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Secrets & spies

In the wake of major scandals, our main intelligence and security organisations – all now run by women – have gone through a revolution.

Spies Main
The Wellington offices of the Government Communications Security Bureau. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

For organisations that like to fly well under the radar, it’s been a horrid time for the Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau. The spotlights they are so adept at shining into dark places have been turned on them, and it’s not been a pretty picture.

The SIS found itself accused of colluding with right-wing blogger Cameron Slater to discredit Phil Goff when he was Opposition leader; the GCSB got a serious dressing-down for illegally spying on internet magnate Kim Dotcom.

And to make matters worse, up popped US whistle-blower Edward Snowden with claims that the bureau was engaged in mass surveillance in the Pacific, including prying into New Zealanders’ private communications. Even Trade Minister Tim Groser got caught in the net with allegations that government spooks were covertly assisting his bid to become Director-General of the World Trade Organization.

While the SIS and GCSB wriggled and squirmed, the news media, politicians, bloggers and activists had a field day, making the most of a heaven-sent opportunity to poke their noses into the labyrinthine world of the New Zealand intelligence community.

But in their clamour to pillory and hold accountable those thought responsible for such a state of affairs, they were completely oblivious to a revolution that was well under way. Not that the mandarins in Wellington would call it that, but what has happened to our intelligence and security agencies in the wake of this imbroglio is nothing short of a cultural clean-out.

The old boys’ club of retired military and foreign affairs types who have run the SIS and GCSB since their inception is no more. In their place is a trio of lawyers – all women – the new broom designed to sweep away the baggage of the past and restore transparency, accountability and, most importantly, public confidence in the intelligence agencies.

What makes their appointments all the more extraordinary is that they make New Zealand the first country in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and probably the world, to have all its major intelligence and security organisations run by women. The women chosen to be the guardians of our safety and security are an eclectic bunch of smart, savvy individuals who come from backgrounds that would probably shock the old guard of the intelligence world. Cheryl Gwyn, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, once belonged to the Trotskyist Socialist Action League and back in the day probably came to the attention of the SIS; Rebecca Kitteridge, the Director of the SIS, took part in anti-Springbok tour marches; and Una Jagose, the Acting Director of the GCSB, has been in a committed lesbian relationship for almost 25 years.

If still alive, former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon, not known for his tolerance of extreme left-wingers, activists or gays, would no doubt be flabbergasted by such a turn of events. But this is 2015, not 1975 when he first ruled the roost, and New Zealand is a much more diverse and inclusive society – the SIS, GCSB and Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security now reflect that. And in a sign of the times, all three women agreed to a wide-ranging interview with the Listener.


Rebecca Kitteridge
SIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge: “The public perception has been out of step for some time. They still remember the pie and the Penthouse.”

Of the three, Rebecca Kitteridge has the highest public profile, having served as Cabinet secretary to Helen Clark and John Key before taking over the reins at the SIS last year. Our encounter takes place in Wellington’s Pipitea House, a newish nine-storey building that houses the SIS, the GCSB, the Combined Threat Assessments Group and the National Assessments Bureau. Security is clearly paramount here, and we meet in a ground-floor meeting room, well removed from the rest of her staff beavering away, protected by security barriers and sensors on the upper floors.

Kitteridge comes across as a high-powered lawyer, which, of course, she is, but with none of the stuffiness or pedantry found in some of her ilk. There is an infectious smile along with lots of laughter and some down-to-earth language as we size each other up.

The 49-year-old has a good sense of humour: when she applied for the SIS job, she asked if it came with an Aston Martin. “I was told that I could raise this with the Remuneration Authority who set my salary, and they replied that I would be welcome to have an Aston Martin but I wouldn’t get any pay, so it was the pay or the car.”

Which meant she had to make do with her trusty Mazda Demio, much to the chagrin of her staff. “There are quite a few people in the service who don’t think that it is a flash enough car for the director.”

