New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC)

1.0 Introduction

When compared to many Western countries, New Zealand has a modest intelligence community, and its intelligence machinery appears less complex. Its broader intelligence and security community consists of 13 services, departments and agencies, although the following sit at its operational core:

  • New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) remit includes – but is not limited to – domestic security intelligence. It is also the primary instrument in collecting human and foreign intelligence.
  • The Government Communication Security Bureau (GCSB) has a dual role in foreign signals intelligence collection as well as providing expertise.
  • The National Assessments Bureau is New Zealand’s central foreign assessments agency. It assumes responsibility for collecting/ interpreting information on external affairs. NAB’s role is to provide assessments rather than advice. It is part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC).

2.0 History

At the beginning of the twentieth century, New Zealand’s relationship with the UK and its position within the Commonwealth largely influenced its military intelligence capabilities and national security threats [source]. 

Akin to its Five Eyes counterparts, intelligence was leveraged in colonial-era conflicts in New Zealand [source]. New Zealand’s geographic position made it useful for closing the United Kingdom’s intelligence gaps in the South Pacific. Its radio stations also enabled it to intercept enemy transmissions, then subsequently relayed to allies [source].

To this end, New Zealand established a Naval Intelligence Centre in 1914 [source]. In addition to collating intercepted intelligence, the Centre also coordinated and forwarded reports on shipping arriving in and departing New Zealand [source]. Despite its small scale, New Zealand bolstered its intelligence capabilities to contribute to the overall Allied war effort.

2.1 The Early Years

From 1919, an intelligence unit within the New Zealand Police oversaw security intelligence. The force began gathering information on and monitoring potential subversive elements in New Zealand, specifically ‘persons of revolutionary tendencies’ [source]. Police detectives assigned to monitoring subversive elements attended meetings of suspect organisations. They also tracked movements into and out of port facilities. In addition, they recorded applications for passports and obtained and analysed subversive literature [source]. They were accountable for this role until the mid-1950s when an Order-in-Council established the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.

Following WWI, the British Royal Navy established a district office in New Zealand as a part of a larger system of intelligence units across the British Empire. In addition to radio and radar stations either already in existence or in the process of being built to intercept enemy transmissions and identify enemy locations, New Zealand also formed part of the Coastwatchers network. An Allied network composed of primarily of civilians who reported any sightings of ships or planes. New Zealand’s central priority in the overall network of allied intelligence was to protect shipping from enemy attack. It did so by detecting and identifying the positions of Japanese and German submarines and ships [source]. 

2.2 Allied Collaboration

Further, the Army had its own signals intelligence operations trained at Japanese operations in the Pacific [source]. The Special Section of Army Signals intercepted Japanese Morse code transmissions. Operators then forwarded them onto American intelligence authorities for decoding and translation [source]. The Army also had two intercept units operating in the Pacific during NZ’s involvement in the Pacific War.

At the advent of World War II, New Zealand’s military insisted on having security intelligence capabilities/resources under military jurisdiction. The Chiefs of Staff attached little value to Police progress in developing domestic security intelligence capabilities [source]. In 1940, Charles Mawhood, a British Army and MI5 officer, recommended that New Zealand establish a separate security service in 1940 [source].

Under the jurisdiction of New Zealand’s military, it established the SIB [source]. Tasked with conducting security intelligence operations, the semi-independent SIB assumed most of the security intelligence functions. To coordinate intelligence activities, it further established the Combined Operational Intelligence Centre (COIC) in October 1941 [source]. It funneled intelligence through the centre to produce an overall understanding and forward information onto allies.

2.3 The Phantom Eye: Beginnings of the Five Eyes Alliance?

However, under American leadership, Australia conducted most of the intelligence analysis of New Zealand’s products. Although New Zealand generated comparatively little information, as part of the Commonwealth, and eventually the Five Eyes alliance, it was able to leverage information and resources well beyond its means.

