Secret documents reveal New Zealand has shared intelligence collected through covert surveillance with Bangladesh despite that country’s security forces being implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights abuses.
The documents shine light on the major role played by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in electronic spying operations conducted in the small South Asian nation.
The surveillance has been used to aid the United States as part of its global counter-terrorism campaign, launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The New Zealand Herald analysed the documents in collaboration with US news website The Intercept, which obtained them from the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
The Bangladesh spying is revealed in an April 2013 US National Security Agency (NSA) report about its relationship with New Zealand. In a section called “What Partner Provides to NSA”, it says “GCSB has been the lead for the intelligence community on the Bangladesh CT [Counter-Terrorism] target since 2004.” The GCSB provides “one of the key SIGINT [signals intelligence] sources of [Bangladesh counter-terrorism] reporting to the US intelligence community.”
The intelligence gathered by the GCSB staff was also being forwarded to foreign intelligence agencies, including Bangladesh’s state intelligence agency. In recent years, human rights groups have issued several reports documenting Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies’ disregard for international prohibitions on torture and alleged involvement in politically motivated killings. In 2014, a case was filed in the International Criminal Court accusing the Bangladesh Government of committing crimes against humanity.
The GCSB’s surveillance operations in Bangladesh are among the most surprising and obscure yet revealed. Bangladesh barely registers in New Zealand foreign policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website says: “Relations between New Zealand and Bangladesh remain friendly, although interaction is limited.”
Nonetheless, a New Zealand government source told the Herald that Bangladesh is the main focus of one of the GCSB’s four analysis sections, called ICT, and has been for over a decade. ICT, the Transnational Issues section, was set up in April 2002 in the wake of the September 11 attacks to focus on terrorism threats.
The Bangladesh project appears to have begun in 2003, under Prime Minister Helen Clark, at a time when her Government was receptive to US war-on-terror requests following refusal to join the invasion of Iraq.
The “NSA Relationship with New Zealand” document gives the starting date as 2004. But a NSA officer wrote a briefing paper about the GCSB in December 2003 that noted the GCSB was “contributing to the War on Terrorism by reporting on the activities of Islamic extremists in Asia and the Pacific region and specifically taking on Bangladesh and Burma.”
Another intelligence document from 2009 gives detail on how the Bangladesh spying occurs. The document states that staff within a GCSB unit named “OCR”, the Signals Intelligence Development Team, are involved in planning the surveillance. It appears the GCSB does not directly conduct the interception and instead uses surveillance equipment provided by an allied agency.
The 2009 document reveals that there is a special collection site in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, for eavesdropping on local communications. New Zealand does not have a high commission or any other official building in Bangladesh in which to hide a covert listening post. The Snowden documents suggest the Dhaka unit may be located inside a US-controlled building with operations overseen by the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The 2009 report said that “Internal GSM [mobile phone] collection is continuing with the extension of the Dhaka F6 environment survey.” F6 is a designator used to refer to a joint CIA/NSA unit known as the Special Collection Service, which eavesdrops on communications from US embassies and consulates.
The report said the covert listening post was mostly being used by the GCSB to intercept mobile phone calls – “site collection resources are in the main being used for the collection of productive GSM emitters”.
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the spy agency was “dragging” New Zealand into human rights abuses, and the Government should stop providing intelligence assistance to Bangladesh.
“All three key anti-terrorism government agencies in Bangladesh have been implicated in horrendous human rights abuses, so it is impossible to guarantee that the information passed on did not lead to innocent people being killed or tortured,” Dr Norman said.
“John Key has always justified the GCSB on the basis that it is there to protect the good guys, but these documents reveal that it is helping the bad guys.
“Most New Zealanders would find this deplorable and agree that this is not within the mandate of the GCSB.”
The intelligence gathered by the GCSB staff was being forwarded to foreign intelligence agencies. The April 2013 NSA report said the “GCSB’s Bangladesh CT [counter terrorism] reporting provided unique intelligence leads that have enabled successful CT operations by Bangladesh State Intelligence Service, CIA and India over the past year”.
The specific Bangladesh “State Intelligence Service” referred to is not named in the document. Bangladesh has several agencies that focus on gathering intelligence, primarily including the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), the National Security Intelligence agency (NSI), and the police Special Branch. The lead agency that executes the country’s counter-terrorism operations is the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB.
Each of these agencies has been accused of involvement in severe human rights abuses over a sustained number of years.
In 2008, for instance, Human Rights Watch alleged that the Special Branch headquarters in Dhaka’s Maghbazar neighbourhood was used to torture detainees.
In 2010, a trade union activist accused the NSI of arresting, torturing, and threatening to kill him. The same activist was found dead in unexplained circumstances two years later, his toes and feet broken, legs and body battered and bruised, and his legs apparently pierced with a sharp object.
Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies and main police and security forces co-operate closely. Most notably, they work together as part of a notorious centre called the Taskforce for Interrogation Cell, located inside a compound in northern Dhaka that is controlled by the RAB unit.
In 2011, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported the interrogation cell was used as a place to extract information and confessions from “enemies of the state”.
It was described as a “torture centre” used for “deliberate and systematic” mistreatment of detainees. One British man detained there in 2009 on terrorism-related charges was allegedly hooded and strapped to a chair while a drill was driven into his right shoulder and hip.
Other torture methods used by Bangladeshi authorities, according to Human Rights Watch, have included “burning with acid, hammering of nails into toes … electric shocks, beatings on legs with iron rods, beating with batons on backs after sprinkling sand on them, ice torture, finger piercing, and mock executions”.
In February last year, the US Government suspended its own support for the RAB, citing “gross violation of human rights” committed by the force’s members. The same month, a case against the Bangladesh Government was lodged in the International Criminal Court, accusing the country’s officials of waging a brutal campaign of “widespread or systematic” torture, killings, and other human rights abuses that amounted to crimes against humanity.
It is unclear from any of the NSA documents whether New Zealand sought or received any assurances from Bangladesh over how intelligence it shared could be used for detentions and interrogations, or whether there was any effective oversight of how the country’s agencies ultimately used the information.
But the documents do reveal that the GCSB adopted a dual-edged approach, and while it was sharing the intelligence with Bangladesh’s security agencies, it was secretly monitoring the internal communications of the RAB force.
A 2009 GCSB report said the “F6” eavesdropping unit was “able to place on collection dedicated RAB private voice communications to and from RAB HQ to various RAB units. Also seen in collection was … a test of the videoconferencing system from RAB HQ to RAB-3 HQ”.
The report contained an intercepted image of an RAB officer speaking on the force’s internal video conference system. It said that “RAB has been an active target for the GCSB in the past and this information could well be of high interest for future operations if the domestic security situation in Bangladesh were to deteriorate”.
Bangladesh has low levels of terrorist activity compared with many countries in that region, is remote from New Zealand and there is no suggestion that the GCSB work was in response to any direct threat to New Zealand.
• Nicky Hager is a New Zealand-based investigative journalist and an internationally recognised expert on surveillance since the publication of his ground-breaking book Secret Power in 1996.
Source: The New Zealand Herald