Kitteridge was brought up in Pinehaven, a semi-rural suburb in the Hutt Valley, where she says she had a “very happy, very stable” childhood as the youngest of four children. Now married with a 12-year-old daughter, she describes her parents as “ten pound Poms” who migrated to New Zealand for a better life. They were, she says, very active politically, with a strong sense of social justice.

“They weren’t active in any political party but were interested in what justice is all about, what is a fair society, how democracy works and what kind of society we live in. Those were the kind of things my parents really loved talking about.”

So in 1981, when many New Zealanders were up in arms over the Springbok tour, it was inevitable that her parents would be among the protesters, taking her with them on some of the marches. It was a formative experience that she believes has stood her in good stead for her current job. “I am so glad we live in a society where people have the right to express their views about public issues without being oppressed. We take this for granted in New Zealand.”

Former Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff, herself an ex-Cabinet secretary, says Kitteridge is “very principled, extremely capable and able to balance issues and make a hard call”.


In October 2012, Kitteridge was plucked from the Cabinet office to conduct a searching inquiry into the GCSB’s surveillance of Dotcom. She produced a damning report that led to sweeping changes at the bureau, and now she’s going to sort out the SIS so it can put the past behind it and lay the ghosts to rest. And that means changing attitudes.

“The public perception of the service has been out of step with the way the organisation actually is for some time. They still remember that [1980s] issue of the blooming pie and the Penthouse and whatever it was in the briefcase. The fact that it has endured is the kind of baggage that continues, whereas what I would like people to understand about the service is that our people are young, bright, neat New Zealanders who are totally dedicated about thinking of New Zealand as a safe country.

“I would love to have them sitting with you and talking about their work, but I can’t because the legislation prevents their identities from being revealed.”

The number of people on the SIS payroll is now 240, more than double what it was just over a decade ago; 40% are women, as are a third of the senior management team.

The Cold War dinosaurs who once roamed the corridors of the service are all but extinct. These days, the focus is on Islamic terrorism, originally in the form of Al Qaeda but now largely Islamic State. Kitteridge says New Zealand’s isolation is no protection from this barbaric organisation.

“The reaching out of the tendrils – we haven’t seen that before. And that’s what makes the growth of this particular group different for New Zealand. There’s the active attempt to recruit people to their cause to come and fight and also to conduct terror attacks in Western countries. They’re very sophisticated in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

Kim Dotcom
Kim Dotcom outside his Coatesville mansion. Photo/Thinkstock


Kitteridge is in no doubt Islamic State is actively trying to recruit more New Zealanders to join the handful who are already in its ranks and serving overseas. So how many and who are they?

“I’m not trying to be evasive here, but that would suggest we’ve got coverage of everything, which we don’t. What we know is that there are a number of people of concern on the watch list and there are others that we still get information about that we’re working through, but it’s a very fluid number.”

Kitteridge says “30 to 40 people” are currently on the SIS watch list, which may be a minuscule percentage of New Zealand’s population but is enough to pose a major threat to our security.

The type of people Islamic State is trying to sign up covers a reasonably broad spectrum, she says. “What the pattern is internationally and here is young disaffected people, sometimes not that smart, sometimes with drug problems, psychological problems and weird upbringings. And then you’ve got some people who have perfectly happy, nice families who for whatever reason are open to this message, and maybe they are looking for something beyond the humdrum reality of day-to-day life.”

When asked whether the SIS keeps a close eye on the Islamic community in this country, she says the service has a liaison officer who “interacts with and talks to a whole range of people and that includes that community”.

“I’ve been careful not to be trying to target a particular community or to say there’s a particular community that’s a problem. If you start saying that, then you’re creating a problem. I’ve been really, really careful not to do that, which is why I talk about behaviours, extremist behaviours.

“A common misapprehension is that if people think that a person is downloading extremist videos from the so-called Islamic State, then somehow we will know that and would be able to monitor that person. But that isn’t how it works at all. We don’t see what material people download in the privacy of their own home; there’s no way that we could.” The only way the SIS could access such material would be if it had enough information to justify a warrant, she says, and “it’s a very high threshold to get that”.

