Professor Richard Hill from Victoria University of Wellington has been awarded Marsden funding to compile a critical analysis of covert intelligence gathering in New Zealand, the only western country to have no academic study on the history of its security intelligence.
Professor Hill will investigate the surveillance of New Zealanders between 1907 and 2007, examining how strategies changed during key periods such as the 1940s and what the trade-offs were between state security requirements and civil liberties.
A historian who has written four books on policing and two on Crown-Māori relations, Professor Hill will be working with Dr David Burke from Cambridge University, an expert on espionage, and David Filer, who is a New Zealand military historian.
Professor Hill says while there have been books written about aspects of New Zealand’s security intelligence services, the Marsden funding will support the first sustained and integrated academic scrutiny of this country’s security surveillance institutions and their operations, and lead to publication of the first comprehensive overview of covert intelligence gathering in New Zealand.
“In a country like New Zealand there is obviously a trade-off between having an open and democratic society and the state’s need to carry out covert intelligence of those they deem to be potentially a threat to national security. Our goal is to thoroughly research and document what happened between 1907 and 2007, and why, and then leave people to draw their own conclusions.”
He says the book, to be published in about three years, will provide a platform for people to understand what is happening in security surveillance in New Zealand today.
Professor Hill says while the researchers will not be able to view all the relevant documents, he is “absolutely confident” that they will be able to access the material they need to write an informed history.
As to whether the book will contain revelations, Professor Hill says he genuinely does not know. “Obviously there are some things we know that we don’t know but there are lots of areas in which we don’t know what we don’t know. If we find anything new, it will be a revelation to us as well as to our readers.”
Professor Hill says while New Zealand is a little late in producing a history of its security surveillance, it is not far behind other similar countries.
“The history of MI5 only came out a few years ago and the first volume of the history of the Australian agency ASIO was published only last month. One of the things that is making these histories possible is a realisation by security intelligence agencies that if they don’t provide access to documents, people will draw their own conclusions based largely on anecdotal evidence.
“There is a growing official acceptance that, as much as possible, it is better to open the files to academic scrutiny.”
Professor Hill has been awarded funding of $495,000.