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The Waihopai spy base

Written By: - Date published: 7:31 am, April 9th, 2010 - 29 comments
Categories: activism, defence, Spying, us politics, war - Tags: , , ,

The Waihopai spy base is very much in the news. Last month the Waihopai Three were acquitted of charges, provoking a storm of controversy (and congratulations). Yesterday came the news that the Government is considering further action – “‘Bad losers’ eye $1.1m suit” – probably not the headline that the Solicitor-General would have hoped for, but it’s the way it’s going to be seen if the action goes ahead.

But this post is about another interesting article that appeared yesterday:

Security agency refutes Waihopai claims

New Zealand’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), has taken what it calls a “very unusual step” in making a public comment on the case of the Waihopai spybase saboteurs.

The base, in Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley, was not “a United States spybase in our midst, contributing to torture, war, and the use of weapons of mass destruction and other unspeakable evil,” director Sir Bruce Ferguson and his predecessor Warren Tucker, said in a statement today. … “The Waihopai station is not a US-run ‘spybase’. It is totally operated and controlled by New Zealand, through the GCSB as an arm of the New Zealand Government.”

… Waihopai was not being used to contribute to torture, war, and the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as depleted uranium as claimed, the directors said. “It was not – and is not – contributing to ‘unspeakable evil’. Quite the reverse.” They said they would make no further comment.

Clearly this “very unusual step” is driven by the heat from the recent publicity. Which incidentally was exactly what the Waihopai Three were trying to achieve (and why further action against them will be even more self defeating!). But what of the substance of these denials? Well, I’m sure we can believe that Waihopai is fully owned and operated by NZ via the GCSB. Of course what hasn’t been denied is that the intelligence collected by Waihopai is passed on to America. So second, I hope we can believe that the GCSB has been told that the intelligence collected is put to only benign and fluffy use, no war, torture, or other unpleasantness. Of course, we have only America’s word for this.

Some history. It was Owen Wilkes (RIP Owen) who alerted the public in 1983 to the first radio intercept spy station at Tangimoana beach: “Finding out about that station, Wilkes worked out that NZ had a major spy agency which no one had been told about.” The next major development was Nicky Hager’s remarkable 1996 book Secret Power – New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network (now available online, and Hager tells the story of the book here). The facts that Hager uncovered are now widely accepted, a recent article in The Herald sums up:

Both Waihopai and the Tangimoana radio listening post near Palmerston North have been identified as key players in the United States-led Echelon spy programme. Though they are run by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), the bulk of the bases’ intelligence is believed to be fed to the US and the other Echelon member nations: Canada, Australia and Britain. Echelon began life during the Cold War, but has been modified to search for evidence of terrorist plots, drug deal plans and diplomatic intelligence. However, it has also been accused of carrying out industrial and economic espionage for its member nations. …

Peace activist Nicky Hager first exposed the inner workings of the Echelon programme in his 1996 book Secret Power: New Zealand’s role in the international spy network. “The Echelon system has created an awesome spying capacity for the United States, allowing it to monitor continuously most of the world’s communications … “Since the Echelon system was extended to cover New Zealand in the late 1980s, the GCSB’s Waihopai and Tangimoana stations can be seen as elements of a United States system and as serving that system. The GCSB stations provide some information for New Zealand Government agencies, but the primary logic of these stations is as parts of the global network.”

In the Foreword to Hager’s book, ex Prime Minister David Lange wrote:

We even went the length of building a satellite station at Waihopai. But it was not until I read this book that I had any idea that we had been committed to an international integrated electronic network … an astonishing number of people have told him things that I, as Prime Minister in charge of the intelligence services, was never told. There are also many things with which I am familiar. I couldn’t tell him which was which. Nor can I tell you. But it is an outrage that I and other ministers were told so little, and this raises the question of to whom those concerned saw themselves ultimately answerable.

Hmmmmm. So, who are we to believe? I would like to be able to give the GCSB the benefit of the doubt and accept that they believe their disclaimers. I would like to be able to believe that (if these bases must exist on our soil then) the intelligence is put to benign use, such as preventing terrorist attacks. But are there other, unacceptable uses too, as so many have claimed? Here we have only America’s word, and I’m afraid that it’s a word that only a fool would trust.

29 comments on “The Waihopai spy base”

  1. lprent 1

    Like you, I find the GCSB assurances about the use fit the data from the electronic intel sites somewhat hard to swallow. And I actually support having the bases here on the basis of Nicky Hagers description of their function (so farthe best description I have seen).

    Quite simply there has been so much dissembling about these bases (clearly apparent in Langes foreword) and in the way that the US explains it’s actions, that the GCSB current and past explanations are simply not credible.

  2. Mac1 2

    Am I right in understanding that the GCSB refused to testify during the trial of the Waihopai Three but has chosen to make a statement out of court which is not able to be tested under court conditions- i.e under oath and cross-examination?

