Sacking secret agent won’t change spying tactics

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Dr Warwick Tie

Sacking the secret agent at the centre of the Dotcom case will not change the way New Zealand’s spy agencies operate, says Massey University sociologist Dr Warwick Tie.

The suggestion that Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) secret agent Hugh Wolfensohn – known as Agent CX – may lose his job as a result of illegal spying on Kim Dotcom highlights the contradictions of political policing in a democratic society, says Dr Tie.

His research on political policing was recently published in the US and the UK.

“Cases where the spy networks of democratic countries are found guilty of side-stepping the law often result in the punishment of the individuals involved, but not in changes to the way the agencies behave,” he says.

“The reasons for this lie with the overall purpose of political policing. The agencies of political policing exist to maintain the conditions within which legal order can operate. Such agencies, therefore, constantly work in the law's shadowlands,” Dr Tie says. “When someone is found out, there has to be a show-trial of some kind – hence the proposed sacking of Agent CX – but this doesn’t interrupt the operation of the policing.”

“This situation presents profound difficulties for members of a democratic society”, Dr Tie adds. Such difficulties come to light with cases such as Dotcom’s, in which the GCSB spied on the German national with permanent residency in New Zealand.

“Given that the GCSB lies outside the reach of normal accountability mechanisms, to demand increased levels of public accountability is as useful as blowing on a severed artery,” he says. “You can’t be entirely accountable to the public if the work of spying sometimes requires a side-stepping of the law.”

His research points to the central role that storytelling by spy agencies plays in the construction of allegations of wrongdoing.  “When spying agencies are dealing with rare, one-off cases, like the Dotcom case, facts are sparse so they need to create some sort of narrative to join the dots. Such narratives tell the spies where to look, and who to look for, but such stories are always thin on facts.”
 
He says this narrative element of spying might help explain the public fascination with the issue of what John Key knew about the Dotcom case, and of when and how his reflections on that information in light of his role as the government overseer of spying activities, influenced the direction of the GCSB inquiry.

“Even if we knew the answer as to what John Key knew and when, it would not alter significantly the way in which agencies like the GCSB operate,” Dr Tie suggests.

Dr Tie’s articles on political policing are titled: Radical politics, utopia, and political policing - Journal of Political Ideologies, and High policing theory and the question of ‘What is to be done?’ - Critical Criminology.


 

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