However, after WWII, intelligence activities were rapidly de-mobilised:

  • De-mobilisation of coastal defences
  • Forced closure of the Wellington Intelligence Centre
  • Closure of New Zealand’s seven SIGINT stations and/or stewardship returned to the Post and Telegraph Department


Yet, threats posed by Cold War hostilities necessitated new intelligence structures. Rather than establish its own SIGINT agency or Joint Intelligence Bureau, New Zealand opted into Australian structures [source]. In 1949, New Zealand established its own JIB. It assumed responsibility for the following:

  • Collating, evaluating, and distributing intelligence relating to the topography;
  • Communications; ports and harbours, landing beaches; aviation facilities;
  • The defence, economic, industrial, and manpower resources; and social and constitutional organisation of countries within its area of responsibility.


New Zealand did not establish its own formal intelligence SIGINT organisation until 1955. However, the military continued to collect raw SIGINT and forwarded it to Australia for analysis [source].

2.4 Genesis of the NZSIS

In 1948, MI5 asked New Zealand to establish a cognate agency. In light of New Zealand’s small size, instead of copying MI5, the Government established the ‘Special Branch’ within the Police Force. The Branch was responsible for collecting intelligence on and addressing threats of subversion, assassinations, terrorism, revolution, sabotage, and espionage to protect New Zealand [source].

However, inadequate human and financial resources hampered its operational effectiveness. Grievances also included government misdirection, inappropriate training, limited and reactive approach to intelligence collection, and police regulations and administration [source]. 

Issues with the Branch, and the revelation that Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet spy exposed in Australia, thought that the Soviets had an unnamed contact in the Office of the Prime Minister in New Zealand, created a context conducive to the advent of a new intelligence service.

In 1956, an Order-in-Council established the New Zealand Security Service. In 1969, the public first acknowledged the Security Service. It was given a statutory basis and renamed the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. (New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969)

3.0 Constituent Parts of New Zealand’s Intelligence Community

3.1 New Zealand’s Secret Service (NZSIS)

Fig.1 Official Logo of NZSIS

Currently, the NZSIS remains a non-partisan organisation. Its main functions include collecting and analysing intelligence relevant to the government’s intelligence priorities. It also obtains warrants to undertake unlawful activity where necessary to protect national security, including:

  • Terrorism or violent extremism 
  • Espionage or other foreign intelligence activity
  • Sabotage
  • Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction 
  • Certain serious crime 
  • Threats to the information or information infrastructures of the government
  • Certain threats to international security, operations of the government, and the sovereignty of New Zealand.

It has the highest public profile of New Zealand’s intelligence organisations. Although it is smaller than the Government Communications Security Bureau. The SIS is responsible for domestic intelligence gathering, counter-intelligence operations and foreign human intelligence collection. It also has a ‘hand-in-glove’ relationship with other New Zealand security agencies when required.

3.1.1 Limitations to NZSIS

The NZSIS does not have police or other law or security enforcement powers (New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act, s4(2)). Only the police exercise such powers, once the NZSIS completes its intelligence collection role. The Police Commissioner is primarily accountable for the operational response to threats to national security, including terrorism.

Further, in 1977, amendments to the definition of security extended to international terrorism. Other amendments to the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act in 1999 confirmed additional NZSIS functions:

  • Make recommendations relevant to security relating to immigration and citizenship matters.
  • Conduct inquiries and make appropriate recommendations as to whether individuals should be granted security clearances.
  • Advise on protective measures for security. 

It must be politically neutral. Specifically, the minister in charge cannot direct the NZSIS to institute surveillance within New Zealand. (New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969, s 4AAA (2)). Despite the NZSIS otherwise being subject to the control of the minister.

The NZSIS Director must consult regularly with the Leader of the Opposition. Consultations are “for the purpose of keeping him or her informed about matters relating to security.” (New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Act 1969, s 4AA(3)).

