New Zealand’s defense minister said Monday that an investigation is underway into a report that U.S. intelligence agencies helped his nation’s military track the mobile telephone calls of a freelance journalist while he worked for McClatchy Newspapers in Afghanistan.
New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman said he’d seen “no evidence to support these claims at this point. However, the Defense Force is carrying out extensive record checks to see if there is any evidence that this occurred.”
Coleman issued the statement in response to a report published in the Sunday Star Times of Auckland that said that the New Zealand military asked “U.S. spy agencies” to help them collect the “metadata” of cellular calls made by Jon Stephenson, a New Zealand freelance journalist who was based in Afghanistan.
The data collection occurred in the latter half of last year while Stephenson was under contract in Kabul for McClatchy and was aimed at identifying Stephenson’s contacts, the report said, citing unidentified sources.
The report said the New Zealand military also obtained the metadata of cellular phones used by Stephenson’s “associates,” but did not identify those individuals. The data were used to build a “tree” of Stephenson’s contacts.
“The Defense Forces assured me that this is not something that they would regard as a legitimate practice,” Coleman said in his statement. “I would be most concerned if this had occurred.”
Maj. Gen. Tim Keating, the acting chief of New Zealand’s military, said in a statement that no military personnel had undertaken “unlawful interception of private communications.”
“I have asked the officers responsible for our operations in Afghanistan whether they have conducted monitoring of Mr Stephenson . . . and they have assured me that they have not.”
The statement, however, did not address whether metadata, which includes the location from where a call is made, the number and location of the person who is being called and the duration of the call, was collected for Stephenson’s phones. Such data are generally considered business records of a cell phone provider and are obtained without intercepting or real-time monitoring of calls. In the United States, for example, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has ordered Verizon to deliver such records of all its customers to the National Security Agency on a daily basis.
While under contract to McClatchy, Stephenson used McClatchy cell phones and was in frequent contact with McClatchy editors and other reporters and correspondents.
McClatchy’s vice president for news, Anders Gyllenhaal, called the report “worrisome” but said the company, the third largest newspaper publisher in the United States, had little information beyond the Sunday Star-Times report. “Allegations that any government may have been spying on journalists are very serious and worrisome, but we need to know more about what happened before drawing any conclusions,’’ he said.
The Sunday Star Times report did not identify the U.S. intelligence agencies that allegedly helped New Zealand military officers serving with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force to collect Stephenson’s cellular metadata.
The report comes amid an uproar in the United States over revelations by a former NSA contractor that the agency has been collecting the metadata of tens of millions of Americans under the court order.
The Obama administration says the collection is legal under the Patriot Act, and that it is needed to identify suspected terrorists.
While the administration insists that it doesn’t monitor the content of the calls, critics say that metadata can be more valuable because it can be used to build a profile of a person, their habits and their contacts.
The Sunday Star Times report said that the New Zealand military wanted to trace Stephenson’s contacts because it was unhappy with his reporting on the handling of Afghan prisoners by New Zealand special forces in 2002.
A story Stephenson wrote in August 2009 for a New Zealand newspaper quoted legal experts as saying that New Zealand special forces had committed war crimes by failing to record the identifies of Afghan “ghost” prisoners who were tortured after they were turned over to U.S. troops.
The Sunday Star Times said that an officer of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, a civilian intelligence agency, was based in Kabul and “was known to be involved in the Stephenson investigations.”
New Zealand’s equivalent of the NSA, the Government Security Communications Bureau, also had staff at a U.S. intelligence center at Bagram, the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan, that “likely” collected Stephenson’s cellular metadata, it said.
“There were New Zealand military people who were carrying around copies of Jon’s metadata,” the report’s author, Nicky Hager, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy. “There was no doubt about it existing.”
In his report, Hager quoted Stephenson as saying that there is "a world of difference between investigating a genuine security threat and monitoring a journalist because his reporting is inconvenient or embarrassing to politicians and defense officials.”