The SIS has been involved in a widespread and probably unlawful campaign to infiltrate and bug Maori organisations, three spies have told the Sunday Star-Times.
They provided a detailed description of a top-secret programme called Operation Leaf, a major SIS campaign targeting a variety of Maori organisations and individuals over several years.
One of them says he quit the operation in September last year because he was “disgust(ed) at a system that was spying on decent, law-abiding New Zealanders”.
“I met some nice people,” he said, “not activists or criminals, and I just started questioning myself what it was all about.”
The Star-Times’ six-week investigation of the spy claims has taken us to Australia and Asia, where the men were interviewed.
Their allegations suggest the SIS is going well beyond its statutory role which allows it to spy on New Zealanders when the country’s security is at stake through terrorism, espionage, sabotage and attempts to overthrow the government by force.
A week ago, when hints of the SIS Maori spying story leaked to the Scoop news website, Prime Minister Helen Clark responded that “any rational reading” of the NZSIS Act showed the suggestion was “laughable”. She pointed out the act prohibited the SIS from carrying out surveillance of anyone “engaged in lawful advocacy, protest or dissent”.
When told this newspaper had carried out an extended investigation, she declined an interview, saying through a spokesperson that she never commented on security matters.
The spies claim:
The SIS contracted “computer geeks” to engineer contact with Maori organisations and plant bugging equipment on their computers or change the settings to allow remote access.
They were told to gather intelligence on internal iwi business negotiations, finances and Treaty claims and inter-tribal cmmunications.
They were instructed to watch for “dirt”, including “personal information, relationships, money issues, family secrets” on Maori leaders.
Serious divisions exist within the intelligence community, with some spies believing the SIS is too deferential to Western agencies.
Clark is the minister in charge of the SIS and signs all interception warrants. However, the operations described in Leaf appear to have used surveillance techniques that did not require formal warrants and therefore reporting to the minister and parliament. It is not clear that Clark would have been informed of the existence or the scale of Operation Leaf.
One of the three operatives spoken to by the Star-Times says he was directed to win the confidence of senior people in the Maori community and to gain access to and bug their computers. Over about three years he covertly collected “thousands of pages of documents” from the computers and passed them to his SIS “handler” – a woman called “Margaret”.
The operation targeted groups and individuals, from known radicals and people with criminal records to respected regional leaders, iwi organisations and Maori politicians.
In recent months Operation Leaf staff had been encouraged to forward “any nuggets concerning the current leadership of the Maori Party” to their handlers, one spy said.
The operation is at least several years old, the spies said. One said he had been spying on an iwi organisation between March 2000 and late 2003. All three said Operation Leaf was ongoing.
One said “even before Leaf there had been other Maori-related (SIS) surveillance” but this had morphed into Leaf.
Leaf staff are said to include six “arm’s-length deniable techies”, SIS contract workers chosen for computer and people skills. Posing as “friendly computer geeks” and using other assumed identities, they had engineered contact with the Maori organisations to gather information.
The six included three in the Auckland region, two in the Wellington region and one in Christchurch. They met about every two months with their handlers at a secure facility near Wellington for training, technical support and to solve problems.
While they were apparently helping their targets to fix computer problems or upgrade software, they also planted bugging equipment and changed the computers’ settings to allow themselves remote access to all the files and email. This had occurred with home computers and office computer networks, one spy said.
The Star-Times has inspected the accounts of one of the iwi organisations said to have been targeted and found numerous invoices for visits by one of the operatives.
Until October 1, 2003, SIS operatives could covertly access other people’s computer systems without obtaining a SIS interception warrant. It is not clear whether warrants were obtained for the Leaf operations after that date.
The Operation Leaf spies say they were instructed to profile Maori leaders and gather intelligence on their internal iwi business, negotiations with government, Waitangi claim processes, inter-tribal communications and more – as well as keeping an eye out for “dirt”.
They were not told whether the intelligence they gathered was passed to the government or how it was used.
Spies blow whistle on Operation Leaf
21 November 2004
By ANTHONY HUBBARD and NICKY HAGER
A group of dissident spies has launched an unprecedented attack on the SIS, saying it has misused its powers by bugging law-abiding Maori for political intelligence.
The SIS’s Operation Leaf, they say, has been used to find “dirt” on individuals, and intelligence about iwi divisions, finances and Treaty claims. Now they question the service’s leadership and strategy.
Spies have never before broken ranks in New Zealand. Now three have done so and say they have evidence of a scandal.
Their claim that the SIS has bugged “decent, law-abiding New Zealanders” has been made many times by liberal and left-wing activists. But now, for the first time, the accusation comes from within the intelligence community.
