Spies Play Hard To Get

Peace Researcher 40 – July 2010


- Murray Horton


The legendary Owen Wilkes was a world-renowned peace researcher and activist for decades, from the 1960s onwards. He was a founder of both the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) and, later, the Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC). Owen committed suicide in 2005, aged 65. Following his death Peace Researcher devoted a special issue to him, Number 31, October 2005, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/prcont31.html. It is, of course, no surprise that Owen was subjected to the attentions of the NZ Security Intelligence Service (SIS). In 2008 CAFCA received (the censored version of) its SIS file - I wrote about this in a very long article in Foreign Control Watchdog 120, May 2009 (“SIS Spied On CAFCA For A Quarter Of A Century”, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/20/06.htm. And also see my article “SIS Spied On Peace Movement For Decades” in PR 38, July 2009, http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr38-178a.htm and Maire Leadbeater’s article “Activist Annals”, in that same issue, http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr38-178b.htm).


Portrayed As A Mastermind


Owen Wilkes appears right throughout the SIS file on CAFCA and he is recorded as being the subject of a Personal File. He is portrayed as being some sort of mastermind. For example, the first of the ten SIS memos to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the US Embassy in Wellington about what was then called CAFCINZ (1975) says: “Owen R. WILKES is the main organiser and activist in both CAFMANZ (Campaign Against Foreign Military Activities In NZ and CAFCINZ (Campaign Against Foreign Control In NZ)”. When I went overseas in 1978 the SIS attached great significance to the fact that I (and my then partner) was going to visit Owen in Sweden (he spent six years working for Scandinavian peace research institutes).


The most fascinating report on Owen is a December 1985 one entitled “PROTEST ACTIVITY AGAINST THE SERVICE: ASSESSMENT OF CURRENT CAMPAIGNS”. In it they recognised Owen as a formidable foe. Some extracts: “CAFCINZ and its leading personalities have had a longstanding involvement in protest against this Service. Under the direction of Murray Donald HORTON (Personal File), CAFCINZ was responsible for coordinating protest and harassment activity against Service premises in Christchurch in the mid-to-late 1970s…The Service regained prominence in CAFCINZ’s interests in late 1983 with the acknowledgement by New Zealand Customs of its referral of WILKES’ incoming overseas mail to the NZSIS. CAFCINZ took up the cause of one of its founding members with gusto and apparently cooperated with WILKES in the formation of the Christchurch Peace Research Institute (PRI)… For a variety of reasons, the temperature appears to be rising in anti-SIS feeling over recent months. CAFCINZ appears to be taking the lead and this may be because of WILKES’ personal vendetta as much as CAFCINZ’s need to find a new issue on which to focus, now that the nuclear free and anti-ANZUS issues have become more widely popular and self-sustaining. WILKES brings a sophistication to anti-SIS activity that has not been much in evidence in the past. His Scandinavian experience has already been evident in CAFCINZ and PRI activity and there is, as yet, no reason to disbelieve that the type of information gathering techniques WILKES claimed were being used against Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and Defence (irrespective of their success) were not in fact undertaken and could not be used against this Service. The failure, by CAFCINZ and others, to achieve any measure of success against the Service via the Official Information Act does not appear to have dampened their enthusiasm…A campaign to expose the activities of the NZSIS is being initiated. It is possible that a degree of sophistication and perseverance not previously seen may be employed by individuals involved. There is an apparent climate of support from the radical Left for such a campaign”.


SIS Released Only 20 Page Sample


Jack Wilkes, Owen’s younger brother and the sole surviving member of Owen’s immediate family, decided to apply to the SIS for Owen’s Personal file. For starters he had to prove who he was and his relationship to Owen (which he did by supplying the SIS with the birth certificates of Owen and himself) in order to prove his right to be able to apply for his late brother’s file. In March 2009 Jack duly applied for the file under the Official Information Act and received a reply from SIS Director Warren Tucker in November 09. Tucker confirmed that the SIS had a Personal File on Owen: “This file, opened in December 1966 and inactive since his death in May 2005, holds a substantial volume of information…Unlike most PFs, your late brother’s file holds preponderance of open source reporting (mainly newspaper cuttings) rather than classified papers…I have decided to send you copies of a series of file summaries prepared between 1968 and 1989. These contain the key items of information held….I hope these summaries will suffice for your family archives…” (letter from Tucker to Jack Wilkes, 11/11/09).


