Spooks & Maori: Operation Leaf

Who was spying on Maori in 2004?

Following the Foreshore and Seabed Hikoi to the Parliament in April/May 2004 the Maori Party was formed on 7 July 2004.

On 11th November 2004 Scoop ran an exclusive by Selwyn Manning headed “Intelligence Sources Say SIS Investigating Maori Party”.

“Intelligence sources have revealed the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) has launched a major covert operation investigating the Maori Party, co-leader Tariana Turia, its members, networks and associates”.

“Next year’s General Election could potentially see the Maori Party hold balance over what party leads a coalition government. Recent poll trends suggest if Labour is to emerge from an election to lead for a third term it would need support from the Green Party and the Maori Party. The later has yet to express a preference between a Labour-led or National Party-led government.

“This scenario has caused intelligence officials to consider what the potential consequences of a centrist Maori political force would have on the internal security of New Zealand.

“Scoop understands three people in particular have been singled out for thorough investigation: Brian Dickson, Whititera Kaihau, and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia”.

On 21st November 2004 the Sunday Star Times led with this opening to an exclusive by Anthony Hubbard and Nicky Hager:

“The SIS has been involved in a widespread and probably unlawful campaign to infiltrate and bug Maori organisations, three spies have told the Sunday Star-Times.

“They provided a detailed description of a top-secret programme called Operation Leaf, a major SIS campaign targeting a variety of Maori organisations and individuals over several years”.


“The spies claim:

  • The SIS contracted “computer geeks” to engineer contact with Maori organisations and plant bugging equipment on their computers or change the settings to allow remote access.
  • They were told to gather intelligence on internal iwi business negotiations, finances and Treaty claims and inter-tribal cmmunications.
  • They were instructed to watch for “dirt”, including “personal information, relationships, money issues, family secrets” on Maori leaders.
  • Serious divisions exist within the intelligence community, with some spies believing the SIS is too deferential to Western agencies”.

There was much information about the activities of the SIS including this:

“The spies claim that the SIS targeted politicians and those active in the Maori Party. Peter says he was told by the SIS to cultivate a Maori MP. Another intelligence source says he was told in mid-2002 that another Maori MP was a “hot target’’ – SIS jargon for someone being bugged.

“Maori Party leader Tariana Turia, interviewed by the Star-Times, could cast no light on the matter. However, she did say that in about March this year she had had trouble with the phone in her ministerial house. When speaking on the phone in the kitchen, the whole conversation “would come through the radio in the bedroom’’.

She had hired a security company recommended by the Parliamentary Service to sweep the house, “and they found that in fact it [the phone] had been interfered with’’.

However, the company had also told her it was unlikely the SIS had done so “because they had more sophisticated means of tracking’’.

On the same day Scoop published a backgrounder about the claims written by Anthony Hubbard and Nicky Hager.

Murray Horton wrote it up in Peace Researcher in March 2005. 

And the next month on 11th April 2005 Prime Minister Helen Clark released a statement which began:

“I have received a letter and report dated 31 March from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security about last year’s allegations by the Sunday Star-Times and Scoop that the Security Intelligence Service was bugging law-abiding Maori for political intelligence.

“The stories, signed by Anthony Hubbard and Nicky Hager for the Sunday Star-Times and Selwyn Manning for Scoop, were said to be based on reports by “dissident spies” involved in an alleged “Operation Leaf”.

“I can confirm today that the Security Intelligence Service had no operation called Operation Leaf, or anything like it. The same applies to a so-called Operation Weasel.

The Inspector-General’s conclusion, stated in his covering letter to me, “is that the reaction of the Director of Security when the material was published was correct: the story, apart from some base facts about dealings with one iwi, was a work of fiction on the part of the newspaper’s sources”. The Inspector General found no connection whatsoever between work done on the iwi’s computer and the SIS”.

That same day the National Business Review allowed itself to crow, just a little:

“It’s always a shame when a few stubborn facts get in the way of a great yarn but “Operation Leaf” was a story that required a suspension of disbelief on even its basic premises.

“Now it has been undone by no less a figure than the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Justice Paul Neazor, who found the tale to have been fabricated by “sources” that had no credibility”.

One of the hoaxers did make a public statement the next day.

And that was that. Operation Leaf was a hoax.

In Peace Researcher in March 2006 Murray Horton wrote a fairly full report on the hoax and the people who perpetrated the hoax.

Now I haven’t recounted this whole story in some detail just to embarrass my friends in the media. They were taken in and we still don’t know exactly why. I have recounted it in order to add to it an intriguing account of my own from seventeen years earlier, in 1987. It is relevant as you will see.

In 1987 I was in Wellington and had been out of the Army for over five years. For just over a year I had been working with two Board of Maori Affairs programmes, MANA Enterprises and Maori ACCESS (MACCESS).

In August 1987 I was told by an ex-Army colleague that he had been contacted by the father of a young Maori captain in the Army. The young officer had recently returned from the Middle East where he had served as a United Nations observer. A few days before his father contacted us his son had been picked up by two SIS officers, and accused of subversive activity by being present at a meeting of Maori radicals in Auckland with a representative of a Middle Eastern organisation. He was interrogated and intimidated. His father said he had been threatened and told that if he told anyone about the interrogation his career in the Army would be destroyed. He was frightened and told his father.

I got the officer to come to Wellington the next day and I sat him down, reassured him that he would soon be in the clear, and debriefed him. His story was just as his father had related, and he told me in detail exactly what had happened during his interrogation. He told me everything he could remember about the questioning and allegations, including the names of those Maori activists who it was alleged were at the meeting with him.

