Hager on the impact of ‘Dirty Politics’

It’s three years since Nicky Hager launched his ‘Dirty Politics’ book. He looks back on what it exposed and what the effects of it have been.

The Spinoff:  Sunlight did what sunlight does: Nicky Hager on Dirty Politics, three years on

Dirty Politics landed like a bombshell in the NZ election campaign of 2014. It may not have affected that outcome, but that was never the ambition. It has, however, made a big impact on our politics, argues Nicky Hager

Three long years ago, during the last election campaign, the book Dirty Politics revealed a political dirty tricks campaign being run out of John Key’s Beehive office. It was an ugly operation, jarringly contradicting the friendly, BBQ-guy image cultivated by Key. If you don’t know the details, it is still well worth reading the whole grubby story.

He must have a bit of stock left. Most people have moved on. The only person who keeps banging on about it is Cameron Slater.

Quite a lot of people wondered at the time whether the book might change the outcome of the election. It didn’t and some concluded that the book had had no effect. But my aims were different.

It’s hard to believe that timed a few weeks out from an election there were hopes of an impact – if not from Hager, there were certainly hopes on the left that it would be a game changer. It did nothing to make David Cunliffe electable.

The book has had an effect far beyond what I could reasonably have hoped for.

Here is my assessment of what has changed as a result and what hasn’t.

Exposing and considerably closing down the dirty tricks campaign

Before the book, the dirty politics brigade was having a huge influence over New Zealand politics. Personal attacks were cooked up in the prime minister’s office and elsewhere, drafted into nasty, drip-fed blog posts and sent out into the world through two National Party-aligned blogs: Whale Oil and Kiwiblog. An embarrassing number of journalists reprinted these attacks and came to use the bloggers, Cameron Slater and David Farrar, as regular sources for tip offs and news. The journalists were aware that the bloggers had close links to John Key and his government, and this further enhanced their status and influence.

There was some nasty stuff going on, mainly centred on Whale Oil but with the complicity of the Prime Minister’s office and mainstream media.

The most important effect of the book is that this dirty tricks campaign was exposed and largely stopped. The dirty tricks coordinator in John Key’s office, Jason Ede, was hastily removed from his job and has never been seen again. There is hardly a single journalist left who would take stories off the dirty politics bloggers. Cameron Slater and the Whale Oil blog still exist, but they have shrunk back to the margins of politics.

That particular source of dirty politics has been severely curtailed, but there’s still quite a bit of more subtle dirt mongering. The people and aims of the Todd Barclay issue still have a mucky look, aided and abetted by some media.

Revealing the attack machine to its other countless victims

Numerous people have been attacked over the years by the Whale Oil or Kiwiblog sites: politicians, journalists, academics, a public servant handing out political leaflets in his lunch hour, almost anyone doing something effective on the left side of politics. Some attacks were to help the National Party; some were commercial operations attacking private people on behalf of undeclared paying clients. The important thing that has changed is that now these people know what was going on.

Quite a few people new quite a bit about what was going on. While there were grubby details in ‘Dirty Politics’ there wasn’t a lot overall that surprised me. A lot of it was blatantly obvious.

Hager confronted it and forced change – in particular he forced Key’s office to tidy up their act and he forced the media to be more responsible too .

By understanding the game, people have been able to fight back. On page 95 of the book Dirty Politics, for instance, there is mention of an attack job done for money by Cameron Slater and his PR industry collaborator Carrick Graham against a school principal who was in a matrimonial dispute.

The person who paid Slater and Graham for the attacks was a lawyer and she has since been taken to a legal tribunal for improper behaviour. Just this month the tribunal decision was published, revealing the whole operation. It makes interesting reading.

The dirt at Whale Oil was much wider than the Prime Ministers office. The above case, recently revealed through a court decision, was not political at all, it was a presumably privately funded domestic smear job.

Revealing corporate smears for cash operations

The book revealed that one of Slater and Graham’s most lucrative freelance attack campaigns targeted public health professionals – on behalf, apparently, of unlovely corporate clients such as the tobacco industry. The public health professionals were trying to save people’s lives from tobacco, alcohol and obesity harms. The attacks seem to have been an effort to protect profits from these meddlers.