The Government has recognised the problems confronting the SIS, giving it a $7 million cash injection to employ more staff to monitor and investigate potential terror threats here. The service has also been given the go-ahead to undertake video surveillance of potential terrorists before a warrant is authorised. Kitteridge says such powers will be employed in exceptional circumstances and won’t be used “willy-nilly”.


As the interview winds up, I rather cheekily ask whether I can have a look at the inner sanctum of the SIS, thinking it would be decidedly off-limits. “Of course you can come up to my office,” comes the spontaneous reply. “But I’d better go up there ahead of you to make sure there’s nothing [sensitive] on my desk.”

So after putting my mobile phone and digital voice recorder in a lockbox, a practice everyone in the building has to observe, I am led through a security barrier and along a corridor to the lift that takes me to her office.

Along the way I take a keen interest in the people who work in the nerve centre of New Zealand’s intelligence community. In many respects, it’s like walking through a university campus. Everywhere I look, fresh-faced young people are going about their business looking for all the world as if they are off to a lecture or a tutorial. Which is all very confusing: absolutely no one bears the slightest resemblance in age or appearance to any of the spooks in a John le Carré novel.

Even Kitteridge’s office is a bit of an anticlimax: no sign of a red hotline to the Prime Minister, just a large well-furnished room befitting a chief executive. The only clue that the occupant is no ordinary CEO is blinds permanently drawn over the windows.

As I take everything in, Kitteridge invites me to read a newspaper clipping in her hand, a letter to the editor in that day’s Dominion Post.

The writer bemoans the fact that Greenpeace activists had to scale Parliament buildings and mount a day-long protest about climate change to focus attention on issues that are taking the world “towards catastrophe … one has to breach the security of the most important building in the country and make a display so that somebody, including the media, will take a bit of notice.”

It is signed “Paul Kitteridge, Karori”. “My father,” says Kitteridge with a smile. I sense she’s proud that he’s still vitally concerned about issues of the moment.

Of course, no interview with the Director of the SIS would be complete without the obligatory James Bond question: who portrayed him best in the many Bond movies? The current 007, Daniel Craig, perhaps?

Not on your life. “Sean Connery. He’s my Bond,” comes back the emphatic reply.

Cheryl Gwyn
Cheryl Gwyn. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

One to watch

The Cold War warriors watching Cheryl Gwyn when she was in the Socialist Action League would probably turn in their graves if they could see her now.

Back in the 1970s when Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn was an ardent left-wing activist, it would have been unthinkable that anyone of her political persuasion could be employed in the intelligence community. Members of the Trotskyist Socialist Action League to which she belonged were closely scrutinised by the Cold War warriors at the SIS.

One of Gwyn’s fellow members of the league, former Green MP Keith Locke, discovered many years later that the SIS had been monitoring his activities for 51 years and had a large file on him. Gwyn says she knew Locke at the time and “it’s possible that the NZSIS had a file on me for that period but I have not asked”.

Today, of course, she no longer has to ask for her file, if indeed such a thing exists. As Inspector-General, she has unfettered access to every piece of classified information in the bowels of the SIS and the GCSB.

The 59-year-old grew up on a dairy farm near Whangarei, helping to milk the cows before and after school until she was 17. By the time she arrived at the University of Auckland to study law, she was a committed activist with a strong social conscience.

“I was women’s rights officer at university and also involved in left-wing politics as a member of the Socialist Action League. Most of the issues I was involved in, such as Bastion Point and women’s rights, are now very much mainstream issues.”

In line with Socialist Action League ideology, Gwyn did not practise law immediately after getting her degree. Members typically rubbed shoulders with the proletariat on the shop floor, so off she went to the Whakatu freezing works in Hawke’s Bay, where she worked as a knife hand for six years.

