Waihopi documentary digs into the world of spies, eyes and peace

July 22, 2016

Philip Matthews
Stuff, NZ


The trailer for documentary The 5th Eye, which is now on limited release

They walked through a vineyard and cut fences in the dead of night, approached the enormous white domes of the spy base and said, "In the name of Jesus Christ, we disarm you". Then they plunged sickles into a dome, which deflated like a balloon, and they cried next to a shrine they set up.

The three men were a teacher, a farmer and a Catholic priest. The teacher, Adrian Leason​, said, "Catholic spirituality was the glue that brought us together." 

Leason, Father Peter Murnane​ and farmer Samuel Land were charged for the 2008 attack on the Waihopai spy base near Blenheim that New Zealand's prime minister at the time, Helen Clark, called "a senseless act of criminal vandalism". But was it senseless? As Leason says, the three men drew on a tradition of Christian pacifism and direct action. Scruffy, bearded and sometimes barefoot, they looked like Russian mystics. 

Three peaceful Catholic activists breached security and deflated a dome at the Waihopai spy base in 2008.
A new documentary explains how and why they did it.

Leason is the central figure in a new documentary that spreads outwards from that incident at Waihopai to encompass the vast subject of global surveillance and New Zealand's role in the Five Eyes alliance. Viewers of The 5th Eye may experience unsettling flashbacks from 2014 as these figures appear before you: Edward Snowden, Kim Dotcom, Nicky Hager and Glenn Greenwald​. They were strange days indeed.

"The goal is to package up a whole lot of information about the issue and give it to people as something digestible," says co-director Errol Wright. "It puts events in order and in context."

Father Peter Murnane, left, Adrian Leason and Samuel Land are released on bail at the Blenheim District Court in 2008.
A jury later found the Waihopai Three not guilty.

There is so much to digest and comprehend that co-director Abi King-Jones spent two years in editing to have it ready for the premiere in Wellington during the New Zealand International Film Festival on July 23. Screenings in Auckland and Christchurch will follow. 

As in Wright and King-Jones' acclaimed documentary about the Urewera raids, Operation 8, at the heart of this story there is a dilemma. What do you do when the state is acting unlawfully? But it has a greater dimension in The 5th Eye because the three activists who attacked Waihopai answered to a different kind of law. 

It was a local manifestation of an international movement known as "Swords into Ploughshares". Catholic radicals took their cue from a line in the Bible about destroying weapons and broke into military bases to expose or sabotage the machinery of war. In a famous case in 2012, three people including an 82-year-old nun broke into a uranium storage site in Tennessee. As US journalist Eric Schlosser​ reported, that story revealed the alarming weakness of military security.

A video image of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden is applauded at the "moment of truth" event
at the Auckland Town Hall in 2014.

The Waihopai story had the same effect. "Security is a facade in most cases," Wright says. 

While the Catholic perspective was new to him and King-Jones, Wright appreciated "the beauty of their peaceful anti-war action against the base". He thought the attack was "appropriate" and justified. So did the jury. 

Was anyone not surprised when the Waihopai Three were found not guilty? Former activist and lawyer Moana Cole, who was jailed in the US for a 1991 attack on a B52 bomber, says in the documentary that the case "was seen as such a sure loser" it was known colloquially as "the no-hopai case". 

Documentary directors Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright followed the Waihopai story as it turned into something much bigger and stranger.

But as defence lawyer Michael Knowles put it, "Every once in a while, along comes a case where law, morality and indeed humanity come together to make something lawful which would otherwise be unlawful".

The "claim of right" defence argued that an unlawful act can be justified by an urge to prevent greater suffering. It is closely related to the "necessity defence" used in the Tennessee case. There is a theological underpinning as well. Christian thinker Dietrich Bonhoeffer​ said that "silence in the face of evil is itself evil"  using the unexpectedly topical example of "a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders", Bonhoeffer claimed that the Christian thing would be grab the wheel from the driver rather than wait around to comfort the injured.

Leason talked in similar terms to Bonhoeffer. The Iraq war was like a train coming down the tracks. How could he stop it? 

"Every day in Iraq, 214 people die," Leason said in court. "Maybe a little piece of the intelligence that is going to come from this base today will cause someone to die." 

When Leason made that comment in 2010, it might have seemed fanciful to some. Four years later, after the full revelations about the part Waihopai plays in the Five Eyes network and the levels of information sharing, it seemed much more plausible. That journey through the murk of complex public arguments to a fuller understanding is the course the documentary charts.

Six years after the attack on the spy base, the story climaxed with internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom's promise of "a moment of truth" at the Auckland Town Hall. Did that help? The public wanted clarity and it got a circus.

"It turned into a carnival," Wright agrees. "A lot of people didn't know what was what." 

There were so many agendas at work. It was less than a week before an election. There was a sense that Dotcom was trying to settle personal scores with Prime Minister John Key using his political plaything, the Internet Party. It seemed a long way from the pure motives of the Waihopai Three.

Somewhere within the white noise, three of the world's leading intelligence experts had important things to say. 

"We're happy that we can go back to that event and remember what was important about it and focus on that," King-Jones says. "The content of what Snowden and Greenwald  and Julian Assange​, but we don't include him in the film  said was so important but the other stuff going on around it took away from that." 

There were so many odd moments. Remember when former Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman goofily presented an All Black jersey to former US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon and told the assembled press that "there would be nothing that anyone could hear in our private conversations that we wouldn't be prepared to share publicly"? 

Wright calls the moment "supremely embarrassing for New Zealanders". Does it show that we have all been a bit naive? 

"I don't think New Zealanders are naive," King-Jones says. "These agencies and this global network have been able to operate in secrecy for so long. When New Zealanders know what's going on, they get out on the streets and make their voices heard." 

Political documentaries can be a struggle to make and the film-makers depended on crowdfunding and a journalism grant from the Bruce Jesson Foundation as well as small amounts of money from the NZ Film Commission. But screening opportunities remain accessible, thanks to the film festival and Maori Television, which showed Operation 8 and will also show The 5th Eye.

King-Jones has also worked with political documentary maker Alister Barry on the films Hollow Men and Hot Air and Barry contributed his archival expertise to The 5th Eye. There is a lot of footage in it, sometimes from unlikely places.

"The Pentagon and the White House are very helpful, obliging and polite," King-Jones says. "They don't charge anything and they give you what you want."

As festival screenings move around the country, locals involved in the story will join the film makers. Expect Adrian Leason and his family at the Wellington premiere and Michael Knowles and veteran anti-bases campaigner Murray Horton when the film reaches Christchurch. But some people may have been left on the cutting room floor, as there has just been too much going on in the intelligence world, as King-Jones says.

"You could make a series."

Copies of "The 5th Eye" can be purchased from https://vimeo.com/ondemand/the5theye

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