Even after these activities were exposed in the book, Graham and Slater appeared to continue the attacks. Eventually some of the health professionals took action. In June last year they launched defamation action against Slater and Graham

I presume this action is still progressing.

Diminishing the influence of the dirty tricks operatives

On this point, the results are more mixed. Slater and the Whale Oil blog, the heart of the dirty politics system, are certainly diminished. It now seems hard to believe that not long ago they were so influential. But some others have continued to be a problem.

Slater’s political attack collaborator, Simon Lusk, was seen in last year’s local government elections when he assisted with attack tactics for some mayoral candidates. His campaigns faced a backlash in some towns when people realised that a dirty politics practitioner was involved in the election campaign.

There seems to be still a market for dirty political campaigners.

Slater’s fellow attack blogger, David Farrar, is still used as a commentator by some news media, including being introduced just as a “blogger”.

I think Farrar was rocked personally far more than Slater and has been more subdued on Kiwiblog, but still uses his blog for political activism.

Williams even won a defamation case against former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, after Craig accused Williams of being involved in dirty politics against him. Record defamation damages were awarded to Williams.

But then in April this year the presiding judge, Justice Katz, took the unusual step of setting aside the verdict, saying it would be a miscarriage of justice. She said Craig’s actions “must be viewed in the broader context that his own character and reputation were under sustained attack from Mr Williams”. The judge’s carefully argued judgement is a pleasure to read (there are extracts here).

That legal action is also presumably still progressing.

…as the list above shows, plenty has changed already. The trouble with using dirty tactics is the risk of being found out and the tactics blowing up in your face. Bit by bit, the triumphant manipulators of the 2011 and 2014 elections have been getting their comeuppance; and other people have hopefully been deciding that there are better ways to do politics than following them down that dismal road.

While ‘Dirty Politics’ has had a significant impact it takes more than one book to tidy up decades if not centuries of political skulduggery.

More response to Hit & Miss

Nicky Hager put in a big hit on the NZ Defence Force, but so far at least has missed out on getting the inquiry he wanted. He is convinced there has been a major cover up and he appears to be only prepared to accept total vindication of his accusations.

RNZ: PM trusting military’s word ‘a joke’ – Hager

…Mr Hager said it was “a joke” for Mr English to trust the military’s word.

The reality is that the Government has to have trust in it’s military.

“These are the people who are in trouble, so of course they don’t want an inquiry … No experienced minister should fall for that.”

He said the Prime Minister was being “irresponsible” by simply accepting the “selective information” he was shown.

There is no proof that English has fallen for anything, or that he has simply accepted selective information.

Mr English encouraged anyone with further information to come forward, saying the Defence Force would legally have to investigate it.

But Mr Hager said he “would not recommend” that his sources speak out while the military was “obviously in cover-up mode”.

“I hope they will come forward in the fullness of time, but that will be in a professional, independent context – not in the middle of a cover-up.”

No inquiry means that the public is left uncertain about the actions and word of the NZDF over the Afghan attack, but we are also left uncertain about how much solid evidence Hager has. His book raised a storm but lacked compelling evidence.

It is apparent that Hager knew he didn’t have compelling evidence, that is why he wants an inquiry so much, to find the evidence he thinks is being hidden.

Mr English said the footage of the raid backed up the Defence Force’s position. But he declined to release the video, saying it was “classified”.

“All the evidence is that coalition troops followed the rules of engagement to a degree of care that was pretty impressive,” he said.

Mr English described General Keating as independent, because he was not involved in the operation.

Mr Hager said that was “completely ludicrous”.

“Nobody would accept that from any other government agency and it’s actually an insult to the public to come up with that as an excuse.”

The Government relies on the word of public servants, and information that remains secret, all the time.

Labour leader Andrew Little said it was “laughable” for the Prime Minister to call General Keating independent.

“We’re entitled to be reassured that there is nothing being kept from the New Zealand public and that we can have full confidence in our defence forces.”

An independent inquiry was the only solution, said Mr Little.

That just about seems word for word what Hager is saying.

United Future leader Peter Dunne said Mr English’s assurance was not enough to clear up the uncertainty.