3.2 The Government Communication Security Bureau (GCSB)

Fig.2 Official Logo of GCSB

The Government established the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in 1977. The GCSB and its role in signals intelligence were kept secret until 1984. In 2003, the GCSB received Royal Assent. GCSB is a signal (SIGINT) and technical (TECHINT) intelligence-gathering agency that forms part of the Anglophone Five Eyes Alliance.

The primary focus of the GCSB is foreign intelligence collection. Although in specific circumstances and increasingly as of late, it can undertake domestic SIGINT and TECHINT work in a ‘partner’ role at the behest of the other Zealand government agencies (such as the police or customs). GCSB also provides information assurance and cyber security, collects and analyses intelligence, and provides assistance to other agencies.

3.3 The National Assessments Bureau (NAB)

Fig.4 Official Logo of the DPMC

NAB is the ultimate recipient of intelligence streams from all the NZIC. It prepares assessments for the prime minister within the confines of the DPMC.

NAB’s genesis traces back to 1949, originally known as the Joint Intelligence Organisation of New Zealand’s military. NAB is part of the Security and Intelligence Group within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC). The Bureau conducts independent and impartial intelligence assessments for GCSB and NZSIS. Further, the Director of NAB chairs the National Assessments Committee (NAC), an inter-agency committee. It is responsible for coordinating the overall effort of Government agencies. Especially in terms of meeting national intelligence priorities and ensuring the fulfilment of assessment requirements.

4.0 Secondary Agencies and Directorates of the NZIC

4.1 Defence Agencies of NZIC

Directorate of Defence Intelligence and Security (DDIS)DDIS is responsible for military intelligence, which includes both specific intelligence for use at the operational level and broad assessments of the military capabilities and intentions of other countries.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC)DPMC is the central public service department of New Zealand to support and advise the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet of New Zealand. Within the DPMC, the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination (ODESC) is composed of chief executives and other senior officials that oversee New Zealand’s security and intelligence community on behalf of ministers. The National Assessments Bureau also falls under the DPMC’s portfolio.
The Domestic and External Security Group (DESG)DESG deals with national security threats that affect New Zealand and its interests, both onshore and offshore. The DESG coordinates the activities of central government agencies and includes an intelligence coordinator. Reporting to the Director DESG, the intelligence coordinator is responsible for maintaining the requirements process for foreign intelligence and monitors the performance of the intelligence collection agencies.
Ministry of Defence The Ministry of Defence gives the government advice on defence matters to enhance the security and interests of New Zealand and its people.

4.2 Broader Agencies of NZIC

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and TradeThe Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is responsible for promoting New Zealand’s interests in trade and international relations and advising the government on matters related to foreign and trade policy.
The Ministry of Health The Ministry of Health is responsible for and manages New Zealand’s health and disability system.
The Ministry of ImmigrationThe Ministry of Immigration oversees New Zealand’s immigration regime, and the rules and laws that govern it.
New Zealand Customs ServiceThe New Zealand Customs Service ensures the security of New Zealand by protecting the economy from illegal imports and exports, promoting New Zealand’s international trade, investigating illegal activity, and prosecuting where necessary.
New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF)NZDF is NZ’s unified defence force. NZDF consists of three services: the Royal New Zealand Navy; the New Zealand Army; and the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and is commanded and headed by the Chief of Defence Force (CDF). The NZDF has intelligence capabilities in the Directorate of Defence Intelligence, GEOINT in New Zealand (GNZ), and in the Navy, Army, and Air Force.
New Zealand PoliceThe New Zealand Police is the national police force of New Zealand, responsible for enforcing criminal law, enhancing public safety, and maintaining order.

5.0 The Intelligence Accountability Architecture 

The Controller and Auditor General, Privacy Commissioner, and Ombudsman provide general accountability and audit functions for the Government. The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) was established in 1996. 

Since 2013, it has had an Advisory Panel to assist with reviewing operations. The Panel can provide a report to the Prime Minister. Further, IGIS is independent of the political executive, the statutory Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) (established 1996). It encompasses parliamentarians whose remit excludes operations, and the Commissioners of Security Warrants (established 1999) who review certain operational warrants. ISC, IGIS, and the Commissioners cannot review or oversee intelligence activities outside of NZSIS and GCSB.

