When not lying isn't enough

Is the Prime Minister playing fast and loose with intelligence information? We now know that he knew more about those jihadi brides than he first let on

It's times like this you appreciate why people giving testimony in court, in all those old movies, are asked to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". Because "the truth", alone won't do. That's at the heart of Metiria Turei's revelation about just when John Key knew about the jihadi brides.

This morning on The Nation, the Greens co-leader revealed a reply from the Prime Minister's office to a written question as to when he was first told that the jihadi brides he referred to in December last year were NOT in fact leaving from New Zealand. His office wrote:

I am advised that the first occasion on which my office received information about a New Zealand woman departing from Australia and travelling to Syria and/or Iraq was 25 May 2015. I subsequently received further briefings concerning additional New Zealand women who had departed from Australia to travel to Syria and/or Iraq.

Key first raised the topic in intelligence and security select committee, as SIS boss Rebecca Kitteridge was giving her annual report:

Kitteridge: “The issue of NZ women going to, traveling to Iraq and Syria, was something that we hadn’t seen previously, or been aware of previously.

Key: “So whereas they are going now as jihadi brides?

Kitteridge: “Presumably, I mean, it is difficult to see what they do when they go.”

It was a new trend the SIS had noted, although you have to question exactly what makes a trend. After the committee hearing Kitteridge put the number of New Zealand women who had made the trip at fewer than 12. Key talked about "a few".

At the time security analyst Paul Buchanan questioned whether it was really of any moment at all:

One thing is even clearer: it is not a pressing national security issue and should not have been the focus of the Director’s remarks or of the press coverage given to them.

So why so much attention given to the subject? Is this not public fear-manipulation via threat distortion? 

And the reportage at the time certainly saw it as a calculated political move. Patrick Gower ended his report that night on 3News with these words:

"The top spies were very calculated and obviously deliberately dropped this new detail about kiwi women joining the Islamic State in a public forum in order to raise awareness of the threat New Zealand faces, but also to build a case for the powers that they use."

At the time of those reports, it was widely assumed those New Zealand women were leaving from New Zealand. Anjum Rahman, who’s from the Islamic Women’s Council, said today:

"I’ve seen one article from Radio New Zealand that specifically said ‘Minister Finlayson has said women leaving from New Zealand'."

The implication being: those women had been radicalised here. At the time the Muslim community leaders told media they were confused. They didn't know of any women leaving, mosques here were not preaching radical theology.

Rahman says this provoked real concern among New Zealand Muslims and caused "damage". They ensured three police officers were at a youth camp shortly after the comments, so concerned were they about possible reprisals.

So the words chosen matter; they have consequences.

It was concerning the claims about jihadi brides were made at the time. Was it responsible to put the spotlight on what was clearly an emotive but small issue? Then in March we learnt the women didn't leave from New Zealand. They left from Australia.

What's unknown is how long they were there. Had they moved as toddler or just passed through Australia? The core question being, where were they radicalised?

Today, we learnt that Key knew six months before that select committee that those jihadi brides had not left from New Zealand, which raises another critical question: Why didn't he spell that out at the time? If he and Kitteridge were going to release some information about this issue, surely they had the responsibility to give more thorough details and to reassure public concern that radical Islam was gaining some grip in New Zealand, if only among fewer than a dozen women.

Instead, those most trusted with sensitive security information - the PM and the head of the SIS - left an incorrect impression. In multiple interviews they talked about New Zealand women going to Iraq and Syria, without adding the crucial detail that they weren't leaving from New Zealand.

The Greens point out that this information was released in the midst of debate whether the spy agencies needed more powers and the intelligence legislation was being reviewed. It's hard not to draw the conclusion that this information was released only partially for political purposes. 

Some will argue that we have much to fear from radical Islam and it excuses some short cuts. Or even more crudely, if these women are baddies, who cares?

But as Rahman says, the impact goes wider, to a whole faith community. And anyway, you can be afraid of radical Islam and still expect honesty from your nation's leader.

Key can, and will, say that he did not lie. True. New Zealand women were heading to the Middle East in small numbers, just as he said. He can, and will, say that he has been more open with security information than previous Prime Ministers.

But the fear is that this openness is only partial and is being used for his political ends. There was, clearly, more to tell. And that extra information paints a different picture.

One of the greatest trusts the citizens give the leader of a democracy -- and those such as spies, who are allowed to break and bend the law in ways you and I can't -- is to use the secret information they receive responsibly and only for the greater good. To use it to score points, attempt to change the law, even manipulate public opinion with those state secrets is cynical beyond any concept of good government.

We should be able to expect our leaders to tread especially carefully with pieces of information that could divide New Zealanders. Especially when it comes to secrets and issues that can spark fear amongst people, we should demand, as in those movies, "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".