NZ’s Waihopai satellite spy base, like Australia’s Pine Gap, has been revealed secretly geolocating targets for US military operations, but without the NZ government's knowledge.

by | 30 Mar, 2024 | AUKUS, Five Eyes, surveillance

Codenamed 'Ironsand', New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) satellite surveillance base in Waihopai, New Zealand, has been revealed operating a secret program, geolocating targets in support of US military operations. (Schutz, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency ran a secret US intelligence operation that assisted US military operations for nearly a decade without the government’s knowledge.

report by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), Brendan Horsley, on March 21 revealed a signals intelligence system secretly embedded in the country’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) ran from 2012 to 2020 without ministerial approval. 

The spying operation started after a secret Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by the GCSB and, presumably, the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), without ministerial knowledge in 2011.

GCSB – like its Five Eyes Western intelligence partners GCHQ in Britain, the NSA in the US, the CSE in Canada, and the ASD in Australia – collects, assesses and produces reports on foreign intelligence. 

It operates a satellite monitoring station at Waihopia on the north of the South Island, and a radio receiving station at Tangimoana, 140 kms north of capital Wellington. Both of these surveillance bases are capable of collecting foreign and domestic intelligence.

The Inspector General’s report found an unnamed “foreign partner agency” – most likely the NSA – had used the infrastructure to intercept and decode messages that could be used to support “military actions” by foreign partners.

The spy program is suspected to be the NSA’s ‘Apparition’ system, first used by spy satellites to geolocate targets during the US ‘War on Terror’, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.

The IGIS report stated “the capability clearly had the potential to be used, in conjunction with other intelligence sources, to support military action against targets”.

Now we understand what this ‘Apparition’ reference refers to, in this 2010 NSA ‘GCSB Update’ on New Zealand’s ‘Ironsand’ Waihopai satellite surveillance station, leaked to the media by Edward Snowden. Without explanation, it contained information on the signing of an agreement to install and utilise the ‘Apparition’ system at the spy base, for what turned out to be a secret decade-long foreign spying operation to support US military operations. Despite it operating from NZ soil, no-one thought to either notify the Minister nor seek approval for its operation from New Zealand’s government. (Source: The Intercept, March 4 2015)

In many ways the Waihopai base is a smaller version of the massive US-built Pine Gap satellite surveillance base in Central Australia. In November, Declassified Australia revealed this base is being used to provide signals intelligence and geolocate targets for the NSA to pass to the Israeli military operation in Gaza.

While the IGIS report does not reveal the nature of any military actions that the GCSB targeting intelligence was provided for, it did conclude it was being used, stating:

“It is clear that data supplied to the partner system in some parts of the world was used to support military operations.”

Not only was the responsible minister not informed of the spying operation, but staff including the director and senior managers at GCSB were also unaware of the spying operation.

Those GCSB staff who operated the spy system, often did so without detailed knowledge of the requested tasking, and did not maintain adequate record-keeping of requests or results, stated the Inspector General.

“My inquiry found several records of comments in emails by GCSB staff about high volumes of data being sent from the capability at times when there were no records of emails advising of the tasking or requesting feed changes.”

The Inspector General alarmingly found evidence that New Zealand staff were taking direct orders from the US spy agency.

“Comments in emails suggest GCSB staff were under the impression they were meant to comply with requests from the overseas partner and not ask any questions.”

Spying and surveillance expert Nicky Hager believes the spy tool secretly used at the Waihopai base was one developed by the NSA in 2008, which goes by the ghostly codename “Apparition”.

The Apparition analysis system enables precise geolocation of targets and is used for US forces in ‘capture-kill’ operations and in lethal drone strikes against US targets in countries from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and most likely also in Gaza, as well as other countries.

Human rights groups have documented thousands of civilian deaths as a result of the US drone program.

Secret NSA operation unapproved, but not ‘illegal’

Auckland University senior law lecturer Fuimaono Dylan Asafo is now calling for new laws to ensure proper oversight is imposed on the country’s spy agencies so any future government knows exactly what the security state is up to. 

Speaking in his capacity as spokesperson for foreign policy group Te Kuaka, Afaso said,“This should be of major concern to all New Zealanders because we are not in control here. 

“The inquiry reveals that our policies and laws are not fit for purpose and that they do not cover the operation of foreign agencies within New Zealand.

“The inquiry reveals that our policies and laws do not cover the operation of foreign agencies within New Zealand.”

“It appears from the inquiry that even GCSB itself lost track of the system and did not know its full purpose.

“We do not know what military activities were undertaken using New Zealand’s equipment and base, and this could make us unknowingly complicit in serious breaches of international law. The law needs changing to explicitly prohibit what has occurred here.”

Secret spying operation was secret to most GCSB staff

The report, much of which remains classified, makes it clear there was very little oversight into how the suspected US signals operation was run and that it was impossible to determine whether it broke New Zealand law or that the intelligence enabled military targeting that broke international law.

It said the spy system was only “rediscovered” following an audit in 2020 when equipment reportedly stopped working, after which the matter was made known to the chief of the GCSB who referred to the Inspector-General to probe. 

The system was accessed remotely apparently by the NSA, with intercepted signals being passed on to it. The MoU stated the system would not be used to target New Zealanders and that no communications would be collected from local telecom networks without a warrant. 

Records showed 29 intelligence-gathering tasks ran between 2014 and 2020, but the true number performed is impossible to determine, as well as the nature of the information gathered.

