Auckland Town Hall was packed to overflowing on September 15, with almost 2000 people. They heard US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden present new evidence that the New Zealand government has been collaborating with US authorities to carry out wholesale surveillance and data collection on NZ citizens.
Snowden, speaking over an internet link from Moscow, revealed that there are two secret NSA spy bases in NZ, including one in Auckland. These operated as part of the Five Eyes spying alliance involving intelligence agencies from NZ, Australia, Canada, Britain and the US.
Snowden revealed he knew this from his own role as an NSA analyst. NZ Prime Minister John Key has not only repeatedly denied such allegations, but promised to resign if they were proved true his government had carried out mass spying against New Zealanders.
The meeting had been organised by Kim Dotcom, an internet entrepreneur wanted by US authorities over alleged copyright violations related to a free files-sharing program he ran.
The meeting also featured Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, famous for collaborating with Snowden in publishing his NSA leaks, renown international human rights lawyer Robert Amsterdam and WikiLeaks editor-in–chief Julian Assange from his refuge in the London Ecuadorian embassy.
The meeting came six days before the September 20 national elections, which polls indicate could be close. It also follows the recent publication of an explosive book, Dirty Politics by investigative journalist Nicky Hager, that reveals dirty tricks by the governing National Party, including use of police and secret services to undermine political opponents.
The Internet Party founded by Dotcom has formed an electoral alliance with the left-wing MANA Movement, which has strong anti-poverty and pro-Maori rights policies. Internet MANA could win up to four seats, according to polls.
More than an hour before the meeting was due to start, a huge queue stretched an entire block outside the town hall. More than 800 people were turned away. Outspoken and militant MANA MP Hone Harawira was greeted with thunderous applause when he entered the hall from the back. As he made his way to the front, the crowd chanted “Hone!” and “Bring down the government!”
Internet Party leader Laila Harré, who is a strong chance to be elected to parliament on September 20, chaired. She emphasised that democracy was under threat, but that New Zealanders could prove again that they could be in forefront of pushing democratic rights.
Harré pointed out that NZ was the country where women first won the right to vote and workers first won the 40-hour-week. She said it was the country that first voted for a welfare state, when the Labour government of Michael Savage was elected in 1935, and had been in the forefront of international opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
In particular, Harré highlighted New Zealand’s proud history of declaring itself a “nuclear-free zone”. She emphasised it was ordinary people who won this, “house-by-house and street-by-street” until the government had no choice but to follow — banning US nuclear-armed warships from NZ waters in 1984, among other measures. A similar movement was needed today against the violation of democracy and people’s rights carried out by the NZ government in secret.
Harré also sprang the night’s first surprise, announcing that the till-then unnamed “special guest” was Snowden, connecting in from Moscow. This announcement, and the appearance of Snowden’s face on the screen, was met huge a storm of applause and cheers.
In his speech to the meeting, Greenwald emphasised how far-fetched were the claims that Snowden’s revelations could be fake. He said that, in all the debate over Snowden’s leaking NSA files and over their content, there has been no serious discussion about whether or not the content was accurate. He said Snowden’s revelations had “an almost 100% record” of being proven accurate.
Greenwald also dealt with the petty accusations leveled against him for taking part in the meeting, with Key calling him Dotcom’s “little henchman” and a “loser”. He said he had experienced personal attacks before, but never expected to face attacks of such a nature from a head of state.
In Snowden's speech (the transcript of which is below), which was repeatedly interrupted by ovations from the crowd, he emphasised the violation of democracy his revelations exposed. He said that citizens may or may not agree with the type of spying he had exposed. They may or may not accept it was necessary to combat terrorism, for instance. However, this decision to spy on the public on such a scale was not made by the citizens. This was a decision made in secret, behind the citizens’ backs, which governments such as Key’s, then repeatedly lied about.
Referring to the September 20 elections, Snowden said: “If you live in NZ, whatever party you choose to vote for, bear in mind the opportunity to send a message that this government won’t need to spy on us to hear: The liberties of free people cannot be changed behind closed doors.
