Mixed Signals: The Prime Minister’s claim: “I don’t know what ‘mass collection’ even means”, when filtered through the ears of someone who agrees with Mr Key’s portrayal of Nicky Hager as “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, becomes: “These journalists think they know something about the ‘Five Eyes’ operation, but they don’t. All of this stuff about ‘mass collection’ is just rubbish. I don’t have to respond to the likes of Nicky Hager, Glen Greenwald or Edward Snowden – and neither do you.”
THE PRIME MINISTER doesn’t know what “mass collection” means. This is surprising – given that the Prime Minister has spoken English all his life. And since the phrase has been used repeatedly with reference to the Government Communications Security Bureau’s (GCSB) acknowledged interception of individual and diplomatic metadata on an industrial scale, the Prime Minister’s professed ignorance is rather hard to accept.
What makes the Prime Minister’s unawareness even more puzzling is that he was the Minister in charge of the GCSB in 2009, when its facilities were, at the behest of and with considerable assistance from the US Government, being up-graded to “full-take” capability. It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister was not fully briefed on these expanded intelligence-gathering powers by the then Head of the GCSB, Sir Bruce Fergusson.
It is, accordingly, very difficult to believe that the Prime Minister does not know what “mass collection” entails. So, why claim ignorance? Perhaps it’s because “mass collection” sounds a little too much like “mass surveillance” – an activity which, if proven to have taken place, would require our Prime Minister, by his own solemn undertaking, to resign his office.
Certainly, the prospect of having to relinquish his office is a powerful motive for the Prime Minister to create as much confusion as possible around the activities of his security agencies. And if that is, indeed, the Prime Minister’s intention, then professing ignorance of what “mass collection” means is actually a very clever psychological gambit.
It’s roughly equivalent to a meteorologist claiming not to know what “rain” is. The statement is so preposterous that it leaves the questioner feeling utterly flummoxed. How can one have a sensible conversation about the weather with a weather expert who denies any knowledge of rain? Of course a meteorologist can be challenged. He can be ridiculed. He can even be branded an out-and-out liar. Meteorologists capacity for serious reprisal is limited.
Prime Ministers, on the other hand, have the power to make people’s lives extremely uncomfortable. Insulting a meteorologist is unlikely to prove a career-terminating act. But, publicly challenging and ridiculing the Prime Minister? Calling him a liar? That is not a course of action likely to recommend itself to any journalist who values the good opinion of his or her employer.
Publicly claiming not to know the meaning of “mass collection” delivers further benefits to Mr Key. Not only does it effectively shut down a potentially dangerous line of questioning, but it also suggests a potent line of defence to his political supporters.
The sub-textual message contained in the Prime Minister’s claim is one of impatience and denial. “I don’t know what ‘mass collection’ even means”, when filtered through the ears of someone who agrees with Mr Key’s portrayal of Nicky Hager as “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist”, becomes: “These journalists think they know something about the ‘Five Eyes’ operation, but they don’t. All of this stuff about ‘mass collection’ is just rubbish. I don’t have to respond to the likes of Nicky Hager, Glen Greenwald or Edward Snowden – and neither do you.”
This, too, is a tactic of considerable psychological subtlety. It builds on the silencing effect of the Prime Minister’s denial by simultaneously priming his followers to reject the evidence-derived premise of the original question.
All the revelations of Snowden, Greenwald and Hager: “Fallowhaunt”, “Darkquest”, “Legalreptile”, “Venusaffect”, “Xkeyscore”. The whole terrifying lexicon of the Five Eyes system of global mass surveillance is transformed from objective fact into mere subjective accusations. The sort of charges a large section of the community has been carefully schooled to reject as the work of “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists”.
Of course the Prime Minister understands what “mass collection” means. Just as he is fully aware that all New Zealanders are, indeed, under surveillance by the Five Eyes panopticon. His brilliance as a politician (if “brilliance” is the right word for so sinister a talent) lies in the way he has transformed the Truths and Untruths of the controversy into brutal binary equations of partisan allegiance. To paraphrase President George W. Bush: “Every citizen now has a decision to make. Either you are with the Prime Minister, or you are with the “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists”.
Whatever John Key may understand, or not understand, about “mass collection”, his mastery of the dark arts of “mass deception” is beyond dispute.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 March 2015.