Who's behind the Brady break-ins?

by Graham Adams / 26 February, 2018

 Associate Professor Anne-Marie Brady. Photo / University of CanterburyThe obvious suspects are Chinese agents but it’s not impossible that our own spy agencies were responsible for the mysterious burglaries of a Christchurch professor’s premises. 

When the break-in at the Democratic National Committee HQ in the Watergate building was first discussed in the media, Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary, dismissed it as a “third-rate burglary”. In fact, it led to massive political upheaval and President Nixon’s resignation.

Faced with recent publicity about break-ins at Associate Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s Canterbury University office in December, and of her house in February, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wisely avoided a Zieglerian approach. She indicated she was taking the matter seriously but she’ll be hoping like hell that the issue quickly drops out of public view.

If Brady is right that the burglaries were the work of “Chinese government spies” trying to intimidate her, and if that news is confirmed publicly, the government will have a major diplomatic headache on its hands.

China often throws a tantrum whenever any of its national sensitivities are challenged. Favouring Taiwan, Tibet, the Dalai Lama, or Falun Gong, or criticising the militarisation of the South China Sea Islands or organ-harvesting among prisoners are all likely to make Beijing’s hierarchy throw its toys out of the cot. It has reacted strongly against Australia’s ongoing debate about how to counter foreign influence.

The Asian giant certainly won’t want to be put on the spot with evidence it has been spying on a New Zealand academic who is highly critical of what she alleges is a covert push for influence through our politics, media and universities. Nevertheless, if that turns out to be the case, China would be exactly as remorseful as the French were after the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior — which is to say not at all.

Professor Brady’s well-regarded work on the question of Chinese influence has given her an international profile that must be extremely annoying to Beijing. Indeed, Brady has said some of the people she associated with on a recent visit to China were interrogated by the Chinese Ministry of State Security. She also received a letter warning that she was about to be attacked shortly before her home was burgled.

However, her international standing has so far not been matched in New Zealand, mainly because both the Labour-led government and its National-led predecessor have reliably downplayed the question of Chinese influence, despite the fact it is a hot topic among foreign affairs analysts and media in Australia, Canada and the US as well as in other nations. It is significant that Brady first mentioned the break-ins — in which computers, USB storage devices and phones were stolen — to an Australian parliamentary inquiry into foreign influence, not to local media or politicians.

The majority of the New Zealand public simply doesn’t care if we have become a “tributary state” of China, as expatriate New Zealand economist Rodney Jones dubbed us in the New York Times after we discovered in September 2017 that we have a former Chinese spy instructor in our Parliament, who was (and possibly still is) a member of the Chinese Communist Party. 

This astonishing news from Newsroom — in collaboration with the Financial Times — gained very little traction in local media, even though the influential FT regarded it as a major scoop.

The-then Prime Minister, Bill English, told media there was nothing to see here and reminded us that Dr Jian Yang is a New Zealand citizen, as if that proved anything about his connections to China; Jacinda Ardern also downplayed the revelation as an internal matter for the National Party. 

The Brady break-ins should finally jolt the public into taking a deeper interest in China’s influence but the reaction in the media has been predictably low-key. The NZ Herald dutifully devoted an editorial to the topic — titled “SIS needs to tell us who was behind Brady break-ins”  — but without any great sense of outrage. It reminded readers of just how valuable China is to us economically with an implied message not to rock the boat.

However, the editorial did canvas one possibility I have not seen mooted elsewhere: that the break-ins may have been the work, not of Chinese spies, but of our own intelligence agencies.

The Herald wrote: “The Prime Minister, rightly concerned about the break-ins, said on Monday she would ‘certainly be asking some questions’ of the New Zealand intelligence agencies.

“[This] does not imply a New Zealand agency is responsible, though it is possible. Brady’s work will be seen in official quarters as damaging to New Zealand’s relations with China. But the break-ins at her home and office should be of even more interest to the Security Intelligence Service if China’s agents or expatriates are involved. Either way, it would be a particularly foolish thing to do as part of an attempt to discredit her.”

New Zealanders may be surprised that the nation’s biggest newspaper would casually raise the possibility that, merely by publishing papers critical of a foreign power, a respected academic could find herself under surveillance by our own intelligence agencies — but that’s only because most of us are unaware of how, and under what rules, the agencies operate.

In fact, the SIS and GCSB operate under a wide mandate that includes the possibility of spying on New Zealanders who might damage our “economic wellbeing”.

When I asked Thomas Beagle, chair of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, whether the “economic wellbeing” clause could be used to gain a warrant for spying on a local academic, given that Professor Brady’s criticisms of China could damage the relationship with our largest trading partner, he replied: “I would like to think that a connection to economic wellbeing this tenuous wouldn’t be used by our spy agencies to justify spying on Anne-Marie Brady. 

“While theoretically possible, I hope that they wouldn’t be so silly, and any such application for a warrant wouldn’t be granted.

Nevertheless, “the fact that we’re even talking about this demonstrates how unfortunate the ‘economic wellbeing’ justification is. The fear of government over-reach is, in many ways, as corrosive to civil liberties as actions actually taken.”

Author and intelligence analyst Nicky Hager reached a similar conclusion. He told Noted: “Yes, the intelligence and security legislation is so wide that, as long as they went through the correct processes, I think it would probably be legal to monitor Anne-Marie Brady. I’m not sure exactly what clause it would be under. But I think it is unlikely that the SIS would do a break-in that involved stealing equipment. I think the SIS has done plenty of unwise and unjustifiable things, but this doesn’t sound like them to me.”

There’s a very strong likelihood that we’ll never find out who conducted the break-ins. Even if she finds out, Ardern is very unlikely to tell us, no matter whether it was the work of Chinese spies or New Zealand’s intelligence agencies.

Pro-China groups in New Zealand will be very happy with that result, including the NZ China Friendship Society. A month before Ardern was asked about the break-ins, the society put out a newsletter denying it was promoting the economic interests of the Chinese Communist Party — and in particular, the One Belt, One Road Initiative — as Professor Brady has alleged. 

The society concluded: “It is to the credit of the New Zealand government that [Brady’s] concerns [about China’s influence] have not been taken too seriously.”

At some point, New Zealanders — and the government — will have to take concerns about our nation becoming a vassal state of China seriously. Here’s hoping it’s well before Chinese military bases are established in the South Pacific and China uses gunboat diplomacy to remind us who holds the whip-hand over our small, debt-soaked, tourist-dependent economy.


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