New Zealand: Waihopai: our role in international spying

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun May 11 21:14:36 UTC 2008

Sunday, 11 May 2008200805111347

Waihopai: our role in international spying

When three Christian protesters deflated a radome at the Waihopai
intelligence base 12 days ago, citing the base's support for the US
War on Terror, a chorus of voices ridiculed the suggestion. Waihopai
is entirely a New Zealand operation, not part of the War on Terror,
they said. It is, in the words of one newspaper, just to "keep New
Zealand competitive in diplomatic, political and trade negotiations".
They are completely wrong. New information, prised out by former Chief
Ombudsman John Belgrave and from intelligence insiders, makes it clear
that Waihopai, and the Government Communications Security Bureau
(GCSB) that runs it, have been heavily focused on supporting the US
War on Terror since September 11, 2001.

It's understandable if people are ignorant about the GCSB. It is New
Zealand's largest but least understood intelligence agency. Whereas
the SIS spies within New Zealand, the GCSB and its predecessor have
worked within an extremely secret five-nation alliance since the late
1940s, eavesdropping on other countries' radio communications and,
nowadays, emails and phone calls. The first signs of the GCSB's War on
Terror role came thanks to the efforts of Belgrave, who sadly died
late last year. The GCSB had refused an Official Information Act
request for information on its post-September 11 activities, but
Belgrave was unconvinced by the GCSB's claim of needing total secrecy.

The papers he ordered released show immediate changes inside the GCSB
in the early days of the War on Terror. A June 2002 annual report
declared that "the 2001-2002 Financial Year has been a defining year
for the Bureau". It said "the events of 11 September led to a major
shift in focus for the Bureau and defined its operations for most of
the year".

It noted in particular that the "SIGINT" operations (signals
intelligence), which include the spying on satellite communications
from the Waihopai station, "were defined by [the Bureau's] response to
the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 ... and the consequent
heightened demands for those services".

This heightened demand for spying services quickly led to requests for
extra resources. Both funding and staff numbers have nearly doubled
(to $42 million and 370 staff) in the six years since. Insiders say
the first changes in early 2002 included a new analysis section
devoted to terrorism-related intelligence, named the Transnational
Issues Reporting Team and located in the headquarters' SIGINT
Production Unit. Their job is to process "raw" intercepted emails and
other messages intercepted at Waihopai and elsewhere: translating them
and producing standardised intelligence reports to send to New Zealand
and overseas intelligence "end users".

Most GCSB spying occurs at Waihopai. However, inside sources say
another major New Zealand contribution to US war-on-terror activities
has been covert GCSB-directed electronic eavesdropping teams. The GCSB
began using specially trained New Zealand military personnel for
overseas spying missions in the late 1980s, first using Navy staff and
later Army and Air Force staff. Insiders say that immediately after
the September 11 attacks these GCSB-trained personnel were sent to
serve with US forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In 2003 the GCSB began openly publishing annual reports. They show a
continued priority on the War on Terror. "The ongoing war against
terrorism was a major focus of the Bureau's signals intelligence
(SIGINT) operations," director Warren Tucker wrote. This was achieved
"through an increase in the numbers of analytic and processing staff,
and ongoing work to enhance technical collection and processing

BY THEN the War on Terror had changed. Osama bin Laden was all but
forgotten and the United States was primarily focused on Iraq.
Intelligence justifying the Iraq invasion had been discredited and
photos were appearing from the Abu Ghraib prison. But the GCSB was set
on its new path and there was no sign of reconsidering the War on
Terror role.

In the 2004 annual report, Tucker wrote: "Throughout the year, the
Bureau has continued to play its full part in the international
partnership. Collaboration and co-operation, particularly on
counter-terrorism, is extremely strong, as demonstrated by the record
number of visitors to GCSB (including several major conferences)." The
War on Terror had become a welcome means for New Zealand intelligence
and military staff to achieve closer relations with United States
intelligence and military agencies.

It was also a great way to get more resources. Tucker wrote in the
2004 report that "the Bureau was successful during the year in
obtaining significant additional funding for a range of capability
enhancements" including "further development on both collection
stations" (such as a new 7.3m antennae at Waihopai) and a further
increase in the number of intelligence analysts. (A fourth Waihopai
dish was added in 2007.)

Within the GCSB, some staff were not so sure about the direction. One
confided privately that "many people [in the Bureau] feel it's
worthwhile watching out for terrorism in our region but it doesn't
mean they support George Bush's approach, rushing into wars and all."

They could see how closely the GCSB's terrorism work was aligned to US
foreign policy. That year's annual report mentions that the GCSB had
made "a considerable effort... during the year to provide enhanced
language training for our intelligence analysts" and that "preparation
of a strategy for long-term language capability development is now
well advanced".

