New Zealand Espionage History

This is fascinating:

Among the personal papers bequeathed to the nation by former Prime Minister David Lange is a numbered copy of a top secret report from the organisation that runs the ‘spy domes’ at Waihopai and Tangimoana. It provides an unprecedented insight into how espionage was conducted 20 years ago.


Much of the GCSB’s work involved translating and analysing communications intercepted by other agencies, “most of the raw traffic used … (coming) from GCHQ/NSA sources”, the British and US signals intelligence agencies.

Its report says “reporting on items of intelligence derived from South Pacific telex messages on satellite communications links was accelerated during the year.

“A total of 171 reports were published, covering the Solomons, Fiji, Tonga and international organisations operating in the Pacific. The raw traffic for this reporting provided by NSA the US National Security Agency).”

The GCSB also produced 238 intelligence reports on Japanese diplomatic cables, using “raw traffic from GCHQ/NSA sources”. This was down from the previous year: “The Japanese government implementation of a new high grade cypher system seriously reduced the bureau’s output.” For French government communications, the GCSB “relied heavily on (British) GCHQ acquisition and forwarding of French Pacific satellite intercept”.

The report lists the Tangimoana station’s targets in 1985-86 as “French South Pacific civil, naval and military; French Antarctic civil; Vietnamese diplomatic; North Korean diplomatic; Egyptian diplomatic; Soviet merchant and scientific research shipping; Soviet Antarctic civil. Soviet fisheries; Argentine naval; Non-Soviet Antarctic civil; East German diplomatic; Japanese diplomatic; Philippine diplomatic; South African Armed Forces; Laotian diplomatic (and) UN diplomatic.”

The station intercepted 165,174 messages from these targets, “an increase of approximately 37,000 on the 84/85 figure. Reporting on the Soviet target increased by 20% on the previous year”.

Posted on January 25, 2006 at 12:58 PM30 Comments


Ellen January 25, 2006 2:29 PM

Now it’s clear what the NOFORN marking is for. It’s too bad the NZ government takes other folks secrets so lightly. I’m sure the folks at NSA will want to send them a bunch more data.

Nick Johnson January 25, 2006 2:32 PM

What galls me about this is that not only are we (NZ) conducting a international spying program, we’re not even doing it for ourselves. The information all goes directly to the NSA, who give NZ what they feel like telling us.

Davi Ottenheimer January 25, 2006 2:33 PM

Bruce, can you expand on what you find fascinating?

I thought it interesting that it mentions how French covert action was sloppy, including their escape on the Ouvea, and that NZ was actually reviewing raw data provided to them by the British GCHQ and US (NSA).

Nick Johnson January 25, 2006 2:41 PM

@Ellen: Whilst I agree that it’s a Bad Thing, to the best of my understanding, the GCSB has very little accountability to the NZ government (which is scary in and of itself). Certainly the NZ government as a whole has little idea what’s going on there, and I’m not even confident the PM has much oversight.

Davi Ottenheimer January 25, 2006 2:45 PM

The article says “New Zealand had been spying on friendly countries throughout the region.”

Actually, I look at the list of countries targeted in 85-86 and the term “friendly” doesn’t come to mind. France might have had the best chance, as an ally, but bombing a civilian ship in Auckland is way past unfriendly and into the zone of state-sponsored terrorism.

Maybe that’s the point here? Your capital harbor gets bombed by covert agents from a supposed ally and so you use surveillance throughout the region to better assess the state of threat (e.g. look for other state-sponsored terrorists)?

Truman January 25, 2006 2:58 PM

Nick…Don’t be too upset about NZ getting Intel from other spy agencies. ‘Signal Intel’ sharing between the major English speaking countries goes back to the ‘UKUSA agreement’ signed after WWII. Patrick Radden Keefe wrote an interesting book about it last year (Title: Chatter; ISBN: 1-4000-6034-6). I found the book interesting enough to read twice. However, it appears the NSA dominates all other parties in this agreement. And yes I am taking about the program once called ‘Echelon’.

