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Monday, 05 May 2008

One in the eye for our Waihopai spies

Nelson | Thursday, 01 May 2008
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So the Waihopai spy base isn't impregnable after all, the Nelson Mail said in an editorial on Thursday.

Razor wire, electrified fences, alarms, infra-red motion sensors and closed circuit television, not to mention a complement of guards, were no match for three determined non-violent activists from Anzac Ploughshares who cut their way in and used a sickle, of all things, to prick one of the base's giant balloons. Imagine if they had been intruders with more modern equipment and a more sinister intent than to spread the disarmament message.

This one impertinent act has done more to draw attention to their cause than years of well-controlled annual protests at the base, 30km from Blenheim, during which the demonstrators have sometimes been allowed inside the perimeter fence but been given strict orders by the base commander about where they can and cannot wander. It has also shown up the base's security as a paper tiger - and that is the real concern to arise from Wednesday morning's audacious raid.

Who would have thought it could be so easy? Not Anzac Ploughshares, evidently, who put two months' planning into the attack but didn't think it would come off. According to the group's spokesman, it was Plan B that got them in after Plan A - using a truck with a hydraulic arm to gain entry - fell over when the truck got bogged down in a nearby vineyard. So much for keeping an eye on any unusual activity.

The job went so well that even the activists were surprised. They admitted they didn't expect to get close to the surprisingly fragile domes, which appear solid and impenetrable but turn out to be inflatable rubber, designed to keep out the rain rather than terrorists or, in this case, peaceniks.

Naturally Prime Minister Helen Clark has tut-tutted about a "senseless act of vandalism" and the cost of having to rebuild the shield. That could be considerable, and any admiration for this triumph of David over Goliath should be tempered with the knowledge that the repairs will be expensive, perhaps running to more than $1 million.

This is no ordinary balloon. However, Miss Clark, who has oversight of the Government Communications Security Bureau which runs the Waihopai spy base, ought to focus her displeasure on the hopelessly slack security.

Although the annual protests have been small, many New Zealanders will have negative views on the spy base, part of an international intelligence agency network which shares electronic data between the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and this country.

Those who oppose the Iraq war and other US initiatives are naturally against it, while the suspicion that it is used to spy on New Zealanders - though it is precluded by law from doing so - has never been totally allayed. The question of what happens when an international communication involving a New Zealander is intercepted has yet to be publicly answered.

Others will see the base as a pragmatic way of keeping New Zealand in the international security fold, an arrangement that works to the country's benefit, even if it isn't enough to get us fully into Anzus.

Whatever the individual view on the base's worth, its conquest by three men armed with little more than high principles is a disgrace. Following so closely on the Waiouru medals theft, which showed that the army wasn't able to safeguard its greatest treasures, the Waihopai raid tells the world that security for New Zealand's most sensitive sites is a joke.

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