Monday, 15 December 2008

Spy vs Spy

Following Nicky Hager's revelations in The Sunday Star-Times of police infiltration of domestic protest organisations, and acknowledging the two very interesting responses to his article from Liberation and Against the Current, I re-publish here my "Making A Contribution", article, published in The Independent of 14 February 2001. It occasioned some bitter left-wing reaction at the time, which, to my mind at least, betrayed an extraordinary degree of naivete on the part of the Left in New Zealand.

If your intention is to overthrow the existing order, you should not be surprised – nor outraged – when it takes steps to protect itself.

NEW ZEALAND’s Security Intelligence Service guards its secrets well. Only rarely is the public permitted even a glimpse of its internal workings. Outside of the Beehive’s Ninth Floor, the intentions and operations of the Service remain a mystery. Inquiries from journalists are politely turned away, and inquisitive MPs are referred to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, a carefully chosen clutch of senior politicians, chaired by the Prime Minister, and legally prevented from commenting on any matter "relating directly to the activities" of the Service. This is probably as it should be. A security service unable to guard its secrets would hardly be worthy of the name.

Sometimes, however, things go badly wrong, and matters relating directly to the activities of the Service are thrust, blinking, into the bright light of day. The most notorious breach of SIS secrecy occurred on July 13th 1996, when David Small, a lecturer in Education at the University of Canterbury, surprised at least two SIS agents in the process of burgling the home of anti-free-trade activist Aziz Choudry.

As far as most New Zealanders were concerned, the story of the Choudry break-in was relatively straight-forward. Concerned that Choudry and his fellow dissidents might be planning to disrupt the ministerial meeting of APEC, then taking place in Christchurch, the SIS detailed an unspecified number of its agents to mount what is known in the trade as a "black bag" operation. They were to gain entry to Choudry’s home and search for anything indicating intended or real acts of "espionage, sabotage, terrorism, and subversion". This dramatic infringement of Choudry’s rights could have been justified by the SIS on the grounds that it was "making a contribution to New Zealand’s international well-being and economic well-being" – a new set of responsibilities which came into force on July 1st 1996 - less than a fortnight prior to the black-bag operation in Choudry’s home.

The consequences of this botched operation were considerable. Having failed to have their complaints against the SIS upheld by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, and unable to persuade the conservative National-NZ First Government to mount a public inquiry, Choudry and Small enlisted the support of top Auckland barrister, Rodney Harrison, who agreed to sue the SIS on Choudry’s behalf for trespass and unreasonable search. Rather surprisingly, they won, and in 1999 Choudry was awarded an unspecified – but rumoured to be large – sum in compensation.

What did not emerge from the trial was anything resembling an official explanation of the break-in. The Prime Minister, Mrs Shipley, declared she was ready to go all the way to the Privy Council to protect the "national security" content of SIS records. Mrs Shipley’s government was also required to pass legislation protecting the SIS’s ability to mount black bag operations in pursuit if its national security obligations.

What Mrs Shipley could not prevent, however, was the then Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark, blabbing out the real reason for the SIS’s surveillance of Choudry to North & South political journalist, David McLaughlin.

"They burgled his house, yes, but not because of him", Clark told McLaughlin. "He had visitors who were of interest and when you’ve got people coming to New Zealand on visitor’s visas who have got links with groups who could have an interest, someone will make inquiries."
And who was Aziz Choudry’s visitor? All we were told at the time was that his name was Alejandro Villamar, and that he was a member of RMALC – Mexican Action Network on Free Trade.

It is important to note at this point that Choudry, Small, and their entire GATT-Watchdog network, had made no locatable public reference to Villamar prior to the 1999 North & South revelations. In a media release dated 20th October 1997 they declared that the 1996 break-in "confirms concerns that critics of the government’s free-market policies are now fair game for the SIS." Choudry was quoted as saying that the SIS’s action "puts the lie to assurances contained within the legislation and reiterated by the Prime Minister that remaining within the law is a guarantee of freedom from SIS operations and that the SIS would not be used against legitimate political dissenters."

So why no reference to the presence of Villamar? Surely the fact that a foreign national was staying with Choudry at the time of the break-in was relevant to the case? It beggars the imagination to suggest that neither Choudry nor Small were capable of putting 2 and 2 together to make 4. A Mexican activist against free-trade turns up in Christchurch at the same time as a meeting of APEC is taking place, bunks down with a prominent member of the New Zealand anti-free-trade movement, and – bingo! – the house is broken into by the SIS. What’s going on here? Is it possible that Alejandro Villamar is something more than a "legitimate political dissenter"?