This was written when "fighting terrorism" in the Middle East was
looking more like fomenting terrorism and many countries were urgently
re-evaluating their role in the War on Terror. The GCSB report didn't
say what language capabilities were being increased in the long-term
strategy, but the answer is they were digging in to continue
supporting the George Bush approach.

The enhanced language training was overseen, like various other major
GCSB developments, by a British intelligence officer posted to
Wellington for the purpose. According to GCSB staff, the officer, a
polite man in his 40s, was a language specialist from the British
sister agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
Staff throughout the Wellington headquarters knew he was a GCHQ Middle
Eastern languages specialist, speaking four or more Arabic languages,
and that his job during 2004 was to reorient the New Zealand analysis
sections towards Middle Eastern language intelligence.

And so it went on. The 2005 annual report shows a further 30% rise in
budget for the year, including more analysts and "continued
enhancements to the Bureau's two collection stations at Tangimoana and
Waihopai". It says "counter-terrorism and regional issues continue to
be the major focuses of the Bureau's intelligence efforts". Each
subsequent annual report uses the same words. In late 2007 GCSB
director Bruce Ferguson was privately seeking linguists competent in
Farsi/Persian (the main language of Iran and part of Afghanistan) to
recruit as intelligence analysts.

Throughout this, the mood does not sound like one of dreadful
responsibility to stop terrorism, but more of welcome opportunity to
build up the spy agency. Even in the first months after the September
11 attacks, amid public fear and uncertainty, Tucker wrote in a
non-public annual report that "the internal atmosphere of the Bureau
[had] changed during the year, with a much greater sense of optimism
at the end of the year, brought about by certainty of funding and a
sharpened sense of mission and purpose."

All of this makes it clear that, whatever you think of the Christian
protest at Waihopai, they were correct when they described it as an
important part of the Bush adminstration's War on Terror. But the GCSB
is generally so secret that it's easy for people to sound off in
uninformed ways.

Peter Cozens, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies, for instance,
said the base is used strictly to collect and analyse information,
often of "a political, trade and diplomatic nature", for the New
Zealand government. He told the New Zealand Herald that Waihopai is
"entirely, totally cosa nostra New Zealand. It is New Zealand's mafia,
if you like. It's our thing. It's got nothing to do with the

Incorrect. The Waihopai station, like the GCSB itself, is staffed and
funded by New Zealanders. It is not a US base in the sense of US
personnel being stationed on New Zealand soil. But it has everything
to do with the Americans. The station is part of a network of similar
stations set up at US prompting by allies around the world. The same
equipment, manuals, codewords and communication systems are found in
each station.

This US intelligence system, codenamed "Echelon" in the 1990s, was the
subject of a 2000-2001 European parliament inquiry that confirmed and
added extra detail to the descriptions of Echelon provided by GCSB
staff for my 1996 book about the agency. It uses computers codenamed
Dictionaries to sift intelligence from the millions of satellite
communications intercepted at the various facilities. The key to the
system is that each station does not just collect intelligence for the
home nation. Waihopai, like the others, has separate US, British and
Australian search lists (keywords, email addresses etc) that are used
to identify and collect intelligence for the US, British and
Australian electronic spying agencies. Thus at the same time as
Waihopai collects intelligence on the South Pacific and other subjects
for the GCSB, it also functions in effect as a foreign base collecting
intelligence for the intelligence allies.

The intercepted messages collected for the New Zealand agency go by an
encrypted link across Cook Strait to the Freyberg Building
headquarters in Aitken St, Wellington. They are stored in a computer
database inside a large vault room 12.11 on the GCSB's 12th floor
until processed by the intelligence analysts. But the messages
collected at Waihopai for the other allies, which mostly means the
United States, are routed straight from the 14th floor GCSB
information centre to Washington DC and allied agencies.

The early (non-public) GCSB annual reports acknowledged the agency's
role assisting the overseas intelligence allies.

"New Zealand's international intelligence links are strengthened by a
reliable contribution to allied intelligence community efforts," the
2000 report said.

However, subsequent publicly available annual reports removed this
statement and said only that "the mission of the GCSB is to contribute
to the national security of New Zealand through... providing foreign
signals intelligence to support and inform government

The GCSB's role in the US-led network is well known to its own staff.
When they arrive at headquarters each day, they walk along corridors
displaying framed pictures of the signals intelligence bases that are
the foundation of their work: photos of Waihopai and its US and allied
sister stations dotted around the globe. There is no good reason why
other New Zealanders should not also be allowed to know the basic
facts of these intelligence ties, and whose foreign policies they are

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