- NSA leaker Edward Snowden accused NZ PM John Key of misleading public over spying
- He was speaking at an event organized by Kim Dotcom billed as the election's "moment of truth"
- Dotcom is battling extradition on U.S. copyright charges and has formed a political party
- Dotcom was the subject of unlawful surveillance by a NZ intelligence agency
NSA leaker Edward Snowden accused New Zealand Prime Minister John Key of misleading the public over the country's spying activities, as the nation's explosive election campaign reached a crescendo Monday.
The claims were made at a packed public meeting in Auckland's Town Hall, organized by the German tech entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, that was billed as a "Moment of Truth" for the election campaign. Dotcom had hyped the event as a "game-changer" that could alter the course of this Saturday's general election.
Appearing onstage alongside Dotcom were journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the NSA leaks story, lawyer Robert Amsterdam, and Laila Harre, the leader of the political party founded by Dotcom. Snowden, who is evading U.S. authorities in Moscow, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is confined to Ecuador's embassy in London, spoke via video-link.
Drawing on information contained in Snowden's NSA leaks and elaborating on articles they had published earlier in the day, Snowden and Greenwald said New Zealand was involved in mass electronic surveillance activities as part of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The pair said their information showed that New Zealanders were subject to mass electronic surveillance via the "XKeyscore" software tool that New Zealand intelligence agency the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) shared with the NSA.
They claimed this directly contradicted Key's assertion that "there is not, and never has been, mass surveillance of New Zealanders undertaken by the GCSB."
Rather, Snowden wrote: "If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched."
He also claimed during his remarks that the NSA operated two facilities in New Zealand.
Key said in a statement he would not address the XKeyscore matter, saying "we don't discuss the specific programs the GCSB may, or may not use.
"But the GCSB does not collect mass metadata on New Zealanders, therefore it is clearly not contributing such data to anything or anyone."
Key has previously told reporters that he and the head of GCSB would resign if the spy agency were found to have conducted mass surveillance.
Greenwald said Key had also misled the New Zealand public when the government was seeking to pass controversial, beefed-up spying laws last year, by giving assurances the new legislation would not allow mass metadata collection on the New Zealand public.
On the contrary, claimed Greenwald, the bill, which narrowly passed into law, was designed to enable just that.
Leaked NSA documents appeared to show that at around the time Key was making his public assurances around the planned legislation, the GCSB was implementing the first phase of a mass surveillance program code-named "Speargun," Greenwald said.
"Speargun," which would have involved tapping into the Southern Cross undersea telecommunications cable to harvest internet data, would have required the expanded laws to operate, and would have constituted "the greatest expansion of GCSB spying activities in decades," he wrote.
The claims prompted the government to acknowledge the existence of plans for the "cable access surveillance program" for the first time.
In a statement, Key said the government had begun work on presenting a business case for the project, described as a "cyber security protection initiative." But the project was ultimately shelved, he said.
"The business case for the highest form of protection was never completed or presented to cabinet and never approved. Put simply, it never happened," he said.
Anthony Briscoe, chief executive of Southern Cross Cables, released a statement saying there was "no facility by the NSA, the GCSB or anyone else on the Southern Cross cable network."
War of words
The conflicting claims over the government's spying activities have sparked a harsh war of words between Key and Greenwald, with the prime minister labeling the latter a "clown" and "Dotcom's little henchman" in remarks to reporters.
"If this loser's going to come to town and try to tell me, five days before an election, staying at the Dotcom mansion... he's doing anything other than Dotcom's bidding? Please don't insult me with that," Key told a radio interviewer.