Nicky Hager Interview on Snowden Files and NZ GCSB Role in the Five Eyes Alliance

Zahra Shahtahmasebi: Thank you to everyone tuning in to this important interview. Joining me this morning is a very special guest, Nicky Hager. I’m sure he needs no introduction for those of you in New Zealand, but for those who don’t know him, he is the author of six books including Secret Power and last year’s page turner: Dirty Politics. His most recent work examines theSnowden files extensively, to analyze New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes Alliance.

Nicky, thank you for joining us despite your busy schedule.

Nicky Hager: It’s good to be with you.

I don’t suppose you saw that interview last year that came out shortly after you released your book Dirty Politics, but it was with Paul Henry‘s daughter and she didn’t seem particularly well-versed on the topics of the book. I was wondering if back then and now after your current revelations, if this is indicative of the current attitude in New Zealand – this kind of complicit and trusting statism?

In fact I did – someone sent me the Paul Henry daughter interview. And I thought, when I watched it – I just thought he was a cruel man to insult his daughter like that, because my general belief is that in every country, there are plenty of intelligent people, all the time, and that if you want to look at why policies and politics sometimes seem stupid or people seem to reach bad conclusions, it’s not because of ordinary people, it’s not because of brain size. It’s because they are watching the wrong TV, listening to the wrong radio stations – they’re listening to Paul Henry for example, and busy with their lives, and they don’t realize they’re being fed un-nutritious food. So I think that’s a better way to explain it, that, when people have good information, the fact is that the heart of democracy is not taking opinion polls, and seeing that someone’s up and someone’s down, or 45 percent of people say this and 50 percent say that. Because that’s pretty meaningless in a democracy if people don’t know what they’re talking about. The heart of a democracy is where people have information – good information – and they’re educated from when they’re children and then you have a good debate and if all that happens and then people make up their minds – that’s democracy. But the rest of it is a combination of sort of drifting and political manipulation.

Definitely. And I guess in regards to that, we as a nation are particularly passionate people about, let’s say certain topics, and I think a good example would be the recent case of the “X-Factor” scandal. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but two judges were accused of bullying a contestant on national television. Within 24 hours, the whole New Zealand public took to social media to voice their outrage against this scandal and they signed petitions on change.org and so the judges were fired. Yet, compare this incident with things like the GCSBrevelations or the fact that one in four Kiwi children live in poverty every day and we don’t get particularly vocal about the topics that seem wholly more relevant and important to us. So why do you think that we don’t really see similar sorts of action against those kinds of issues compared to something that lets say is more, not materialistic but more in the entertainment sector.

I think your examples illustrate what I was saying very well – that the reason why the “X-Factor” got that attention was because it’s getting that attention from the news media, and from the promoters and the marketers around it. And the hype and the resources that go into people knowing about it – and of course we all care about an individual story; we care about our neighbor if they’re in trouble or our friend if they’re in trouble, so we can relate to that easily and it makes it easy meat for the – the sort of, dumb news media to feed on, to give to the public. But when people know about other issues, they’re also motivated. For example, even the GCSB, which frankly, I write about it, but it’s an obscure subject, you know, secret agency, does things which the government denies even though other people say they do it, but in the last term of the national government that was the main issue – one of the main issues that did harm for the prime minister. I was asked to speak at the meeting in Auckland about the GCSB bill that was going through, and the Auckland Town Hall was full to the back seat and people were being turned away. I have never seen a meeting that big in New Zealand for years, and so what it meant was that when there was the material and impetus for the media to pay attention to things – in other words, when the public has an opportunity to be part of a debate where there’s information and different points of view, people do feel strongly. We feel strongly as a country when there’s another country in need; we’re extremely generous as a country. We care about war – that’s why governments have to hide going to war in New Zealand when they boast about it in Australia or the US. We have a distinctive environment here where people care – political environment, social environment – where people care about things, but if your media is sleepy, if there’s not much information around, well then these things pass the public by. So it’s always good to look at the structural reasons and ask the media to look at the structural things rather than to just have that individual stuff.