New Zealand intelligence officers have been revealed conducting surveillance operations on behalf of the US’s NSA, without the NZ government’s knowledge, providing geolocation data on targets to US forces in military operations.. (Photo: New Zealand Defence Force)

Horsley’s report found inadequate record keeping and lack of evidence to show staff ever queried the purpose of the requested tasks. It stated that in agreeing to host the system the GCSB did so with senior officials having “negligible” awareness of it and with staff running it having inadequate training or guidance. 

The report said the ability of the intelligence to contribute to military action was limited by New Zealand’s southern Pacific location, and had been “moderated significantly by the geographical limits of GCSB collection”. Those limits extend to the Pacific, South East Asia, and China.

This suggests the potential to aid US military operations was limited to the Asia-Pacific region, where New Zealand’s Western allies are preparing for a war with its chief trading partner China, one of several centres of power now challenging US hegemony.

GCSB focused more on needs of Five Eyes partners than New Zealand’s

The Inspector General’s report said then bureau director Simon Murdoch in 2011 had noted in an email that his legal team would need to be closely involved in the MoU process, as well the minister with oversight of the GCSB being made aware of it, with his consent also potentially needed.

However, the report found no evidence of any subsequent ministerial briefings or correspondence. It also noted that Ian Fletcher, appointed GCSB director in February 2012, said he was not told about the MoU during his transition into his new role.

The IG found no evidence Fletcher had been told. The report also said the GCSB’s current senior leadership and legal team had no knowledge of it either, suggesting institutional knowledge of the operation simply disappeared. 

The report found this was due to poor internal procedures as well as multiple acting senior figures coming and going during the time after the MoU was signed, while lax rules governing the organisation had allowed officials to avoid telling the government. 

It is unclear whether the GCSB legal team specifically advised senior officials permissive legislation governing the bureau at the time would allow them to avoid informing ministers.

The report makes it clear senior staff working on the MoU were aware of how politically significant the signals intelligence system was and the potential legal implications it posed. This awareness would have been partly informed by past reports by the inspector-general. 

A report in 1999 had probed concerns by then Prime Minister Helen Clark that GCSB activities could be unduly focused more on the needs of Five Eyes security partners than New Zealand’s.

Clark had also been concerned about the possibility New Zealand citizens themselves could be illegally spied on. 

Given prior scrutiny of people like Clark, it seems inconceivable to some that senior GCSB officials would have been left unaware a US intelligence operation kept secret from the government was running at the bureau. 

Responding to last week’s report, Clark told media those who had been in charge within GCSB at the time should be disciplined for hiding it from government:

“The GCSB, operating at this more junior level, obviously couldn’t be sure that what it was doing was in accordance with the government’s intelligence requirements and with New Zealand law.”

Given the contradictions implicit in the report, questions remain over who knew what and whether the security state is continuing to accede to similar requests by the US without the knowledge of government.

Secrecy of the spying augurs badly for AUKUS aspirations

Marco de Jong, Te Kuaka co-director, said any involvement in “Pillar II” of AUKUS, the anti-China nuclear submarine agreement, would compound problems of democratic oversight that the inquiry had raised.

He said it would create further distrust over New Zealand’s ability to avoid entanglement in “other people’s wars”. The Pacific is becoming increasingly militarised and divided, with nations facing pressure to “choose sides” as the US seeks to maintain primacy and contain its peer rival China.

Under law enacted in the late 1980s New Zealand is a nuclear-free zone, with nuclear-powered vessels and weaponry banned from entering its jurisdiction. 

However, AUKUS Pillar II is being pushed as a non-nuclear component of the pact, compatible with its anti-nuclear tradition. This is a distinction rendered meaningless by the fact Pillar II would involve intelligence sharing with AI-driven targeting systems and nuclear-capable assets, Te Kuaka argues.

While in Australia for a meeting of foreign and defence ministers in February, New Zealand Defence Minister Judith Collins strongly expressed a desire to join the AUKUS military pact, although officials maintain the potential role is still being defined.

Pillar II aims to win a next-generation arms race involving new autonomous weapons platforms, electronic warfare systems, and hypersonic missiles. 

Joining AUKUS would fundamentally restrict the government’s ability to shape how its military and the GCSB directed their efforts, which would be largely driven by foreign policy in Washington.

Andrew Little, a former minister who was previously in charge of the GCSB, told media the GCSB had a “much different attitude” since the secret MoU was signed in 2011, regarding complying with legal obligations and relationship with ministers. 

He said he supported the operation being directed to the Inspector General to investigate after becoming aware of it, because he was concerned the operation was inconsistent with legislation that tightened oversight, which had taken effect in 2017. 

It is a clear failure to bring it to the relevant minister’s attention. Although not technically illegal, it wilfully circumvented government oversight and control over its activities. 

New Zealand’s security state effectively allowed US military intelligence to usurp its government’s democratic checks and balances so it could pursue actions against other states and individuals, possibly nefarious in nature given the US’ history of extra-judicial killings.

This is an updated and expanded version of a piece first published by US news website Consortium News.

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Mick Hall

MICK HALL is an independent journalist based in New Zealand. He is a former digital journalist at Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and former Australian Associated Press (AAP) staffer, having also written investigative stories for various newspapers, including the New Zealand Herald. You can find him on Substack at View all posts by