I knew some of those who were named. It didn’t take long to establish that two of them at least had not been at the meeting and that they were not even in Auckland on the day of the meeting.

I rang the late Brigadier Lin Smith who was Director of SIS at the time and asked for an immediate appointment. He agreed. I had known Brigadier Smith for over twenty years and had served with him in the Army. I knew him to be a man of honour and integrity. I knew that he would listen.

I started to tell him what I was there for and he stopped me. He then asked his PA to summon two of his officers and to fetch the file on the case. When they arrived he introduced them to me as two former RNZAF officers, and the two I was talking about. He asked me to start again and I told my story, including the fact that I had conclusively established that the young officer had not been at the meeting, and that two of the other named persons had not been there either.

In front of me Brigadier Smith then tore shreds off his two officers. He ordered them to cease their surveillance, saying that he had told them before that they were to stop what they were doing. He made it quite clear to them that the file was closed. Then he sent them packing. We sat and chatted for a while after that about old times in the Army and about what I was up to. Unexpectedly he gave me the identity of the Maori who was the SIS informant whose information had led to the interrogation of the young officer. He also told me that I could tell the other two people that I had cleared that the SIS had no interest in them either.

The next day I called the captain to my office and gave him the all clear and sent him happily on his way.

During the week after that I received job offers via two other former Army officers I knew to be SIS recruiters. I declined.

A month or two later a Maori Affairs officer working in our project office showed me a letter she had got from a person in her church congregation. It was a request for her to become an SIS informant and listed the sorts of information he was interested in. It was mostly to do with identifying all those who were getting funding from the MANA and MACCESS projects. He was also interested in what I was doing and who I was meeting. I recognized his name as it was one of the former RNZAF officers I had met in Brigadier Smith’s office. What was interesting was that their church was one of the more evangelical.

It was interesting because an evangelical couple John and Sharon Fawcett had been telling private church meetings about gun running, arms shipments and guerilla training camps involving Maori radicals. Unknown to them a tape of one of their meetings had been made and copies were circulating in church congregations. This was at a time when rumours were rife about probable armed struggle by Maori extremists with Libyan involvement. The Maori Affairs officer did not become an SIS informant but I learned more about my religious and paranoid new friend in SIS.

About that time I also became aware that defence reporter Roger Foley of the Evening Post in Wellington was occasionally reporting about the SIS. I put two and two together. He was also ex-RNZAF and his informant or informants had to be one or both of my disaffected new SIS friends. His information was definitely from inside SIS.

On 30th May 1988 Foley reported:

“Allegations to the Post by “members of the intelligence community”, that Lange had asked SIS for a report on left wing subversion of Labour Party in Auckland in lead up to 1987 elections”.

On 14th June 1988 he reported:

“Five past and present members of the SIS call for an independent audit of management and decision making”

They gave as their reasons:

  •  Low morale
  • Outflow of experienced or key staff
  • Inflexible management
  • Political interference
  • Maori activists not being under surveillance
  • closure of Wellington branch office
  • lack of internal complaints system

In relation to Maori activism Foley wrote:

“SIS previously took a close interest in Maori activists, in particular Waitangi Day celebrations. But according to one source field surveillance of activists stopped in 1984 because Brigadier Smith regarded Maori activism as legitimate dissent and protest and it was too sensitive an issue in which to involve the SIS. For information on this subject the service was told to rely on newspaper accounts”.

Some time after that Foley reported that two SIS officers had been dismissed. The SIS surveillance of Maori that Brigadier Smith had stopped was apparently named Operation Leaf.

Helen Clark said in her release on 11th April 2005 that “I can confirm today that the Security Intelligence Service had no operation called Operation Leaf, or anything like it”. Obviously the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Director SIS did not search far enough through the files to discover the real Operation Leaf back in  the 1980s.

Which leaves an intriguing question; how did the 2004 hoaxers know about Operation Leaf? None of them were former SIS officers as was initially reported in the media. Did one of them read and remember Foley’s article in the Evening Post sixteen years earlier? Did the one who used to be a Labour Party staffer know about the pre-1984 surveillance? Or was there another unnamed conspirator involved in the hoax, getting a little payback? One of my former RNZAF friends perhaps?

There are other questions arising from the 2004 hoax. 2004 was a strange year. It began with Don Brash’s inflammatory Orewa speech  on 27th January. Later in 2004 the police tried and failed to charge a person they believed was Bl@ckMask who had allegedly defaced a National Party website after the speech at Orewa. In April/May 2004 there was the Foreshore and Seabed hikoi to Parliament that resulted in the formation of the Maori Party. And the allegations made by the Op Leaf hoaxers was that the SIS had the Maori Party under surveillance.

However, at that time and before the Op Leaf hoax Te Putatara had independently established that someone was using IT contractors to gain access to Maori computers. Additionally a Maori IT person had also revealed that while working at an internet provider he had worked with the police to monitor internet activity by Maori. He had also been involved in monitoring activity related to the Seabed & Foreshore hikoi. It was well established that the police had since 1984 assumed responsibility for surveillance of Maori.

Did the Inspector-General for Intelligence and Security bother to investigate whether the police Intelligence people were doing what the SIS was alleged by the Op Leaf hoaxers to have done? Was it police intelligence that had the Maori Party under surveillance?

As the Indonesians say “There’s a prawn behind that rock”. Is there a policeman there as well? And a former RNZAF, former SIS officer? Getting crowded behind that rock folks.

Links: The Operation 8 Series