Conspiracy Corner – GCSB II

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show” about conspiracy theories.

This week we revisited the GCSB debacle and I got to talk about my “Yes, Minister” vs. “The Thick of It” hypothesis about the Civil Service.

Now, let me be clear that my analogy between the Civil Service being a slick, purposeful machine like the one characterised in “Yes, Minister” and the shambolic monster we see in “The Thick of It” is not meant to capture the entire spectrum of ways in which the Civil Service can be said to control political discourse. For one thing, it’s not always the case that the civil servants in “Yes, Minister” win. For another thing, elements of the Civil Service in “The Thick of It” might be quite competent, just not the people at DOSAC.

Frankly (and we didn’t really get a chance to touch on this properly), I think we can explain the whole GCSB Bill debacle with the claim “Labour would be doing this too!” Governments are beholden to their Intelligence apparatus, because that Intelligence apparatus has access to information mere Ministers do not. As such, there’s an implicit trust between Ministers and, say, the GCSB because the GCSB knows more about what they are doing than the elected politicians.

We see this play out all the time in politics. Prominent Labour and National MPs have championed having another look at the Peter Ellis case when in Opposition only to stop talking about it when in Government. Why? Well, one theory is that when they get into government, the Ministry of Justice or the New Zealand Police reassure them that justice was done and the conviction was safe. Given that MOJ and the Police know about these things in the sense they are qualified institutional authorities, you can understand why a new Minister might go “Oh, right you are then”.

So, when the Prime Minister talks with the people in charge of the GCSB and they say “There’s danger out there, and we’re at the frontline!” you can understand John Key’s frustration at all the opposition he’s getting when all he’s trying to do is keep us from harm. After all, the GCSB think they need these powers to keep our children safe1

Of course, institutional authority doesn’t tell us anything about whether said authorities have the right epistemic expertise. The Kitteridge report makes it clear that the GCSB tolerates incompetence in its ranks; the organisation is afraid letting go of its idiots might lead to the GCSB’s secrets getting out. The Kitteridge Report gives us no reason to think the GCSB is a brain trust of any particular stripe.2

We also know that the GCSB does not operate in a vacuum; they rely on intelligence data and advice from our allies (who are very likely spying on us, because that is what friends do…). As such, the GCSB is part of the general environment of Intelligence gathering and attitudes. As they say, by all means choose your enemies but make sure to choose your friends more carefully.3 The international intelligence environment can be charitably called one of “fear” and our biggest allies, who happen to be the ones waging wars overseas, have probably pressed on the GCSB, who in turn will haved pressed the same point on the PM, just how dangerous Western Civilisation has got4.

So, I think it’s quite understandable why the PM is frustrated by the opposition to the GCSB Bill. Still, the fact he has no talking points other than “But what about the babies?” either indicates a lack of nous on the part of the CEO of New Zealand, Inc. or he really does think educated opinions have the same market worth as gut instincts.

Either way, goodbye privacy.

Notes

  1. The PM, in the Select Committee hearings, kept asking opponents of the bill “But what if a baby dies in a terrorist explosion?” I’m assuming someone at the GCSB has literally said to him “If you don’t pass this bill, your children might be next!”
  2. I’ve probably blown my chances of ever working for the GCSB because of statements like these.
  3. They probably don’t say that at all.
  4. What with all the invading of other people’s homes, the oppression of minorities and generally dragging the world into economic and environmental disaster just so I can own an expensive laptop.
Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.