    The paper local to the Waihopai area, the Marlborough Express, has chosen to slant its headline yesterday against the three defendants, “Broke Waihopai base attackers laugh off damages claim”. Laugh off means “to treat lightly” or “to act as not important”, an attitude which was not borne out by the front page article. Bad headlines go both ways.

    Mr Adrian Leason, one of the three, said that “In many ways it would be a gift to us. It would keep up the profile of the real issue, which is the base’s involvement in humaitarian-law breaking, because it would keep the base in the media spotlight.”

  3. Anne 3

    “Like you, I find the GCSB assurances about the use fit the data from the electronic intel sites somewhat hard to swallow. And I actually support having the bases here on the basis of Nicky Hagers description of their function (so far the best description I have seen).”

    The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It would be impossible for the GSCB to know precisely how all the information they have gathered was being used by overseas agencies and they must know it. It would have been the reason for the “dissembling about these bases” during Lange’s time as PM. Cold War paranoia was still rife in the 1980s.

  4. BLiP 4

    Why wait until after the dismissal of the Heroes of Waihopai before wheeling out doddery mandarins to make the denials? I do have a little sympathy for Ferguson and Tucker: its entirely possible that they genuinely believe the spy base is simply a tracking system used once a year to keep on eye on Santa’s southern hemisphere deliveries.

    Can’t wait to see what other fascinating snippets come to light if National Ltdâ„¢ exercises its right to vindictive justice. Another trial by jury, a couple of appeals and this will be dragged kicking and screaming through the media and into the Supreme Court. After that, good luck with getting the money.

    • Lanthanide 4.1

      Or they thought the evidence during the case was so blatantly obvious (they admitted that they did the act, and they were clearly seen at the crime scene etc), that a branch of the government that very rarely ever gives press statements thought they didn’t need to give input then either, because the correct guilty verdict was obvious to anyone with half a brain.

    • Lanthanide 4.2

      Or the GCSB thought the evidence during the case was so blatantly obvious (they admitted that they did the act, and they were clearly seen at the crime scene etc), that a branch of the government that very rarely ever gives press statements thought they didn’t need to give input then either, because the correct guilty verdict was obvious to anyone with half a brain.

  5. Anne 5

    Ouch… they’re not quite doddery mandarins yet BLiP, but I do love your analogy. 😀

  6. Armchair Critic 6

    What happened to the principle of double jeopardy? I thought if one was found to be not guilty in a criminal trial then no further actions (except appeals on points of law) could be taken. Is this another example of National removing individual’s rights?

    • BLiP 6.1

      IANAL, but I understand there is a difference between criminal guilt and civil liability.

      • Armchair Critic 6.1.1

        I’m not one, either. I thought that when the government made the decision to pursue a case they would have decided whether a criminal case or a civil case was most appropriate.
        If the result of their decision was not to their satisfaction, tough for them.

  7. In order not to copy and paste whole articles here here is my take on it.

  8. Graham 8

    Um … serious question here (because I don’t know the answer).

    I imagine that the majority of international telephone and data communications nowadays is via fibre optic cable. I guess some satellite is still used, to the Pacific Islands for example, but in general isn’t most international voice and data communications via fibre optic cable? So if Waihopai is monitoring satellites, how much use is it in reality?

    • ghostwhowalksnz 8.1

      Still heaps goes through satellites, especailly our North Asian friends. Probably the Chines use satellites to communicate with their embassies through the World.
      As for ocean fibre, the US navy has special Subs to attach listening ( watching ?)devices to cable that dont pass through US territory

      • Jenny 8.1.1

        Good point gwwnz. Maybe this is what Waihopai base does. Could it be, that Waihopai is a relay station for such a system?

        Are there really submarines that can tap into oceanic fibre optical cable not belonging to you, or not passing through your territory???

        It just seems so fantastic!!!

        I imagine if there really is such a thing, that the only practical way the stolen data could be downloaded, would be by uplinks from the submarines to satelites. This is where Waihopai would fit in. I don’t think there would be much point in jacking into undersea foreign coms links only to steam all the way back home to hand over the data. This could explain why the satelite dishes are shrouded in such a way, as to hide where they are pointing.

        It seems so out there. I imagine it would be just the sort of question, the Waihopai three could ask the GCSB in their upcoming Civil Trial. If the spooks say “no comment” then you know it will be true.

        If the Waihopai dishes were pointing at geo-stationary satelites over empty ocean, you would know, to guard your conversations appropriately.

          • Jenny

            At the risk of sounding like a crazy conspiracy theorist;
            As soon as the ball shrouding the Waihopai disk was deflated, despite the risk of mechanical stress from the weight of the collapsed canopy on the disc, operators immediately put the disk into the “at rest” mode, in line with the earths axis.

            There is something very dodgy about the satellites the disks are focused on.

