Full Transcript: The Nicky Hager Interview

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Evening Report.

Launch Programme – EveningReport.nz launched Monday March 9, 2015 with an extended one-on-one interview with investigative journalist Nicky Hager on the Snowden Revelations.

Here is a full transcript of the Nicky Hager interview.
Courtesy of Newsroom Monitor

You can also view the video interview here.

Newsroom Monitor logoManning: Nicky Hager, thank you for taking part in the launch of EveningReport.nz and also congratulations at the front-end for this investigation that is obviously ongoing at the moment. Now, Nicky, the state services review recently stated here ‘suspicions and mistrust have more opportunities to flourish in the absence of information’. Now that this kind of information is in the public arena is the public’s mistrust and suspicion warranted do you believe?

Investigative journalist, Nicky Hager. Image: PMC.
Investigative journalist, Nicky Hager. Image: PMC.
Hager: Oh I think so. What happens with spy agencies is that there’s a great arrogance around them. They use their secrecy which they need for their work to be a secrecy which means they don’t have to be accountable. That when people come up with allegations or want to know what they’re doing, they can say they’re far too secret and nobody needs to know, which is actually not true. That while some of what they do has to be secret mostly it’s just very convenient for these retiring kind of, you know, living in the shadows organisations to just have a ‘get out of jail free’ card on everything. So they can always deny and they can always say that it’s security stops them having to comment. And that’s not good enough in a democracy.

Manning: How do you think this affects the New Zealand democracy when the State is operating almost as an entity that has no consequence from oversight.. is almost an entity to its own?

Hager: To me it has two consequences. One is don’t have a serious debate about our foreign policy as its affected by intelligence, which to me is very important, but that’s only half the picture, because the other thing that happens is that if they won’t engage factually, it means that there’s a whole lot of wild fears and beliefs around what they do, which actually .. within New Zealand is more damaging than the truth. And what I’m talking about here is that I’m continually approached by people who believe or are worried that there’s a van outside their house with GCSB written on the inside that is bugging their lives, is intruding on them. Now this is a huge cost on a society. If your spy agencies play their secret games and won’t deny, won’t confirm anything, get caught out doing illegal spying, and still keep the barriers up, well then they have to expect this to happen, and they’re not doing their share of fixing it, which is people have real but actually unnecessary fears about them. So I’ve got a divided view about the intelligence agencies. On the one hand I think we fear them more than we need to, and there’s a widespread fear that there doesn’t have to be. On the other hand on the other things where they’re really doing thing wrong, and in their shadowy world they get away with a lot of things which are wrong and out of synch with our country, on those real things they don’t get accountability either.

Selwyn Manning, editor.
Selwyn Manning, editor.
Manning: So if we’re looking at those specifics there, for example this is obviously like a dragnet type operation that you and David Fisher and others have brought to the public, the ‘full take collection’ being the key words here obviously, so that means everybody in the Pacific, that goes down to some small, even a teenager using a cell phone is being captured and is that data, is that communication being stored somewhere, so that even when that person perhaps is ten years older it could be retrieved, and even potentially used against them?

