Bryce Edwards: Defence cover-up starts to unravel

Bryce Edwards: Defence cover-up starts to unravel

The New Zealand Defence Force’s attempted cover-up of the Hit and Run controversy appears to be unravelling. The military has finally been forced to make an about-turn – what they had claimed was a key flaw in the allegations in the 2017 book was, in fact, correct.

Previously the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) had tried to discredit Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s Hit and Run book on the basis that the authors had made allegations about a raid on a village in Afghanistan that New Zealand’s SAS troops had nothing to do with. The military claimed that Hager and Stephenson’s story was about an entirely different village than the one the SAS raided in 2010, and hence the whole book was something of a nonsense. This week the military admitted that the book got it right about the village and its location. This is a significant moment in the saga.

Toby Manhire explains the significance of the NZDF’s new admission in The fog of time: why the Defence Force’s Hit and Run admission really matters. He explains that the dispute over the location of the village had previously been the “central premise” of the NZDF’s attempted rebuttal of the claims, and with this now turning to dust, the case for an official inquiry into the matter is “overwhelming”.

The new Defence Force document

Numerous official information requests to the NZDF about the Hit & Run allegations had previously hit a brick wall. But this week, co-authors Hager and Stephenson – amongst others – were alerted to the fact that the NZDF had released some of the information in the form of a document, quietly published on its website last week. This PDF document was put together in an attempt to meet the directives of the Ombudsman’s Office, which had told the NZDF that, under law, it must release further information.

You can read the new NZDF document here: Operation Burnham. Of course, this latest document tries to spin the best possible story from the saga, and even spends much of the document focusing on the Gallantry Medal citations given to two of the soldiers involved.

Nicky Hager has condemned the document as being an “alternative version” of the Hit and Run story, and one that is “largely unsupported by any documentation” – see Nicholas Jones’ Hit & Run raid: Defence Force acknowledges ‘confusion’ on civilian casualty statements. In this article, Hager complains about the tactics the military has used from the start of this saga: “It was simply a diversion. This seems extremely unprofessional behaviour from a senior military officer.”

Another crucial part of the NZDF’s back down on its earlier rebuttal of the Hit and Run allegations relates to the casualties. Hager and Stephenson’s book claimed six civilians were killed in the SAS raid, including a young child. The military had responded to this clearly, saying it had already investigated this and found the allegations to be “unfounded”.

But this claim is now also unraveling. The latest NZDF document claims that the term “unfounded was intended to address the suggestion that the NZDF was responsible for civilian casualties”. So, the military is now more open to the existence of casualties but says it’s an “unfounded” allegation that any deaths were caused by New Zealand guns, and the finger is pointed at other coalition support brought in by the SAS.

The document also still quibbles over other parts of the Hit and Run account, saying that a village building said to be “blown up” was actually only subject to “explosive entry”, and that buildings that caught fire may have been a result of the raid, but weren’t deliberately lit by SAS soldiers. For more on these issues, see Cate Broughton’s Defence Force admits book’s location right, but denies civilian casualties.

Did the New Zealand Defence Force lie?

Increasingly it looks as if the Defence Force has blatantly lied in order to escape scrutiny over the Hit and Run allegations. With an announcement of a government inquiry looming, military bosses may be defensively admitting the truth before facing more serious scrutiny.

Blogger No Right Turn argues the military has made deliberate attempts to mislead, and should face some consequences: “This looks like a deliberate attempt by NZDF to mislead the public about the location and actions of our troops. The only question is whether Lt Gen Keating did it knowingly, or whether he was passing on lies crafted by his subordinates. Either way, someone has lied to us, and they need to be fired. And even if it wasn’t Keating himself, he bears command responsibility for that lie and fostering an environment where soldiers felt it was acceptable – so he needs to go as well” – see: NZDF admits they lied.

Unsurprisingly, Jon Stephenson is of a similar opinion. He told Newshub yesterday that “I think it’s a disgrace it’s taken a year to admit what everyone knew. I think [Keating] should either be sacked or resign” – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Defence Force U-turn: Hit and Run location was accurate. Furthermore, Stephenson says: “I’ve learnt that it’s very difficult to trust anything the NZ Defence Force says on these sensitive matters.”

Toby Manhire also draws attention to the impact of the NZDF’s obfuscation over the village’s location and repeats the then prime minister Bill English’s statement about this: “We believe in the integrity of the Defence Force, more than a book that picks the wrong villages.” He also points out that Defence Force Chief Tim Keating has constantly made himself unavailable to further questioning on the matter: “every media request for a sit-down interview with the Defence Force chief was rejected”.

On Twitter, economist Sam Warburton (@Economissive) has criticised the NZDF for not being very helpful in alerting those who had asked for the information in the latest document released: “The NZ Defence Force quietly released the information last Tuesday but told none of the people who had requested the information under the OIA (the document responds to several peoples’ requests for different info).” Furthermore, “It wasn’t until the Ombudsman’s office emailed requesters letting them know that we became aware of the information published. The NZ Defence Force should not be trusted to investigate itself.”

Warburton is also extremely unimpressed with the new document released by the NZDF, suggesting it tells the public very little: “They had a year to come up with something and those things were: 1. emphasising that the names of the villages H&R used are wrong (still disputed by Stephenson and Hager) 2. releasing some info about medals soldiers received.”

An official inquiry now seems inevitable

The previous National-led administration refused all requests for an official inquiry into the Hit and Run revelations. However, last year the opposition parties of Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens all championed the need for such an investigation, and now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has asked Attorney-General David Parker to deal with this issue.

No doubt there are figures in the government and NZDF who are lobbying hard against an inquiry. According to supporters of an inquiry, “the Government is under great pressure from the Defence Force not to have an inquiry at all” – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Pressure mounts on Government for Hit and Run inquiry.

There are a some very senior people at NZDF headquarters, as well as in the special forces, who have a lot to lose if a public inquiry is held. And Defence Minister Ron Mark has also made numerous public statements which suggests a lack of sympathy for an inquiry, and he’s understood to be lobbying against one. Of course, Labour too, might fear aspects of an inquiry, given that it was the Helen Clark Labour Government that were also responsible for deployments to Afghanistan.

It does seems inevitable that the Government will have to announce some sort of inquiry, but the terms of reference will be crucial. Labour may be tempted to keep the terms of reference very narrow, and crafted in a way to examine only the conduct of the SAS under the National-led government.

The families of the victims in Afghanistan are also pleading for an inquiry, and you can see their latest, in-depth letter from lawyers, which makes very specific recommendations about the terms of reference.

You can also see RNZ’s reporting of how these civilians and their lawyers are exasperated by how the NZDF is distributing information. Lawyer Deborah Manning says, “The public are becoming more and not less confused about what the New Zealand Defence Force is trying to say’ – see: Afghan raid inquiry needed to dispel confusion – lawyer.

A petition was delivered this week to Parliament, calling for the new government to deliver on the promise of an investigation. For more on how the petitioners delivered their plea to MPs, and on how they think the inquiry needs to be set up, see Jo Moir’s Petition delivered to Parliament in a coffin calling for full inquiry into Hit and Run allegations.

Finally, it’s worth asking how often the New Zealand military lies or obfuscates to the public about its activities. Unsurprisingly, such questions are put very well by Jon Stephenson in his recent article reporting on a one-day workshop held by NZDF boss Tim Keating, which was on “Transparency and Accountability in Modern Military Operations” – see: Open warfare. Apparently, journalists were not invited: “Lawyers, academics and NGOs were welcome, but media – those whose job it is to monitor powerful institutions like the NZDF – were banned.”