The Indian high commission in Wellington was among foreign missions targeted by New Zealand’s intelligence agency for illegal break-ins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to a media report on Wednesday.
The report by Radio New Zealand (RNZ), an independent public service media organisation, said New Zealand’s Security Intelligence Service (SIS) broke into the Indian mission for Britain’s MI6 and the Iranian embassy for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to “photograph code books, plant bugs and steal communications”.
There were at least two raids on the Indian high commission in Wellington in 1989 and 1991 to “photograph thousands of pages from the commission’s code books, which were used to encrypt communications”.
The covert attack on the Indian mission was a joint move by SIS and MI6 that was code-named Operation Dunnage.
“Thousands of photographs containing the codes were sent back to the UK so that Britain’s foreign intelligence service could decipher the communications of Indian government officials and diplomats,” RNZ reported.
There was no immediate reaction from Indian officials.
In the early 1990s, SIS targeted the Iranian embassy in Wellington in a mission named Operation Horoscope, which was driven by CIA, which “altered circuit boards on a telex machine used by the Iranian Embassy in Wellington, allowing the American intelligence agency to intercept” Iranian communications, the report said.
There was also a joint SIS-MI6 raid on the Czechoslovakian embassy in 1986 to steal Warsaw Pact codes.
New Zealand is part of the secretive “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance that also includes the UK, the US, Australia and Canada. The five countries are party to a treaty for cooperation in signals intelligence and the alliance has faced criticism in recent years for its covert activities.
RNZ cited one New Zealand source, who spent more than 20 years at the highest levels of the public sector, as saying he was concerned about the nature of the work SIS carried out for its Five Eyes partners.
The source, who had close dealings with intelligence agencies, said “New Zealand came under pressure from its Five Eyes partners, especially the US and Australia, to do their dirty work”. The source also felt New Zealand “sometimes risked its international reputation by doing things that largely benefited Five Eyes partners”.
Breaking into an embassy is a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that foreign missions are inviolable and the host country should not even open diplomatic mail bags.
Geoffrey Palmer, New Zealand’s prime minister between August 1989 and September 1990, said he had not heard of the raids on the Indian and Iranian embassies but should have been alerted by SIS if they occurred when he was in charge of the agency.
“If it was at the time I was prime minister, I most certainly should have been,” he told RNZ.
Jim Bolger, prime minister during 1990-97, said he too couldn’t recall signing any warrants to allow SIS to break into foreign embassies. He expressed surprise there had been a raid on the Indian mission and asked why New Zealand would want to carry out a covert attack on India.
Bolger said: “I have no recollection of that ever hitting my desk and if it did, I have to say, my memory is not gone yet, I’d be very surprised if I was ever advised of any such event. I have no recollection – and that’s not just a brush-off.”
Former premier Helen Clark refused to confirm or deny whether raids happened during her term as prime minister between 1999 and 2008.
SIS said in a statement it was “unable to respond to questions about what may or not be specific operational matters”. The statement added: “The mission of the NZSIS has always been to keep New Zealanders safe, protect our key national institutions and promote New Zealand’s national advantage.”
RNZ learned about the raids after piecing together information gained over months of engaging with multiple sources in New Zealand, Britain and the US. The raids were brought to light by Wellington-based writer and documentary maker John Daniell, whose mother and stepfather worked for SIS, and RNZ journalists.
In February, the Washington Post had reported that CIA and its West German counterpart, BND, had controlled Crypto AG, which made coding machines for dozens of countries, including India and Iran.