Nick Johnson January 25, 2006 3:01 PM

@Truman: That’s not what irritates me – what irritates me is that to my understanding, NZ sends everything it learns from its own listening station to the NSA – it effectively reports to the NSA, not the NZ Govt. We’re spying, but we’re not even spying for ourselves.

Truman January 25, 2006 3:09 PM

@Nick…Yes, I admit that would make me mad if I was a NZ citizen. I think all of the non-US countries in that agreement (UK, Canada, Australia & New Zealand) felt they had to join it…kind of a damned if you do & damned if you don’t situation. Better to know something than nothing.

Davi Ottenheimer January 25, 2006 3:12 PM

@ Nick

Sorry, I meant “capital” in the sense of the largest/leading/most impactful port (like the WTC). I should have said “top”, “crown” or “biggest”, etc.. Of course those could also be misinterp (e.g. top=furthest north).

Blair Nilsson January 25, 2006 4:07 PM

As another Kiwi (NZer) interested in crypto I find the whole thing interesting. These days I fairly sure we do a lot of listening ourselves. The GCSB is a bit of an open secret around New Zealand these days.

Hell, working for a mapping group, we were told to remove the spy domes and a bunch of other stuff from the maps we produced, which is fine, but everyone knew where they were anyway. They are a bit of a tourist attraction 🙂

Johan January 25, 2006 5:03 PM

@ Nick
the info exchange works in both directions, so presumably it sort-of evens out in the wash.

FWIW, AIUI, the release was caused by a cockup at Archives. The media orgn asked to view the boxes, the Chief Archivist said, “OK, they can see this, this, and this” which an archival clerk interpreted to mean “give them all the boxes and everything in them.”


FWIW, the Chief Archivist is the lowest paid head of a govt agency in NZ (and also, IIRC, the only one on less than the PM). Which may – or may not – say something about the pay of the staff at archives, and hence their general competence (having said that though, all my interactions with them have been good)


Blair Nilsson January 25, 2006 5:09 PM

There is a standard list of stuff that isn’t to show up on maps, Since I was working for a mapping compainy (an ex govt dept one), they had the standard list of stuff not to put on there. I’m not sure where it came from, but guessing wouldn’t be hard. There wasn’t any suprising stuff on it. What is suprising is that the list is very very short, Which makes me feel like they have the right idea about such things.

I find the idea that some countries have unmapped no fly zones much more strange.

Nick Johnson January 25, 2006 5:13 PM

@Johan: Yes, but it’s still the NSA that gets to decide what we see. The other way around, we just (apparrently) send them all our data – no filtering is applied. In the end, it’s up to the NSA to decide what of the data we collected ourselves we deserve to get.

Jack Sprat January 25, 2006 5:23 PM

@ Nick

Or maybe, since the US spends already about a skajillion man-hours, and even more dollars a year on intel, the NZ guys are more than happy to let the NSA slog through all the crap, and then hand back the interesting stuff, so they don’t have to read through reams and reams of useless data themselves. That way they can spend their time and money on getting something constructive done.

Blair Nilsson January 25, 2006 5:34 PM

Hey, I’ve noticed there is an quite high percentage of NZers on any security place I end up looking, why is this? I mean, we not in a place that feels unsafe, we are not a paranoid bunch, but where-every security stuff is talked about, there a bunch of us are.

Or is it that everyone always notices people from the country they are in more then others?

Tank January 25, 2006 8:41 PM

@ Nick Johnson at January 25, 2006 05:13 PM
“Yes, but it’s still the NSA that gets to decide what we see. The other way around, we just (apparrently) send them all our data – no filtering is applied. In the end, it’s up to the NSA to decide what of the data we collected ourselves we deserve to get.”

And in the wake of 9/11 it was up to some foreign intel agency to decide what intel the NSA was given in relation to suspected terrorist cells operating in the US.

