity to election etc., They were pretty much bang on the money in 2011. The current trends show Labour on an ever increasing slope downhill into the great abyss but interestingly there is an erosion ( from nationals perspective) in the left right gap, down a couple of percent from where it was at in the 2011 election. However considering the gap has risen from the dead, like, in the minus numbers at the beginning of the year to sit at just on 10 percent 5 days out from the election I am prepared to wager one of my better cellar offerings that there is going to be no change of government on Saturday evening..... ( or Monday morning, ....or two weeks later for that matter)


by Kat on September 15, 2014

@ Steve F

Careful with your cellar offerings. Winston has just today shone his light in Labours direction.

Key may even throw it all in before Saturday. Never been an election like this in recent times and thats in my 40 years of voting.

by Flat Eric on September 15, 2014
Flat Eric
by william blake on September 15, 2014
william blake

Srsly Steve, does Key look like the smug, relaxed winner who managed to squeak to a 27,000 vote majority in 2011?

by william blake on September 15, 2014
william blake

SPM. OMG we spy on New Zealanders. 

after reading that piece of state dept P.R.ganda, I can only conclude that you are comfortable and relaxed about spying on our trading partner and you will be ok if there is a major diplomatic  and therefore economic consequence to it?

i assume you would blame Snowden and Greenwald for treasonously blowing the whistle on 'legitimate' espionage rather than courageous truth sayers, exposing questionable practices perpetrated by covert powers exceeding their considerable mandates.


by Nick Gibbs on September 15, 2014
Nick Gibbs

So that was it. A moment of Truth. A waste of time more like. I'd also like KDC to explain why he had this email so long and never released it prior to today. After all if it's genuine then Key is toast. No need for an election at all. But instead he waits two months. Could it be that he was waiting to see if events could overturn Key and when that didn't happen, he decided to play this bullsh*t card of his?


by Steve F on September 15, 2014
Steve F

@ Kat:

Well in my 40 years of voting I would have to say that the 1984 show with Bob Jones at the helm of the NZ party would come a pretty close second, and in fact after the fat lady sings on Saturday evening ( or Monday morning....or two weeks later) it may even eclipse the pending show this weekend. Bob got over 12% of the vote but of course under the rules of the day it was all flushed down the toilet.

Anyhow , and I am banking on Andrew not intervening in the likelihood Pundit becomes a defacto gambling site, you have upped the stakes to two bottles of my better cellar offerings, one for no change of government and one for JK not tossing in the towel before Saturday.It won't however extend to my very limited stock of Grange Hermitage. Simply not worth the effort. But it will score more than 91 points and it will be red. Find a way to PM me ( private message) and we'll go from there.,( I don't have much of a clue in these things) . It's now 8.30pm the smoke and mirrors show at the town hall has done it's dash and quite frankly like many who took the time to watch it, I'm embarassed at the obese teutonic knights performance on the stage. He chose out of his own free will to enter New Zealand. If he'd stayed in Hong Kong then under his own admission, there would be less of a chance of extradition.I just can't work the guy out.


@ William,

No he dosen't look like the smug relaxed winner of 2011, but I suppose that's subjective. I would have characterized it more as " quiet confidence". I did the sums and arrived at 93,934 majority but like a lot of what happens with statistics it' comes down to how you massage the numbers. It's all irrelevant though because the caretaker PM has only to go to the GG with letters of confidence and supply with a majority, whether it's 100 or 27,000. 

In the unlikely event it's a photo finish it will be interesting however to see how our fragile constitutional conventions play out and whether the PM will try to call the GG's bluff and ask him to reinstate parliament to take a vote on C&S,  or, whether the GG will play hardball and insist he go back to horse trading around the table. Sir Jerry is very much a layperson when it comes to law unlike most of his predecessors, so I would imagine he'll be working the phones with the retired bench over the next few days.


by william blake on September 15, 2014
william blake

# nick, yes that was a bit of a damp squib from .com, he should have left the moment of truth to Greenwald and Snowdon, they were the business. Snowdon's compelling but circumstantial description of working with not just metadata but the substance of New Zealand citizens communications should see the PM acting on his promise to resign.

by Nick Gibbs on September 16, 2014
Nick Gibbs

Perhaps Snowdon should provide evidence first rather than just a few ancedotes. The only person to release evidence last night was Key.


by Flat Eric on September 16, 2014
Flat Eric

@ williamblake


by Flat Eric on September 18, 2014
Flat Eric

Oh and @ williamblake:

"The operation is understood to have been given the green light after months of surveillance of Australians believed to be linked to extremist terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria"...

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