John Key: The buck doesn't stop with me

The Gwyn reports reveals much about the failings of the SIS, but it and the government's response to it also reveals much about the political machinations of this Prime Minister

President Harry Truman famously had a piece of walnut wood on his desk in the oval office that read, "The buck stops here", and when the president referred to it in speeches it was to say that he had to make the final decision and take responsibility for what happened on his watch. John Key, going by his response to the Gwyn report yesterday, lacks such a piece of wood... and such an ethic.

The report in great detail lays out the reasons Phil Goff yesterday got an apology from the SIS. The then spy boss Warren Tucker released information that made Goff look like a liar ahead of the 2011 election and which undermined his credibility; the report finds that Tucker released information that was badly redacted and the few words seen amongst the black chunks gave an impression of dishonest that wasn't true. When the release was perfectly reasonably misinterpreted by everyone from journalists to the Prime Minister's office, Tucker failed to correct that misinterpretation and, frankly, let Goff swing.

Inspector-General Cheryl Gwyn is very generous in her conclusions as to why that happened. She puts it down to a lack of resources, bad process and the lack of good media monitoring by the spy agency. As a result she draws the conclusion that Tucker had no partisan motives and there was no political collusion between the SIS and the PM's office.

While I find it hard to believe that Tucker or his senior staff would have had to rely on media monitoring to see the headlines and bulletins generated by their release of information to Cameron Slater under the Official Information Act and find her acceptance of that excuse rather remarkable, I accept there's no evidence of collusion between the spies and the PM's office.

There's a lot of cock-up in this story, although Gwyn is generous not to put some of it down to ego, pride and the political environment swirling around this. You could argue she fails to join some political dots in this report, but perhaps she would argue that's not her job.

So where does Key and his office come into this? Here's how I interpret it...

When Key came to office he made his deputy chief of staff Phil de Joux the main point of contact in his office for the SIS. That was, Gwyn explains, unprecedented. In retrospect it looks like a poor decision indeed. Intelligence agencies had always dealt direct with the PM. And it was asking for trouble.

Why? Because as Gwyn reports, de Joux was not politically neutral and there was no expectation for him to be neutral. He was a National Party activist. So while she's clear he didn't mis-use classified information, it seems in this case he couldn't resist using sensitive information from the spy agency for his master's political ends.

When the Southland Times ran a story claiming that some Israelis who quickly escaped the Christchurch earthquakes may have been spies, Tucker briefed both the PM and Goff as Leader of the Opposition. And Tucker – who seems to have been far too chatty with the PM's office – told de Joux about the Goff briefing.

So when Goff publicly denied being briefed, de Joux and his offsider Jason Ede saw their chance for a king-hit. It was an election year and you can imagine the thrill.

They had caught Goff in a lie. Boom!

The temptation to use the information from Tucker proved too great, even though the briefing from Tucker to the Leader of the Opposition would usually be in confidence. And even though they would be using security information for political gain, as Gwyn has found.

The problem for them now is that, while they went back and check the information and got the supporting paperwork,Tucker's version of events was wrong.

Tucker says he felt he was between a rock and a hard place, and you can have some sympathy. He wanted the SIS to be more open and presumably he felt the need to be honest and open with the person who the PM had made his main point of contact; that was an important relationship to manage. However he also had obligations of secrecy.

You might think he should have been able to trust the person he was briefing in the PM's office to respect the confidentiality of the information he was sharing. After all, in the past it had always been the PM direct. But in this case it was a political appointee who had no such scruples. A rock and a hard place indeed.

The problem for all involved was that the information Tucker was providing was, in Gwyn's words, "misleading". Tucker had it wrong and admits now, for example, that his notes saying Goff had read the briefing merely meant he had been given it and his eyes would have passed over it. Such is the fine line a person's credibility can rest on.

So the fault is mostly Tucker's. No doubt about it. But the question remains, should de Joux and Ede have been using this information for political gain? And should Key? Gwyn notes that Key rang Tucker direct to confirm that Goff had got the same briefing he had, and when Tucker said yes, he too must have felt he had caught his political opponent red-handed. Key had no qualms making that confirmation from Tucker public.

Key could argue he had checked the facts about an opponent's claims and was putting out information that was in the public interest. But de Joux and Ede, in helping Cameron Slater put in an OIA requesting those badly redacted documents and using their inside information to ensure maximum damage to Labour, were acting purely in the interests of their master and party.

So it comes down to whether you think they had every right to disseminate that SIS information as they saw fit or whether they were bound to a higher standard of behaviour.

What's fascinating, and is being criticised by so many, is that in his response to the report, Key had clearly opted for the former. Despite the fact his own deputy chief of staff used a security briefing for political ends, the Prime Minister will not take even a share of responsibility for the public being misled and Goff's credibility being unfairly undermined. No apology needed. Nothing to see here.

The buck doesn't stop with Key, but rather entirely with Tucker.

And more than that, this morning Key says de Joux and Ede wouldn't have been sacked for their actions even if they were still in his employee. The buck doesn't even stop with them (because, presumably, it if reached them it would implicitly reach Key himself).

This is a political gamble by Key. As with all of the Dirty Politics allegations he has decided to simply deny and mock all of it and concede nothing in the assumption that the public don't care and think he's no worse than all the rest. Whether voters will continue to accept that level of denial is a moot point, but it certainly suggests that political power plays and calculations – both then and now – rule supreme in this Prime Minister's office.

Where's that bit of walnut when you need it, eh?