Along the way she became embroiled in a battle for women to become butchers on the chain. “In many ways it was more a battle against the unions than the company. There was a view that if women went into those jobs, they would deprive a man of a job, and a man generally had a family to support whereas a woman possibly didn’t.”

Gwyn and her cohorts eventually won the day, but she left the works before getting the opportunity to become a butcher. After an 18-month stint working for the Race Relations Conciliator, she went on to become a partner at Chapman Tripp in Auckland, then to Russell McVeagh in Wellington, specialising in civil litigation, health and employment law.

From there she moved to the Ministry of Justice as Deputy Secretary for Justice, then to Crown Law as a deputy solicitor-general, where constitutional issues involving the Treaty of Waitangi and the Bill of Rights took up much of her time.


Despite climbing up the ladder to become deputy solicitor-general and now Inspector-General for Intelligence and Security, “I still do have views on social issues and social justice”, although “I’m not active in politics, I’m not a member of any political party”.

“One of my long-standing cases at Crown Law was acting for the Abortion Supervisory Committee, who were involved in long-running litigation brought by Right to Life. That really highlighted all the questions that still remain around women’s rights to abortion and women’s reproductive health generally.”

Appointed to the Inspector-General position early last year, she took over an expanded and more powerful office born out of Rebecca Kitteridge’s report about the GCSB and Kim Dotcom. Her predecessor as the country’s watchdog over our intelligence services was a retired judge who worked part-time and had a part-time secretary. Kitteridge not only wanted an office with more clout but sought an end to the requirement it should be run by a retired High Court judge.

Enter Gwyn, a complete unknown to most people outside the Wellington beltway. She acknowledges that her appointment, together with those of Kitteridge and Una Jagose, was part of a deliberate cultural shake-up in the New Zealand intelligence and security community. “It’s not so much that I and the others are women but there has been a considered move away from the kind of military background, defence background that in the past has been the breeding ground for heads of the agencies.”

Gwyn’s first assignment was to investigate the role of the SIS in the release of documents to blogger Cameron Slater that were used to discredit then Opposition leader Phil Goff. Among other things, she had to determine whether the agency had acted within the law when it responded to Slater’s Official Information Act request, whether the documents were properly declassified and whether it acted in a manner inconsistent with its obligations of political neutrality.

In the event she found the SIS released incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information, some of which was also provided to Prime Minister John Key and his office. Although there was no evidence of political partisanship by the service, she said it had failed to take adequate steps to maintain political neutrality.

Gwyn’s handling of the SIS inquiry was deemed by many commentators to be thorough and exhaustive, although there was a feeling in some quarters that she was a bit soft on the SIS in relation to its alleged collusion with the PM’s office. “I would say they haven’t read the report. What we found was the SIS didn’t adequately recognise the risks of engaging directly with political advisers in ministers’ offices and didn’t have adequate protections around how that relationship worked. In part that was just a product of the SIS having been quite insulated, so it didn’t see itself as part of the broader public service; it didn’t have those kinds of norms that other public servants have.”


Currently, Gwyn has her hands full conducting two further inquiries, both of which she initiated herself, one stemming from a complaint by the Greens. The latter is based on documents released by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who says the GCSB is engaged in so-called “full take” collection of satellite communications in the Pacific.

The Greens say this means the GCSB is breaking the law by spying on New Zealanders holidaying, living and working in the Pacific. Their claims gained traction when former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson told Radio New Zealand that mass surveillance is being conducted in the Pacific and it was “mission impossible” to eliminate New Zealanders’ data from the collection.

Gwyn would not be drawn on what she understands “full take” to mean or whether it implies mass surveillance. “We are looking at what collection did the bureau undertake in the Pacific at that time, under what authority, and what protections did it have around its process to ensure that New Zealanders’ communications weren’t intercepted.

“Some of the other specific questions that come up are how the GCSB interprets private communications of New Zealanders, what steps it takes to make sure that New Zealanders’ communications aren’t intercepted – or if they are inadvertently, are they destroyed in an appropriate way? – what data they retain post-interception, who has access to that and what controls are there around it.”