“I’ve got no desire to disrespect the prime minister’s assessment. I respect his judgement. And he’s obviously seen information that other’s haven’t seen. But I think it’s probably important for public credibility to get some of that out into the public arena.”

I think that it would help a lot if some information was made public, but that can genuinely be difficult when military operations are involved.

Hager is obsessed with alleging a cover up, and claims that the public needs to know about it, but does the public actually care much about it?

And how much would an inquiry achieve anything useful?

No ‘Hit & Run’ inquiry

At his post-Cabinet press conference this afternoon Bill English said there will be no inquiry into the SAS attack in Afghanistan in 2010.

So that means the objective of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson to use their book Hit & Run to pressure the Government into an inquiry and to get the SAS to reveal details about the attack has been unsuccessful. So far.

NZ Herald has some detail: No inquiry into SAS allegations in Afghanistan

Prime Minister Bill English revealed that decision at his regular post-Cabinet press conference this afternoon, saying there was no basis for an inquiry.

It came after formal advice from Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating.

“After considering Mr Keating’s briefing…and viewing video footage of the operation I have included there is no basis for an inquiry.”

English said if new information changed this it would be reconsidered. He said the allegations had caused distress to NZDF staff and their families.

“I want to reassure those families that there is…a great deal of evidence that their family members acted consistently with the rules of engagement.”

The Prime Minister said there was the possibility that civilians were killed, but there was no evidence that had actually happened.

“In viewing this I was impressed by the restraint, the care and the repeated assurance that the operation was conducted in such a way that would minimise casualties and the destruction of their property.”

English said the video was classified and he would not enter a process where “all actions” of NZDF were “available for public viewing”.

“I trust the process,” English said, saying he had become more convinced after reviewing material that Keating’s conclusion was right.

He had not spoken to anybody outside the Defence Force in reaching that conclusion.

Asked if NZDF had effectively investigated itself, English said coalition forces and the Afghan Government had investigated the matter and the conclusions were confirmed by the investigation by Keating.

English said Keating was independent, as he was not involved in the operation.

“The CDF…has serious legal obligations around investigating war crimes. If there was any evidence that the NZDF were covering up…that would be an extremely serious matter.

“There’s not any real contest over the facts other than the book…which has got them wrong.”

“The NZDF will never clear its name”

Another ‘NZDF bad, Hager & Stephenson impeccable’ post from Anthony Robins at The Standard in The NZDF will never clear its name – and neither will Bill English, plus another attempt to land all the responsibility on Bill English in election year.

The odds of Hager and Stephenson being wrong on the substance of Hit and Run are low, and if they were wrong the NZDF would be in a hurry to prove it. They aren’t.

That’s nonsense.

How can the NZDF possibly “clear its name” if Hit and Run is correct? By fronting up to any mistakes that were made, by apologising and taking whatever action is possible to acknowledge and compensate the villagers. That would be the decent thing to do, and the force would be strengthened by it, not weakened.

Why not run a campaign of NZDF bashing if it can help taint the Government? Like this:

… when Bill English ignores it and announces “no enquiry” he will have missed an important opportunity. Instead he will have forever tied himself to the perception of a shabby coverup.

Some will no doubt see this as shabby politicisation of a military event more than two elections ago.

I got involved in the following discussions, where personal attacks from the usual suspect OAB are allowed when their arguments and claims and assertions get challenged, but someone else speaking against the tone of the post gets slammed with a 3 month ban because they didn’t “prove that last assertion”, a demand that lprent knew couldn’t be met.

This not only cuts ‘Sam C’ out of the conversation but it also serves as a warning to others not to challenge the party/blog lines without risk of being silenced, while the resident troll can break their rules with impunity.

 

Operation Burnham update

Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson got a lot of favourable media coverage initially after the release of their book Hit & Run, but after a counter by NZ Defence Force head Tim Keating revealed errors (from both sides) and created confusion, the fizz has gone out of the story.

I think that some sort of inquiry is still quite possible, but it is more likely to be due to the involvement of lawyers acting for the Afghan villagers rather than being compelled by the book.

Stuff knocks the stuffing out of Hit & Run in Below the beltway: The week in politics

UP

Chief of Defence Tim Keating:  His rebuttal of some key information in Hit & Run appears to have staved off any Government inquiry.