            Though the balls covering the Waihopai dishes are opaque to visible light, by their very nature they must be transparent to radiation.

            A portable microwave projector may be able to reveal their orientation without cutting the fabric or climbing the fences.

            My anti-spam word was ball.

          • travellerev

            The link goes to a page not found message.

            • Jenny

              Sorry about that. It did when I posted it, its about submarines that splice into underseas cables.

              I was just gobsmacked that there was such a thing so I googled it.

  9. Joe Bloggs 9

    it doesn’t matter what the GCSB says or doesn’t say, or how they say what they say, there’ll always be a bunch of conspiracy theorists who will refuse to believe them – evidence above – so it’s a pointless post

    • felix 9.1

      Where’s that, Joe?

      What conspiracy theory are you referring to and who is espousing it?

  10. Anne 10

    Not a very bright boy are you Joe Bloggs.
    There would be few people who don’t appreciate the need for intelligence information sharing, but common sense dictates that the GCSB cannot know exactly how all the information they provide is being used by a recipient – most of it perhaps but not all of it.

    Go find a dictionary and learn what the word ‘conspiracy’ actually means!

  11. Name 11

    The larger picture which has the Government, lawyers and right-thinking people worried by this case is the ramifications of the ‘public good’ defense.

    Yes, there is a case for a person being able to argue the he broke the law because the public good required it, but an essential ingredient of the defence is that his belief that he was acting in the public good is reasonable.

    It is not sufficient that the person concerned honestly held that belief, which appears to be the point the jury is this case were wrongly directed to consider. It is whether that belief is reasonable. In the case in point the jury should have been asked if it was the belief that vandalising the Waihopi ‘spy base’ would to anything to ameliorate the ‘torture, civilian deaths and use of weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq etc. If that isn’t a reasonable belief, the public good defence should not have suceeded.

    Guy Fawkes honestly believed he was acting in the public good when he tried to blow up the English Parliament. The leaders and executioners of 9/11 presumably believed they were acting in a wider public good.

    What the Waihopi case does is to encourage loonies of every shade to take positive, violent action again whatever sinister agency haunts their paranoia (Timothy McVeigh, anybody?) in the hope and expectation that the sincerity of their belief will protect them.

    • Lanthanide 11.1


      Using the “public good” defense, I can go blow up a local petrol station, because the money from the petrol sold makes it’s way back into the hands of repressive middle eastern countries that abuse human rights. If you argue that the petrol sold by my local station doesn’t actually come from the middle east, then I guess that makes “sustainable palm oil” a completely perfect product as well because that palm oil isn’t coming from destruction of the rain forest.

  12. Rich 12

    It’s a satellite ground station (that’s obvious from the design).

    Now, unless the government has secretly been spending our entire GDP on a secret programme, NZ doesn’t own any satellites.

    (I think we can discount the concept that it spies *on* satellites. They use narrow microwave beams that only cover the area of interest, so unless the satellite was specifically communicating with NZ, it would be impossible to “bug” in this way. The only thing they *could* listen to like this is INMARSAT, maybe. But there would be easier ways to do that).

    So it must be a ground station for US spy satellites. These can do a bunch of things, like listening to microwave links and taking photographs. The reason for the domes (and the reason they set it to neutral quickly when the dome got trashed) is to hide where the satellites are located (which would give a clue to what they are doing.

    It’s clearly part of the US electronic intelligence program then. The NZ government might like us to believe that they vet the information collected and ensure it’s only used ethically. Yeah, right?

  13. Name 13

    I don’t think anyone has suggested this is anything other than an intelligence gathering facility but “clearly part of the US electronic intelligence program” has (and was probably intended to have) an unwarranted emotional shading.

    It is, I would suggest, part of an intelligence-gathering system most of the western world and many other countries are participating in, in an effort to counter terrorism in a great many forms some of it state-sponsored. Yes the US is leading it because the US has the technical knowledge, resources and much of the infrastructure, and is the biggest target, but if intelligence gathered at Waihopi might prevent another 9/11 in New York, or Jumbo jet exploding in mid-air over za small town in Scotland, or even a suicide bomber pulling the pin in a market-place full of women and children in Baghdad or Mumbai, do we have any right to say that we want no part of it – and if we do say we want no part in it, what right would we have to expect any warning or advice if another country’s intelligence received warning of a threat against New Zealand – or perhaps threatening New Zealanders in a place like Bali?

    Sure it’s a dirty business. We can all wish it wasn’t necessary. I’ve no doubt the Waihopi three would in all sincerity have refused to fight WW2 and would nobly have passed through the concentration-camp gates or slaved building railways through tropic jungle abhoring the brutality and forgiving their captors, and good for them. I can admire the purity of their principles, but they have no right to put the safety of the ordinary citizen of the free world, be he (or she) in New York, London or Auckland, at risk ‘in the public good’.

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