Prime Minister John Key has rejected suggestions of a cover-up at the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), after the spy agency allegedly failed to provide a number of "basic documents" during a six-month investigation into its activities.
Cabinet secretary Rebecca Kitteridge's report found as many as 88 people may have been spied upon illegally by the GCSB, which is barred from snooping on New Zealand citizens and residents.
But in the report, Ms Kitteridge states that there were "many basic documents that I have been unable to find, and that others at the GCSB have struggled to find for me".
Speaking to The Nation on the weekend, former GSCB director Sir Bruce Ferguson said he had no trouble accessing files, "but then I was a director, and if I ask for things they seem to appear on my desk".
Mr Key however rejects suggestions the GCSB – now run by Ian Fletcher, an old school friend of his – deliberately withheld information.
"Rebecca Kitteridge is a very senior public servant," he said on Firstline this morning.
"She has been, up until this point, the Cabinet secretary. She was sent on secondment to GCSB and undertook six months of work. There was full legal support put in behind her from Crown Law, and she spent a longer period of time than was initially determined. So what she says will be right."
But what she says is that she couldn't find some files, and nor could GCSB staff. Mr Key however says it is wrong to assume files were deliberately withheld.
"What she's saying is they struggled at times to access information – that will indicate there will be areas of where it was filed incorrectly, or it wasn't kept on file, or it wasn't kept at all," says Mr Key.
"She has access to all of the information that is there. If it's not there, then obviously she cannot access it. There may be reasons for that – others may want to present a different view, but she's the person who's been charged with the responsibility to go in there, has had Crown Law and the full support of the new director behind her."
Mr Key says he appointed Mr Fletcher to improve the day-to-day running of the GCSB to prevent mishaps like this from happening, saying the agency needs "significant bulking up in the management".
"It's not about the strength of the organisation for its ability to collect information, or maybe even to understand what is significant and what is not. It's about the actual day-to-day operational running of the department, and that's what Ian Fletcher's working now very quickly to improve."
Mr Key also rejects claims the Government is planning to change the law to give the GCSB the right to assist police and the Security Intelligence Service in spying on New Zealanders. He says the changes are just a "clarification" of the current law, and the GCSB's powers "in a lot of ways don't change".
"We're going to effectively – in law – allow it to do what was in practice operating, and what the previous Government at least argued, that in law it had already done. What is the problem is about whether that legal interpretation is correct, and as we know from the Solicitor-General's ruling now, it's difficult to interpret.
"So the actual powers in a lot of ways don't change – they've always been operating – but they haven't at least been clear in law, and it's the clarification in law that's actually happening."
The changes to the GCSB Act are expected to go before Parliament later this year, and the vote is expected to be extremely close.