“It’s time to stand up. It’s time to restore our democracies. It’s time to take back our rights. And it starts with you.”
In Assange’s address from the Ecuadorian embassy, interrupted at one point by a cleaner vacuuming behind him to the amusement of the crowd, the WikiLeak’s editor said Snowden’s revelations exposed part of the bid by powerful forces to create a “new civilisation” with far greater state and corporate powers over ordinary people.
Assange said that the Five Eyes alliance, through which the mass surveillance of New Zealanders took place, was not an alliance of nations but an “alliance of intelligence agencies”. He said the aim of the alliance was not to protect the security of citizens, but to strengthen the power of the “dark state” against the rights of citizens.
Amsterdam, who as a lawyer represents Dotcom as well as others, including the Thai Red Shirt democracy movement, drew links between the huge extension of spying powers with the proposed “free trade” Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.
This US-pushed agreement, involving 12 nations on the Pacific rim including NZ and Australia, will grant huge powers to corporations over elected governments. He highlighted the way that copyright laws that governments will be obliged to pass to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement were written by large multinationals.
Amsterdam emphasised that the Key government’s actions were not in the interest of ordinary New Zealanders, but against their interests.
He told the story of going to Thailand and seeing so many soldiers, and asking “who is attacking Thailand?”, and realising that the enemy of the Thai military was its own people. The soldiers were not on the streets out of fear of foreign attackers, but the elite’s fear of their own citizens.
“Who is attacking New Zealand?” he asked, arguing that the real threat to New Zealanders was coming from their own government.
To loud applause, Amsterdam denounced Key as “a traitor” for handing key powers over the NZ state to a foreign government and corporations.
The meeting ended in a sustained standing ovation and chants of “Throw out the government”. The anger and passion was among those who had managed to gain entry was clear — whether it translates into a broader sentiment that sweeps away Key’s government remains to be seen.
After the meeting, Anna Sutherland, general secretary of the Internet Party, said told Green Left Weekly that she expected “a very interesting few days” and, while it was unclear the impact on of the revelations would be on “Teflon John”, she looked forward to watching Key “wriggle”.
Joe Carolan, Internet MANA candidate for Mount Albert, told Green Left: “There is huge energy in this hall. I think people are moving from here to really participate to fight to defend democracy and civil rights.
“I think it has vindicated those of us in the MANA Movement who have teamed up with this generation of Internet freedom fighters.”
Some in the New Zealand media are trying to spin this as “nothing new” and suggest the Moment Of Truth meeting failed. Instead, the NZ media has been focusing on a secondary issue not even raised on the night. That is, whether an email released to the press that day that purports to show Key collaborating directly with US multinational Warner Brothers to help in a plot to extradite Dotcom to the US — an accusation Key denies — was fake.
If the email is genuine, this is an extremely damaging revelation — but Snowden's revelations were far wider in scope. He revealed the wholesale betrayal of NZ’s sovereignty and a secret conspiracy, denied repeatedly in public, by the government to empower a foreign power, not elected by New Zealanders and entirely unaccountable, to carry out wholesale spying.
If the Moment of Truth turns out not to have seriously damaged Key, it will be in no small part due to the mainstream media not doing its job properly. Snowden gave the NZ media all the ammunition needed to hold the government to account but it seems they have no interest in doing so.
The anger and passion on display among the crowd, however, showed there are plenty of ordinary people determined to do what the media won't: Take on not just the Key government but any government willing to sacrifice their democratic rights in the ways Snowden has so thoroughly exposed.
Glenn Greenwald address the crowd.
Transcript of Edward Snowden’s address (taken from Information Clearing House)
Like many nations around the world, New Zealand over the last year has engaged in a serious and intense debate about government surveillance.
The nation’s prime minister, John Key of the National Party, has denied that New Zealand’s spy agency GCSB engages in mass surveillance, mostly as a means of convincing the country to enact a new law vesting the agency with greater powers.
This week, as a national election approaches, Key repeated those denials in anticipation of a report in The Intercept today exposing the Key government’s actions in implementing a system to record citizens’ metadata.
