Spy raids on foreign embassies raise timely questions

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Analysis – It started as a family story, about a step-father who went out one night to break into an embassy in Wadestown, Wellington.

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Photo: Oliver Wall

John Daniell wanted to understand what his family had been part of when his mother and then step-father work for New Zealand’s Security Intelligence. He wanted to know the truth about the raid on the Czechoslovak embassy in 1986, which his step dad had told him about. But as Daniell and RNZ’s Guyon Espiner worked for a year on The Service, confirmation of one raid became confirmation of a series of raids.

Today, RNZ has reported that the SIS’s wilingness to break into foreign embassies in Wellington goes much further than Daniell’s family story first suggested; not only did it break into embassies of countries considered enemies during the Cold War, but embassies of countries that we consider allies and as late as 1991, after the Berlin Wall had come down and the Cold War was over.

Acting for MI6, the SIS twice raided the high commission of India, in 1989 and 1991. It photographed thousands of pages of codebooks in a mission called Operation Dunnage. Also in the early 1990s, Operation Horoscope was staged, with the SIS breaking into Iran’s embassy in Wellington for America’s CIA. Our intelligence agencies bugged the embassy and helped the CIA intercept communications Iran wanted to keep secret.

The SIS will neither confirm nor deny any of these operations, simply insisting their job is to keep New Zealand safe and protect out “national advantage”.

The reaction to these revelations has been telling. Many think that this is what spies are for, they’ve seen the movies, and are less than surprised that SIS officers spend their time sneaking around on foreign soil, even if that foreign soil is in the suburbs of our capital. As was discussed in the series, in a world where we know that the Americans tapped German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, what can you expect?

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Others say this was a generation ago and things are different now. The minister of our intelligence agencies, Andrew Little, insisted they have a “much more rigorous oversight regime” than was in place in the 1980s and operate within the law.

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Justice Minister Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Veteran political commentator, Chris Trotter, has argued curiously that the series is some sort of subtle propaganda tool on behalf of the United States and our own “spooks” that only serves to fan the embers of “a fire most New Zealanders believed to be well-and-truly out”. (I don’t imagine the CIA is delighted at having been outed today).

History is never one to simply fade away into the past. It demands constant attention, as we are currently witnessing with the debate over statues and the Black Lives Matter protests.

But it is reasonable to ask why we should care about what our intelligence agencies did in our name, even a generation ago. And the answer is very much related to the present day.

First and foremost, New Zealand foreign policy has long rested on the premise that the world works best when it obeys a rules-based system. We have been champions of the United Nations, World Trade Organisation and other pan-national organisations because as a small country at the bottom of the world, we rely on fair play and the rule of law.

If the world works on the basis that ‘might is right’ we are lost. When it comes to war, we have insisted, for example, on motions from the UN Security Council before we commit our young men and women to battle. We demand that disputes over the South China Sea and other hotspots be settled according to international law. We push hard for trade deals that bind countries to strong environmental and labour standards.

So the news of these raids matters because it exposes the fact that our intelligence agencies are making New Zealand a hypocrite on the world stage. Our politicians are insisting on a rules-based global order, while our spies are breaking those rules.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a track record of calling for a rules-based global order, notably in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York in 2018. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

According to the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations, foreign embassies are inviolate. Hosting countries cannot enter those premises without permission. They can’t look at the mail and they certainly can’t break in, steal codes and plant bugs.

That is illegal not only under international law but, as blogger No Right Turn has written, our own law. Under our Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities Act 1968, we promise countries that their embassies here in New Zealand are in fact inviolate.

So Andrew Little – or some arm of government oversight – is now surely compelled to look into these claims and test once and for all whether the SIS has – and does – break not only our obligations under the Vienna Conventions, but under our own law.

RNZ has reported embassy raids happened in the 80s and 90s. How much longer did they continue? Little himself has refused to deny signing off on embassy break-ins.

What’s more, the government also needs to ask whether the SIS is – contrary to its view that it is protecting New Zealand – in fact doing harm to our “national advantage”. New Zealand has worked for years on a free-trade deal with India. How inclined will the Indians be to trusting us as economic partners now they know we are willing to act as burglars, breaking into their High Commission on behalf the British?

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

Finally, citizens of any country have a right to ask what agencies of their government are doing in their name. It’s a phrase often used in debate around war, but it is just as pertinent when it comes to secret spy missions. Are we as New Zealand citizens, happy for officers of the SIS to be breaking into the embassies of countries we welcome here with supposedly open arms? Are we comfortable breaking international law? Where’s the manaakitanga in that?

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These raids may be history, but they raise issues that could not be more timely. The question is how this government will respond and what standards it will hold our spies to. Does it really believe what it says about a rules-based world order or will it let its intelligence agencies undermine our foreign policy philosophy?

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