An inquiry into an invisible man
By Richard Harman (author)
The Prime Minister yesterday indicated that the forthcoming Royal Commission into the Christchurch massacre would focus on the security agencies including the Police, Customs and Immigration.
No details of who might chair it or what its terms of reference might be are yet available.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday emphasised that the Commission would be looking at events leading up to the massacre.
That might, however, be more difficult than it sounds.
New Zealand intelligence agencies are being assisted by officers from the FBI and the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation so that state of the art investigatory techniques are being deployed to try and track the shooter's past.
But POLITIK has learned that the investigation has found that the Christchurch shooter skillfully evaded surveillance for the last six months before the shooting.
He was truly an invisible man.
Ardern almost certainly knows this. She will be being briefed.
Even so she wants an inquiry into how the New Zealand agencies perfromed before the shooting.
“While New Zealanders and Muslim communities around the world are both grieving and showing compassion for one another they are also quite rightly asking questions on how this terror attack was able to happen here," she told her weekly press conference yesterday.
“This includes questions around the accessibility of semi-automatic weapons the role social media has played generally and the focus of the Intelligence and Security Services.
“There are questions I too have asked and of course want answers to as well. I
“n short the inquiry will look at what could have or should have been done to prevent the attack.
“It will inquire into the individual and his activities before the terrorist attack including of course a look at agencies.
“ It will look at the actions of the SIS the GCSB police customs immigration and any other relevant government departments or agents.
“ What I can say today is that there will be a focus on whether our intelligence community was concentrating its resources appropriately and whether there were any reports that could or should have been alerted them to this attack.
“ It is important that no stone is left unturned to get to the bottom of how this act of terrorism occurred and what if any opportunities we had to stop it included. “
The inquiry will have the benefit of the work of the large team of intelligence and police officers working on trying to establish the background to the shooter and a timeline of his activity in the two years where he came and went from Dunedin before the attack.
POLITIK understands that the investigators have already been surprised at how the shooter managed to avoid surveillance.
That raises a question as to whether he had received any training overseas.
Though it is not being ruled out, he may not have been gone for long enough periods to undergo professional terrorist-type training.
It is thought more likely that he simply obtained the information on how to avoid detection from open sites on the internet.
His neighbours told an Australian-based journalist that he told them he “worked on the internet”.
Even so, Dunedin will be a particular focus of the investigators in the meantime.
There are two political questions that the security review will have to consider.
Did the intelligence agencies fail to note the rise of the right wing and white extremism?
The partial answer to that from people close to the intelligence services is even if they did, would ti have made any difference.
The SIS and GCSB need to produce evidence to back up a suspicion before they can get a warrant to intercept anything.
There are added difficulties caused by encryption.
The Australian Parliament has recently been told that more than 93 per cent of Google's services and data are encrypted, as are more than 84 per cent of the web pages loaded via their Chrome browser.
Australia has recently passed legislation requiring telecommunciaitons companies to assist with the decryption of internet communications.
It would seem likely that any review of Christchurch will recommend something similar here.
However, Opposition Leader Simon Bridges claims that the intelligence agencies may have missed the Christchurch shooter because they were too busy looking for Muslim extremists
He told RNZ’s “Morning Report” that it looked like the eyes of the security agencies were on Islamic extremism, Asia and cyber-security matters; and white supremacy "doesn't seem to be something that was a focus".
Bridges speaks from a position of some authority in that he is a member of Parliament's Intelligence Committee and would be briefed in secret on the work of the intelligence agencies.
But it was his own Government which set the National Intelligence Priorities which were in place till March last year.
And he was also critical of his own Government's decision not to implement project Speargun in 2013
It is hard to see how that would have helped in that its purpose was to record the meta-data – the names of the sender, recipient and subject – of all email travelling across the Southern Cross cable to North America.
What Bridges might be arguing for is the kind of technology and laws employed by Israel to monitor Palestinians.
There are no restrictions on how Israel may monitor Palestinians, and Israel has developed controversial algorithms which are claimed to be able to identify potential lone-wolf terrorists from Facebook or Twitter postings or other activity on the internet.
There will be other questions for the security sector about the police vetting of the shooter for his gun license and maybe their monitoring of the gun club he belonged to.
There will be questions about how much Immigration and Customs knew about his international travel.
Because he presumably travelled on an Australian passport it has to be assumed the Australian authorities would have been advised when he entered and left countries on his travels.
But even if that data got here, how effective are New Zealand Government data sharing practices?
It would be surprising if the Commission found a smoking gun; some piece of evidence which showed our security agencies had slipped up.
What would seem more likely is that the Government will be asked to update the agencies' legislation to account for a world where it is increasingly possible to hide undetected on the internet and plot without anybody noticing.