Definitely. I find that particularly interesting what you said about the meeting that you went to that was full and yet the election last year saw one of the worst voting numbers in history and the fact that people didn’t really try and change the government that we had in place considering all the stuff that had come to light about what they had been up to. I was just wondering what you thought about that – is it just a sense of apathy, do we not care?

Apathy is the word that’s used when you’re blaming the public for the political system. You’re blaming individual by individual. Why do people not vote? Because they feel alienated from the political system. They feel that they have got no input to it, it’s not part of their lives, it doesn’t matter to them – which is not the human constitution; we are political animals. Last year’s election – I think the more interesting thing to look at it is why was it like it was? Taking my book out of the equation, what we had was an election which was for many people – especially coming from the government and the dominant financial media position – it was a policy-free election. John Key was traveling up the country having “selfies” taken of himself and there was no policy coming out and there was just smiles and if you were to describe what the election strategy was, it was: don’t scare the horses. You have nothing going on, quieten it all down, hope that people don’t even know there’s an election on practically; that they’re just going to go to the supermarket that morning and won’t even notice. Now, people make the mistake that they think that if you have a three-yearly election that you live in a democracy and the other countries that don’t have elections aren’t democracies. But it’s not a democracy if you’re not having information and real debate, real engagement and people feel that and they feel alienated and they feel it doesn’t matter what they say or think because the same policies keep going, they don’t get any richer and the things they care about don’t happen and so they switch off. In fact, I think that the scariest thing that I have read about in many years about election strategy coming out of the US Republican Party is when clever strategists figure out how to turn off sections of the public so they don’t vote – is a strategy in gaining their share in the election.

That is a scary thought. It’s very true what you said that a lot of people do feel alienated because I remember a lot of people I spoke to last year just said that they were just not going to vote and I guess because they didn’t really know much about the parties or I guess they didn’t know much in general.

So you can say: lazy bums, which I partly think, but why would it be like that? Don’t they care about things? If you talk to them would they just say: “I don’t care about anything?” So, I think there are two things. One is what I was saying about not being engaged and just feeling like it’s not their business and nobody cares. But another one is: go in to essentially the right-wing media, go to the Mike Hoskings of this world and you see a recurrent philosophical or political action there and there’s a shrug, and then they say “I don’t care; no one cares about this; who cares about this stuff? I don’t care about it. I just want to make money and drive my car. Why isn’t everyone as rich as me; I am a great guy.” If there are more people tuning into the public broadcaster who broadcasts that kind of nonsense than they are onto the alternative things, well, that’s a horrible negative effect that’s kind of like a science fiction that even your public broadcaster is purveying cynicism and indifference to the political system. Then everyone says: “Hey they didn’t vote.”

One thing I found particularly interesting is your comment in a recent interview that you suspect John Key doesn’t really know much about what the GCSB is actually doing, or much about foreign policy for that matter. I was hoping you could comment further because there seems to be this sense amongst National Party supporters that he knows what he is doing; he is able to make the right decisions for us – and I think a good example is the recent case where he will send our troops to go to Iraq and train Iraqi forces and I think he said something along the lines of “get some guts and join the right side.” Yet, this “right side” that he has been talking about has been shown to be committing atrocities and revenge acts against Sunni Muslims in Iraq. In light of this, should we as New Zealanders trust that he knows what he’s doing or that he can make the right decisions? Or is there grave implications, do you think, from these decisions, that can impact us in the future?

Oh, joining wars undermines New Zealand terribly and goes against a lot of our character as a nation, so yes, these things really matter. Foreign policy isn’t another entertainment channel on the TV, it really matters. Whether I think so – this is political commentary from me – I believe that John Key, our current prime minister, is a shrewd effective politician, in the sense of negotiating issues and surviving crises and weaving his way around the political crises that come along. Credit to him for that; he’s good at it. I think that as a person, he did an accountancy degree when he went through university. He’s shown through his whole life since then, no interest in anything to do with foreign policy, or for that matter to do with music, or culture or books or ideas. I don’t think he’s ever spent a voluntary day in his life for any cause. He probably doesn’t even know the names of the trees in his garden, or certainly not in the native bush of the country where he grew up. He’s a money man and so, I don’t think it’s surprising that when he comes in to the job that we learn that he sounds like a caricature of just a right-wing politician who does things like “Get some guts and go and join the war,” because our traditional friends are there. Those are the words somebody uses when there is no subtlety in their perspective and no reading behind it. No interest in the Middle East, no serious knowledge of what’s going on there apart from a briefing paper about to handle one day’s media on something that comes up. And so that’s fine, he doesn’t have to be an expert on everything, but we should be able to see that – we and our media should be able to tell the difference between someone who understands issues and someone who doesn’t.