Let me be clear: any statement that mass surveillance is not performed in New Zealand, or that the internet communications are not comprehensively intercepted and monitored, or that this is not intentionally and actively abetted by the GCSB, is categorically false. If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched. At the NSA I routinely came across the communications of New Zealanders in my work with a mass surveillance tool we share with GCSB, called “XKEYSCORE.”
It allows total, granular access to the database of communications collected in the course of mass surveillance. It is not limited to or even used largely for the purposes of cybersecurity, as has been claimed, but is instead used primarily for reading individuals’ private email, text messages, and internet traffic. I know this because it was my full-time job in Hawaii, where I worked every day in an NSA facility with a top secret clearance.
The prime minister’s claim to the public, that “there is no and there never has been any mass surveillance” is false. The GCSB, whose operations he is responsible for, is directly involved in the untargeted, bulk interception and algorithmic analysis of private communications sent via internet, satellite, radio, and phone networks.
If you have doubts, which would be quite reasonable, given what the last year showed us about the dangers of taking government officials at their word, I invite you to confirm this for yourself. Actual pictures and classified documentation of XKEYSCORE are available online now, and their authenticity is not contested by any government. Within them you’ll find that the XKEYSCORE system offers, but does not require for use, something called a “Five Eyes Defeat,” the Five Eyes being the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and yes, New Zealand.
This might seem like a small detail, but it’s very important. The Five Eyes Defeat is an optional filter, a single checkbox. It allows me, the analyst, to prevent search results from being returned on those countries from a particular search. Ask yourself: why do analysts have a checkbox on a top secret system that hides the results of mass surveillance in New Zealand if there is no mass surveillance in New Zealand?
The answer, one that the government of New Zealand has not been honest about, is that despite claims to the contrary, mass surveillance is real and happening as we speak. The GCSB provides mass surveillance data into XKEYSCORE. They also provide access to the communications of millions of New Zealanders to the NSA at facilities such as the GCSB station at Waihopai, and the Prime Minister is personally aware of this fact.
Importantly, they do not merely use XKEYSCORE, but also actively and directly develop mass surveillance algorithms for it. GCSB’s involvement with XKEYSCORE is not a theory, and it is not a future plan. The claim that it never went ahead, and that New Zealand merely “looked at” but never participated in the Five Eyes’ system of mass surveillance is false, and the GCSB’s past and continuing involvement with XKEYSCORE is irrefutable.
But what does it mean?
It means they have the ability see every website you visit, every text message you send, every call you make, every ticket you purchase, every donation you make, and every book you order online. From “I’m headed to church” to “I hate my boss” to “She’s in the hospital,” the GCSB is there. Your words are intercepted, stored, and analyzed by algorithms long before they’re ever read by your intended recipient.
Faced with reasonable doubts, ask yourself just what it is that stands between these most deeply personal communications and the governments of not just in New Zealand, but also the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia?
The answer is that solitary checkbox, the Five Eyes Defeat. One checkbox is what separates our most sacred rights from the graveyard of lost liberty. When an officer of the government wants to know everything about everyone in their society, they don’t even have to make a technical change. They simply uncheck the box. The question before us is no longer “why was this done without the consent and debate of the people of this country,” but “what are we going to do about it?”
This government may have total control over the checkbox today, but come Sept. 20, New Zealanders have a checkbox of their own. If you live in New Zealand, whatever party you choose to vote for, bear in mind the opportunity to send a message that this government won’t need to spy on us to hear: The liberties of free people cannot be changed behind closed doors.
It’s time to stand up. It’s time to restore our democracies. It’s time to take back our rights. And it starts with you.
National security has become the National Party’s security. What we’re seeing today is that in New Zealand, the balance between the public’s right to know and the propriety of a secret is determined by a single factor: the political advantage it offers to a specific party and or a specific politician.
This misuse of New Zealand’s spying apparatus for the benefit of a single individual is a historic concern, because even if you believe today’s prime minister is beyond reproach, he will not remain in power forever.
What happens tomorrow, when a different leader assumes the same power to conceal and reveal things from the citizenry based not on what is required by free societies, but rather on what needs to be said to keep them in power?