21 Aug 2014

PM holidaying in Hawaii when office briefed

8:40 pm on 21 August 2014

Prime Minister John Key was holidaying in Hawaii when his office was briefed by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) on the release of information to a right-wing blogger, he says.

Mr Key said this gave further weight to his insistence he was not personally informed before the Official Information Act (OIA) release was sent out.

Watch John Key talking on the SIS issue in Christchurch

Mr Key has come under renewed questioning today about whether he knew about the release of information to Cameron Slater in 2011 which related to the-then Leader of the Opposition, Phil Goff.

Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics alleges the SIS fast-tracked the release of information to Mr Slater so he could attack Mr Goff. It released documents about the 2011 meeting between Mr Tucker and Mr Goff a day after the blogger requested them.

The emergence of a 2011 letter from the then SIS Director Warren Tucker raised fresh questions about whether Mr Key was directly told about the release.

But today he said he was on holiday in Hawaii when his office was briefed by Dr Tucker, and he was not directly informed.

"I got back into the country on the 31st of July. I think these discussions were all taking place around about the 25th, 26th, 27th.

"So from time to time I have discussions with Mr Tucker about OIAs but prior to the release of this one, I didn't have any discussions at all.

"All I can tell you is I was having myself a whale of a time on holiday in Hawaii but nothing to do with Whaleoil."

A protester during Prime Minister John Key's visit to the Christchurch Yacht Club.

A protester during Prime Minister John Key's visit to the Christchurch Yacht Club. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Mr Key said there were several people in his office who dealt with such matters. However, he would not say who was briefed by the SIS - except to say it was not Chief of Staff Wayne Eagleson.

The letter which emerged today, written to a Newstalk ZB reporter, refers to Mr Key being briefed about the release and the relevant legal advice.

The letter from Dr Tucker to a Newstalk ZB reporter in 2011.

The letter from Dr Tucker to a Newstalk ZB reporter in 2011. Photo: NEWSTALK ZB

But Mr Key repeated he was not personally informed, adding Dr Tucker's letter was a reference to his office, not him directly.

"'The Prime Minister' means the Prime Minister's office," he said. "The assumption made by the service was if they inform my office they take it that I'm informed."

He had no concerns that his office did not pass on the information. "My office could try and take me through every single OIA request, but I'd spend a lot of time dealing with that and not a lot of time running the country."

Mr Key's insistence he was not personally briefed was backed by a short statement from Dr Tucker, which said the practice under the "no surprises" convention relating to OIA requests was to brief the Prime Minister through his office. Dr Tucker said the reference to the Prime Minister in this context means the Prime Minister's office.

Labour Leader David Cunliffe.

Labour Leader David Cunliffe. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe, speaking to reporters in Dunedin, said it defied belief to imagine Mr Key was not briefed. "Certainly the director was confident enough to say that he was notified, advised and informed."

Mr Cunliffe also called for Mr Key to name the staff member briefed.

"Yes, he should, and he should also say why, if he was not briefed, he wasn't, because that would be a dereliction of his duty as the minister responsible."

The Inspector General of Security and Intelligence, Cheryl Gwyn, is inquiring into allegations that the SIS documents were declassified in order to be used politically.

Cheryl Gwyn's investigation was prompted by claims from the Green Party that the SIS declassified the information with the express purpose of its being used in an orchestrated political attack.

Metiria Turei.

Metiria Turei. Photo: RNZ

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said questions over Mr Key's role in the release of information to Mr Slater were a distraction; the real issue was what role the prime minister's office played in alerting Mr Slater to that information in the first place.

"The core issue is whether anyone in John Key's office was providing information to Mr Slater about an SIS OIA before the information was declassified," she said.

Meanwhile, more emails which form the basis of Dirty Politics have emerged and show messages between Mr Slater and political strategist Simon Lusk, mainly about National Party MPs and potential party candidates.

During an exchange in 2011, they discuss the possibility of current North Shore MP Maggie Barry being a candidate to challenge Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully in East Coast Bays.

They also talk about the strategy to get Mark Mitchell chosen as the candidate for Rodney, by talking up his past career as a police dog handler and a contractor in Iraq.

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