Keeping up with the rapid story of Glenn Greenwald & NZ spying

Glenn Greenwald's claims starting on The Nation this weekend have unleashed a flood of news. Can we process it in time? And what will it mean to a very pragmatic people?

It's going to be difficult for all the claims made by Glenn Greenwald to be properly reported, checked and debated in just the five days before the election, but New Zealand journalists are having a pretty good crack at it. In just two 24 hour cycles Greenwald's main claims have been laid out, rejected by the Prime Minister, and challenged again by Greenwald. And that's all before a single document has been released by either side.

Everyone has been preparing for this stand-off for months – in the PM's case, ever since Dotcom first claimed Key had lied about not knowing of him prior to the police raid on his house and the Snowden story broke. Now it's like the starters' gun has gone off and everyone is sprinting for an early lead.

But it's going to be one angle at a time, and the first one – rightly – is whether mass surveillance has been occurring. It was always going to be as much a semantic argument as one of substance, and we're quickly moving through that. Key is on the record denying "wholesale surveillance". Greenwald accused the GCSB of "massive and indiscriminate" surveillance. Key said the GCSB had considered mass surveillance as part of a plan to protect New Zealand firms from cyber attacks; he had asked for a business case to be prepared, but he later rejected it. 

Key had clearly been saving that line for months and thought it was a clincher. But Greenwald has some back with specific language around the surveillance being "underway". He says it went "far beyond" a business case. As I say, this is before we've seen the documents from either side.

Already Key has admitted now that the GCSB wanted to perform a type of surveillance that was probably illegal. Already there are claims our only international internet cable has been compromised by our own spy agency. Already we're deep into exactly what the GCSB reform bill allowed and didn't. And Greenwald says Ed Snowden has written an article about to be published claiming he used a lot of metadata from New Zealand.

Is it happening too quickly for the public to absorb? Journalists are moving the story on to make sure we can all get through the semantics to that subtance, but there's a risk that, as with Dirty Politics, the claims and counter-claims so fast that all the public see is a blur. Hopefully this week some media will pause to spell out those claims and counter-claims to allow people to catch up.

Can we debate what is illegal or not and what is moral or not in less than a week?

But the mass surveillance angle is only one. There's the claim by Greenwald that the GCSB is using XKeyscore, a programme that records every keystroke you make. Key has refused to confirm or deny this in the past. Greenwald claims New Zealand uses the same technology the US does and contributes to it as well. We are every bit as involved in Five Eyes spying as America, Britain, Canada and Australia.

Further, we use it to spy not only on those who are anti-democratic and might wish to harm innocents around the world, including terrorists, but also our friends and trading partners.

As Greenwald told Lisa Owen on The Nation on Saturday:

So, are we spying on anyone on behalf of America or any of the other Five Eyes countries?

Yes, New Zealand spies on a variety of countries on behalf of the United States.

Who are we spying on?

That's the reporting that we're still working on, and that's the reporting that we're gonna do very shortly. But I can tell you for certain that there are countries that the United States— The NSA is incapable of accessing certain countries because of hostile relations they have with those countries, and they use a variety of allies, including New Zealand, to spy on those countries for them.

So, you're talking about hostile relationships there. Would we be spying on China, then, for them?

The GCSB spies on both hostile countries and allies for the United States, for the United Kingdom as well. Countries that probably New Zealanders would expect to find on the list and then countries that New Zealanders would say, 'Why are we spying on countries like this that are our allies and are Western democracies?'

This is likely to be part two of the story. While the initial focus, less than a week before an election, is reasonably on whether elected representatives told the truth, the bigger picture is how successive governments have used our spies and the Five Eyes alliance. Are we using our spies not just to keep us safe, as our leaders always say, but also for economic advantage. Here's Greenwald to Owen again:

There is absolutely an economic imperative, trying to gain economic advantage. There's diplomatic reasons to do it, to try and work out what those other countries are doing, but there's also a question of democratic subversion — of controlling one's own citizenry by knowing what it is they're saying and doing.

Because the thing is, the Prime Minister has said before, and he said it again on this programme this morning, that he's saving lives, basically, in essence, in effect; he's saving us from a threat.

One of the things that government officials have been doing since the 9/11 attack is using terrorism to manipulate the citizenry, and they invoke the word terrorism or the spectre of terrorism over and over and over again to justify whatever it is that they're doing. It's extremely easy for politicians to say, 'What I'm doing is something I'm doing in secret. I can't tell you anything about it, but you should trust me to do these things, because I'm keeping you safe. And all the evidence we've seen over the last year and half is that by and large this spying system is not geared toward anything we would recognise as terrorism but is geared towards the kinds of corrupt motives that we typically associate with such programmes.

Now you might say economics have always been at the heart of espionage. But China may have something to say about that, and so might any allies we have spied on. Look at the row between the US and Germany when Angela Merkel learnt her phone had been tapped. What is our involvement in such strategies?

This is also pertinent given that we are in the midst of negotiations of the TPP – have we been spying on other countries at the table and are they spying on us? Do we need to keep negotiations secret from the public if everyone has spied out everyone else's bottomlines?

There are many, many questions our role in the Five Eyes alliance raises, but the first one to answer is whether our existing government has been "wholesale" in telling us the truth.

And of course only then can we judge how much New Zealanders care. I suspect the instinct of many will still be that "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear". No-one believes that even if a spy collects their emails to a mistress or anyone else they shouldn't be talking to will end up being used against them. New Zealanders tend to assume that "she'll be right", that those in authority can be trusted and that unless there's a direct and pragmatic impact on their lives, well, let's just get on with life.

Given the allegations in Dirty Politics, we also have to wonder if people have the appetite and energy for more complicated questions of integrity.

Unlike the US and Europe, we get much less upset about individual rights and respond less in principle to such news. As frustrating as that can be, it's a big part of who we are. Will this week's news change that?