Well he is certainly more than "Dr Alejandro Villamar, the Mexican academic" referred to by David Small in an article for N.Z. Political Review back in April of 1999. Research by this writer has identified Dr Villamar as the Director of Research for Natural Resources and Fisheries for the Foreign Trade Committee of the PRD – Partido de la Revolución Democrática – Mexico’s main opposition party. One of Dr Villamar’s key tasks is the tracking of foreign investment in Mexico’s forestry sector.

Dr Villamar is also associated with ACERCA – Action for Community and Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America. In an article for the World Rainforest Movement Bulletin dated August 1998 he states: "The increased activities of the maquiladora industry [production facilities established along the US-Mexican border to take advantage of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement] have resulted in an enormous need for packaging paper used in shipping industrial goods for export. Mexico currently imports this packaging from the US and Canada. In response to pressure from the maquiladora industry, the Mexican government is now paving the way for the large-scale pulpwood plantations in order to provide industry with raw material to produce cheap pulp and paper."

According to a July 17th 1999 article from ACERCA, published on the Corporate Watch website: "Huge foreign-owned paper companies have acquired large tracts of land in southern Mexico for the purpose of growing eucalyptus and palm trees which have been genetically altered to yield pulpwood with short growing times. Evidence suggests that much (or most) of this fibre will end up as packing materials for products assembled in the maquiladoras and then shipped out of the country."

The same article identifies two of those companies as International Paper and Fletcher Challenge Forests. In a joint venture with the Westavco Corporation and Monsanto, IP – the owners of the New Zealand company Carter Holt Harvey – and FCF were said to be in the process of establishing a forestry biotechnology company to produce and market genetically engineered tree seedlings. According to the article, this new company would be based in Chiapas, a province in the Mexican south-west, and home to the "Zapatistas" - one of the most sophisticated indigenous rights movements on Earth.

It is not known if Dr Villamar has any direct links with the Zapatistas, but, according to an article by Tracey Eaton of the Dallas Morning Post dated August 27th 1999, he is no stranger to radical peasant activism. According to Eaton, a Mr Alejandro Villamar is the principle defender of a jailed peasant activist named Rodolfo Montiel.

Montiel, whose case has been taken up by Amnesty International and the Sierra Club, was jailed on weapons and other charges in May of 1999 after organising farmers against logging operations near their village. Authorities in Guerrero State, where Montiel was active, have accused the 45 year-old farmer of being a member of the EPR – the Popular Revolutionary Army. His allies deny this, accusing the authorities of torturing Montiel in custody and attempting to frame him as a drug dealer and insurrectionist. "Rodolfo is definitely not a member of the EPR," says Villamar, who had been working with Montiel’s organisation since February 1999, "that’s just a pretext".

It is scarcely surprising that New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service should be interested in such a colourful character as Dr Alejandro Villamar. After all, the July 13th 1996 break-in to Choudry’s house took place only two-and-a-half years after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Led by their mysterious "Sub-Commandante Marcos", the Mayan Indian rebels staged their armed insurrection on January 1st 1994 to coincide with the coming into force of NAFTA. RMALC – of which Villamar is a key member – was in sympathy with the Zapatista rebellion, endorsing its aims – if not its methods.

With the CEO of International Paper – already a significant player in the New Zealand economy through its investment in Carter Holt Harvey – engaged in important negotiations with the Mexican Government throughout 1995-96, and with one of this country’s largest corporations, Fletcher Challenge, gearing itself up to make long-term investments in the Mexican pulpwood industry, it is arguable, at the very least, that Dr Alejandro Villamar was a suitable subject for surveillance.

Finding out what this radical Mexican was doing in New Zealand, and discovering exactly what information he was exchanging with one of this country’s most vociferous opponents of free-trade, might even qualify as "making a contribution to New Zealand’s international and economic well-being".


Tim Selwyn said...

So the govt. lets him into the country so as to have an excuse to search every place in which he stays, ie. NZ-based activists? If he was a real threat they would have sent him back at the airport.

Chris Trotter said...

Not necessarily, Tim. I suspect the SIS were keen to learn to what extent the anti-Free Trade movements in NZ and Mexico were co-operating; what, if anything, they had planned for International Paper and Fletcher Forests; and if there was any linkage between the indigenous people's movements in the targets' respective countries. In all probability the interrupted "Black Bag" operation in Christchurch was intended to plant or retrieve listening devices. Standard operating procedure for spooks in this day and age.

johnazmoore said...