5.1 Intelligence Accountability Overview

Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS)IGIS is responsible for ensuring that NZSIS and GCSB conduct their activities lawfully by conducting inquiries into select activities, and independently investigating complaints. IGIS also advises the Government and ISAs on matters related to oversight
IGIS Advisory PanelThe Panel provides advice to IGIS on its own initiative or following a request from IGIS
Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)The primary function of the ISC is to review the policy, administration, and expenditure of each agency. The ISC also considers each annual report of each agency, conducts an annual review for the preceding financial year, and considers any bill, petition, or other matter referred to the ISC by the House of Representatives or Prime Minister. The ISC is not permitted to inquire into any matter within the jurisdiction of IGIS.
Commissioners of Intelligence Warrants (CIWs)CIWs advise the responsible Minister, and in conjunction with the Minister, issue warrants allowing ISAs to conduct activities. The functions of the Commissioners include advising, considering, and issuing with the responsible Minister.


It is also worth mentioning that while the National Security Group (NSG) is not part of the accountability architecture per se, it does however oversee and advise the Prime Minister and Ministers responsible for the NZSIS and GCSB.

6.0 NZIC’s Operations and Intelligence

Counter-terrorist responses to the events of 2001 have been the ever-present backdrop for both the NZSIS and GCSB. Although only two high-profile events involving oversight and accountability issues relating to international terrorism (or indeed to any other relevant issue) have occurred.

One such was the case involving Ahmed Zaoui who entered New Zealand claiming refugee status. However, the advice of the Director of the NZSIS deemed him a security risk. NZ state authorities detained Zaoui for some years while his status was determined. In 2007, the NZSIS determined that he was “no longer at risk”.

The case became a paradigmatic example of intelligence accountability in New Zealand. It equally highlighted the clandestine role of NZSIS; its links with international security agencies; and the proper role of accountability bodies.

6.1 The Zaoui Case

Ahmed Zaoui, an Algerian involved in Islamist politics through the 1990s, had been convicted in and/or deported from several European countries on account of his political affiliations, his associates, and his activities/ public statements (all deemed to be either actively or potentially of a terrorist nature) and for using false passports.

In 2002, Zaoui arrived in New Zealand from Malaysia using a false South African passport. While detained, he claimed status as a refugee. Following a series of interviews by, amongst others, the NZSIS, the Director of Security issued a security risk certificate against Zaoui, using the authority of the Immigration Act 1987.

This action led to his subsequent detention. The security certificate, undergirded by the logic that New Zealand had to ensure it was “neither the victim nor the source of actors of terrorism” and “[had to] to prevent New Zealand from being or becoming a safe haven for people who have undertaken or may be intending to undertake such activities” [source].

New Zealand had to be seen to be taking action against such people to safeguard its international reputation. In August 2003, however, under New Zealand’s immigration laws, the (independent) Refugee Status Appeals Authority granted him refugee status.

6.1.1 Issues with Intelligence Accountability

In November 2003, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security reviewed the decision to issue a security risk certificate. Accusations of bias were immediately laid against the then-Inspector-General due to comments he made speaking generally rather than specifically about the case, to a journalist [source]. As a result, the High Court upheld a finding of bias in 2004, and the Inspector-General resigned.

Over the next three years, there were several attempts to prevent deportation on the grounds that:

  • The security assessment was not valid
  • The ‘evidence’ used to deal with Zaoui was not safe
  • Zaoui’s human rights jeopardised
  • There was no risk to New Zealand’s security by allowing Zaoui to remain in the country

In 2006, hearings into the review of the security risk certificate were postponed, held later in July-Augst of 2007.

In September 2007, the Director of NZSIS lifted the security risk certificate. He did so on the grounds that Zaoui was no longer a security risk [source]. This decision was founded on new information about Zaoui’s past, his cooperation with the NZSIS, and altered international circumstances in the period since he had first been detained [source].