Their testimony also shows disagreements about the SIS’ strategy and its operation, and about its handling of major issues such as the Zaoui affair. Some also criticise the leadership of SIS director Richard Woods. This, too, is unprecedented news from inside the castle. It seems not all is well in the kingdom of secrets.
“Peter”, one of the spies interviewed in an Asian capital, said he broke the SIS code of silence because he felt guilty.
His work on Operation Leaf – a widespread bugging operation against Maori individuals and organisations – had been a burden on his conscience and he felt “cleansed” by speaking about it.
He seemed in conflict about his role as whistle-blower. On the one hand, he remains a “loyal New Zealander” and a supporter of the service. But he says he was disgusted when told to bug ordinary people.
He offered to apologise to the Maori whose computers he had targeted. He had grown up in the area, he explained, and had friends in the Maori community. Remarkably, the people whose computers he claims to have bugged agreed to co-operate with the newspaper and not to divulge his real name. The iwi organisation allowed the newspaper to do a thorough search of its accounts and computer records. Invoices and diary entries provided a paper trail of all Peter’s work on home and office computers over three years.
Spies live in a world of fog and fen, and are necessarily elusive. This newspaper began researching this story more than six weeks ago, and travelled to Australia and Asia to interview sources. It has agreed not to reveal the spies’ identities to protect them in the sensitive work they do.
The row erupts at a time when western intelligence services are under sustained attack. Officials in the United States, Britain and Australia have attacked the secret services for faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Here, the charge is about domestic politics.
The spies’ testimony raises the possibility that government agencies could confuse national security concerns with the political problems of the current administration.
It is a late echo of the scandals in the US in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was revealed that intelligence services had routinely spied on and harassed people engaged in lawful politics. “It is naive,” one spy told the Sunday Star-Times, “to think that what spooks have done in other countries could not happen in New Zealand.”
The claims about Operation Leaf raise acute issues of accountability. SIS operatives have been involved in infiltration of Maori gangs as part of a campaign against organised crime. But Peter says the net was spread much more widely: well beyond legitimate targets suspected of sedition.
He believes there is potential for Maori groups to be manipulated. “I don’t think that we will have bombings by Maori radicals, but it is possible that cyber attacks could occur in future which could knock out financial, military or civilian targets which could result in deaths.” There was also more chance of political subversion, and any government would try to prevent that.
But the reality of much of the operation was different. “It wasn’t said that it was for dirt collection,” he says, “but we could see that is what it was.”
His remark echoes a famous part of the 1976 Church report of the US Senate, which exposed a series of scandals in American intelligence-gathering. Senator Frank Church and his colleagues detailed widespread bugging and harassment of politically active people, including Martin Luther King, and described how intelligence targets had a tendency to mushroom.
One witness told the committee the risk was that spies would “construe political considerations to be national security considerations”. They would “move from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.”
Peter says he does not know who gave the orders to bug iwi organisations, nor does he know if there was a warrant for the interceptions: “. . . that is no concern of ours and you would look like a gherkin if you asked the handler that”.
It is impossible, in fact, to find who was responsible for the alleged abuses. The spies’ work is compartmentalised, with information shared on a strict “need to know” basis. Peter Wright, the British spy who made spectacular claims in his 1987 book Spycatcher about abuses in Britain’s MI5, said: “For five years we bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.”
But abuses can occur at any level of the chain of command.
The three spies seem cynical about SIS accountability systems. One says all attempts to call spies to account through parliamentary committees or watchdogs like New Zealand’s inspector-general of security had failed. Secrecy could not co-exist with accountability.
Governments, he said, would always want information about political opponents. Spy services, he says, will “gather these fragments and store them up for a rainy day”. For this reason, he says, he had helped plant covert video-cameras in high-class brothels in New Zealand, with the co-operation of the brothel owners. This would allow the gathering of information about “important people” who used prostitutes: “It’s the two oldest professions working together.”
Peter says he knew that a new law had come in last year prohibiting the unauthorised bugging of computers. But, he adds, “deep down I knew that the service could find a way around it, so I don’t think it was seen as a threat, just a pacifier for Joe Public”.
The spies have also revealed division within the service over its stance in the Zaoui affair. One says the service leadership made a bad call when the Algerian politician first arrived in New Zealand. It had also wanted to impress the Americans, and had foolishly painted itself into a corner over the affair.
There is also division about the orientation and leadership of the SIS, which he says is far too deferential to the larger western intelligence agencies, especially the Americans and the British. New Zealand, he says, needs to develop its own intelligence and security network abroad, instead of passively accepting what the other services told it.
Too often the message to New Zealand from the other services was, “Don’t you worry your pretty little heads about that,” he says.
Peter says the SIS should not be so beholden to its overseas counterparts. “I think that we do need a service, but not in the way it currently operates . . . We shouldn’t need to participate in things that please the cousins any more.”