Yet another Snowden revelation has prompted Gwyn to initiate an investigation into the way the GCSB undertakes its foreign intelligence activities, following his allegations that the GCSB monitored email and internet traffic relating to candidates vying for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization.

Gwyn says it’s unlikely she will be able to publicly confirm or deny these specific allegations but will inquire more generally into how the GCSB determines what intelligence activity to undertake and what policies and procedures are in place to regulate its activities. She’s hoping to release the results of the WTO and Pacific inquiries in September.

With a beefed-up team of a deputy inspector-general, four investigating staff and what she describes as a “good, collegial and professional” relationship with Kitteridge and Jagose, she is confident her office has the wherewithal to keep everyone in the intelligence community on their toes.

“I have full and unrestricted access to [SIS and GCSB] premises, as do all my staff. I can inspect physical files, electronic files, and ask to see anything that I don’t have the means or technical skills to access myself.

“I can turn up there any time unannounced, and part of my statutory mandate is from time to time to do unscheduled audits. And if I’m conducting an inquiry, I have essentially the powers of a commission of inquiry so I can summons witnesses, which might include employees of the SIS or the GCSB, and require them to give evidence on oath or affirmation.”

Not bad for someone who, in another life, spent six years at a freezing works.

Una Jagose
Una Jagose. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Moment of truth

In the wake of the Kim Dotcom fiasco, Una Jagose has been tackling a daunting task.

Una Jagose, Acting Director of the GCSB, can seem a no-nonsense person who cuts to the chase and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but she’s also warm, engaging and candid – similar traits to those of Rebecca Kitteridge, whose office is just down the corridor from hers in Pipitea House.

A University of Otago law graduate, she is the second youngest of five high-achieving children. Her father, a Gujarati-speaking Indian of Persian descent, moved to New Zealand to take up the position of medical superintendent of Dunedin Hospital; her Irish mother was a nurse.

After graduating, she joined the public service and has been there ever since. She climbed the ladder to become chief legal adviser at the Ministry of Fisheries, then joined Crown Law and rose to the rank of deputy solicitor-general legal risk in 2013. Early this year, she applied for the Acting Director’s job at the GCSB, which was up for grabs following Ian Fletcher’s resignation for “family reasons” in the wake of the Dotcom fiasco.

With public confidence in the GCSB at an all-time low, she faced a daunting task getting it back on the straight and narrow. Her basic strategy was twofold: get the public back on side by engaging with them more often and more openly, and remind the troops to remain focused on the job at hand and to remember their responsibilities to all New Zealanders.


So far, all this seems to be paying off, but two major hiccups along the way have yet to be resolved. Edward Snowden’s claims of “full take” surveillance by the GCSB in the Pacific and his allegations that the organisation was trying to give Tim Groser a leg-up for the WTO job are being scrutinised by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. If Cheryl Gwyn’s findings are critical of the GCSB, then it could be a case of one step forward and two back for Jagose. “Yes, you might say we’re under the spotlight, but I just see it as the IGIS office doing its function.”

When asked whether the GCSB spies indiscriminately on New Zealanders, she says: “We are not permitted by law to target the private communications of New Zealanders, so the whole concept that we spy on all New Zealanders is wrong, let alone indiscriminately, which is also wrong.”

But what about concerns in some quarters that loopholes in the law allow the GCSB to intercept private communications?

“Under the Act we are able to obtain a warrant or get authorisation to intercept certain communications. Now, if a New Zealander is acting as an agent for a foreign government or as an agent of a foreign power, we are not prohibited from intercepting those communications. But do we indiscriminately spy on private communications? Absolutely not!”

Jagose says the GCSB has to meet stringent requirements before it’s allowed to intercept any communications. “Minister [Chris] Finlayson has to be persuaded it is for a lawful purpose, that what we are planning to do is proportionate to what we are trying to achieve, that it is reasonable, that there are sufficient controls in place to make sure that whatever information is intercepted is used only for the purpose for which it was obtained, and that that material could not be obtained by other means.”