DOWN

Hager and Stephenson: some basic errors in Hit & Run have weakened their case for an inquiry into the book’s central allegation that innocent civilians were killed.

Steve Braunias lampoons them in Secret diary of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson

Nicky Hager

Every word in the new book I wrote with Jon Stephenson is 100 per cent absolutely correct.
Our central claim in Hit & Run is that the New Zealand SAS launched a revenge raid on a village in Afghanistan, and killed innocent civilians.
There is no room for error.
It’s more than a book; it’s an immaculate object, something to gaze upon with awe, and to be received as gospel truth.
I call it The Book of Nicky.

Jon Stephenson

I call it The Book of Jon.
But Nicky’s right, of course. The book is 100 per cent absolutely correct – and bear in mind that’s a modest estimate.
It follows that any criticism of the book is 100 per cent absolute bollocks.
There’s actually no point in the New Zealand Defence Force [NZDF] criticising the book, because everything they’ll say about it is wrong, and they’re going to look foolish.
Very, very foolish.

That’s just the beginning.

Audrey Young at the Herald: SAS inquiry would signal a new era of civilian scrutiny of NZDF

An inquiry would serve varying interests, but the villagers affected by the raids would not necessarily be top of the list.

An inquiry would almost certainly come down somewhere between potential “war crimes” as suggested by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in their book, Hit and Run, and that of “exemplary” behaviour by New Zealand forces as characterised by the Chief of Defence Force, Lt General Tim Keating.

At the very least it would find some regrettable errors.

‘Regrettable errors’ are an unfortunate inevitability in wars.

It is certainly in NZDF’s own interests to have an inquiry.

Future NZDF operations rest on the confidence in which the New Zealand public has in them.

The Government and Defence believe that holding an inquiry would undermine the ability of the SAS to carry out future raids, fearful that every operation could be subject to an inquiry. (Well, shouldn’t it if it goes wrong?)

There has to be some effective means of holding our military to account, but they also need a degree of secrecy to operate effectively. Can both be catered for by an inquiry?

NZDF and the SAS in particular should be subject to more robust civilian and parliamentary scrutiny – perhaps even by the statutory intelligence and security committee.

An inquiry into the raids would be a good start for a new era of scrutiny.

David Fisher has a useful and fairly comprehensive summary in The complete guide to the NZSAS raid and the allegations civilians were killed

A point on this:

And what does NZDF say to all of this?

After almost a week’s silence, Chief of Defence Lieutenant-General Tim Keating called a press conference to deny the NZSAS had killed civilians.

The time taken for the NZDF to respond raised some eyebrows but:

  • Hit & Run, which had taken three years to put together, was a surprise attack
  • Keating was away in Iraq when the book was launched (by coincidence or be Hager design?) and didn’t return to New Zealand until the following weekend, after which he responded.

Fisher concludes:

Will there be an inquiry?

It’s highly likely. At its essence, there is a key difference between the claims in the book Hit & Run and NZDF’s position. Hit & Run says six civilians were killed, including a 3-year-old girl. NZDF says nine combatants were killed.

But the high likelihood of an inquiry stems from the involvement of the lawyers, Rodney Harrison, QC, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod. New Zealand is signatory to international laws, which dovetail into our legislation, that are likely to give them the power to force NZDF into court.

At this stage, they are seeking a Commission of Inquiry with three commissioners, one of whom they say should be a senior judge. Mapp said yesterday “as a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out” and to front up.

What are the possible outcomes?

Compensation was said by Mapp to be appropriate under Afghan culture. However, the allegation of “war crimes”, if true, comes with significant penalties, including life in prison.

The Hit & Run authors also called for an end to the secrecy under which the NZSAS is able to operate. Further, they say former NZSAS commanders have gone on to senior roles in the military, creating an imbalance of power and a tendency to lobby for international duties that meet their skillset.

I think that an inquiry may be prudent – for the Government and for the NZDF – but I have doubts about whether it will be conclusive, and it is unlikely to satisfy Hager and Stephenson.

Portrait of Nicky Hager – journalist or activist?

I don’t know whether this was part of planned PR of Nicky Hager or not, but Stuff has a National Portrait: Nicky Hager – investigative journalist.

