How the Treasury leak could have been contained

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From what we now know, it is clear that the whole question of the Budget "leak" could have been resolved last Tuesday afternoon.

This is it when it appears the GCSB, National Cyber Security team concluded that Treasury had not been hacked by the National Party.

In fact,  National Party researchers had legally logged into the Treasury site an incredible 2000 times downloading documents from this year's Budget.

What might have helped at that point would have been if the GCSB had made a statement assuring everybody Treasury itself had not been hacked but had instead, stuffed up.

Instead, the matter was left to Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf to put out a statement saying Treasury had been “systematically and deliberately” hacked.

Because they knew how easily their leaks had been obtained, senior National MPs, presumed initially that Makhlouf’s statement didn’t apply to them but must have been referring to a second, much more serious intrusion into Treasury security.

That view percolated out of Parliament and into some sections of the security community in Wellington. That set off its own series of incorrect conclusions.

Had the GCSB made a statement in the afternoon, this understandable confusion need not have happened.

But following Makhlouf’s statement comes the difficult bit.

The Beehive was aware of an interview Bridges had done on MagicTalk, late on Tuesday afternoon in which he had promised to reveal more Treasury secrets, but he wouldn't say what they were.

That set more alarm bells ringing.

Even so, why did Grant Robertson make an oblique reference in his statement to the possibility that the National Party information might have been obtained from the “serious and deliberate” hack?

The Beehive is pointing the finger at Makhlouf implying that he misled Robertson and that question may yet become the subject of a formal inquiry by State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes.

But Makhlouf has a reputation as a consummate civil servant brought up in Britain’s Whitehall and deliberately lying to his Minister would seem wildly out of character.

However, Robertson’s statement sent the Nats into a spin.

POLITIK  has copies of various text messages from National MPs  (leaked) which indicate an over-the-top reaction with the MPs claiming Robertson was accusing them of being criminals.

The Nats’ sensitivities  (genuine or not) were not the issue; the real question was whether Treasury, arguably one of our most sensitive Government agencies after the intelligence agencies, the Reserve Bank and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, had had its security compromised.

That should have been front and centre of all the statements from the Government and the Opposition.

This was not a time to score political points; it was a time when it was possible that the security of the state was at stake.

Instead we had to wait to Thursday; first for National to explain how they had obtained their material and second for word from the GCSB who told Stuff that on Tuesday evening Treasury  had asked the National Cyber Security Centre (part of the GCSB) CSC for its advice in response to possible unauthorised activity involving its webserver.

A Treasury staff member described the incident to an NCSC responder and asked if it was a matter for the NCSC or police, the GCSB spokeswoman said. "Given the incident did not involve a compromise of the Treasury computer network and was therefore not the type of incident the NCSC would normally respond to it was recommended that the matter be referred to police for their assessment."

The GCSB could have cleared that up on Tuesday, and either the Prime Minister or Robertson should have insisted they made a public statement and at the same time, the National Party did not need to wait till Thursday to explain how they had actually obtained the material.

Diplomats in Wellington have watched this saga unfold with raised eyebrows, and one commented to POLITIK  “only in New Zealand."

Now there are the inevitable cries for heads to roll. Gotcha politics.

But let us put everything in perspective.

The material the Nats obtained was the usual run-of-the-mill Budget announcement.

As the former National Party Minister and Treasury official, Max Bradford, has commented, Budget secrecy is a joke when the Government itself can pick and chose which Budget announcements it wants to release before the Budget.

So the material the Nats got did not need to be shrouded in secrecy in the first place and was so only for politically expedient purposes.

So good on the Nats for puncturing that political bubble.

Maybe they could go further and promise to end Budget secrecy whenever they return to Government.

It has been unnecessary since the passage (by them)  of the Fiscal Responsibility Act in 1994, the very purpose of which was to end Budget surprises.

But this year security was not breached; no state secrets escaped; the Nats were insulted, and the Government embarrassed.

At the end of the day, that's about par for any day in Wellington. It was not, nor is a national crisis.

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