And if the GCSB makes it over those high hurdles, “then the Inspector-General’s role kicks in. She must not only do inquiries of her own volition or on a complaint, but also regularly review and audit warrants and authorisations to make sure that they’re being done lawfully.”


Jagose says similar checks and balances also apply to information shared between New Zealand and its partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the US, Canada, UK and Australia.

“Those relationships themselves have very strict rules. For example, no partner can get around each other’s domestic legislation through the process of sharing. One of the myths I’m keen to bust is that we just don’t use other partners’ connections to circumvent our domestic obligations and there’s a firmly held rule between the five countries that no one does that.”

Such reassurances are unlikely to cut much ice with such long-standing critics of the GCSB and SIS as Nicky Hager, but if there are any failings in the present legislation they should be exposed during an independent review of the agencies by former Labour deputy prime minister Sir Michael Cullen and lawyer Dame Patsy Reddy, which is now getting under way.

To ensure that Jagose’s voice is heard, Finlayson has extended her term as Acting Director until March next year.

So a busy time ahead for her, but if the going gets tough, she can always rely on the support of her partner of nearly 25 years, Jenny, an industrial designer and artist. But indulging in her favourite pastimes of playing classical piano and reading young adult science fiction/fantasy books may have to take a bit of a back seat.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden: game changer. Photo/Getty Images

Traitor or hero?

What our top intelligence chiefs think of what Edward Snowden has done.

So how do the guardians of New Zealand’s security regard Edward Snowden and his damaging revelations about what goes on in the murky world of espionage? Is he public enemy No 1 or doing us all a service by making intelligence agencies here and elsewhere more open and accountable?

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn sees him as the catalyst for change. “When you look around the world post-Snowden, regardless of what you think of him, his disclosures have prompted all sorts of official investigations and inquiries.”

In New Zealand, she says, questions of public concern prompted by Snowden and Nicky Hager have led to several inquiries being started by her office and “are consistent with the increased public awareness internationally and desire for reassurance about what are the safeguards around the exercise of the intelligence agencies’ intrusive powers”.

But does she see Snowden as an honourable person? “I don’t have a personal view on him. Some people say he’s a traitor, others see him as a hero.”

Pressed to say whether a lot of good has come out of his disclosures, she replies: “I think so. No doubt others will say it’s been damaging, but I think the fact that there are now these inquiries at a high level – such as what is this capacity for the collection of bulk data, how is it controlled – is a really good thing.”

However, GCSB Acting Director Una Jagose and SIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge are less charitable. Jagose believes he has done the world a disservice, while Kitteridge thinks he has created an unnecessary climate of fear. “A lot of people have gained a very misleading impression about what the agencies are doing through the representation that he has made about what they do,” Kitteridge says. “For example, he created a whole lot of fear that the GCSB was monitoring willy-nilly the communications of New Zealanders, which is absolutely not the case. And nor is the SIS doing that.”

Kitteridge says a poll conducted by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet found that about 30% of New Zealanders thought the SIS might be interested in or intercepting their private communications. “That’s over a million people. The thought that an agency of 240 people could possibly do this – my staff hardly have time to read their own emails let alone so many emails of other people. It was staggering that many people might think that.”

She says if Snowden had genuine concerns, they should have been raised in a way that didn’t compromise the work of intelligence agencies “in the way that it has … there were other ways he could have surfaced this information without putting it all into the hands of countries that are not friendly to the Western alliances we have, and so I do question why he chose to go about it in the way he did.

“For example, in New Zealand, if somebody or an employee of the service had a concern about things or the way we were doing something, the Inspector-General would be an absolutely safe place to raise that. I can’t believe there weren’t equivalent ways he could have raised that in the US.”

When asked whether she thought he was a traitor, Kitteridge doesn’t pull her punches. “I believe so.”

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