Hager: OK, it’s important that I explain what we know and what we’re not sure of here. So what we know is an absolute fact now, without a doubt, is that the GCSB and its Waihopai station like its overseas allies have moved to this full take collection. And what that means is yes, right down to the person who uses gmail on a little island of Tuvalu or the person who’s calling their aunty in New Zealand from Samoa or whatever it is, this stuff is being captured and it’s on a huge scale. That’s all true. It doesn’t mean that all those people are being actively watched, because most of them can’t be, which is where we don’t want to spread unnecessary fear. But their communications are being caught. What we don’t know because there is just no source on this is how long they keep it all… It used to be at Waihopai that they would search for what was going on and it would just disappear into the ether the next second. What seems to be going on now, what my best guess would be is that they have got all these national security agency programmes which are processing, like a great big food production company with everyone’s messages and emails and everything from around the Pacific, they’re processing that into different formats. One is putting them into databases of phone calls and literal emails and text messages which are available for some length of time for analysts to look through. We don’t know the length of time and that’s the bit I’m personally uncertain. It won’t be forever because the bulk of this stuff will just be beyond us I think, at least on current storage capability. But the other thing that they are doing is saving what’s called the metadata. Metadata is this word that came into the general language pretty much with Edward Snowden and that means that the thing often most valuable to an intelligence agency is not being able to listen to every phone call, which would take them a thousand life times, you can’t do that, it’s that they store up the ‘who called who’, ‘what time they did it’, ‘what was the nearest cell phone tower’ and when you build up year after year of everyones’ calls and everyone’s connections that’s extremely valuable if you’re trying to connect up people or track down people, or find out who peoples’ friends are, in their crazy world of thinking they need to spy on everybody. Now that metadata, my strong presumption is that if it’s not already, it will pretty soon be saved permanently. That that’s a low enough data sizes that we can expect that side of it will be permanently recorded for the young boy or girl going on to gmail, or the person contacting their aunty in New Zealand, or whatever.

Manning: I also understand that there’s been significant ongoing development in the infrastructure in the United States, particularly on the western side, to contain and become storage silos for such information.

Hager: That’s right. So what we know is whether you’re talking about the Waihopai base in New Zealand, the documents we had talked about how they were building up their capacity ready for full take collection so they actually had enough computer storage for all the new huge increase in data they would be bringing in there, and then you got the other extreme which is in the desert in the United States where they’re building these massive warehouses which are just going to try to store the world’s communications. Everything forever, we don’t know that because these are very secret activities but what we do know for certain is these agencies with their obsessive desire to have everything everywhere and for as long as they can are holding as much of this data for as long as they can everywhere.

Manning: And of course what we’re talking about here is the full take collection of communications within the realm of New Zealand, that’s an awful name isn’t it,  including Tokelau, Niue, Cook Islands.. significantly too Fiji, Samoa, Tonga. I would imagine that the sensitivity inside Tonga in particular would be heightened when you consider that ‘Akilisi Pohiva is the new Prime Minister over in Tonga who has had a lifetime of activism, a lifetime of political representation from the grassroots coming through. The pro-democracy movement has been in the past hammered in Tonga by the nobility and the clash within that community. Now this kind of revelation where the big powers of the Pacific, and certainly the US leading the charge, what kind of effect do you think that’s going to have on the way Tonga interacts with New Zealand?

Hager: This is a very interesting question. Can I correct something first, because we want to be as accurate as we can be when we’re given fog and mist and then when we’re trying to engage with the agencies. So just to be clear from what we managed to find out Tokelau is not on the target list and Cook Islands and Niue are all New Zealand citizens so the citizens aren’t being spied on but the government is. So those are the only exceptions and every other country like Tonga is being comprehensively spied on all the time.. So what do I think about Tonga for example. If I was a leader in Tonga I would be incensed because Tonga doesn’t spy on New Zealand. Tonga doesn’t spy on the US. New Zealand has no special reason. There have been a few people in New Zealand commenting ‘of course we would spy on the South Pacific, we need to know what’s going on’ which is an incredibly patronising, colonial kind of view of the world. That somehow you can’t have diplomats sit around over a drink or coffee with people in these countries and talk to them and treat them as human beings you can actually understand, as opposed to having to read their private emails in the Prime Minister’s department or something. This is an unnecessary way to do things and so if was the leader of Tonga I would be really mad at New Zealand. I would be mad first of all because we do it, but secondly because why we do it. Because I do not believe that the New Zealand intelligence agencies are collecting information on Tonga because there is a burning foreign policy desire to have strong information and do the right things on Tonga. The reason that we spy on Tonga is the same reason we spy on Tuvalu, and the same reason we spy on Vanuatu, and that is, simply, that we have got we have got what’s called an area of responsibility in the Five Eyes alliance. They are just tokens of our allegiance to a US intelligence alliance. In other words the reason we spy on those countries literally – I’m really sure I’m right on this – the primary reason we do it is so that we can have an offering, a useful offering, at the table when we’re one of the Five Eyes intelligence partners. So this is even more insulting than if we were spying on the Tongans and others because we wanted to know their secrets. That’s not even the reason we’re doing it. We’re just doing it to buy our way into closer relations with the US intelligence alliance. It’s a really scummy reason when you think about these are our neighbours we’re selling out for that.