His champions call him a defender of democracy and decency; his critics call him a politically-motivated smear merchant and master of PR, who stages book releases for maximum impact and trashes reputations to make money.

Hager calls himself an author or investigative journalist. Not an activist – he hates that term. And not a Labour or Green Party stooge. But certainly political, in the sense he’s motivated by morality and social issues and the need for change.

Despite his protestations many people see him as an agenda driven activist. He does investigate like a journalist, but he is well known for not giving his targets any input to his issues before publishing, which is regarded as not good journalism.

He describes himself as ‘Author and Investigative Journalist’ on his website.

“Do I have a party political agenda? Not in the slightest. Do I have social and political motivations? Of course. Why else would I spend hundreds and thousands of hours working on things? That’s why I do it.”

He may not have a consistent alliance with any one political party but he clearly tries to influence politics with his books, with his ‘Seeds of Doubt’ blind siding Labour in the run up to the 2002 election, ‘The Hollow Men’ clearly targeting Don Brash and National in 2006, and ‘Dirty Politics’ launched during the 2014 election campaign attacking National and connected bloggers couldn’t avoid being seen as political.

And his strongest supporters and his most vocal detractors largely split along political lines.

…he likes delving into subjects others would rather keep secret, from his first book Secret Power, investigating previously unknown spy agency GCSB, to the latest, Hit & Run, which alleges New Zealand SAS involvement in civilian deaths, and a Defence Force cover-up.

His books fall broadly into two categories – war (intelligence gathering being an extension of military work) and dodgy politics. The first is personal – Hager comes from a family “really shockingly influenced by the fact the world had gone to war”.

“So the work I’ve done about war … I feel like that’s my life’s work … if we don’t do that then we’re just endlessly tricked into going to the next war and making the same mistakes again.”

I don’t question this anti-war motive, and in relation to Hager’s latest book I think the the entry of the US into Afghanistan early this century with New Zealand’s subsequent involvement is highly questionable.

But I really wonder if his targeting of one relatively tiny incident and trying to discredit the New Zealand Defence Force to the extent of suggesting possible war crimes is the best way to go about change.

He tends to polarise and entrench opinion, which tends to make his work easy to fob off as extreme activism.

Similar to my political opinions I have mixed feelings. I applaud some of the things he tries to impact on, but I question the effectiveness of the way he does things. For example I thought it was good to expose the political uses and abuses of Whale Oil, but have serious concerns about the use of illegally obtained data to do it, I am very concerned about the precedent that sets.

I also think that it’s good to shine a spotlight on unjustified and futile wars like in Afghanistan, but Hager is using victims to make more victims, in this case the SAS soldiers who were involved. Of course he is trying to put the blame for the attack at the highest levels – the Prime Minister of the time John Key, but if successful there could be some serious collateral damage.

There could also be a significant matter of New Zealand needing to have a defence force which has built a very good reputation for peace keeping efforts in different parts of the world. That was primarily why they were in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately in war even if your forces are trying to do good shit can happen – Taliban forces attacked NZ troops there mainly to try to rebuild, and the usual consequence of attacks in wars are counter attacks. The reality in war is that insurgents or opposing forces cannot just be left unchallenged.

Unfortunately, despite what I believe are genuine efforts to minimise civilian casualties military mistakes will happen and sometimes people in war situations react inappropriately.

Despite a brief flirtation with the Values Party, politics never tempted him.

Values morphed into the Greens. Regardless if Hager’s claims of no political affiliations all his books have aligned with general leanings of the Greens.

Hager never considered himself a journalist until American intelligence expert Jeffrey Richelson called Secret Power a “masterpiece of investigative reporting”. He is the only New Zealander on the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, but some still argue he’s not a journalist because he denies those in the gun the opportunity to respond before publishing.

That’s a common criticism.

He makes no apology for that, saying all he would get back would be spin.

I think this is a cop out response from Hager. Isn’t it the job of investigative journalists to dig beneath the spin?

“The responsibility to be accurate, fair and balanced has to be dealt with in your research.”

But presuming his targets would just provide him with spin seems to contradict with being accurate, fair and balanced.

One of Hager’s biggest credibility problems is his apparent feeling of being right – hence he doesn’t see the need to seek the input of those he believes are wrong – and being infallible.

Hager and supporters have established their own spin – that he never gets things wrong. But his latest book disproves that, as did Dirty Politics.

And there are I think valid questions about imbalance by omission – how can he be balanced if he is only listening to one side of the story.

A real problem he has with ‘Hit & Run’ is he is attacking the relatively very well respected NZ Defence Force (imperfect but less imperfect than most military forces) and appearing to side with people at least associated with the Taliban, people with very strict and old fashioned religious beliefs that seriously oppress women.

Dirty Politics was his biggest earner, at about $50,000. He survives by having a mortgage-free house and living frugally.

“People seem to be touchingly unaware of how little authors earn,” Hager says.”Nobody in their right mind who is doing it for the money would be writing these books.”

His income is an interesting issue. He published Dirty Politics 3 years ago. $50,000 for three years is very frugal,and his previous books have generally about 3 years apart, earning him less.

He must clock up some expenses. He travels around the country and around the world. Perhaps he gets air fares and accommodation paid for or supplied.

Hager insists the public opprobrium rarely gets him down. And he doesn’t fear for his safety, despite Dirty Politics characters publishing his address. However, the 2014 illegal police raid on his home, in search of the source of Dirty Politics‘s hacked emails, was “quite shocking”.

That did seem a shocking, over the top and futile search. The Police stuffed up there.

I’ve had my address published online as well, seems to be a tactic of certain people.

NICKY HAGER ON…

FAILING TO APPROACH THOSE CRITICISED TO GET THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY
“I’m so comfortable with this, because the true objective of going for comment is not some ticking the box, it’s to be accurate, fair and balanced. That’s the purpose. And if the only effect of going for comment is that you don’t get any meaningful comment from them, and you don’t get any information and you just tip them off that they might want to sue you or cause you trouble, then there’s no gain from that.

I have a real problem with this attitude. He is making excuses for not doing what journalists would normally do and should normally do. It is necessary to filter out spin, but it is also a check against errors and mistaken assumptions.

Even the best journalists are not always right – in fact the best will test their findings to ensure they are as correct as possible, and that requires seeking more than one side of the story and more than one side of opinions.

The responsibility to be accurate, fair and balanced has to be dealt with in your research and what you write. And everyone who does this knows this. You can kind of be beaten up for not going for comment, but when you do go for comment, you don’t even get a comment – if you get anything, you get two sentences of spin.”

A journalist should never make presumptions like this. I find this attitude astounding for someone claiming to be a fair and balanced journalist.

This is more like the attitude of a political activist who is wilfully or fundamentally blind to opposing views and facts.


I note that Stuff has categorised this profile under ‘Politics’:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/91008472/national-portrait-nicky-hager–investigative-journalist

Hager response to Soper article

There has been a lot of discussion today about the Barry Soper article in the Herald – Another shadow over Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book (some things in the article may have changed through the day) – especially over the the photo from Hager’s book

1hit

Originally that was shown with the bottles mostly cropped, as i had taken a copy of the original picture here Cartridge challenge to ‘Hit & Run’ claims.

Update: See letter from Hager to the Herald below.

The article also now has a response from Hager:

Nicky Hager responds:

“The book does not claim that those weapon cartridges came from the SAS and indeed in another illustration (on page 49) the authors explain that they are Apache helicopter weapons.

The illustration in the book shows objects collected by the villagers after the raid and the caption refers only to two drink bottles pictured, which the villagers thought were left by snipers. There was no suggestion that the weapon cartridges were from the SAS.

But the photo caption implies by association that if the bottles were left by snipers the cartridges would also have been left by the same sniper/s. I think it is reasonable to assume the two went together.

Hager clarifies that the objects were gathered (are claimed to have been gathered) after the raid with no proof of them being associated with the raid, or any or all of them having been left by the attacking forces – “which the villagers thought were left” is all that is claimed.

I wonder why snipers would leave rubbish like that behind.

If we had been asked before the story was printed, we could have cleared up this misunderstanding.”

This is somewhat ironic given that Hager is renowned for publishing books having made no attempt to seek input from those he makes serious accusations about.