No, exactly and I found especially in another interview where you stated that he tried to stop people from seeking alternative means of media and not to read your work or not to read these stories –

I find that particularly hilarious, that the prime minister said: “I strongly advise you to disregard what this person is going to tell you about the Snowden documents.” I mean, it’s weird.

I think the fact is that people would believe him though, just because he has that position, and they think, “Oh, we’ve got to do what he says,” and I think when I heard you say that [in the interview] it gives all the signs of a dictator and that’s what immediately sprung to mind, just this complete kind of dictatorship.

Well, that’s the mentality I think. But the problem is, you know at the moment, he’s got a kind of “X-Factor” – you know – celebrity status with the people and it’s not really being judged on issues, or whether, you know, he’s good for the economy for example. I’m not sure his government is good for the economy as it isn’t very good for foreign policy. But he’s not being judged on that basis by many people. And if they’re getting their news from 7 Sharp or TVNZ, then they won’t be challenged in that.

In parliamentary question time, John Key said that there is no difference between what his government is doing and what was put in place by Helen Clark’s government, which would come as no surprise to those who have seen the Uruwera raids documentary entitled Operation 8 . But how much truth is there in this claim, and would it make it less concerning and more acceptable in your eyes if his claim is true?

Well first of all, in terms of a moral argument, saying that another government did something isn’t a defense of your own actions. You have to defend your own actions on your own terms. Sometimes other governments didn’t do a good job, either. In terms of surveillance interference with citizens, the GCSB has been spying on the South Pacific and catching New Zealanders in the South Pacific, and the issues I was talking about for a long time. That has gone through various governments and I would criticize the Labour governments for their lack of interest and their lack of oversight and the lack of public debate about these issues more or less about the same as the national government. But when John Key said “Nothing has changed under my government,” that’s where he wasn’t accurate because what our stories were about – from the Snowden documents – what our stories were about were a massive increase in spying under his government. In other words, the story was we’re spying on the South Pacific – that actually isn’t new news – but we’re actually spying on the South Pacific on a hugely greater scale. And so the answer that it happened under Helen Clark’s government isn’t answering what we were saying. What we were saying was this has increased immensely in scale and so he was wrong about that with Helen Clark’s government but what he was trying to say was – or what he was sliding in from one thing to another – was that her government wasn’t that great on intelligence.

I particularly liked your comment in a recent interview about the colonial aspect of the idea that we should be spying on our neighbors as if we have the right to, and like you said, these Pacific countries that we are spying on are supposed to be our friends; they are friendly nations with us. Yet we openly boast about supplying intelligence about them to our western partners. So I would like to ask you in a general sense, do you think that spying is necessary? Let’s just say that if you could sit down with John Key and try and sort it all out what would you think that the best case scenario would be to put a halt to spying entirely or perhaps more transparency?

I think that most countries in the world do not spy on other countries. It is not the normal state of the world. It is the big powers that do it to gain greater influence in the world. So, when you are a whole country with the population the size of a medium-sized city overseas, the idea that this is a natural thing for us is sort of stretched from the beginning; it is unlikely from the beginning. The reason why we spy on the South Pacific states is not because we need the intelligence, or because we use the intelligence – it is 95 percent because we are doing it to satisfy our place in the American intelligence alliance. So, even the debates about how we use the intelligence or whether we need it aren’t even relevant because that’s not why we collect the information; we collect it because it is our contribution in what is called the Southwest Pacific area of responsibility that New Zealand has been given in the worldwide spying by the United States. Having said that, let’s just – we can argue as if it might be rational that we’re doing it, and say when you’ve got a micro state like Tuvalu, for example, and it’s going to go into negotiation over its fishing industry, which might be like it’s main resource that it can support itself with and develop with and things; so you’ve got a tiny little micro state and the US powerful fishing industry and they are dealing with each other and New Zealand spies on the little country which is our neighbor and supposed friend, collects the information on negotiations and gives it to the powerful American companies. Now, what is the moral position in that? What did that have to do with the security of New Zealand, or the safety of New Zealand, or the interests of New Zealand, or justice in the world? It just doesn’t stand up; it really doesn’t stand up.

