Muldoon and an unpublished spy scoop from the 80s

by Bernard Lagan / 06 May, 2013
With oversight of New Zealand spy agencies under scrutiny, Bernard Lagan reveals an SIS ruse of three decades ago.
Robert Muldoon. Photo/APN Archive

Many years ago, your quivering correspondent cornered former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon on a staircase in Parliament and spluttered, “But I’ve always treated you with dignity.”

Muldoon shot a mean look and sauntered off. The year was 1986 and he was by then a backbencher, pushed to a dim office in Parliament’s backblocks and sought out only by journalists seeking to fill history’s gaps.

Such an enquiry had led to our spat. A minor oddity had turned up involving the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS). Muldoon had confirmed my little scoop – and immediately put out a press release. Done over, your correspondent quietly vowed not to visit the backbencher again.

A few days later Muldoon summoned me, offering a very much larger scoop. He noted that the spy agency was required to issue a public report to Parliament each year disclosing the number and duration of judicial warrants it had obtained to install secret listening devices. The SIS’s annual report to Parliament was a ruse, he said, designed to disguise the fact that the agency had one set of offices in Wellington permanently bugged. The year-round target was the Soviet-aligned Socialist Unity Party. To disguise the single target, the SIS reported – as it did in 1986 – that it had obtained three interception warrants over the previous 12 months, with an average duration of about four months.

The story was never to appear within the pages of my paper, the Dominion. Late that night the editor called to say he’d dropped it because a senior government official had promised an even bigger scoop if Muldoon’s information was not published. Weeks later Muldoon summoned me again; this time he was less gracious and recounted exactly the conversation I’d had with the editor about the fate of the story. You’ve been had, he said.
And we had.

I recount all of this because the story, though now of hardly any consequence, helps to show why New Zealanders need to be confident that somebody is watching over the behaviour of their spies. As the imbroglio involving John Key’s past relationship with the man he helped get appointed to run the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) – New Zealand’s foreign spy agency – and the disclosures that the GCSB had been unlawfully spying on New Zealand residents suggest, the watchdog needs more teeth.

New Zealand’s spy agencies have grown into big organisations. The GCSB has about 300 full-time staff and the SIS about 220. It falls largely to one man in a Wellington office – Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Paul Neazor QC – to ensure that the agencies stay within the law.

When your correspondent called his Wellington office last week, no one answered, though a machine offered to take a message. That’s not so surprising, since Neazor is expected to do his job with next to no staff; his office doesn’t even have a website – despite his having advocated having one.

As Rebecca Kitteridge – who was appointed to look into the GCSB after its unlawful spying was exposed – has reported, New Zealand needs to look across the Tasman to see how a properly resourced spy watchdog works.

Australia also has an Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. She is a former Ombudsman and she has 12 full-time staff who meet weekly with the intelligence agencies they oversee. Kitteridge described the Australia watchdog as “very muscular”.

Muldoon was untroubled by any such interference when he was in charge of the spies. But it’s time, surely, for change.

Bernard Lagan is a New Zealand journalist who writes for
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