WELLINGTON/WASHINGTON New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English was flying to the mountainous resort city of Queenstown on Tuesday to meet intelligence officials from the "Five Eyes" network, which includes the U.S. FBI, CIA and National Security Agency.
The meetings, designed to facilitate intelligence sharing between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, are being held at a sensitive time for the Asia-Pacific region as tension between the United States and North Korea escalates.
However, six U.S. and allied government sources told Reuters it was a routine annual get-together that was not being held to respond to any particular crisis.
The confirmation of the meetings indicates that "Five Eyes" countries hold regular intelligence conferences, a fact not widely known outside intelligence circles until now, according to analysts.
"I can confirm that it's Five Eyes, just part of the regular cycle of conferences that are held," English told reporters on Monday. He declined to specify which officials were attending.
The officials and English declined to discuss what topics would be on the agenda, although English said he would use the meetings as an opportunity to stress New Zealand's dedication to the intelligence-sharing network.
"It's becoming increasingly obvious, I think, that as you consider these supra-national threats like ISIS that you work together with other countries," English said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State militant group.
A source at one of the agencies confirmed that the New Zealand conference was an "annual get-together ... a regular meeting of all of the seniors".
Activities by Russia's government and counter-proliferation of nuclear arms in North Korea would likely be discussed, alongside more mundane topics like managing diversity in the workplace and how to prevent whistleblowers, according to Massey University security and defence analyst Rhys Ball, who formerly worked for New Zealand's intelligence service.
"The interesting thing about this conference, I think, is that this might offer some of those senior officials the first opportunity to meet up with some of the new American intelligence officials," Ball told Reuters.
U.S. officials declined to discuss the movements of specific senior officials. A source familiar with the matter said senior Canadian officials were taking part.
New Zealand media reported that FBI director James Comey would attend and published photos of him disembarking from a plane in Queenstown on Sunday.
The sources told Reuters that agencies whose top officials were expected to attend included the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency from the United States, Britain's MI-5, MI-6 and Government Communications Headquarters, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Communications Security Establishment Canada, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the Australian Signals Intelligence Directorate, and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau and Security Intelligence Service.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball and Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Paul Tait)