The charge sheet against John Key could hardly be more serious. If it could be shown that he had misused his position as the Minister for the security and intelligence services to discredit his political opponents and had then lied about doing so, it is hard to see that he could stay in office.
The charges, however, have not yet been conclusively proved. The Prime Minister has so far managed, by the skin of his teeth, to avoid censure by claiming that he was not personally involved in the disreputable behaviour that has come to light. But he has been able to do so because we have been asking the wrong question.
Over recent days, three successive disclosures have all pointed to his involvement in the release to the notorious right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater, of an SIS document that was detrimental to the then Leader of the Opposition. First, a letter from the Director of the SIS, Warren Tucker, referred three times to the Prime Minister being informed of the release.
Secondly, a letter from the Ombudsman made a similar reference to the SIS Director discussing the matter with the Prime Minister. And thirdly, a television interview with the Prime Minister just after the release has him acknowledging that he had been briefed on it by the SIS Director.
The Prime Minister, however, asserts that none of this is conclusive. The three references to the fact that he was informed of the release mean simply that his office was informed; he himself, he says, was blissfully unaware that it had happened until much later.
However incredible this may seem, it is an assertion that – without someone from the Prime Minister’s staff breaking ranks – is practically impossible to disprove. The result is stalemate; those who want to believe the Prime Minister will continue to do so.
Let us, however, give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that the SIS Director did not speak to him, either by phone or in person, but simply passed on the information that the release had been made to whoever was his point of contact in the Prime Minister’s office, and that that person then unaccountably thought that it was of so little consequence that the Prime Minister could be kept in the dark about it.
If this was really what happened, the Prime Minister could then say, as he does, that he was not personally informed. He could then offer to repeat that assertion – not in good conscience but with technical accuracy – on oath. But is the question of whether or not he was informed in person after the release had been made actually relevant to the real issue – his involvement or otherwise in the planning and approval that preceded and made the release possible?
In order to answer that question, let us review what we know. We know that the SIS had a confidential record of a briefing they had provided to the Leader of the Opposition. We know that all other media requests under the Official Information Act for the release of that record had been refused. We know that the Prime Minister treated Cameron Slater as a personal friend and political ally and that his office was in regular contact with Slater and briefed him on a range of issues – as did a number of other ministers including Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee.
We know that Slater put in a request for the release of the SIS record and that it was immediately granted – with unusual alacrity. We know that Slater then used the release to discredit the Leader of the Opposition and that this was helpful to the National Party, as it was intended to be, with a general election in the offing.
We know that the SIS would invariably be required to brief their Minister on such a sensitive matter; the whole government machine is constantly reminded of the “no surprises” policy. We know that it is unthinkable that such a highly political – not to say partisan – release of information would not be discussed by the SIS with their regular contact in the Prime Minister’s office, and that it is equally unthinkable that that contact, surely the Prime Minister’s most trusted adviser or advisers, would not have discussed the implications (and political advantages) of that action with him – as well as the means, possibly, by which his own fingerprints could be made to disappear from the scene of the crime.
We also know that we are entitled to conflate what his office knew with what he himself knew; that is, after all, what both the SIS Director and the Ombudsman assumed, and what the Prime Minister himself accepted was the case in his television interview at the time.
The whole question of whether the Prime Minister was subsequently informed as a formal matter of record of the release matters little and is, in other words, irrelevant. By focussing on the three references to the subsequent briefing, the Prime Minister’s inquisitors have allowed themselves to be distracted from asking the real question. Is it not incredible that the Prime Minister did not know in advance of Slater’s Official Information request and had not been consulted about it, either directly by the SIS or by his own office? Is that not the question that the Prime Minister must answer under oath?
23 August 2014