One of the operatives says the SIS told him to start an email correspondence with Maori activist Whititera Kaihau, a leader of the Ngati Te Ata tribe of Manukau. He used the cover of a South Pacific embassy to try to spring what he calls a “Venus fly trap” in 2003. Among other things, he tried to suggest that Kaihau set up an operation to print passports. One “embassy” email, sighted by the Star-Times, dated July 18, 2003 and addressed to Kaihau, referred to the “difficult challenges” the iwi faced and called the New Zealand government “the occupying government of the British empire”.
The SIS contractor says he encouraged the elder to communicate with him through encrypted email – which he did – to give Kaihau greater confidence about openly discussing his organisation’s private strategies and plans. The intelligence collected was forwarded to the SIS headquarters in Wellington, from where Operation Leaf was directed.
Kaihau confirms that the correspondence took place, but says he never pursued the passport option. He says he was suspicious about his email partner from the start. He had approached a number of overseas countries in an attempt to raise capital to help his tribe, and he thought the embassy might provide a link with China. China sympathised with the struggle of indigenous peoples, he said.
Kaihau travelled twice to Europe in the late 1980s to lobby United Nations organisations over Maori rights – trips that he says were criticised by the government. He had also practised civil disobedience by refusing to pay taxes, traffic fines, and refusing to accept a court verdict following an incident in which his dog allegedly bit a postie.
He says he does not recognise the sovereignty of the crown, but nor does he believe in the violent overthrow of the government. “I believe I can solve this through the courts.”
The spies claim that the SIS targeted politicians and those active in the Maori Party. Peter says he was told by the SIS to cultivate a Maori MP. Another intelligence source says he was told in mid-2002 that another Maori MP was a “hot target” – SIS jargon for someone being bugged.
Maori Party leader Tariana Turia, interviewed by the Star-Times, could cast no light on the matter. However, she did say that in about March this year she had had trouble with the phone in her ministerial house. When speaking on the phone in the kitchen, the whole conversation “would come through the radio in the bedroom”.
She had hired a security company – recommended by the Parliamentary Service to sweep the house, “and they found that in fact it (the phone) had been interfered with”.
However, the company had also told her it was unlikely the SIS had done so “because they had more sophisticated means of tracking”.
When allegations surfaced on the Scoop website that the Maori Party had been bugged, Richard Woods had spoken to Turia twice, once on the phone and once in person, assuring her the allegations were untrue.
He also told her that he had spoken to Prime Minister Helen Clark and she had issued her statement calling the claims “laughable”.
“I said, ‘Well, I hope it is laughable, Richard’,” Turia said.
She had accepted his assurances.
‘We could see it was for dirt collection’
21 November 2004
A spy gives an account, by email, of how he infiltrated and bugged the computers of Maori iwi representatives who he now believes were “decent law-abiding New Zealanders”.
Q. When did you join the service?
A. The recruiter first started on me in 1997 but I really wasn’t fulltime, trained and operational until 1999.
Q. Why did you join?
A. I honestly do love my country and frankly in the beginning I thought that it would be a chance to do something exciting, challenging. I think that we do need the service but not in the way it currently operates. I think that we need to have a new approach, more open like the Swedish and we shouldn’t need to participate in things that please the cousins anymore.
Q. Did they approach you?
A. Yes but carefully, with sometimes 2 months between contact and face to face before anything was really discussed.
Q. If so, how?
A. Through a friend who is an academic type, loves to conversate about all manner of things, a real talker. He is a recruiter, that’s what he does for them, he picks away at your brain for extended periods.
Q. Were you a full-time employee or a contractor?
A. It was a gradual process, I was asked to do some basic work which was sensitive but couldn’t be embarrassing if I turned out to be a wrong choice if I talked about it to friends and family. Actually they had ways of cross-checking that – of finding out if you were indiscreet. I wasn’t, so I moved up. I was brought in gradually, eventually became quite busy and had developed a sense of what needed to be achieved. After a while you start to realise what you need to do when you meet people, this is a people skills profession but it was/is a bonus that I also have technical skills, usually they don’t mix.
Q. When was the first sign that they were wanting work done of Maori organisations?
A. Even before Leaf there had been other Maori related surveillence, I think the files and profiles of people from years ago, the progress they made, the overseas contacts etc all morphed into Op Leaf, I once heard a colleague mention a liaison with csis in Canada – about some Maori academic there involved in stirring up shit with the natives of Canada, that was years before Leaf, so you can see that this is something the govt has always had a handle on.
