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Some questions for the PM

By Steven | September 15, 2014

I’m struggling to find the provisions in NZ’s policy about the classification of documents that allow the PM to declassify documents for the purpose of protecting his reputation (his word, not mine, on Morning Report this morning). Perhaps the PM could help me out here.

The PM has said he would declassify documents to prove he stopped a mass surveillance proposal, in response to criticisms by journalist Glenn Greenwald (and, it seems, whistleblower Edward Snowden).

A few other questions spring to mind:

Why were these documents classified in the first place, and who by? What was the security classification?

If they were classified secret or top secret, what was the “serious” or “exceptionally grave” damage to our security operations that would have been caused if we’d known about them, say, at the time we were debating the proper content of our spy laws? (Or what other secrecy ground was relied on?).

Who is directing the reclassification? Because it sounds like the PM is ordering it. But the decision should surely be made by the intelligence agencies themselves. Chapter 3, para 31 says:

for authority to downgrade or declassify, refer material classified SECRET or TOP SECRET to the point of origin.

So what’s the PM doing making this call? Hasn’t he always told us that operational decisions are the domain of the agencies themselves? (And isn’t his office under investigation for rapidly having SIS information declassified and released to Cameron Slater?)

If the PM is making this decision, is protecting his own reputation a proper consideration?

One might have thought that “overriding public interest” was the proper benchmark for working out whether to declassify a document. That has the beauty of being consistent with the Official Information Act, which still applies to these documents (see Chapter 3, para 6). And surely there is overriding public interest in the release of the documents now. Is the PM reluctant to make this point because of the obvious rejoinder: why were they not in the public interest back when we were debating the law, when similar allegations of mass surveillance by our spy agencies were being made, and when the country was debating what powers and limitations on those powers were appropriate?

Is this declassification process being expedited? Again, on whose instructions?

Or was it already in train? It was widely anticipated that Nicky Hager’s book would include similar allegations to these. Had the PM already begun or even finished the declassification process in order to have the documents lined up for rebuttal?

Why are the only documents being declassified the ones necessary to protect the PM’s reputation by showing how he stopped this “business plan”? If those documents are no longer going to be harmful to release, or if there is sufficient public interest to override any relevant harm, then aren’t there a swag of other relevant documents that should be declassified too?

Topics: General | 7 Comments »

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