Trotter trots out rot

The strange resurrection of the SIS break-in case

- Murray Horton


The court cases brought by Aziz Choudry and David Small, arising out of the botched 1996 break-in at Aziz’s Christchurch home by Security Intelligence Service (SIS) agents, were settled in 1999 and 2000 respectively. How very odd then that the whole business should have been resurrected in 2001, a propos of nothing. Or was it? In fact, the purported revelations were published at the same time as the major controversy over the Swain Bill, which gives the SIS, Police and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB, best known for operating the Waihopai spybase), increased powers of electronic spying against New Zealanders. They seemed aimed at lending legitimacy to the tawdry operations of the SIS.

Chris Trotter is the Establishment’s tame Lefty. He is a regular columnist for the Dominion and the Independent. In the past, such as during the build up to the 1999 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Auckland, he has shown a tendency to shoot off at the mouth. But his latest effort is a beauty. Early in 2001 his regular Independent column was entitled "Perhaps The SIS Was Right To Burgle Choudry’s House" (14/2/01). He later protested that the headline was not of his choosing, but proceeded to republish the article, under a different headline, in the Political Review, which he edits.

His thesis was simple. His research (consisting of a few Internet searches) had uncovered the fact that Aziz’s house guest at the time of the break-in was Dr Alejandro Villamar, of Mexico; that GATT* Watchdog et al had never made this public; that Alejandro was the likely target of the SIS operation, not Aziz; and that he was the target because of his activities and connections in Mexico, which included those actively opposed to major NZ companies becoming involved in forestry projects in southern Mexico, including the state of Chiapas, the base for the Zapatistas’ armed uprising. He stated that "opponents of globalisation are extremely naive if they think they can take on transnational capital without consequences" (letter to Listener, 24/3/01). * GATT = General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, now the World Trade Organisation (WTO), headed by our very own Mike Moore.

A Beat Up

This whole thing really is a beat up. GATT Watchdog responded that Alejandro Villamar was a featured speaker at the Trading With Our Lives conference, which was being held in opposition to the APEC Trade Ministers’ conference in 1996, both in Christchurch. Aziz was a principal organiser of Trading With Our Lives; he and Alejandro went on a speaking tour around the country immediately after that. Accordingly, Alejandro’s presence in NZ was widely publicised to the media and public. Trotter stuck to his guns, saying that GATT Watchdog had never admitted that Alejandro was Aziz’s house guest at the time of the break-in. Unfortunately for him we had, from Day One. GATT Watchdog has nothing to hide. Various publications, such as Watchdog, Peace Researcher and The Big Picture have all run articles stating that Alejandro was Aziz’s house guest at the time and speculating on whether Alejandro was the target of the break-in.

Trotter went on to point out that the break-in took place a fortnight after the new SIS Amendment Act came into force, expanding the spy agency’s powers to include targeting people who pose a threat to New Zealand’s "international or economic wellbeing", and that Alejandro’s activities and connections in Mexico, specifically those in opposition to major NZ companies trying to get into forestry projects in southern Mexico, provided exactly that justification for the SIS operation.

Unfortunately for him, there are more holes in his argument. Yes, the break-in did take place a mere fortnight after the law change, precisely proving our point that political activists would be targeted. But the evidence gathered in Aziz’s case does not help Trotter’s thesis – the SIS interception warrant, which authorised the break-in, was issued in 1995, way before the law was changed and before GATT Watchdog had heard of Alejandro Villamar, let alone invited him to NZ. So authorisation for the break-in was given under the old law, which did not include the expanded powers.

Trotter’s claims did not go unnoticed in the wider world. Bruce Ansley, in his Listener cover story on the Swain Bill ("I Spy"; 10/3/01) wrote that (unlike Trotter) he had covered the 1996 Trading With Our Lives conference, and the APEC Trade Ministers’ conference, and that Alejandro’s presence was certainly no secret as far as the national and international media were concerned. That led to Trotter writing an aggrieved letter to the Listener (which has a much bigger circulation than the Independent). Likewise, Jane Kelsey wrote to the Listener punching holes in his beat up story (he replied to her, sticking to his guns).

