By Josephine Latu: Pacific Media Watch
Spies, surveillance and espionage are the stuff expected in television reports about Al Qaeda – or James Bond novels.
Yet right in the Pacific backyard, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) has been secretly tracking, photographing, and investigating the family and friends of unsuspecting “persons of interest” for decades, allegedly in the quest for “national security”.
The news media was challenged for failing to report on the surveillance of citizens earlier.
At a seminar hosted by AUT’s Pacific Media Centre on Tuesday, Murray Horton, secretary of the Campaign against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) and a campaigner against global Big Business, described how he had been under covert investigation by the SIS for more than 30 years.
He has yet to receive his personal file from the agency, although he was informed last month in a letter from Director of Security Dr Warren Tucker, that the file is “moribund”.
The letter also stated: “You are only of interest as long as you are interested in us”.
The SIS has only recently toned down organisational policies, finally agreeing to give people extensive information from their files, if applied for.
Since then, a number of people have received their declassified records, including Green MP and Pacific affairs spokesman Keith Locke.
Horton’s colleague, author and peace advocate Maire Leadbeater, formerly of the Philippine Solidarity Network and now spokesperson of the Auckland-based Indonesian Human Rights Committee (IHRC), also spoke at the seminar.
Leadbeater, sister of Keith Locke, has had an NZSIS personal file since she was aged 10.
She spoke about spying against the Philippine solidarity activists and the "peace brigade" to the Philippines in 1989.
Due to what Horton calls an “obsession with communism”, NZSIS has monitored individuals and organisations since 1956 during the height of the Cold War, while working with other government agencies.
CAFCA, the organisation Horton helped found, recently received its file totalling more than 400 pages.
The document included information on infiltrated AGM meetings, private mail, educational and medical background of members, 10 memos about CAFCA to the CIA, as well as sensitive details about individuals’ marital problems, sex lives and “substance abuse”.
“It can be treated as a joke, but this kind of thing has the capacity to really affect people’s lives,” said Horton.
This includes things such as visa and job applications where the NZSIS can disclose private information to other agencies.
The fact much of the private details came from a source within the CAFCA circle was also disconcerting for members.
Horton questioned the role of the media as a watchdog for democracy in failing to highlight this issue earlier.
“We basically stumbled upon this ourselves – why weren’t journos asking these questions?” he said.
According to human rights groups, the NZSIS had an annual budget of more than $23 million in 2006. Stated objectives include protecting the country from sabotage, espionage, terrorist attacks, and threats to international economic well-being.
However, while Cold War-era fears of communism have since subsided, the organisation has recently turned to Islamic action as a threat to national security.
Sony Ambudi, an Indonesian who was active in human rights issues in his homeland, attended the seminar. He described his experience when he was contacted by the SIS in Auckland in 2004.
Ambudi, a Muslim, said the agent contacted him at an unlisted number and knew that he attended weekly religious meetings as well as having “insider” details about the meetings.
After the interview, he was told by the agent that their conversation “never took place”.
Yet, while such shady operations may seem unsettling, Filipina activist Del Abcede reminded seminar participants about the very real threat of knowing too much information.
“It’s happening today and it’s costing lives. In a country like the Philippines, if you’re on the list, expect to disappear any minute.”
Pictures: Top: Murray Horton at the PMC seminar. Above: Maire Leadbeater. Pictures: Alan Koon.
Profile on Murray Horton