Tuesday 1 January 2008

The SIS and Police: the job of inventing a terrorist threat

Reading (between) The Lines...
Why you will always find what you are looking for, or what the SIS and Police reports tell us

Anyone who has worked in an academic research institute will be familiar with the annual problem of securing funding for the next year. On the one hand, the university finance committee, government department or whoever else is providing the money must get the impression that last year's funding was a good investment, while at the same time they must be convinced to continue. The annual report then usually indicates that the department is on the verge of a major discovery or has at least made huge progress, but to get really conclusive results, another year's worth of work, preferably with more staff and resources is required.

It's no surprise then that the Police and New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) work the same way. In the aftermath of 9/11 the budgets of both were drastically increased. Attempts to convince the public that Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui was such an enormous threat to the country that he had to be deported failed. The deportation in 2006 of a Yemeni national who was deemed a security risk also failed to get the desired public hysteria and fear of terrorists. Eventually, spending all that money and hiring new people has to be justified. After all, who would want to lose the new Special Tactics Group, a Specialist Search Group, a Strategic Intelligence Unit and a National Bomb Data Centre Manager?

Predictably the SIS reports regularly contain statements like: "Although the Service is not aware of a specific terrorist threat against New Zealand, we cannot afford to be complacent. Increasing vigilance is required" (2004/2005) or "While the Service continues to believe that the risk of a terrorist attack on New Zealand or New Zealand interests is low[.], we cannot afford to be complacent."(2005/2006)

But what has been really going on? The SIS is a bit tight-lipped. In other countries the 'intelligence community' is far more verbose. For example, the German Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) issues an annual report of almost 300 pages with detailed sections on "right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism, Islamic terrorism, extremist organisations of foreigners (not Islamic), espionage and Scientology." And that's just on the federal level, each state then issues its own, even more detailed report.

So without that level of detail available here in Aotearoa, we have to look a bit more carefully. There were actually hints that the Police and the SIS thought they were on to something for some time. Since 2007, the SIS has been mentioning the 'process of radicalisation' as a new area of investigation, while being very vague about actual results.

The Police reports provide more substance. In 2004, "The Strategic Intelligence Unit has participated in a range of training scenarios to ensure their skills are developed and maintained to a high level". For 2005 the report states that "Special Investigation Groups, whose work is to complement that of the Strategic Intelligence Unit and the overseas liaison officer network, were established in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in January 2005. These groups are dedicated to the investigation of national security- related crime including terrorism."

While back in 2001 national security wasn't even mentioned, by 2005 several specially trained groups are dedicated to investigating it. The report for the 2006/07 period then reveals that "Police were involved in four regional policing operations that had potential implications for New Zealand's national security in aegional context. The National Strategic Intelligence Unit has produced a number of strategic and tactical reports on issues related to national security. This reporting has led to targeted investigations in New Zealand in conjunction with other enforcement and intelligence agencies." The Special Investigation Groups that were created the previous year are reported to be "principally involved in the investigation."

The pattern here seems to be that first, new legislation is introduced that gives the Police and the SIS vast amount of power to go on fishing expeditions. These organisations then sharpen their view by organising training and subsequently create a number of specialist groups. These groups monitor phones, bug cars and install cameras to gather information on activists until they find something to investigate. The results are then assessed by the same people who provided the training.

Ross Meurant, former police officer and head of the Red Squad in the 1981 Springbok tour, describes it: "Police say they have collated information over a period of 12 months which on analysis leads them to the conclusion that there is a real threat to the stability and security of our country. The problem as I see it is, that information they have has been self assessed by the same people who collate the data or, at best, by the supervisor of the "intelligence unit" and his superior; all of whom view society from within the forest [=police culture] and with vested interests in producing an outcome which justifies the retention of their unit. These subjective conclusions are presented to judicial officers as the basis of justification for warrants and implementation of anti terror legislation which abrogate the most basic of our legal rights."

It seems reasonable to assume that 'Operation Eight' (which led to the arrests of October 15) was one of the four investigations mentioned in the 2006/7 Police report, and it's probably related to the other three. The targets were people who supported Tino Rangatiratanga, a political concept that threatens the State. This made it easy for the Police and SIS to sell their story of a real terrorist threat without providing much substance and the mainstream media had a feast. But after a month, the terrorism conspiracy collapsed. What remains are long court cases and the emotional scars of the raids. It's still worth (between) reading the lines.

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