Hi Chris

You are correct to say that the left should not be surprised or shocked when the state 'takes steps to protect itself.' The howls of surprise and disgust by the left in regards to the Rob Gilchrist affair do point to a degree of naivety. This naivety largely comes from a lack of clarity from much of the left on what is the role of the state in New Zealand. In a recent blogpost I put forward the position that:

This most recent case of covert police surveillance of left wing groups by Gilchrist highlights the role of the state to promote the interests of the bosses’ class and the capitalist system as a whole. All governments under capitalism must by necessity shore up the best conditions for businesses to accumulate their profits. Part of this role involves using the coercive arm of the state to suppress, and at times crush, any form of opposition to the bosses and their state. Surveillance of left wing activity in New Zealand is nothing new.


Chris, as a young protester during the racist Springbok tour you would of seen upfront the ugly face of capitalism. I have been surprised and perplexed by your decision to, at times, effectively block with the coercive arm of the state. The bitter left-wing reaction you have received may reveal 'an extraordinary degree of naivete on the part of the Left in New Zealand'. Equally, such 'bitter' reaction comes from a genuine 'shock' at your arguing for the right of governments to attack representatives of the left and oppressed groups. Your siding with police during the so called 'terror raids' being the most striking example.

Great to see your new blog up and running.


John Moore.

Chris Trotter said...

No John, what I saw during the Springbok Tour was the ugly face of the Police, and that part of New Zealand society which was unwilling (or unable) to accept the social, cultural and political claims of hitherto oppressed groups such as women, Maori, gays and lesbians.

It was the direct challenge which the anti-apartheid movement posed to that part of New Zealand which drew its self-esteem and status from being male, white and heterosexual that gave rise to so much of the violence during the protest demonstrations.

As for "Capitalism" - it was, if anywhere, on the side of the protestors. Many of the nation's leading capitalists - men like Hugh Fletcher and Ron Trotter, for example - actually joined the big mobilisations against the Tour held in early-1981.

That this was so is not really surprising, since capitalism is essentially indifferent to whether someone is male or female, black or white, gay or straight. Indeed, since the aims and objectives of the New Social Movements of the 1970s and 80s have been recognised, and their members have moved into the "mainstream", they have provided capitalism with a whole new set of discrete markets, and a great many new opportunities for realising profit.

As for my attacking so-called "Left' groups and backing the Police's "Operation Eight", I would say only this.

Resort to violence as a political weapon is justifiable only in circumstances where all other avenues of political activity have been closed off - one thinks of South Africa after Sharpeville, or Northern Ireland after "Bloody Sunday".

Those who plan and practice for armed conflict in the political context of a relatively open liberal democratic society (and New Zealand's political environment is certainly more open than that of the US, the UK or Australia) not only lack the slightest moral justification for their actions, but they also supply the enemies of progressive political organisation with the excuses they need for cracking-down even harder on all forms of dissent.

So when groups take up arms (even without the immediate intention of using them) it is important for the mature elements of the Left to openly and unequivocally condemn them.

In my opinion, John, it is ethically indefensible to offer solidarity to individuals so drunk on their own rhetorical excesses that they are unable to either recognise or understand the enormous damage they are doing - both to the progressive movement, itself, or to New Zealand's peaceful and generally tolerant society.

Steve Withers said...

Have the SIS been spying on Tony Frielander's Transport Forum? Their trucking stunt this year created more economic disruption to this country than any combination of environmental or free trade prtest actions. Or is protest by the right always OK and protest by the left is always illegitimate?

The political bias consistently displayed by those charged with protecting our collective rights and freedoms is beyond disturbing.

I have not forgotten the break-in at the ERC offices prior to the 1993 referendum on MMP. All the computers were taken while money and other valuables were left untouched. Moreover, I predicted it and warned Phil Saxby and others to take backups of any data frequently. I was not surprised that those opposed to MMP (government? CBG? Both?) lived down to my expectations. Having had all my overseas mail opened for 7 years due to my being on the National Executive of the ERC, I have first-hand experience of our state apparatus.

Anonymous said...

Chris. As one who has sat in on part Depositions hearing for the Operation Eight defendents, I must say that I was completely unconvinced that those arrested were involved in any sort of terrorist activity. I cannot go into details here because of suppression orders but I'm sure most other people would come to the same conclusion if they heard what I heard in court.

The raids were a massive crack down on New Zealanders with progressive political opinions.

Overseas states regularly claim political opponents are 'violent' or 'terrorists' as an excuse to launch crackdowns. For example, in recent years in the Philippines a number of unionists, leftist politicians and lawyers have been detained and accused of being involved in killings and bombings.

If the police said you, Chris, were a terrorist and locked you up, I would defintely protest. I find it hard to see why you haven't done the same for the Operation Eight defendents.

Anonymous said...

one of the responses to Chris Trotter's original article: