Investigative author says GCSB-hosted spy system likely to be one used in capture-kill ops

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Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC) organiser Murray Horton
Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC) organiser Murray Horton . . . speaking against the controversial GCSB spy base in Waihopai Valley in 2021. Image: ABC screenshot APR

Asia Pacific Report

A New Zealand investigative journalist and author says the US spy system hosted by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) appears to be a controversial intelligence system used in global capture-kill operations.

Writing a commentary for RNZ News today, Nicky Hager, author of Secret Power, a 1996 book on New Zealand’s role in global spy networks, said the controversial and unidentified foreign intelligence operation cited in a report by New Zealand’s Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) last week appeared to be an “intelligence system with a ghostly codename”.

“The IGIS report said the GCSB decision to host a foreign system from 2012-2020 was ‘improper’ and that the GCSB ‘could not be sure the tasking of the capability was always in accordance with… New Zealand law’,” he wrote.

“The Inspector-General said: ‘I have found some of the GCSB’s explanations about how the capability operated and was tasked to be incongruous with information in GCSB records at the time’,” Hager wrote.

But the Inspector-General could not reveal details of the system to the public because they were “highly classified”.

“The name and function of the foreign spy spying equipment, the identity of the ‘foreign partner agency’ and the location of the ‘GCSB facility’ where foreign equipment was hosted all remained secret,” Hager wrote.

Hager argued that the mystery spy equipment appeared strongly to be a top secret US surveillance system that had been installed at the GCSB’s Waihopai base at the same time as the equipment in the IGIS investigation was installed at a “GCSB facility”.

25 years of investigations
Hager has worked as an investigative journalist for the past 25 years, and has been a New Zealand member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for 20 of those years.

In 2018, he was part of a reference group established by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Hager wrote that the top secret NSA spy equipment had the ghostly codename “APPARITION” and fitted with all the details presented in the IGIS report.

“APPARITION was owned by and controlled by the US National Security Agency — the world’s largest intelligence gathering agency and head of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that includes the GCSB,” he wrote.

According to Hager, the NSA internal report, written after the launch of the APPARITION system in 2008, said that it “builds on the success of the GHOSTHUNTER prototype . . .  a tool that enabled a significant number of capture-kill operations against terrorists”.

“Capture-kill operations involve lethal attacks on targeted people using drones, bombs and special forces raids,” wrote Hager.

“Human rights organisations have documented numerous deaths of civilians during capture-kill operations — many of them ‘algorithmically targeted’ by electronic surveillance systems such as APPARITION.

‘Extra-judicial killings’
“They are also criticised as being ‘extra-judicial killings’.”

For decades, protesters had been calling for the GCSB’s iconic radomes at Waihopai Valley spy base in rural Marlborough to be dismantled, saying that when that intelligence was shared with Five Eyes partners — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia — it made New Zealand complicit in the military campaigns of those countries, among other criticisms.

However, Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC) organiser Murray Horton said at the time of news of the domes’ redundancy in 2021 was nothing to celebrate, since the base itself would continue to operate at the site, “albeit without its most conspicuous physical features that stick out like dogs’ balls”.

The out-of-date domes were removed in 2022.

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