Manning: And if we look too at French Polynesia, New Caledonia comes into the scope of the New Zealand GCSB surveillance here, and that takes a more sinister overtone when you consider that nation and France that controls that territory is a nuclear power. Do you think that that has a consequence on the way New Zealand can be treated perhaps by France when it realises that OK now New Zealand it’s official really, in the sense that the official documents are suggesting, is the primary collector of all communications on its territory in the Pacific?

Hager: I think it’s a little bit different for France. For these smaller countries, I won’t call them naive but they are not in the swim of big time espionage and high-level politics. These are small countries… some of them are the size of a small town in New Zealand, literally, and so they can’t be expected to have the infrastructure to present themselves, the high level codes to be involved in world espionage or something. When you get to France, France does this stuff themselves. They know it goes on so they’re going to have a completely different attitude actually and it won’t come even as the slightest surprise to them to know New Zealand has been spying on their territories for years, so I think in terms of diplomatic and emotional impact it will be different there. It’s those small countries, it’s the ones where we don’t have a good excuse, and we’re just selling them out where I think it’s particularly bad.

Manning: Where the bully factor kicks in…

Hager: Where the arrogant, don’t care about them… we claim to care, we profess to be great buddies and actually just be prepared to sell them down the river because we can get some benefit in Washington.

Manning: I notice some of your critics on social media this week as the information has been revealed to the public have criticised in this way: so what, of course New Zealand does this, it’s a part of the Five Eyes. And of course on the other side they’re saying China will be doing it so what does it matter? How do you respond to that?

Hager: I think this is a kind of world-weary, cynical, kind of know-it-all view actually. Because the world doesn’t know that New Zealand spies on all those Pacific countries, especially not in the way that we do. And the idea that it’s natural for a little country of 4 million people, which claims to have these special relationships country by country around the Pacific and be their friend, to be intensely spying on them against their interests, this is not known. I’m afraid that’s what you get with a certain kind of journalist or commentator is that they will say something’s wrong, they’ll believe it’s wrong, they’ll just as happily have said I’ve got the whole story wrong and then when it’s proven right they’ll say ‘yep, everyone knew this, so what’. I don’t think those people are kind of our moral and political thinkers and leaders, and we shouldn’t take their views too seriously.

Manning: OK if we’re looking at New Zealand hoovering up all of this information on its so-called colonial patch here in the south-west Pacific, who’s doing it to New Zealand? If the GCSB is not doing it to New Zealand itself, which one of the Five Eyes partners is doing it to us?

