Back in the summer of 2013 as the various “Five Eyes” countries were still reeling from the initial Snowden disclosures, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key promised to resign if it was ever proven that the GCSB (New Zealand’s equivalent to the NSA) had engaged in mass surveillance of New Zealanders — but with some caveats. He later said that he meant if it was proven that there was illegal surveillance going on. But of course, what’s legal can vary based on who’s in charge. Either way, late last year there were Snowden documents that proved GCSB regularly scooped up data on New Zealanders, and Key reacted to it by calling Glenn Greenwald “a loser.” Not quite the resignation you might have expected.
Then, of course, last week there were further revelations of GCSB doing mass surveillance on a bunch of neighboring countries. In response to that, a former director of the GCSB, Bruce Ferguson, admitted that of course the GCSB was engaged in mass surveillance, but he thinks it’s okay because it “discards items it cannot have.”
“The whole method of surveillance these days, is sort of a mass collection situation – individualized: that is mission impossible.”
“You cannot these days just individually select people … you put out a big net, catch stuff, you throw out the stuff you don’t want … and you keep the stuff you do want.”
In other words, the GCSB does mass surveillance. So what is Prime Minister John Key now saying about this? Well, first, he will no longer promise that mass surveillance isn’t taking place, because of course he can’t. Furthermore, he now says that even if mass surveillance is shown he won’t resign.
And that leads up to an interview done by Radio New Zealand with Key, in which he just starts tap dancing like crazy:
Interviewer: “Nicky Hager’s revelations late last week . . . have stoked fears that New Zealanders’ communications are being indiscriminately caught in that net. . . . The Prime Minister, John Key, has in the past promised to resign if it were found to be mass surveillance of New Zealanders . . . Earlier, Mr. Key was unable to give me an assurance that mass collection of communications from New Zealanders in the Pacific was not taking place.”
PM Key: “No, I can’t. I read the transcript [of former GCSB Director Bruce Ferguson’s interview] – I didn’t hear the interview – but I read the transcript, and you know, look, there’s a variety of interpretations – I’m not going to critique–”
Interviewer: “OK, I’m not asking for a critique. Let’s listen to what Bruce Ferguson did tell us on Friday:”
Ferguson: “The whole method of surveillance these days, is sort of a mass collection situation – individualized: that is mission impossible.”
Interviewer: “And he repeated that several times, using the analogy of a net which scoops up all the information. . . . I’m not asking for a critique with respect to him. Can you confirm whether he is right or wrong?”
Key: “Uh, well I’m not going to go and critique the guy. And I’m not going to give a view of whether he’s right or wrong” . . . .
Interviewer: “So is there mass collection of personal data of New Zealand citizens in the Pacific or not?”
Key: “I’m just not going to comment on where we have particular targets, except to say that where we go and collect particular information, there is always a good reason for that.”
As Glenn Greenwald points out, this is quite an evolution:
From “I will resign if it’s shown we engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders” to “I won’t say if we’re doing it” and “I won’t quit either way despite my prior pledges.”
Being a politician, it seems, is always making sure you can tap dance around the fact that you’ll make pledges you never intend to keep.