NZ spy watchdog shares Trump concerns

US President Donald Trump's public comments in support of torture have caught the eye of New Zealand's spy watchdog. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

New Zealand’s spy watchdog has shared her concerns about the country’s intelligence relationship with the United States, saying Kiwi agencies must make sure they are not “somehow drawn into unlawful activity”.

Speaking to Newsroom Pro as part of its series on watchdogs, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn said US President Donald Trump’s statements in support of torture, coupled with disclosures of classified information, have increased the importance of safeguards on New Zealand’s intelligence-sharing relationships with other countries.

The Trump administration’s handling of classified information in recent weeks has raised questions about the security of intelligence shared with the country.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that Trump had shared classified information with Russia that was reportedly too sensitive for Five Eyes partners like New Zealand.

Last week, UK police temporarily stopped sharing intelligence with the US about the Manchester bombing, following a series of leaks to American media.

Prime Minister Bill English has taken official advice but says there has been no indication that the relationship with Five Eyes partners should be significantly altered.

However, Gwyn said: “I think it’s an issue that the agencies are very aware of, and will be looking at.

“I can’t indicate direct discussions, but I’m confident that it’s an issue on their radar.”

Since taking office, Trump has raised the idea of reopening the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons around the world, while also promoting the use of torture and banned interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

Gwyn said Trump’s statements had added new relevance to her investigation into whether Kiwi spies had any connection to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” programme which ran between 2001 and 2009, and what protections were in place for intelligence sharing.

“It wasn’t urgent because it was historic, but then the election of the Trump government I think has brought it back into sharp focus, because both during his campaign and since he has been president, Mr Trump has talked about torture and restated that he thinks torture is effective.

“Who knows whether that might lead to anything or might not, but to me it signals that the New Zealand agencies must have their own protections in place, they must have their own practices and policies around how they share intelligence, how they work together with other agencies to make sure that they are not somehow drawn into unlawful activity.”

The new Intelligence and Security Act requires the development of a ministerial policy statement with guidelines on intelligence sharing and cooperation with overseas agencies - something which Gwyn said could act as a useful safeguard.

“From the public perspective, seeing some framework for that and ensuring once it’s drafted that framework has adequate protections for the New Zealand agencies and their staff and New Zealand to make sure we’re not inadvertently complicit in overseas agencies’ unlawful behaviour - I think that’s going to be really important.”

In a written statement, a spokeswoman for Chris Finlayson, the minister responsible for the GCSB and SIS, did not directly answer whether the agencies were reviewing intelligence-sharing arrangements, saying only: “Our intelligence and security partnership with the United States is important and, along with our relationship with other Five Eyes partners, has helped keep New Zealanders safe.

“It remains in our national interest to continue to work closely with the United States on security and intelligence matters."

The spokeswoman said preliminary work had begun on the ministerial policy statement for intelligence sharing, which under the legislation was not required until September.

Gwyn said she did not yet know when her CIA investigation, launched in late 2014, would be completed.

However, she confirmed the results of a separate inquiry, into whether New Zealand had spied on the rivals of former Trade Minister Tim Groser as he vied for the WTO’s top job, would be released within weeks.

A full profile of Gwyn will be on Newsroom Pro later on Monday.