Tucker sent Jack a grand total of 20 pages from Owen’s file (interestingly, not including the 1985 report on him cited above from CAFCA’s SIS file released to it in 2008). Although they contain nothing not already publicly known and consist mostly of a factual account of Owen’s work (but not life, as there is nothing personal in them) the snippets of his file released to Jack still make for interesting reading. “Wilkes first came to notice in August 1965 as a member of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation”. A page of one 1974 report is censored of everything except the last few lines but they shed light on SIS wishful thinking: “As he keeps abreast of new US military installations around the Pacific and in New Zealand, it is reasonable to assume that he has probably built up a ‘file’ of references and cuttings on these subjects. If Police action were undertaken at any time and a search initiated this would probably be confirmed”.


Obsession With Communists


The SIS’ obsession with the former Communist Party was the filter through which they viewed the subjects of their Personal Files in those days and Owen was no exception. Also in 1974 the SIS wrote: “When arranging protest activities he apparently developed links with the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) which helped to print pamphlets at Wilkes’ behest. Through these PYM links it is possible Wilkes developed contacts with the Communist Party of New Zealand which is understood to hold him in high regard and is believed to have considered recruiting him at one stage”.


A six page long 1983 report says: “In September 1971 Wilkes was spokesman for a liaison group attempting to coordinate the protest activities of a wide range of Christchurch activist groups, including the Socialist Action League and the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ). Though nothing appeared to come  of these attempts, Wilkes continued having occasional contact with the CPNZ, speaking to at least one Christchurch Branch meeting on protest activity…This link was further developed early in 1973 when Wilkes liaised closely with the PYM and the Christchurch Branch CPNZ prior to demonstrations against the Operation Deep Freeze facilities at Harewood Airport, Christchurch. Though this contact was not sustained, a leading member of the Branch is reported as having been interested in recruiting Wilkes for the Party. There is no evidence that Wilkes ever joined the CPNZ or any other subversive organisation”.


A 1979 SIS report, which describes Owen as a “seasoned Leftwing protester”, says: “In his extensive writings here and abroad, Wilkes has been variously described as an entomologist, NZ physicist, military strategist and scientist. His views were thus given an authority they did not merit, for in actual fact he ‘dropped out’ from Canterbury University after passing only five units of a Science degree. He does, however, have a well-developed flair for ferreting out, from obscure though unclassified sources, what would appear to constitute technical information”. Owen lived in Norway and Sweden from 1976-82, working for those countries’ respective peace research institutes, research which led to him being charged and convicted in high profile cases in both countries – all of this was faithfully recorded by the SIS, along with any other media reports on what he was doing during those years overseas.


“Wilkes Has The Potential To Pose A Threat To NZ’s Security”


The Official Information Act became law in 1982 and Owen was one of a number of people who promptly (but unsuccessfully) applied for their SIS files. The October 1983 Assessment Of Information Relating To Owen Ronald Wilkes Held By The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service was written in response to his request and is worth quoting nearly in full. “Part 1. Purpose Of NZSIS Holdings: Information relating to Wilkes has been obtained as a result of his association with organisations either subversive in their own right (Communist Party of New Zealand and Progressive Youth Movement), organisations that attracted some subversive interest and involvement (Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) or organisations involved in radical protest (Committee Against Foreign Military Activity in NZ, Campaign Against Foreign Control in NZ). Information is held on Wilkes relating to his activities in Norway and Sweden and his subsequent convictions in both countries for improper dealings with classified information. Wilkes’ activities of security interest in New Zealand and abroad justify the retention of this information and the continued monitoring of his association with organisations of similar security interest.


“Part 2. Conclusion From NZSIS Holdings: There is no evidence to suggest that Wilkes has threatened the security of New Zealand. His activities in New Zealand, though in association with organisations of security interest, have not in themselves been of a subversive nature or led to any suspicion of espionage. There is no evidence that he has ever been a member of a subversive organisation. Though he has played a leading role in demonstrations which have resulted in violent confrontation and was later convicted of inciting disorder at one such demonstration, there is no evidence to suggest that Wilkes has personally advocated or encouraged violent protest. 


“Though Wilkes’ convictions in Norway and Sweden do not relate directly to the Security of New Zealand they serve as indication of the seriousness with which his activities have been viewed in those countries and justify the continued monitoring of any similar activity in New Zealand. In view of this Wilkes must be seen as having the potential to pose a threat to the security of this country and hence it is pertinent and proper to retain these holdings. Part 3. Form Of NZSIS Holdings: Wilkes’ file contains both sensitive security reports and non-sensitive material, primarily newspaper reports which have added administrative instructions. The making available of either would be likely to prejudice the security of New Zealand”.