Following on from that really nicely is the fact that you said that the technology and all the data that is collected goes straight to the United States and so by extent they are taking the data of the Pacific but also data of us in New Zealand so that’s by and large affecting us as well. So data about us in connection with the Pacific will be going to the States. So we have on one hand the fact that the government is overstepping their boundaries and breaching people’s privacy but on the other hand what assurance do we have that that information is safe from let’s say, other lone wolf or third party organizations?

The way these big intelligence agencies work is they are very secretive; there are big walls around them. And so the GCSB, or hopefully the NSA – I’m not quite so confident there – their information doesn’t tend to leak out to private companies or private investigators or things like that – it’s too secret. So we need a realistic view of what the risks are and in a country like New Zealand, for New Zealanders, first of all, as far as I know, the GCSB does not spy within New Zealand which is a very good thing and may it stay that way but when we get caught, when New Zealanders go into an area which is being spied on like the South Pacific the main defense is that people aren’t targets. I suppose what I would say generally about civil liberties is that civil liberties don’t fall equally – when there’s a problem with surveillance or a problem with unreasonable police laws or whatever it is it’s not that everyone through society discovers they’ve got problems, most people’s lives go on unchanged, but that doesn’t make it alright. There will be some sector of society which is taking the brunt of it – for example with the war on terror and so it’s Muslim people are having a problem, or whatever it is. And so you have to look at the actual people who are being hurt by it. At this stage, the main people being hurt by GCSB spying are other countries actually and I would argue that New Zealanders shouldn’t get too fired up about it.

Just from one of my last points…

I meant fired up for themselves.

Oh, okay. For those people who are keen to learn more and are keen followers of this kind of information do you have any kinds of hints or can tell us something about what’s to come?

On the Snowden revelations?

Yes.

Well, we are about halfway through releasing the information. The next story that is coming out tomorrow [23/3/2015], I don’t know when this is being broadcast, but the next story that is coming out is about what New Zealand uses this system for. So, we spy on this staggering array of countries or help spy on them, as our part of the alliance, so the next story that is coming out is I think, an amazing, shocking story about what the national government decided to do with this system for its own benefits. So I’ve had access to this worldwide surveillance system where they can spy on pretty much the whole internet and the question is: What would they use this for? What cause, what principle, and what value in the world would they use this for? That’s what the next story is going to be about.

So for people who are interested, where can they go and what sorts of people can they talk to in order to learn more? What kind of news sites would you recommend that they follow?

Well, for New Zealand news, it’s always worth going to the Herald site or somewhere in New Zealand to show what’s going on day to day but for actually thought-provoking things – the great thing about the internet is blogs allow good analysis that doesn’t make its way into the mainstream media. I would recommend for New Zealand politics a blog, with a funny name, it’s called the Dimpost. Intelligent commentary about New Zealand politics and for commentary around the world we should really just get on the internet and read the overseas news sources – they have much more resources than New Zealand could ever have. I’m working at the moment with The Intercept – who have got the Snowden papers and are writing about other issues; I’m very impressed with the work that they are doing. And so I would recommend people go on The Intercept and it’s sort of biased towards intelligence at the moment because of the Snowden papers; and intelligence is not the most important issue on the earth it’s just one of the issues that we should care about in the bigger picture of foreign policy. So that’s a very good site and then there’s The Guardian, and so on. I think if people go out into the world and bother to look regularly at good news sites it changes your life.

Thank you so much for doing this.

Great to talk to you, great questions.