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Andrea Vance: John Key and SIS boss made an ambulance-chasing pitch about jihadi brides

Six things we learnt from this week’s Intelligence and Security Committee…just kidding. We gained nothing useful.

Mostly the parliamentary committee sits behind closed doors, but on Tuesday had its annual public outing.

Andrea Vance ONE Voice Source: 1 NEWS

The sessions are a sort-of-performance review of the GCSB and the SIS, to demonstrate someone is keeping an eye on the spies.

Already this year it has emerged  - from papers provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden - that the GCSB's activities were expanded considerably in the last six or seven years.

There is a real risk that MPs will be discouraged from speaking out and exercising due diligence because of this ISIS-induced panic. - Andrea Vance

More and more communications from Asia-Pacific were directly supplied from Waihopai to the Five Eyes network.

Much of this signals intelligence came from Pacific neighbours, and other countries that represent little or no threat to New Zealand's security.

This dramatic expansion took place with little oversight – and New Zealand has no control over what it is used for.

In April, it emerged agents from the US and NZ planned to tap into a data flowing between Chinese government buildings in Auckland, to use as a backdoor to China's networks. 

Chinese diplomats took a dim view of Wellington picking sides in the ongoing Beijing-Washington cyber-war.

There were also shocking allegations that GCSB resources were used to monitor Trade Minister Tim Groser’s competitors for the top job at the World Trade Organisation.

Inspector-General Cheryl Gwyn’s investigation into the scandal will be published early next year.

Just a few weeks ago, Gwyn released her annual watchdog report on the security agencies. It revealed yet more problems with an already fraught security vetting service.

She’s also launched an inquiry into whether the GCSB played a role in the CIA’S torture and rendition programme.

And she chastised the SIS for failing to alert her to two warrants, gained under controversial new visual surveillance powers.

Only yesterday, Prime Minister John Key indicated that New Zealand could contribute more in the way of intelligence to the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

That sounds benign because it's not 'boots on the ground'.

The cold reality is that intelligence is used to call in air or drone strikes.

And so, there was plenty for the five sitting MPs to delve into. They failed miserably in that duty.

With a review of the security services due to report back in February, MPs had an obligation to get answers on all of these concerns.

Instead, they meekly allowed the public hearing to be hijacked as a press conference – but without the hard questions.

Acting GCSB head Una Jagose was allowed to deflect questions about WTO spying.

An increasing number of New Zealanders are going to fight in Syria according to our spy and security boss. Source: 1 NEWS

Instead Key and SIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge made an ambulance-chasing pitch about jihadi brides and the perceived terror threat to New Zealand. 

In the absence of evidence, the committee had plenty to probe around these claims.

Not least, why have the agencies failed to use their (already considerable) powers to stop these women being seduced into the clutches of Islamic State.

Why weren’t they – or their recruiters – stopped? Why haven’t their passports been cancelled? Because, while marriage isn’t a crime, joining up to a terrorist organisation certainly is.

Again, the committee failed in its oversight duties. And so what we got was breathless media reporting about ‘jihadi brides’.  And little-to-no critical examination of the issues that have dogged both agencies this year.

Amid the theatrics, there were plenty of hints that the Government intends to use the perceived threat of home-grown terror and the international crisis as a cover to expand the existing regime.

And even though the threat remains low – there is a real risk that MPs will be discouraged from speaking out and exercising due diligence because of this ISIS-induced panic. 

So when the spies claim to be struggling in the battle with extremism, they are really fighting – and winning -  the PR war.