Bryce Edwards: Thompson and Clark has been doing the dirty work of the state

Bryce Edwards: Thompson and Clark has been doing the dirty work of the state

There is something rotten going on in a number of New Zealand government departments and agencies. That’s the first conclusion from the scandal revealing security and intelligence agency Thompson and Clark is widely used by the public service. Hopefully the ever-widening investigation by the State Services Commission will shine some light on this, but the public could be forgiven for thinking that the murkiness will remain.

Government department involvement with private spies

The story of Thompson and Clark’s dodgy involvement with government has been unfolding over the last few months. The latest surprising chapter involves the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), which it turns out has been helping the private business get surveillance contracts with other government departments, as well as providing them with access to networks and information. For the best coverage of this, see the Herald’s Government probe: The SIS and Thompson and Clark emails that sparked an investigation.

According to the blogging watchdog No Right Turn, “this is basically a case of cosy corruption, mates helping mates, and at the heart of an agency (the SIS) we trust to be above such things” – see: Cosy corruption.

The SIS Director General Rebecca Kitteridge has now ordered an internal investigation into what has gone on – see Claire Trevett and Lucy Bennett’s Close relationship between public service and Thompson and Clark concerning, State Services Minister Chris Hipkins says.

This article also reports that “The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said it had uncovered evidence of potential serious staff misconduct involving Thompson and Clark.”

The Ministry of Health has also been brought into the scandal, as Thompson and Clark was given contracts to monitor the sale of legal recreational drugs and laser pointers – see Lucy Bennett’s Private investigators Thompson and Clark used by Ministry of Health to buy synthetic cannabis.

But it’s the Department of Conservation (DoC) that has one of the most interesting relationships with Thompson and Clark, using the agency to monitor environmentalists who might cause problems – see Zac Fleming’s DOC withholds information after demands from Thompson and Clark.

This article also reveals some possible breaches of the Official Information Act by DoC, done in order to try to protect the intelligence source used by Thompson and Clark. And Thompson and Clark director Gavin Clark is found to have responded in an email that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s crackdown on his agency was a “witch hunt” and “ill-informed”.

There is still some doubt as to exactly what Thompson and Clark were doing for DoC, but Patrick Gower delves into some of the detail in his article, DoC spent $100,000 on Thompson & Clark ‘protection’.

Trouble for the public service

Tracy Watkins has written about the history of Thompson and Clark’s extensive involvement with government departments, saying “New Zealand’s leading security, corporate intelligence and protection agency… appears to have a long reach into the public service” – see: Private investigator says he will cooperate with Government inquiry. And she also points to other departments using Thompson and Clark against political activists, including Solid Energy, Mfat, and MBIE.

Unfortunately, although there’s now a State Services Commission investigation into the whole affair, the various government departments and their ministers are still not being up front with the public about what’s happened with Thompson and Clark. Basically, neither senior officials or ministers are willing to talk about what has gone on – see Zac Fleming’s MPI refuses to explain Thompson and Clark decisions.

The upshot is that, given what has gone on, New Zealanders now have good reason to question the ethics and integrity of the public service. Certainly, the deputy chair of the Privacy Foundation New Zealand, Gehan Gunasekara, believes there’s a possibility that “New Zealand’s clean transparent image will be tarnished” – see Newshub’s Private spying by Government departments ‘concerning’ – Privacy Foundation. He says that “it’s also concerning that it took an OIA [Official Information Act] request to bring some of these things to light”.

And it’s not clear that the Police will be investigating or prosecuting what appears to be Thompson and Clark’s misuse of the motor vehicle register, which they used to track environment protestors – see Paul Hobbs’ Private investigators Thompson and Clark unlawfully accessed protestors’ private information through motor vehicle register, Greenpeace claims.

Why all this matters

Patrick Gower has driven this story more than anyone else and he has written an excellent explanation on Why the Thompson & Clark investigation matters. In general, Gower thinks the whole arrangement brings the public service’s integrity into question, and he worries that Thompson and Clark’s “tentacles” are everywhere.

Here’s Gower’s main explanation for why this scandal matters: “It matters because ordinary Kiwis were snooped and spied on by private investigators. It matters because the taxpayer paid for this private snooping and spying. It matters because the SIS spy service helped facilitate this kind of work. It matters because this appears to be systemic throughout Government. It matters because this is all based on creating a climate of fear that people make money from.”

The operations of Thompson and Clark also raise big questions about democratic freedoms. Environmentalist Frances Mountier has had direct experience of dealing with this agency, being part of an anti-mining group that was targeted by the corporate spies: “The whole point of this group was seemingly to work to undermine political protest, to disrupt community organising, to dampen the effectiveness of democratic change, to control the media narrative and to make people who are using their freedom of speech speechless” – see: Why have Thompson & Clark been allowed to keep spying on us, in your name?

Chris Trotter has drawn parallels with the US’ famous Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, which pioneered ways to help businesses and government authorities deal with unions and leftwing politicians – see: New Zealand’s Very Own Pinkertons.

Trotter says groups such as Pinkertons and Thompson and Clark do the dirty work in the shadows that helps reinforce the status quo, protecting private property: “when the official organs of law enforcement and national security find themselves lacking the human and material resources – not to mention the legal authority – required to carry out ‘the work’, being able to contract the private sector to assist the public sector in fulfilling its core function of keeping the country safe for private wealth-creators – is extraordinarily helpful”.

Similarly, Martyn Bradbury asks if government agencies simply see Thompson and Clark “as a tool to get around the law and avoid official scrutiny?” – see: Why was the Secret Intelligence Service working with private spies and what else were they doing?

Finally, Thompson and Clark used to utilise the research of former Act Party Vice-President Trevor Louden, who maintained a website that detailed the backgrounds of New Zealand leftists and dissidents, and for an update on Louden’s new US political life, see Branko Marcetic’s profile: The Man Behind KeyWiki.