The Idiotís Guide To The GCSB

- Liz Gordon

I am a squeaky clean citizen. I have never been arrested, never even been detained, by any authorities, unlike many of you who are reading this. I never sought information on my SIS (NZ Security Intelligence Service) file, because I doubt I have one and, if I do, it won’t say anything of interest. I was once called the “most Leftwing MP in Parliament”, but that’s not saying much, really, is it?  And, I suspect, it was my feminism as much as my social democratic values that led to that label. 

I did take the Lefty side in the 2002 Alliance split, but that was a no-brainer – the other side supported sending troops to Afghanistan, which, as anyone could see, would lead to a disaster.  Not poking one’s nose into other people’s ideological conflicts is an obvious principle gained from looking at history – it never does any good, and always leads to the killing of innocents.  In our case, in practice, the innocents were too often New Zealand troops downed by friendly fire, as well as local civilians just trying to live their lives. Sorry, got off the topic for a minute. So what I am trying to say is that I should have nothing to fear from the expansion of the GCSB (NZ Government Communications Security Bureau) into New Zealand. Why should I worry? In the following idiot’s guide, I will try to answer your questions about the organisation.

What Is The GCSB?

It has a dual and quite interesting heritage.  Set up in 1977 at the height of the Cold War, its mother is the anti-Communist West and its Dad was Muldoon at his Think Big apogee.  Work out that mix if you can!

So Are You Saying It Was A Kind Of Anti-Red Mega-Organisation?

No, I don’t really know what I’m saying but it sounded impressive, didn’t it?  At the time it was founded, it was really only a small office within the Ministry of Defence. A frisson was added by its Top Secret status, but that was rather under threat by the 1980s.

Why Was That?

Well the public got rather antsy about its sister organisation, the SIS, which got into trouble twice in 1981 – for drawing up a list of anti-Springbok Tour “subversives” and for the infamous pie and Penthouse incident (younger readers may need to look that up). Later in the 1980s the SIS was also implicated in failing to detect the Rainbow Warrior bombing threat. So the GCSB rather got tarred with the SIS’s aura of incompetence. So more attention was paid to what the organisation did.

OK. So What Does The GCSB Do?

Well, that’s a bit secret. It appears to be part of Echelon, the five-eyed Western beast that monitors communications and transmissions. Nicky Hager says that an early responsibility was the monitoring of Soviet ships in the Pacific (including fishing vessels). By Hoki! After 1980 it became a separate organisation. In the 1980s it built the two listening stations at Waihopai and Tangimoana as part of an international network. Waihopai intercepts civilian satellite telecommunications; Tangimoana intercepts high frequency (or “short wave”) radio signals from ships, aircraft and land-based transmitters around the Pacific. So it listens.

Is It A Competent Organisation?

There is no evidence it is competent. Given various public relations disasters in recent years, one would think the organisation, as a public agency, might defend itself by proving its competence.  Or is it above all that? Various security breaches, including the incursion of a TV3 film crew, Mikey Havoc and Newsboy dancing in front of the cameras at Waihopai and of course the Ploughshares activists who pricked the GCSB’s bubble, seem to indicate some basic holes in security. On the other hand, there is no evidence it has ever detected anything worth listening to.

How Much Does It Cost?

It gets around $65 million a year from the taxpayer. The recent Kitteridge Report noted that the GCSB was under-resourced and had a lack of legal staff. Why would it need a large legal staff? I will leave you to answer that if you can.

What Does It Spend The Moolah On Then?

Perhaps GCSB agents have champagne rather than cold pie tastes (ref SIS above)? Look, I don’t know. They watch and listen to things. The organisation is secret! This is Spooks stuff – high tech surveillance. I wonder if they have one of those cool transparent walls? 

So What Has It Done To Catch Your Attention?

Well, it got caught out using its electronic surveillance bag of tricks in New Zealand, and particularly by bugging a rather feisty character, Kim Dotcom. This was, of course, against the law. John Key apologised to Kim Dotcom... anyway you know all that. More importantly, Kim is suing the GCSB for damages in relation to that dreadful raid on his house that terrified his family and dumped him, for a short time, in prison. He is still facing extradition but the smart bets are that he will never be sent to the USA.

Is There Any Foreign Ownership Issue Here?

Funny you should mention that. Because he has lived in NZ for more than 12 months, Dotcom is now eligible to purchase his rental property in Auckland, that lavish mansion rumoured to be the most expensive house in New Zealand.  But can he even afford it now? Also, less a foreign control issue as Dotcom is our favourite adopted son.

So Might We Find Out A Little More About The GCSB When Dotcom Sues The Agency?

We might and we might not.  It is quite an interesting test of democracy, really. Some have compared this saga with Watergate, and think it may eventually bring down John Key. This is why the recent (3/7/13) confrontation between Key and Dotcom at the Intelligence and Security Committee public hearings of submissions on the GCSB Bill was so interesting – especially when Dotcom told Key he was blushing. Has Key met his match? Anyway, I got off the topic a bit…

You Do Ramble On.  What Else Have You Got To Say?

Well, the thing is, the GCSB’s powers are being extended to allow it to act within New Zealand. It will be able to spy on New Zealanders when helping the police or SIS. The powers are huge. All telecoms operators must ensure their networks have “full interception capability”, and the GCSB’s powers are being extended to allow it to monitor them for the purposes of national security and “economic wellbeing”, whatever that means.

Indeed.  And You Think Those Powers Might Be A Threat To Your Peaceful Existence?

Yes, I think those powers are more Orwellian than George’s worst fears. Modern technology can be liberating through the mass sharing of information, but it can also lead to undue pressure to conform.  Muldoon’s Think Big anti-Soviet tool is now to be turned on ourselves, and the implications are profound.

CAFCA begs to differ with Liz that Kim Dotcom is “our favourite adopted” son. I refer you to Watchdog 129, August 2012, in which James Ayers wrote “Kim Dotcom And The Good Character Test: Money Versus Power”, That is an analysis of the Overseas Investment Office’s file on Dotcom, which CAFCA obtained under the Official Information Act. As for the GCSB, the definitive book is Nicky Hager’s “Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role In the International Spy Network” (Craig Potton Publishing, 1996).

The Anti-Bases Campaign’s newsletter Peace Researcher, co-edited by Murray Horton and Warren Thomson, is the best regular source of analysis on the GCSB. Peace Researcher is online at The two most recent articles on the whole Dotcom/GCSB schemozzle are “A Dotcomedy of Errors. GCSB Illegally Spies On New Zealanders: We Told You So”, by Murray Horton, in PR 44, November 2012,, and “Crime Pays! Government Legalises GCSB Culture Of Impunity”, by Murray Horton, in PR 45, June 2013, Ed. 


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