Q. Was this the stage when you were first recruited or was it not the first work you did for the service?
A. No my first work was related to gangs, Black Power etc.
Q. Did you already have links with the Maori organisations – or did you specifically initiate them for the service?
A. Coming from a small town it was easy to draw on school friends, people I grew up with. I think that is luck rather than design, I was already quite easily able to plug in to the Maori scene.
Q. How did you build your links and their confidence?
A. Well, you can’t sit there in a pin striped suit and take notes. I did what they did. Walk the walk, talk the talk, smoke the smoke.
Q. How did your SIS handler keep in contact with you?
A. I was sent a series of numbers by encrypted email and I knew how to extract a mobile number from the series. It was different every time. We had a prearranged system for that, agreed to and explained to me by the handler named Margaret but that is a false name.
Q. What other Operation Leaf staff/contractors were you aware of?
A. I knew there were 3 in ak (Auckland), 2 wngt (Wellington), 1 cch (Christchurch) that’s it. I never met analysts, which is procedure. They only get codenames for us, I don’t even know my own codename, also standard procedure.
Q. Did you ever visit a service building eg for training? Where was it?
A. Training was conducted near Wellington. I don’t think it is helpful to expose things like that. A lot of taxpayers’ money will be wasted if they have to relocate it because of journalists taking photos of the exterior and there would be no way to get inside, or even past the fence without being arrested.
Q. Did you have any contact with the other contractors?
A. We had some meetings about bi-monthly.
Q. Where did you meet them?
A. Near Wellington – the secure facility.
Q. What was the purpose of the meetings?
A. Problem solving and training/ technical backup.
Q. What was your understanding of the chain of command?
A. The management was deliberately vague about where orders come from so you can only assume from the director and/or the pm if it was top secret or above.
Q. Did you think these groups were a national security risk? Do you think they are legit targets for the service?
A. I think that there is potential for these groups to be manipulated, I don’t think that we will have bombings by Maori radicals but it is possible that cyber attacks could occur in future which could knock out financial, military or civilian targets which could result in deaths. There is also a lot more chance of political subversion, deliberate destabilising of govt. Any govt in power would try to prevent that of course. Wouldn’t you?
Q. Was there ever a suggestion that there were legit terrorism/violence concerns behind the ops? Or was it openly for non-security info?
A. Well it wasn’t said that it was for dirt collection but we could see that is what it was. Terrorism is just a method. We all know you can’t really have a war on a method. But you play the game.
Q. Did you ever get follow-up questions after sending through some info (eg you sent through some accounts or correspondence and then were asked to go back for more)?
A. Usually a one way street on the info capture ops but I did get debriefed regularly when doing humit (human intelligence) ops.
Q. Can you describe specific info that you found that sticks in your mind? eg an internal iwi conflict? Or negotiations with the government? Or the Waitangi claim that was occurring exactly at this time? Were you asked to find any information about the claim? Or negotiations between the iwi? What do you recall of it?
A. All of the above, the govt was keen to get any useful nuggets from internal communications between Maoris working on those and other issues, peace groups, academics, activists, politicians, gang leaders. I don’t know what they did with the information but sometimes when reading the news I noticed issues and thought about how the info was being used but I would just be guessing here.
Q. Were the academics and peace groups separate operations?
A. Separate mostly but Maori/ peace crossover.
Q. Did you ever get any obviously personal info about the people in the iwi that was passed to the service? What was it about?
A. Yes, personal information, relationships, money issues, family secrets. Dirt really.
Q. How were you paid?
A. ATM cards for cash and a govt dept paid me, I won’t say which one, it was not listed as the service.
Q. What prompted your feelings of unease with the operation? Did something happen?
A. Yes I met some nice people, not activists or criminals and I just started questioning myself what it was all about.
Q. Can you describe how the discussion about your concerns occurred with the handler/service.
A. Face to face.
Q. What did the handler say you should do?
A. It was implied that I should take time out immediately to rethink what I had said, it was not a pleasant exchange.
Q. September ’03 sounds like a very significant time to have concerns, because October 1, 2003, was when the new law came in prohibiting unauthorised access to or tampering with a computer system. Were you aware of that law coming into force? Did that influence your decision to stop?
A. I read the news reports about that but I think that my change of heart was more about disgust at a system that was spying on decent law abiding New Zealanders. I was pleased to see that the law was coming in but deep down, I knew that the service could find a way around it, so I don’t think it was seen as a threat, just a pacifier for Joe Public.
Q. What was the legal situation? Was there a warrant for these interceptions?
A. The legal dept should have done that and the director would take it to the pm but that is no concern of ours and you would look like a gherkin if you asked the handler that. I had my doubts that we always acted with a warrant, especially if there are no plans to take legal action against the target.
Q. Have you signed a security form that required you to keep their secrets?
ANTHONY HUBBARD and NICKY HAGER, Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand)