The Monday Excerpt: The day Catholic activists disabled the Waihopai spy station

Adi Leason tells the full, unlikely story of the Catholic activists who invaded the government’s surveillance station at Waihopi, and deflated its famous dome.

It was after 5pm when Manu and I finally arrived in Picton. Sam and Father Peter were waiting for us in a rental car. We joked around about a last supper and I suggested the local Irish pub, which served up a mean cottage pie; eventually we agreed on fish and chips. Nerves were starting to get a little on edge by now. Catching sight of our reflection as we passed a Four Square shop window, even I was starting to feel that we looked a little suspicious.

While we were waiting for our feed, a guy walked up to the counter to order. I noticed that he was dressed tidily, like a detective, and was wearing some kind of earpiece; I pointed it out to the others and we decided to wait across the street. Collecting our order, we wandered down to the waterfront and found a table. Next minute, this same guy strolled past at a safe distance. We all sat there wondering the same thing.

Sam turned to Peter and said, “Shall we tell them now?”

He replied, “You might as well.”

“Tell us what?” I asked.

Sam pulled out a small newspaper cutting that he had found in the local community rag. It was a letter to the editor, enquiring about a convoy of large black SUVs with tinted windows spotted driving around the country roads of Renwick. The writer asked for an explanation, as these vehicles looked strangely out of place. We were all silent.

Just then, three Iroquois helicopters came over the hills. They flew directly over us, and then turned west in the direction of the Woodbourne Airforce Base, not far from Waihopai. We again sat in nervous silence. Peter and Sam looked anxious, and Manu had a strange smile on his face. One by one, we started talking; next we were all talking at once. What does this mean? Where were the helicopters going? Who uses large black SUVs? What about that guy at the takeaways? Were they on to us? Had there been a leak? Had one of us been bugged?

Then someone said what we had all been thinking: “Should we call it off? Cancel, go home, and forget the whole thing? If they are on to us, surely that would be the smart thing to do?”

“Quiet up everyone,” I said. “I think I’ve got it.”

We huddled a little closer, and I said: “Either the authorities know. . . or they don’t know.” It was meant as a joke, but no one was in the mood for laughing.

It was almost dark. We fed the seagulls the remains of our cold chips and headed back to the rental car, squeezing four big fellas in a Nissan Micra. The conversation turned back to reflection on our story thus far. We were so focused on what was about to happen that we had lost touch with all that had happened to bring us to this carpark in Picton on a late-autumn Tuesday night. We became aware that we had all become very close to one another — emotionally, spiritually, ideologically and, in this small car, even physically.

*

In the winter of 1993 I visited the Suzanne Aubert Catholic Worker house in Addington, Christchurch. Trapped in this damp dwelling during the mother of all snow storms, I became acquainted with the veteran Aussie Catholic activist, Ciaron O’Reilly — held up for five days with nothing but our breath and a mountain of donated blankets to keep us warm. So began my Catholic radicalisation.

Ciaron taught me about the Catholic Worker Movement’s beginnings: the teaming up of journalist Dorothy Day and itinerant philosopher and day labourer Peter Maurin; the May 1933 launch of the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York. The idea of the movement was to promote the biblical promise of justice and mercy. The Catholic Worker Movement was grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person; it emphasised voluntary poverty and the Works of Mercy as a way of life. Dorothy Day spoke of “sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence”.

A few days into the blizzard, Father Jim Consedine came around to say Mass. Various homeless men arrived — guests at Joseph Cardijn House, another Catholic Worker home across town. A candle was lit, symbolising the fragile light of Christ in the world. After Mass, Jim continued my education by describing how the Catholic Workers opened their first “house of hospitality” in Brooklyn, New York, where the homeless, the hungry and the forsaken would always be welcome.

As the cold snap continued, Ciaron added to my elementary understanding of the traditions of the Ploughshares Movement, in which small communities practice direct, non-violent disarmament of one of the many mighty weapons that terrorise our age. Ploughshares communities take their name, and gain permission, from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a time when “They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, no longer will they learn how to make war.” They seek to enact the prophet’s vision of a future of peace. Ciaron had only just been released from a year in a US prison for his role in the 1991 disarmament of a loaded B-52 bomber on the runway at Griffiss Air Force Base, while it was on standby for deployment over Iraq. He spoke about his involvement in the unlawful destruction of government property — property designed for destroying sacred human life — and the profound effect it had on him.

Despite the cold, my heart was strangely warmed by the stories of dozens of Ploughshares actions around the world. Each action had employed similar liturgical elements: community-building and prayer, organisation and research, symbolism and theatrics, disarmament and destruction. Most Ploughshares actions involve an attempt to convert a weapon into a gardening tool. Most also expose the myths of omnipotence and legitimacy surrounding great weapons of warfare. The activists usually stay at the scene of their action, to continue witnessing against the real criminals — the weapon barons, the politicians and military leadership. Ploughshares actions involve a witness for peace in the media, in courtrooms and often ultimately in prison. Most involve crazy acts of courage that risk the activists’ own personal safety.

The pathway to each Ploughshares action is unique. For my wife Shelley and I, 9/11 was a major turning point. In 2001, we were living with our three young kids in a slum house in Central Thailand. The Twin Towers had barely hit the ground before the drums of war began beating; the call for payback was instantaneous. As we sat in our house, we pondered the build-up to the imminent aerial bombardment of Kabul.

Contrary to some well-intentioned advice, our family made some banners and travelled down to Bangkok. We set up a picket line in front of the United States embassy, having told the authorities and media of our plan to demonstrate for peace. Eighteen heavily armed US marines blocked off the front gate. The kids had made their own signs saying “Jesus loves the little children” and “Who would Jesus bomb?” A blindingly hot and humid Bangkok afternoon was interrupted by torrential monsoon rain. We held our ground as the ink in our signs began to run. Finally, sopping wet and tired, we said our goodbyes to the marines and headed home.

The following morning some Thai friends came over with the Thai Ruth—a national newspaper with a daily circulation of over one million. On the front page was our small peace demonstration, daring to suggest that “thou shalt not kill” and “God is love”.

*

Seven years later, in Otaki, 2008, I found myself facing the biggest ethical dilemma of my life. Having just returned from a Catholic Worker hui in Jerusalem, up the Whanganui River, my mind was reeling with details of the brutal realities of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I could not plead ignorance regarding the illegal invasion of Iraq. But what to do now? It wasn’t more education that I needed, but avenues for action and engagement.

Then one day it hit me. I was in the garden and an image from the Dominion-Post returned to my mind—a picture I had seen several years earlier. I had cut it out of the newspaper and literally cried over it. It was a photo, taken in Iraq, of a man holding his beautiful granddaughter in his arms. The child was covered in dirt and blood, with a torn skirt and loose skin. A US cruise missile had destroyed her apartment block, killing most of her family and leaving her legs ripped off at the knees. With her eyes closed, she looked strangely peaceful in her grandfather’s arms. What gripped me was the face of the old man. That could be my face; that pain, that despairing, heartbroken cry. “I can relate to that; I could cry like that if you were my precious child”, I thought. “This cannot happen, this must not happen again, not on my watch. This man is my brother and his dear one is most sacred to me.”

Direct action was needed if kids just like mine were to remain safe.

Three of us had remained in regular contact since our Catholic Worker hui: Sam Land, a 24-year-old subsistence farmer from the Hokianga, Peter Murnane, a Dominican priest in his late 60s, and me. We resolved to carry out a Ploughshares action that we hoped would prevent the death of innocent civilians in Iraq. But at what cost? Shelley and I considered the implications. As we talked, we realised a worst-case scenario would mean losing my current teaching job, and even worse my teacher registration. This would leave us hard-pressed to maintain our mortgage payments; we could potentially lose our farm. We also had to consider the possibility of my going to prison. What would that mean to our family, for the kids and for our relationship? How would this affect our relationships with the community? If this worst-case scenario developed, would the benefits of our action be worth it?

Shelley finished making the sourdough for the following morning’s bread. We banked up the fire and put down the dampers. Our four littlest ones were all asleep, peacefully in their little, cosy, safe room, all squeezed in together. Shelley and I stood there holding hands, looking at our little darlings. At that moment the cost was counted. The decision was made. We knew what had to be done; it was personal now.

Sam, Peter and I decided that our action would take place at Waihopai, a surveillance facility run by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). Waihopai was part of the Five Eyes global intelligence network. Information gathered from this communications base was utilised as part of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and directly implicated New Zealand in those campaigns. If we could shut down Waihopai, even for a day, how many lives could be saved?

*

In the early evening of April 29, 2008, we arrived at the storage yard where Cotton Jenny, our Hiab truck, was parked. The yard manager opened up, we paid our account, and I drove Cotton Jenny out to the others waiting nearby. We drove off in convoy and parked the truck, with its purpose-built crane, at an old quarry for picking up again early the next morning. We then headed back towards Blenheim, where we stayed the night in a motor camp. Peter had already prepaid the cabin as it was unlikely we would be back again anytime soon. We had about four hours to fill, and so we went over our plans.

The alarm went at 2am and I awoke suddenly out of a deep and peaceful sleep. It was time. Grabbing our few belongings, we headed out in the rental car back to the quarry and Cotton Jenny. Manu took a few pictures on his phone as we unloaded our gear and repacked. A light drizzle had settled in and the temperature had dropped. A growing anxiety about the weather, and how the truck would fare in the paddock next to the electrified fences, led to a late change in the plan. Sam and Peter went first to check the paddock. Before they drove off, Peter gave me a spare cell phone and said, “We’ll call you when we’re sure everything is OK.”

After a long wait of almost two hours I was getting worried and so I eventually called Peter to find out what was going on. “What’s happening up there?” I said.

“Where are you?” said Peter.

“I’m still here, at the quarry,” I replied.

“Didn’t you get my text? I sent it nearly an hour ago?” said Peter.

I said, “What’s a text?”

Peter said, “I can’t explain all that now, just come, just come now.”

The Hino Fuso 840 truck was never designed for fast cornering. Driving through the Renwick night-time countryside in light rain, I was aware of my need to remain calm and drive to the conditions. I was likely to be in enough trouble without getting a ticket on the way to the spy base. Sam and Peter were waiting about one mile from the main road entrance to the base. Manu had driven the rental car to a nearby ridge where he could see the base and the domes; when the dome came down he would launch our web page publicising the action. Peter climbed in the cab with me, while Sam untied the 10-speed bicycle we had brought with us. Before Sam headed off into the dark, we reconfirmed our plans for where to meet up: “Meet ya there in 15 minutes, all going well.”

Sam’s task was to place a chain and padlock on the entrance to the base. We knew we might be hard pressed for time once we set off the security alarms; delaying the police at the front gate would buy us just a little bit more. Meanwhile, Peter and I drove Cotton Jenny along a dirt road in a vineyard. We had checked this route out before and knew the track led to the base perimeter in the northwest corner. The track was comfortably wide, but was becoming muddy as the rain settled in. We could clearly see the huge illuminated domes away off to the left, both white, each with a small flashing red light on top. My heart raced as we finally approached our destination. It was then that something unexpected happened. As I took a corner on that muddy track I could feel the truck begin to slide; I braked and turned as we skidded, but it was too late. The truck slipped off the track and landed in a ditch, almost tipping over onto its side.

Peter remained calm, almost prayerful, as we climbed out of the cab and assessed the situation. I was somewhat less composed. After some consideration, I moved into problem-solving mode and found various lengths of timber to block under the rear tyres, to try and get some traction. After half an hour of struggling in the mud I was tired, wet and anxious for some success; and there was still no sign of Sam. Then it occurred to me what we had to do: use the crane on the back of the Hiab to pull the truck out of the ditch. However, try as I might, there was no way the truck was going anywhere. Peter and I just stood there, staring at the truck, with its crane and all our gear getting wet. Just then Sam showed up, with blood on his head, looking a little dishevelled.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“What happened to you, don’t you mean?” Sam replied.

“I asked you first,” I said.

After a while we told Sam our story, and he told his. Sam had hit a fence while riding back over the paddocks after locking up the front gates — the bike got tangled in the wire and he went through the air and landed awkwardly.

Sam checked out the truck.

“Not good,” he said.

We walked around and looked at the situation from various angles.

“Not good,” he said again.

We stood still for a while by the truck as the drizzle got heavier. Eight months of prayer and planning — all our hard work getting the truck and doing repairs, all our weeks of training and community building — lying there in ruins. We stood for what seemed like ages, looking on at Cotton Jenny in the ditch.

This was decision time: would we, or wouldn’t we, carry on?

*

We unloaded the banners, the bolt cutters and our friend Graham’s dented trumpet. Peter gathered what he needed for the shrine he was planning to build at the base, and we started walking. We stuck to the track, as planned. After a few minutes the track took a bend and suddenly there in the middle of the roadway was a small encampment. We froze in our tracks, then as quietly as possible sneaked into the rows of grapevines on our left and hoofed it as fast as we could. A dog barked, but not for long. No lights came on. No movement. We were safe.

We were all thinking the obvious thought: if we hadn’t driven off the road where we had, we would have turned that corner and been right on top of that little campsite. The noise would have woken the vineyard workers and that would have been that. This realisation inspired a growing sense of hope: maybe we were not alone, maybe providence was at work, maybe all those dear ones murdered in war were cheering us on.

