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Snowden papers cause stir in New Zealand

March 11, 2015

New Zealand's GCSB intelligence agency has been accused of intercepting data from Asian and Pacific countries to fill gaps in US surveillance. That's been denied in Wellington by the agency's acting chief Una Jagose.

Neuseeland Waihopai GCSB Abhörzentrum
Image: cc-by:Schutz-sa

Documents obtained from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by the newspaper New Zealand Herald on Wednesday suggested that the south Pacific nation helped spy on 20 nations, including China, India, France's Pacific territories and even in Antarctica.

New Zealand belongs to "Five Eyes" intelligence network that includes Britain, Canada and Australia and is led by the United State's National Security Agency (NSA).

The documents from Snowden, dated from 2009 until 2013 - just before he fled from Hong Kong and ended up in Moscow - were released jointly by the New Zealand Herald (NZH) and The Intercept, an online news site.

Neuseeland Journalist Nicky Hager
Hager claims New Zealand is deeply involvedImage: Getty Images/R. Setford

The NZH expose' authors, including New Zealand investigative journalist Nicky Hager, claimed that the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) targeted foreign nations from its satellite interception base at Waihopai on the South Island and even from covert listening posts at New Zealand embassies.

New Zealand's GCSB staff also assisted by translating and analyzing data that had been intercepted by other Five Eyes agencies, the authors claimed.

'Especially helpful'

The NZH's article quotes from an April 2013 monthly review compiled by a National Security Agency (NSA) officer who wrote that the GCSB "continues to be especially helpful in its ability to provide NSA ready access to areas and countries … difficult for the US to access."

"GCSB provides collection on China, Japanese/North Korean/Vietnamese/South American diplomatic communications, South Pacific island nations, Pakistan, India, Iran and Antarctica," according to the review report.

Communications from Antarctica

Antarctica has a scattering of remote bases established by about 20 nations, including Russia's Mirny Station and Neumayer III, a new facility operated by Germany, which itself has been under scrutiny over links to the NSA and Britain's GCHQ spy agency.

Wednesday's NZH article said the GCSB's scanning list included Iran, a recipient of New Zealand meat exports but under intense nuclear scrutiny by the US, and Vietnam, a growing trade partner with whom New Zealand had friendly relations.

China is a trade partner that bought some 20 percent of New Zealand exports in 2014. Japan is New Zealand's number four trading partner.

Neuseeland Premierminister John Key PK in Wellington
John Key: only protecting New Zealanders?Image: Getty Images/H. Hopkins

Rare open meeting

The scale of surveillance contradicted, the NZH said, past assurances from Prime Minister John Key that the GCSB focused on protecting New Zealand from terrorist threats.

Key, who is also the nation's Security and Intelligence Minister, attended a rare open meeting of the Wellington parliament's intelligence committee on Wednesday.

Acting spy agency head, Una Jagose, told the committee that the GCSB did share information and training with Five Eyes member nations but did not collect data on their behalf.

"Some information is only appropriate for New Zealand eyes only, it's not appropriate for others," Jagose said in remarks reported Wednesday by Radio New Zealand.

Opposition Labour party leader Andrew Little asked Jagose what was meant by "full-take collection" as mentioned in the Snowden documents, according to coverage of the meeting by Wellington's Dominion Post newspaper.

It said Jagose declined to discuss agency work in detail, saying:"It is very difficult to say 'yes we do some things, we don't do some things."

She added that the GCSB operated under judicial warrant. "Everything we collect is authorized," she said.

'No indiscriminate collection'

The head of New Zealand's main domestic Security Intelligence Service (SIS), Rebecca Kitteridge told the committee there was "no indiscriminate collection of information."

Her agency had thought "carefully" about sharing information "beyond Five Eyes," Kitteridge added in remarks carried by Radio New Zealand.

The NZH article also said that a Five Eyes project code-named "Auroragold" had enabled the alliance to identify and scan mobile networks and phone links in Pacific nations such as Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands.

The Herald said the documents exposed the extent to which New Zealand security services were contributing to Five Eyes network.

ipj/rc (Reuters, dpa)