Hager: Well we don’t know what we don’t know. I think it’s an open question whether the US national security agency quietly spies on its allies like New Zealand. Because one of the things that is absolutely clear from the Snowden revelations is that other US intelligence allies like France, Germany and the rest of Europe who thought they were the closest buddies and were immune form US spying were being spied on just the same as any other country. So maybe New Zealand is getting that, but we don’t know that. But I actually think this is a very important question in terms of New Zealanders’ feelings on these sorts of things – Is every New Zealander being spied on from somewhere? Well according to the documents I’ve seen, no they’re not. The debate in New Zealand is about how the GCSB has acted, as if the GCSB is there to spy on New Zealanders – it’s not, it’s a foreign intelligence organisation, that’s what it was set up to do. Spying on New Zealanders is not part of its routine remit. And there have been exceptions because they’ve been operating in the shadows, so they’ve stretched the rules and they’ve done other things like the illegal spying on 88 people over the last 10 years that came up. But 88 people over 10 years is not a very large number, it’s not their primary work. So one of the things I wanted to emphasise when we actually had the Snowden documents and we could tell the proper story, as far as those documents would allow us, was hey everyone let’s focus on the issue that is most important about this, which is not the privacy of someone living in Wellington or Auckland, it’s the privacy of someone living in Honiara or Suva, and many other countries that are yet to be revealed actually because we’ve got many more stories to come. Now I think that’s probably the first important lesson about this. On the other hand mass surveillance systems are a problem and if you are have a mass surveillance system for a start which is spying on the whole of the south Pacific, heaps of New Zealanders have their families there, were born there, they come and go from there, they might be living there at the moment, they go on holiday there, they’re doing business there and all of their communications are being caught as well. Which is why I hadn’t actually thought this through when I was writing the stories but I’m very pleased that there’s been a complaint that’s gone into the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security to say ‘wait a moment, is this actually lawful?’ for every New Zealander who one way or another is living in the Pacific, interacting with the Pacific, to have their communications intercepted, which is what a mass surveillance full take collection means. That’s great, that’s very important. And within New Zealand there’s another level of it in that the GCSB can be used, and the laws were actually strengthened on this, by the police, by the defence force, by the SIS, to target people in New Zealand. And because that’s happening in secret, and without proper accountability, and because they always get things wrong, we can reliably expect that there are going to be more scandals come out on this. That there will be more things that they have done wrong. And while I don’t think they’re doing mass surveillance, I’m certain the GCSB is not doing mass surveillance every day of every New Zealander, and getting metadata on every New Zealander, they are doing operations agains particular New Zealanders and some of them are going to blow up in their faces because they will have done stupid things again.

Manning: Now the presumption would be that New Zealand doesn’t have the capability to develop the technology that’s necessary to do this type of operation, so what do we know about that technology .. and where it’s based in New Zealand, and who provides it? My presumption clearly is that it’s US led, Five Eyes type of equipment.

Hager: The idea that New Zealand can’t do it ourselves is fairly accurate, but it’s irrelevant because the GCSB is not a New Zealand operation in any practical sense. Our latest story on the Waihopai facility, which is New Zealand’s main Five Eyes contribution, is that when you go inside it – which we could only do with the Snowden documents, not physically – every single piece of the equipment there, every program on the computers, every database, every search took, every intelligence processing tool is an NSA tool or British GCHQ – that’s their equivalent of the GCSB and NSA. Every single thing there is British or American technology which is the same in every other place like this around the world. So it’s nominally a New Zealand base but actually the only sense in which it’s even vaguely a New Zealand base is that there are New Zealanders who go in there and do the work of managing and tending foreign equipment. And apart from that, as the stories have been showing, it’s barely a New Zealand operation. When they do the spying on the whole of the south Pacific, and suck in all this material and then save it as metadata or in other ways, if a New Zealand intelligence officer wants to look at that, it’s not New Zealand data, what they do is they go into an NSA database to look for it. That’s how integrated it is. It’s not even that the Americans can look at the New Zealand intelligence. It becomes American intelligence within (that) system and if New Zealanders want to see it they have to go to it through a US interface and look at it on a US database. That’s how integrated we are.

Manning: Now the Prime Minister said this in his criticism of yourself and others involved in this investigation is that some of the information is old, the presumptions that have been made – or the word presumption is what he’s referring to – are inaccurate, that basically there’s nothing to see here. In your book Secret Power, the foreword written by David Lange – and I think it surprised many who would read that book to realise that the Prime Minister at the time that the GCSB was established here knew very little of what its intention was, and what it went about doing. Do you think that our representatives, those that are in the Beehive governing the affairs of New Zealand in an executive government are aware of this type of information, aware of what is going on, or are they looking the other way and saying I don’t want to know, or are they blindly lying?