Up until the NSA – and 100% of the US population had they been asked – decided that this wasn’t good enough… hence the outrage about the current domestic spying scandal.

Nick Johnson January 25, 2006 8:54 PM

@Tank: Say what? I think I know what you’re getting at, but you’re not being very clear at all.

If you’re claiming that warrantless, FISA-less spying was justified, I disagree in the strongest terms. As for the NSA having to rely on external intel for spying on US citizens, that’s because they’re a spy agency – they’re supposed to be spying on external threats, not internal ones.

jam January 25, 2006 9:43 PM

Is anyone actually surprized by anything in this report? If not, why was it classified? TS, no less. Surely everyone knows GCSB collaborates with NSA and GCHQ. The whole “Five English-Speaking Countries” thing is well-known, even though it amounts to NSA having its own foreign policy (the official US policy is that NZ isn’t our ally since they won’t allow ships with nukes in their ports). The targets are sort of obvious. Argentine Naval is the only oddity, presumably left over from the Falklands expedition.

Quiet Kiwi January 25, 2006 9:45 PM

Notice how all the NZ’ers backed off after you posted that…

It’s not that we are paranoid; just careful.

Andrew McGregor January 26, 2006 1:01 AM

I’d be surprised if the NSA didn’t actually apply a filter that they were asked to by NZ. And yes, that NSA policy did contradict US policy for a long while (no longer, it seems), but because of where NZ is and the amount of US military air traffic via NZ that would make plenty of sense.

CJ January 26, 2006 7:43 AM


Well, I’m kinda surprised that they were spying on our armed forces (South Africa) – I was only a little kid at the time, so I don’t claim to understand the politics of the era, but I would’ve thought we were considered ‘friendly’, or at least not unfriendly. Yes, there was the whole apartheid thing, but would that have been enough reason to justify spying on our defence force?

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2006 11:52 AM

@ CJ

Actually the late-70s to late-80s were a really tense time for South Africa’s int’l relations. The UN General Assembly almost revoked your country’s membership — only the UK, France and US stopped a Security Council resolution to expel SA. And then, on top of fighting wars to destabilize neighboring countries, President Botha overtly consolidated his executive power through a controversial rewrite of the constitution.

Then the UN Security Council, unable to expel SA, unanimously reaffirmed resolutions from the 70s with wording like “all states refrain from importing arms ammunition of all types and military vehicles produced in South Africa.” So it makes a lot of sense that they were considered one of the countries on the not-so-friendly list. If memory serves, Ronald Reagan was the only Western leader who tried to suggest more friendly relations with Pretoria might break Apartheid (when he came to office in ’81) but his vision was so unpopular even domestically that his attempt to veto the US Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was overridden; regarding Reagan’s policy Bishop Tutu said “I think I should say now he is a racist pure and simple”.

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2006 1:17 PM

Had to dig around a bit, but here’s a good review of South Africa policies and the relevance to foreign surveillance. The wars and arms export issues back then were a very messy affair far beyond southern Africa (as if money/weapon laundering is ever actually clean):

“During the 1980s, the domestic arms industry expanded considerably in response to South Africa’s increasing involvement in regional conflicts, which required a guaranteed supply of weapons of ever-increasing sophistication, and the growing militarisation of the state.”

Tank January 26, 2006 5:18 PM

@ Nick Johnson at January 25, 2006 08:54 PM
“As for the NSA having to rely on external intel for spying on US citizens, that’s because they’re a spy agency – they’re supposed to be spying on external threats, not internal ones.”

No kidding. I was under the impression your post about NZ being in exactly the same position – having to rely on other countries to decide what intel you get – wasn’t optimal.
All I am saying is congratulations on finally understanding why the current NSA scandal occurred.

The only thing I have suggested is justified is a poll conducted of US citizens asking them whether they would have been happy letting Canada decide what leads the NSA was provided with on terrorism suspects inside the US immediately following 9/11, or whether they wanted the much larger, more experienced and taxpayer funded US agencies to do it.
I’ve suggested that would have had 100% support.