A 1986 report concludes by saying that “… Wilkes has become a vocal critic of the New Zealand intelligence community”. The most recent report is from 1989 and its conclusion is: “…Privately and in two or three published articles Wilkes has expressed some criticism of Soviet policies (for example the USSR’s test firing of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] into the Pacific Ocean) but the majority of his pronouncements are anti-American. Wilkes does not have close contact with the Soviet Mission in New Zealand and, as far as is known, he has made only one trip to the Soviet bloc…There is no evidence that Wilkes is or has been a Soviet agent involved in illegal intelligence activity. There is no evidence either that he is or has been an agent of influence under Soviet direction”. Speaking as someone who knew Owen as a friend and colleague for several decades, the fact of the SIS even raising the suggestion of him being a Soviet agent or a member of the Communist Party is ludicrous. He was allergic to ideology and was resolutely uninterested in the politics of the Left, it was just not his thing.


SIS Asks For Money & Says It’s Too Busy


The significance of the 20 pages that the SIS sent Jack Wilkes is that, under the Official Information Act, applicants are entitled to the first 20 pages and the first hour of photocopying free of charge. That is all that the SIS has provided Jack. Warren Tucker’s letter to him (11/11/09) said that if he wanted any more it would cost him the going rate under the Act, which is $76 per hour and 20 cents a page for copying. Jack Wilkes is the first applicant that I’ve heard of to be asked to pay (it’s worth noting that Elsie Locke’s biographer was given Elsie’s Personal File free of charge, and other people have been given the Personal Files of their late family members free of charge e.g. Bill Rosenberg was given the files of his father and mother, Wolfgang and Ann Rosenberg. In the case of both the Locke and Rosenberg files the subject of cost was raised by the SIS but not followed through).


Jack Wilkes is not a rich man (he’s a Karamea beekeeper) but he wasn’t prepared to back off from this none too subtle threat. He replied to the SIS asking for a quote and offering to talk money. This called Tucker’s bluff. In February 2010 he wrote to Jack: “I regret to inform you that the amount of research and collation that would be required to prepare this substantial (six volume) file for release to you is such that I am obliged to decline your request, as provided for in Section 18(f) of the Official Information Act. To do otherwise would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the NZSIS. I might also add that I have limited staff qualified and available for declassification work and they are committed for some months ahead” (Tucker letter to Jack Wilkes, 9/2/10). Jack wrote again offering to pay, leading to a further letter from Tucker (12/3/10): “As I have stated, I have limited staff qualified and available for declassification work and they are heavily committed. Accordingly, while I acknowledge your willingness to meet the costs that would be associated with any further release of information, this does not change the resourcing we have available for this declassification work”. So it’s not about money at all.


Owen’s File Is Of High Public Interest


Jack has appealed to the Ombudsman, asking for the whole file. That the SIS doesn’t have enough declassification staff and that the ones it has got are busy is not actually grounds for refusing requests under the Official Information Act.  Imagine if Government departments had the legal right to say “we’re busy” to applicants. That would be the perfect catchall way of avoiding all OIA requests. Memo to Warren Tucker: get more declassification staff and tell the ones you’ve got to pull their fingers out. It would be one tangible way for taxpayers to see some return for the tens of millions poured into the SIS every year.


Owen Wilkes is an important national and international figure (as witnessed by the extensive mainstream media coverage about him after his death, despite the fact that he had retired from the peace movement many years earlier) and there is high public interest in his SIS Personal File. His sole surviving blood relative is entitled to receive this material in order to understand Owen’s life, which was undoubtedly affected by the activities of local and foreign intelligence agencies (for reasons that are rooted in the ridiculous Cold War obsessions of those years). Accessing such material is also important because we don’t know what we don’t know (if you know what I mean).


Owen Wilkes was an inspirational figure to very many people (including me, who counted myself lucky to have been his friend and colleague for decades) and a crucial leading figure in both ABC and CAFCA, among other groups. So the fact that the SIS is not prepared to divulge more than a tiny fraction of the six volume file it kept on him from the 60s is not something that should be accepted without a fight. Jack Wilkes is performing a service for all New Zealanders by doggedly pursuing the file of his late brother, a man who played a key role in shaping New Zealand’s history in the last several decades of the 20th Century; a man who did more than his share to make this a better country. We’ll keep you posted.


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