Hager: My own view is, of course I don’t know for sure. This is what I believe from having worked on this hard, and working on the subject of course for many years since I was writing that first book. I feel fairly confident that John Key won’t know most of the stuff that we reveal, the details that we’ve just come out with about what’s going on inside the Waihopai station, he won’t know that. He won’t know that but more to the point he’s not interested, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care about foreign policy very much, he’s never taken an interest in it. It’s not a part of his life, he likes to meet important people overseas but he’s not actually interested in foreign policy or defence policy or intelligence policy. So I see no reason why he would have taken any close look at any of this, and so he’s actually, when I was writing that book, he’s more or less in the tradition of a line of National Party leaders who have traditionally been in charge of the intelligence services, which is that they don’t look because they don’t really care, and the ships pretty much run themselves. So that’s the main thing I would say about John Key’s involvement, but in terms of his immediate reaction which was before the material had even began to be published he said it was wrong, he knew it would be wrong, it was wrong like my last book and that kind of statement. He’s just making that up. What he’s doing is – to move into political analysis – he’s trying to talk to people who have got a tribal view of politics and say to them don’t look at this. In fact he even made the astonishing statement, which is quite spooky in a supposedly democratic country, where he said I strongly advise New Zealanders not to even read these stories when they come out. Now what kind of a weirdo is that? What kind of strange idea is it that you want the public not to even hear a different point of view? So I don’t think this is about his knowledge, or even about secrecy of intelligence, I think it’s a peculiar style of political management where he’s inviting as much, as large a section of the public as possible to not engage, and not to think, and not to listen to a point of view which he’s saying that they shouldn’t listen to. Of course for me it’s been very satisfying because he said in advance, that it was going to be wrong, when it came out he said it’s going to be wrong and then since then the former head of the GCSB, who knows much more about this than he has, has been on the radio seeing that in fact the whole story is right.

Manning: Clearly there is a lot of information going to be revealed over time. One of the things that seems to remain unanswered at this juncture is the idea that was put out there, or the statement that was put out there, by Edward Snowden last year in the election campaign that there was an NSA base in Auckland. And he made reference to another one as well. Now what information do you have that would indicate that this was accurate or not?

Hager: I’ve actually been in contact with Edward Snowden about that, I can explain now. And this is a work in progress. We’re in communication about it and what he was writing about and spoke about there has some substance to it, but he had his geography slightly wrong. That’s actually the true story of this because I’ve been in contact with him which is what he said to me, but we haven’t got to the bottom of what he actually does know yet, so I won’t speak up on that, because I’m not sure what the final answer is going to be.

Manning: Thanks Nicky. Thanks very much for taking part.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues.
Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia’s FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the transcript. It helps for further and retrospective reflection.

    Hager said an important issue re-the GCSB doing full take surveillance of other countries:

    it’s the privacy of someone living in Honiara or Suva, and many other countries that are yet to be revealed actually because we’ve got many more stories to come.

    And some of the “more stories” have been published in the NZ Herald today.

    a href=”http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11415172″>From Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher

    New Zealand spies on Vietnam, China, India, Pakistan, South American nations and a range of other countries to help fill gaps in worldwide surveillance operations by the United States National Security Agency (NSA), documents show.


    The NSA profile of the GCSB reveals the New Zealand organisation is running spying operations against 20 or more countries, including friendly nations and trading partners.

    It said the “GCSB provides collection on China, Japanese/North Korean/Vietnamese/South American diplomatic communications, South Pacific island nations, Pakistan, India, Iran and Antarctica”.

    “Collection” means the GCSB conducts active surveillance on these countries and territories. The report also lists French South Pacific territories and Afghanistan as GCSB targets.

    The problem is, though, that many New Zealanders won’t be that bothered about which countries the GCSB spies on, because it doesn’t impact directly, or very obviously on their daily lives.

    Ultimately, though, the impact on diplomatic relationships, and democratic processes will impact on us all. How can this be communicated so that more Kiwis realise it’s significance?

  2. Thank you: I am very worried about our so called democracy where Key tells everyone that 2+2 = 5, and people agree. Excellent work both of you.
    As Snowden said: if this spying is in the interests of national security then in a democracy put it to the people to decide.

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