Clive Robinson January 27, 2006 3:51 AM


“goes back to the ‘UKUSA agreement’ signed after WWII.”

A historic note it was originally called the BRUSA agreement and it was made in before the US entered WWII. You can look it up on the Web, there is quite a lot of info on it there.

Oh and I have mentioned it a couple of times in the past on Bruce’s Blog in the past, including the very one way nature of the program.

What is not mentioned in the artical given to the NZ Premier, is that all the equipment used and the tapes it gets put onto are provided directly from the USA, the “listening government” does not even get to see the raw traffic most of the time.

@ jam

” Argentine Naval is the only oddity, presumably left over from the Falklands expedition.”

Actually it was the “Falklands War” which caused a major bust up between the UK and the US. The US had a lot of Intel (gained by GCHQ outposts) about what the Argentine Gov was upto. However the US decided for it’s own interests not to pass the Intel over, unfortunatly for them the PM M.Thatcher found out and the then US president received an earfull… The Result the UK got a better arangment and a certain US President got a UK Honour…

@Davi Ottenheimer

” the late-70s to late-80s were a really tense time for South Africa’s int’l relations”

Did you find any refrences to “Red Mercury” and the S.A. Atomic wepons reasurch, that supposedly was supported by Israel?

It sure caused a great deal of nervousness at the time in the UK / US etc…

Rich January 30, 2006 1:34 AM

A more interesting assessment would be to determine how much of this intelligence was accurate? I haven’t seen any reports on how much misinformation occured in the ‘early days’ of spying when the USA’s capabilities were much less known (and technology much harder to attain). Today, every country should assume that at any time, any country could be spying on them.

Davi Ottenheimer January 30, 2006 3:32 PM

@ Clive

The nuclear programme was certainly a worry in development, but it was even more problematic when South Africa later transitioned towards democracy. Similar to the thaw in the USSR, many countries feared that as a junta’s controls weakened there would be a technology transfer to other conflict areas, including Korea or Iraq (the US had already helped Iran gain nuclear power capabilities in the 1970s). I only vaguely remember odd stories about the sudden and mysterious death of chemical engineers in the 1980s and the use of small ex-British and ex-French colonial islands for laundering arms/money with Eastern Europe and the Middle-East. You’d be surprised how much information is readily available from veterans of the war in/with Angola, but otherwise I haven’t heard much about it. Oh, and the French like keeping control of islands for many reasons including military and economic.

Davi Ottenheimer January 30, 2006 4:17 PM

Curiosity got the better of me again, and so I found some interesting references:

“In January, Evgenny Primakov, Russia’s chief spy, denied that red mercury existed and claimed that deals involving it ‘are used by mafia structures as a means of laundering dirty money, including income from the drugs business.’ America’s State Department agrees with him.”

Moreover, the US Dept of Energy has apparently released a “Special Report: Scams in the World of Nuclear Smuggling” that describes Red Mercury as one method of luring the bad guys into intelligence sting operations. I found it cited in this report:

“bin Laden’s agents were nuclear novices, lacking fundamental knowledge about the materials they sought to purchase; thus they likely ‘became targets of nuclear scams of the sort that have victimized others for many years.’ For instance, some published reports suggest that bin Laden and his associates were offered ‘red mercury,’ a substance touted as a component of miniaturized nuclear weapons but
which U.S. nuclear experts declare is a ‘mythical, non-existent material.'”

That would certainly explain why the South African chemical engineers were suddenly being murdered — they might have been victims of a deal gone bad, or even the target of a sting themselves.

I guess I should say my point about the French colony/island connection was to tie this back to the fact that the New Zealand port was bombed by France in relation to nuclear tests planned for French Polynesia, but also that the bombers escaped (via Norfolk, an Australian Island) to a nuclear sub waiting for them in Tahiti…thus, France and South Africa have done a lot to make small islands a focal point for surveillance.

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