Newspaper excerpt from 2005 detailing the NZSIS' judicial targeting of Ahmed Zaoui.
Fig.5 Dominion Post, 8th July 2005: A newspaper excerpt detailing the NZSIS’ judicial targeting of Ahmed Zaoui [source].

6.1.2 NZIC’s Lessons from the Zaoui case

At the centre of the Zaoui incident were the competing claims of refugee status, human rights, and national security. Rather crucially, also the issue of the degree to which secret evidence (that was not able to be disclosed even to Zaoui and his lawyers) should be used in New Zealand. The subject of excessive secrecy remained even after the security risk certificate had been revoked:

“There is other, very SIGNIFICANT, classified information that I cannot disclose. It formed a key part of my assessment of Mr Zaoui as a security risk. Unfortunately nothing more can be said publicly about this information because to do so would compromise this CLASSIFIED material. Such disclosure may also cause Mr Zaoui to fear for his safety.”

– NZSIS, 2007 [source].

Whether this case would have been pursued by the government if the events of 2001 had not occurred is debatable. This case demonstrates the significant power held by the Director of Security. Especially relating to matters of state security and the potentially far-reaching powers in the use of the security risk certificate.

It exemplified the need to make immigration laws and security requirements work in harmony to ensure cases are dealt with expeditiously and fairly, taking into account the needs and rights not only of the individual directly concerned but also of New Zealand society more generally.

6.2 The Christchurch Mosque Shootings

On 15 March 2019, Brenton Harrison Tarrant committed two mass shootings at Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre. In the wake of the attacks, the New Zealand Government launched a Royal Commission into its security intelligence agencies. Upon its publication in 2020, the Commission revealed that New Zealand’s intelligence agencies had focused too heavily on Islamic extremism. It came at the expense of other domestic threats, namely the rise of white supremacy and alt-right ideologies [source], [source].

7.0 Future of NZIC

Despite New Zealand’s geographic remoteness, there are periodic suggestions that NZIC agencies are too deferential to the large Western intelligence agencies, especially the US and the UK [source]. For instance, in discussing the NZSIS and GCSB, Hager described the relationship with the US, Britain, Canada, and Australia as being highly asymmetrical. On this score, New Zealand provides the Five Eyes Alliance far more than it can possibly receive in return while having no control or a limited ability to regulate the way that those countries might use its own facilities. Viewed thus, it is conceivable that NZIC will continue to serve a subordinate, albeit important role within the Five Eyes alliance.

8.0 Conclusion

NZIC, and the system that holds it accountable, are the smallest and most centralised in the Five Eyes community. NZIC has evolved from a minor unit within a vast Commonwealth intelligence network to an integral component in containing threats to New Zealand’s national security and interests. Part of the Community’s evolution has been greater transparency via the Independent Review of Intelligence and Security Report (2016) and the Intelligence and Security Act (2017). However, the Act did not expand the scope of NZIC’s accountability to review agencies beyond the NZSIS, GCSB, and NAB. As for the future of NZIC, an upheaval of its accountability architecture will be necessary to ensure its continued efficiency.

Table of Contents

Related Content

CIA Special Activities Center: The Third Option

TYPE:_ Article

AI and Espionage: Espionage in a Developing Age

TYPE:_ Article
Tags:_ AI

Operation Ghost Stories: a Russian Spy Ring in the United States

TYPE:_ Article
Location:_ North America

Josephine Baker: Actress Turned Spy

TYPE:_ Article
Location:_ Europe

An Overview of the Polish Intelligence Community

TYPE:_ Article
Location:_ Europe

Takeo Yoshikawa: The Spy Behind Pearl Harbor

TYPE:_ Article

Stay in the loop

Get a free weekly email that makes reading intel articles and reports actually enjoyable.

Log in

Stay in the loop

Get a free weekly email that makes reading Intelligence Reports and Articles actually enjoyable.

Table of Contents



"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.