The question of why Chris Trotter would publish this rubbish is more problematic. It’s a very strange line for a so-called "Lefty", tame or otherwise, to take. It’s not a new line – back before Aziz’s case got to court, Helen Clark infuriated the then National government by telling North and South that Aziz was not the target of the SIS; it was his foreign house guest. Why Trotter is pushing his bigger thesis is even more peculiar - for a start, the "New Zealand" forestry companies concerned (the likes of Carter Holt Harvey and Fletcher Challenge) are actually foreign-owned, and thus transnational corporations (TNCs) that happen to be based in NZ. And is he saying that if you oppose the activities of TNCs, be it in NZ or Mexico, you can expect to be targeted by Intelligence agencies in covert operations? That, if you oppose the activities of "NZ" TNCs in Mexico, you can expect to be targeted in NZ? That’s pretty heavy stuff, expecially as he goes to some length to justify it, and has republished it in several other fora, namely his own Political Review and in letters to the Listener.

Trotter’s story is shot full of factual holes, and presents a very, very dodgy political line in seemingly defending the "right" of Intelligence agencies to break the law (it’s worth reminding readers that the Court of Appeal ruled that the SIS had never had any right to break into Aziz’s house, or anybody else’s; that formed the basis of the out of court settlement by the National government) whilst acting in the interests of TNCs and in targeting the opponents of globalisation. You’d need to ask Trotter what is his justification for this – we can’t find any in the article. Even better, ask him about his timing – just as the Labour government’s Swain Bill is handing even greater electronic spying powers to the spooks and cops.

As the argument wound down, leaving him stubbornly tying himself in knots, it became clear that this particular Trotter has got a bad case of foot in mouth disease. The whole mysterious business has left a bad taste in our mouths.

Sir Geoffrey’s Nonsense On The Choudry Case

"Securing Our Nation’s Safety: How New Zealand Manages Its Security And Intelligence Agencies" is the 44 page glossy Government booklet released at the same time as the Bill to provide a legal existence to the GCSB (which hasn’t had one since it was created by Executive fiat, in 1977). Interestingly it is dated December 2000, but it was not released until May 2001. Obviously it is part of a propaganda offensive to ease the passage of the Bill and give our creepy, bumbling spies a warm, fuzzy image. It follows in the wake of the similar glossy booklet on the SIS, released in the late 1990s. This one covers all NZ civilian and military Intelligence agencies, briefly describes their structure and functions, and explains the bureaucratic links that bind them together.

We don’t intend to go into great detail about it. It is a handout, and we encourage everyone to get one and read it for themselves. It is available at all public libraries; it can be ordered from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Box 55, Wellington; or it can be read and downloaded on line at You can also be cheeky, like Anti-Bases Campaign’s Warren Thomson who, when the SIS booklet was released, strolled into the Christchurch SIS office and asked for a copy. They gave it to him too.

The booklet’s most breathtaking nonsense is spouted by former Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who is given a whole chapter. In recent years, Palmer has been wheeled out to testify that the various SIS Amendment Bills are vitally important to the nation’s security and that as a former PM he has inside information about exactly how they are vital, but, of course, he couldn’t possibly divulge it (why? Would he have to then kill us all? Or would we die laughing?). But the most intelligence-insulting stuff in the whole booklet is Palmer’s bald assertion that Aziz Choudry’s successful legal action against the SIS, resulting from its bungled break-in at his Christchurch home, proves that the system of oversight works (Palmer even gets the year of the break-in wrong. It was 1996, not 1997). He says that it proved that Intelligence agencies are subject to the law.

What it actually proved was that the oversight is a nonsense – Aziz went through the proper channels and the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security concluded that "nothing unlawful" had occurred. On the contrary, the courts ruled that the SIS had no legal right to break into Aziz’s house, and had never had any legal right to break into anyone’s house or building. The Shipley National government fought the case tooth and nail, refusing to release masses of SIS material vital to Aziz’s prosecution of the case, and, when the courts ruled that the SIS had no power of entry, changed the law to retrospectively legalise all such break-ins (whilst settling Aziz’s case out of court). The Choudry case proved the exact opposite of what Palmer claims it did – that the SIS operated outside any law for decades, protected by secrecy, and unless you are lucky enough to stumble upon one of its operations in progress and have the tenacity and courage to pursue it through the courts to prove your point, you haven’t got a show of holding them accountable.

Instead of Palmer, why didn’t the Government solicit a chapter from another former Prime Minister, David Lange (a Labour colleague of both Palmer and present incumbent, Helen Clark)? He offered a radically different perspective on NZ’s Intelligence agencies in his Foreword to Nicky Hager’s seminal 1996 book "Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role In The International Spy Network". Lange wrote: "An astonishing number of people have told him things that I, as Prime Minister in charge of the Intelligence agencies, was never told…It is an outrage that I and other ministers were told so little". We know which ex-Prime Minister is more accurate.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2001.


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