Corporate Protector: GCSB Director, Ian Fletcher. Our spies’ principal mission used to be the defence of the realm. Today’s GCSB is about the protection of corporate property.
ANDREA VANCE, political correspondent for The Sunday Star-Times, is probably right about “Fletchergate”. In her latest Sunday Politics column she predicts: “By the time Key returns from China, the Beltway will have moved on (as most of the rest of the public did days ago) until the auditor-general decides whether to investigate.”
If by “moved on” Ms Vance means “being diverted by something new”, few would disagree. We live in an age of twenty-four hour news cycles. Hour by fleeting hour, newsmakers and journalists alike are confronted with the ravening media beast’s unassuageable need to feed. Old news tends to get spat out in disgust.
But if by “moved on” she means “forgotten” or “lost interest” I think Ms Vance is mistaken. The peculiar story of the present Director of the Government Communications and Security Bureau’s (GCSB) Ian Fletcher’s, manner of appointment has left a deep impression not only on those whose job it is to follow politics (whom Ms Vance dismisses, rather contemptuously, as “the Beltway”) but also “the rest of the public”.
Indeed, the best summary of the whole affair I’ve heard was voiced last Friday by my hairdresser’s young assistant: “Got his friend the job and then pretended he hadn’t.” Sometimes I think our eyes and ears in the Parliamentary Press Gallery underestimate their own effectiveness as journalists!
The other observation I would make concerning Ms Vance’s world-weary prophesying about Fletchergate is that it runs the serious risk of being self-fulfilling. If the Press Gallery allows itself to be moved on – “nothing to see here, move along” – then the public will be left knowing quite a lot about the deficiencies of how Mr Fletcher ended up being appointed, but very little about why.
And given the nature of Mr Fletcher’s job, understanding why he was considered the only man for the job is of considerably more importance than whether the Prime Minister or the State Services Commissioner should have made the call that led to his appointment.
As John Key so colourfully summed up his view of Mr Fletcher’s suitability: “This isn’t some bunny we’ve pulled out of a hat!”
The Prime Minister’s quite correct. Mr Fletcher is very far from being a bunny. Indeed, the GCSB Director’s curriculum vitae makes for very interesting reading.
He is one of those Kiwis who, upon leaving our shores, sprouted wings and flew very high. Given the Prime Minister’s similar record of success, it is hardly surprising that, since taking office in 2008, he has done all he can to bring such high-flyers home.
But, to move the story forward to the “why” of Mr Fletcher’s appointment, what we need to know is which skills and experiences in particular – out of the many and varied talents Mr Fletcher clearly possesses – prompted Mr Key to pick up the phone?
To answer that question, we would need to know why the four individuals short-listed for interviews by the State Services Commission’s recruitment firm were deemed unsuitable. Obviously, that firm had been given a very clear idea of the GCSB Director’s job description and made its choices accordingly. But, equally obviously, there was another, undisclosed, description of the Director’s role for which none of the four candidates were suited.
It is, I believe, possible to infer from the public criticisms of the former GCSB Director, Sir Bruce Fergusson, that individuals suited for the GCSB that was (primarily a receiver and deliverer of military signals intelligence for the US National Security Agency) were not required by State Services Commissioner, Ian Rennie. The person appointed needed to be someone capable of forging a new GCSB – informed by a more contemporary intelligence-gathering culture.
The new world of espionage is no longer about intercepting Al Qaida’s latest plots. According to Stuart McMillian, writing in the National Business Review of 28/3/13: “it is the theft of intellectual property and commercial information that is causing concern”.
Intellectual property and commercial information feature prominently in Mr Fletcher’s career as a senior UK civil servant. They were also the primary drivers behind the Kim Dotcom extradition case.
Our spies’ principal mission used to be the defence of the realm. Today’s GCSB is about the protection of corporate property. As Mr McMillan noted a fortnight ago: “The government has established a group to protect major NZ infrastructure … This group is based within the Government Communications Security Bureau.”
Was Mr Fletcher ready for such a role?
Between 2002 and 2004 he was private-secretary to Sir Andrew Turnbull, the UK Cabinet Secretary. Historically, the Cabinet Secretary was the civil servant responsible for watching over the Security Forces – a responsibility Sir Andrew relinquished by delegation in the months preceding Tony Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq.
I’d say Mr Fletcher was ready for today’s GCSB.
Definitely worth a prime-ministerial telephone call.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 April 2013.