One of the few journalists to do his job properly over the course of the dirty politics scandal has been Guyon Espiner. He has, without in any way breaching his duty of impartiality, seen it as his responsibility on Morning Report to put questions to, and demand answers of, the Prime Minister – and, when those answers have not been forthcoming, he has not hesitated to make that clear.
He has continued that approach as the scandal has widened to embrace the question of whether or not John Key has lied to us in denying the mounting (and many would say, convincing) evidence that New Zealanders have been subjected to mass surveillance by the GCSB.
Espiner’s interviewee this morning was Sir Bruce Ferguson, a former Chief of New Zealand Defence Force and subsequently the Director of the GCSB. The interview followed in the main a predictable course. Ferguson, although lacking any technical or specialist knowledge, was robust in asserting that there had been no mass surveillance under his watch (though how would he know?) and he revealed his own obvious limitations and prejudices when he dismissed the evidence to the contrary from Edward Snowden on the ground that the latter was “a traitor to his country”.
The fact that Snowden’s evidence across a wide range of issues has never been shown to be inaccurate in any way did not seem to concern him at all.
The interview then took, however, an interesting turn. Espiner, skilled interviewer as he is, asked the good Air Marshal how far the GCSB’s powers might extend in the case of someone – taking himself, Espiner, as an example – who was suspected of acting against New Zealand’s security interests.
Ferguson was pleased to explain in detail the steps that would need to be gone through before a warrant would be issued to look into the records available about, in this case, Espiner, or any other potential suspect. He agreed with Espiner that, once the warrant had been issued, everything about the individual who was the subject of the inquiry – e-mails, electronic communications and transactions more generally, lists of correspondents and contacts over a long period – would be available to the security services.
It was at this point that Espiner posed the critical question. I paraphrase and elaborate – “Where,” asked Espiner, “does that information come from? How is it that it becomes available? Who has been holding it and how did they get it? Since suspicion could suddenly and unforeseeably fall on any person and a warrant could be obtained in respect of that person, does it not follow that the full information that you have described about that person – and every other person – must have been held somewhere, ready to be made available in the event that it was needed? Does this not show that we are all subject to surveillance, in case the information is one day needed about any one of us?”
Ferguson was not at all discomforted by the question, mainly because he plainly had not understood it or its significance. He proceeded to provide yet more detail, at length, about how warrants were obtained, and seemed completely oblivious of the point that Espiner had made.
The rest of us, however, are able to ponder Espiner’s question at our leisure. If the GCSB is able, when a particular name is put to them, to produce the detailed information described by Ferguson about that person, how could that be done unless records are kept about all of us?
The evidence that mass surveillance takes place in New Zealand – evidence that the Prime Minister demands that we should produce before he will concede that he has misled us on the subject – seems, after all, to be a matter, not of physical proof, but of simple logic.
16 September 2014.