After winding our way through the vineyard, we came to the edge of the base – without our truck, but with a growing sense of hope and determination. The floodlit facility created an eerie light as the fog hung over it, with the domes towering over the base. I felt small and helpless against the looming might and authority of this high-tech facility. But sometimes things aren’t what they appear. I knew the base was mixed up in some of the most frightening things happening in the world, but perhaps it wasn’t as impenetrable as it seemed. We crawled across the paddock toward a small grove of conifers near the perimeter fence.

Everything was still and quiet in the base; the only sound was the humming of the great fans that held the domes up with air pressure.

Sam began working on the hurricane netting wrapped around the fenceline. Behind this netting were high-tension parallel 40,000-volt steel wires. They were spaced about a foot apart. Cutting four of these would create enough space for us to wriggle through. I suggested to Sam that we give the bolt cutters to Peter. Peter raised his hand and said a prayer over the electric wires, but without touching them.

“Give me the cutters,” he said.

Opening the cutters, Peter raised them near the first wire. He pushed forward and closed the cutters at the same time. Sam and I watched from a little way away. The wire sparked and broke but did not electrocute him. The second wire was cut without any signs. The third wire sparked and twanged when it broke and still Peter was unhurt; and the fourth wire was the same.

Sam crawled in and we quickly passed the gear through to him. Security cameras and motion sensors were easily in view and we expected the alarms to go off at any moment. At the second fence Sam used the bolt cutter to chomp through the vertical steel bars. After this we worked through the third fence — a twelve-foot, steel-bar, razor-wire security fence.

It wasn’t long until we were through all the defences and standing inside the base compound. I could hardly believe it.

*

Sam pulled two gardening sickles out of his gear bag and gave one to me. They had been bought from Bunnings on special for $10. The three of us looked at each other and smiled. I put one hand on the dome and called out over the noise of the fans: “In the name of Jesus Christ we disarm you!”

I stuck the point of the sickle into the dome and a great rush of warm air poured out against my hand. I proceeded to cut a large slice around the bottom of the dome while Sam cut a huge cross into it. I must have cut 40 foot around the base of the dome before I realised that it was deflating quite quickly and collapsing in my direction. Luckily Sam had finished his crosses, and he cut a hole for me to squeeze through before I was crushed under the weight of the deflating dome. All this time, Peter had been setting up his shrine on the grass near the dome. This consisted of a simple box covered by a red velvet cloth, upon which a candle struggled to survive in the light drizzle. A cross lay on the altar beside an icon of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

There was the tiniest bit of pre-dawn light appearing over the eastern hills as we knelt together in prayer. We sang, we prayed for the dead, and we cried. After what seemed like ages we saw torch lights coming from around the side of the dome. Two security guards spotted us and then froze.

I stood up and called out to them,”We have come here to pray. Would you like to join us?”

They called back, “No.”

One of them ran off, I guess to call the police. The woman security guard stayed with her torch shining on us, waiting; after a while it felt a little awkward. Sam handed over the keys to the front gates.

“You might need these to let the police in,” he said.

“Thank you,” she replied.

Peter then took the bolt cutters, cut off three small inch-long pieces from one of the cut steel bars, and gave one to each of us; that felt a little weird.

Just before sunrise, we saw the flashing lights of the police coming out from Blenheim, bright against the still black hills of the valley. They were moving at high speed, but without their sirens going as a courtesy to the neighbourhood. We saw them drive straight past the base, missing the front gate; we heard their brakes squeal as they turned around and then drove back up the road.

A guy called Mike was the arresting sergeant; he and the other officers walked up very calmly and introduced themselves. I’m sure I saw a small smile on Mike’s face as he approached — not a smirk, but a real, genuine smile as he took in the whole situation. Cops have seen most things before, but this was probably a little outside of the box. After being told our rights and asked all the usual questions, we were handcuffed and put in the police van, each of us in a separate compartment in the same vehicle.

As we drove back up the spy base driveway I could see the sun on the clouds as the rain lifted. The van slowed at the front gate and I looked out the window to see our friends Justin and Tom with their Bibles in their hands, smiling towards the tinted windows of the van. I waved and shouted hello. They couldn’t hear me, but that didn’t matter; they knew we were there.

That day Justin had a disposable camera in his pocket. At the moment we left, the sun shone through the clouds and the most beautiful rainbow poured out of heaven, filling the sky with wonder and landing on top of the very spy base dome we had just deflated. Justin caught the moment on film and gave me a copy a few weeks later. I still have the photo, and I treasure it to this day.


An excerpt from Pursuing Peace in Godzone: Christianity and the Peace Tradition in New Zealand by Geoffrey Troughton and Philip Fountain (Victoria University Press, $36), available at Unity Books.


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