Controversial members of Intelligence and Security reference group

There’s been a bit of consternation expressed over the members who have been named as members of the Intelligence and Security reference group panel. I’m not sure there is real cause for concern.

The members:

  • Professor Rouben Azizian – Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University
  • Thomas Beagle – Chairperson, NZ Council for Civil Liberties
  • Dr Paul Buchanan – Director, 36th Parallel Assessments
  • Ben Creet – Issues Manager, Internet NZ
  • Treasa Dunworth – Associate Professor, Public International Law, University of Auckland
  • David Fisher – Journalist, New Zealand Herald
  • Nicky Hager – Journalist, Author
  • John Ip – Senior Lecturer, Assistant Dean (Academic), Faculty of Law, University of Auckland
  • Deborah Manning – Barrister
  • Dr Nicole Moreham – Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington
  • Suzanne Snively – Chair, Transparency International

The inclusion of Hager and Manning seem to have raised the most eyebrows – both are well known to strongly oppose secret information gathering and storage.

But shouldn’t a reference group have a wide range of people opinions contributing to represent a good cross section of public sentiment?

Andrew Little, the Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security, has expressed surprise that a journalist is included: Minister surprised journalist included in reference group

The Minister responsible for New Zealand’s spy agencies is surprised that a journalist has been included on a new reference group established by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Andrew Little said the 11 member group will act as a ‘sounding board’ for the Inspector-General Cheryl Gwyn, but won’t be privy to classified information, or operational details of the SIS or GCSB.

Mr Little said he thought there were some “interesting” choices when shown the list last week.

“I was shown the list, I thought some of the choices were interesting but then I think what is important is that we are bold enough and brave enough to know that it is alright to have critics of organisations and of the government involved in this sort of exercise.

“It is a healthy thing in our democracy.”

New Zealand Herald reporter David Fisher is also in the group.

Mr Little was surprised a New Zealand Herald journalist was on the refence panel.

“I would have thought there is a question about a journalist complying with their ethics in doing so, but that’s a judgement call in the end that they have to make.”

Journalist are an important part of holding power and spying to account, and Fisher is well qualified to be involved.

Gerry Brownlee has been vocal in criticising the line up.

National’s spy spokesperson Gerry Brownlee said the creation of the reference group raised a number of serious questions – particularly around the inclusion of the investigative journalist Nicky Hager.

“The Inspector-General has said this group has been brought together to help her stand ‘in the shoes of the public.”

“But several members of her group are far from objective in their view of our intelligence relationships, or in some cases the existence of intelligence services at all,” Mr Brownlee said.

He said Mr Hager had repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the country’s spy agencies.

“Will this group have top secret clearance? If so, how can we be sure the information they will have access to will be secure?

“Will the Inspector-General be sharing intelligence with them? Where will the line be drawn?”

I would expect security of secret information will be handled competently.

Perhaps they are important questions to ask, but perhaps the best way to keep our spy agency honest is to have critics closely involved in monitoring them.

I’m not sure what sort of people critics expect to be on the reference group panel.

What would an Afghan inquiry achieve?

The Afghan SAS attack blew up in media again yesterday with Nicky Hager, Jon Stephenson and lawyer Deborah Manning trying to excuse their errors and push harder for an inquiry – see Afghan village hit and miss.

What would an inquiry achieve?

Currently we have claims by Hager and Stephenson, who say they have talked to villagers from Afghanistan – some of whom may have been ‘insurgents’ fighting against the Afghan government who were aided by the NZ SAS and the US military.

The Afghan villagers may have motives of their own. What is not clear to me is whether they have been trying to get their story out and Stephenson stepped in to help, or whether Stephenson and Hager have gone to the villagers to support a possible agenda.

And Manning says that she is representing the villagers – did they approach her, or did she offer her help to them?

Of interest in this issue is what are Hager, Stephenson and Manning trying to achieve?

Of course the NZ Defence Force and the Government are interested in defending their reputation and trying to justify their actions in Afghanistan.

This is about just one brief incident in  a war that has been going on for decades in Afghanistan. The US involvement has largely been from 2001 to 2014, with seemingly little overall success.

The remote valley where the SAS attack occurred is apparently now controlled again by the Taliban so Stephenson and Manning have been unable to go there, they have talked to people from there.

If an inquiry is held what could it achieved?

Getting evidence and testimony from the Tirgiran valley area where the attacks occurred could be difficult.

It could be hard enough getting proof of who died as a result of that one attack – claims have been made by Stephenson and Hager of 6 civilian deaths but the NZDF claims 9 insurgent deaths. Could both be correct? Possibly.

It would be even harder to prove who killed who and whether those killings were justified by terms of engagement or not.

It appears that the push for an inquiry is to force details out of the NZDF, but that’s complicated because if there is video evidence it is said to be held by the US military.

SAS soldiers could be required to give witness accounts but that has problems if it were to be done in public.

It’s quite possible an inquiry would not clear the matter up.

If it didn’t prove any war crimes there will inevitably be claims from some that the NZDF didn’t disclose everything – they have already been accused of covering up and unless they admit to war crimes (very unlikely) those accusations are likely to continue.

Yesterday Hager said:

“We believe the NZDF is trying to avoid a full and independent inquiry precisely because some officers are scared of what it will show. But the issue will continue to fester, as it has for years, until that happens.”

Perhaps that is what they are after, an ongoing festering with the implication from them that the NZDF is hiding things.

Who will benefit from this? What will it achieve?

Is it a sensible use of time and effort even for Hager and Stephenson? It seems like a crusade on one small event in a long and brutal war.

I’m really struggling to see what will be achieved by an inquiry other than giving some people to keep things festering.


The Nation – Afghan raids inquiry campaign


On The Nation (9.30 am Saturday, 10:00 am Sunday):

…more on the allegations in Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book Hit and Run. Should there be an inquiry? Lisa Owen talks to Deborah Manning.

Manning is one of the three lawyers who yesterday called for a Commission of Inquiry or a Royal Commission – see Afghan raids: Evidence of cover-up, lawyers say – and who say they would be representing the residents of the two villages that were hit.

So this is more of a continuation of a campaign (supported by some media) for an inquiry rather than a balanced investigation.

It’s not just about what happened on the night, Manning says, but the planning and what happened after…

Manning says that investigating the raids is stage . A separate issue for further down the track is the alleged cover up.


Do you know who might be held accountability? No.

They should have had both Edgeler and Manning on The Nation interview.

Manning says they will seek a judicial review in a New Zealand court if the Government refuses an inquiry