This is pointed out by journalist Martin van Beyen in Can we trust claims by Hager and Stephenson about SAS raid?

Another issue is that Hager’s method is not to seek comment or reaction from the people he is accusing before publishing. There are sometimes good reasons for that but if he worked for a newspaper his stories would not run without the allegations being put to the authorities.

Karl du Fresne also covers this in Let truth and falsehood grapple over the Hager-SAS stink

Hager doesn’t bother with balance. He and co-author Jon Stephenson didn’t approach the Defence Force for its side of the story before publishing Hit and Run.

This is consistent with Hager’s previous modus operandi. I don’t think he gave Cameron Slater a chance to respond to the claims made in Dirty Politics either, or Don Brash when he published The Hollow Men.

Cameron Slater has frequently complained about not being given a chance to put his side of the Dirty story.

Hager would probably argue that the reason he doesn’t approach the subjects of his books is that it would give them an opportunity to obstruct publication, possibly with legal action.

But newspapers take that risk every time they run a potentially damaging story about someone. It doesn’t stop them seeking comment from the people or organisation they’re about to take a whack at.

One thing certainly seems different to how Hager handled the aftermath of Dirty Politics – this time both he and Stephenson are getting involved with a lot of defending and trying to justify what they wrote.

Hager in particular seems sensitive to people making assumptions about debatable and less than solid evidence.


UPDATE: the letter from Hager to the Herald (not sure why Stephen price’s name is in it) that prompted the added response from Hager:

——– Forwarded Message ——–
Subject: complaint against Herald story
Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2017 10:32:42 +1300
From: Nicky Hager
To: Steven Price

Hi Shayne,
I am writing to complain about a story and associated comment by Barry Soper relating to our book Hit and Run. The story says that we were wrong about a type of weapon cartridges pictured in a
photo in the book and that this casts a shadow over the accuracy of the the book.

However the basis for the criticism is something that the story says is suggested and inferred by the book when neither of these is what we actually said in the book. It was just someone jumping to conclusions on the basis of an illustration caption. We have been advised there are grounds for a complaint to the press council, however we would much rather sort this out by you adding a comment to the story there and then a follow up story that presents our position on these claims.

Can you please add the following words near the top of the current news story and Barry Soper may like to amend his opinion piece accordingly?

“The book does not claim that those weapon cartridges came from the SAS and indeed in another illustration (on page 49) the authors explain that they are Apache helicopter weapons. The illustration in the book shows objects collected by the villagers after the raid and the caption refers only to two drink bottles pictured, which the villagers thought were left by snipers. There was no suggestion that the weapon cartridges were from the SAS. If we had been asked before the story was printed, we could have cleared up this misunderstanding.”

Then a follow up story could present the same points.

The obvious thing to do was to check the story with us, which was after all based on assumption, not anything we wrote in the book. The story says that a reporter tried unsuccessfully to contact Jon Stephenson, but they could have contacted me. Also, the point I make here is obvious and so even without contacting us should have made a reporter wonder whether the story was correct.

We have no problem with critical comment about the book, of course, but it needs to be based on accurate information and be balanced and fair.

best wishes,

Nicky


I’m kind of gobsmacked by this from Hager. He is demanding a different standard regarding rights of reply than he gives people he writes about in his books – he gives them no chance of any fact checking or contesting prior to publishing, and arranges his launch PR to give him a considerable advantage over his targets.

And balance is absent – in his latest book as past books he has a fairly strong agenda against one side of the story.

Operation Burnham update

Mote from Operation Burnham (the Afghan SAS attack allegations) today.

Whale Oil waded in to it with a number posts today. He led with an attack on Nicky Hager and Wayne Mapp in Another lie exposed by one of Nicky Hager’s own sources:

As for Wayne Mapp, this man is a traitor, along with Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. They are aiding and abetting the enemy, demanding inquiries and smearing our soldiers based on flimsy hearsay evidence from villages in a Taliban-controlled area and just wrong information like the location of the villages.

Nicky Hager stated categorically that it was “impossible” for him to be wrong.

The media keep on buying his stories, they take everything he says as gospel and yet here are two glaring lies or errors.

Wayne Mapp is an utter disgrace. He oversaw the operation, he was in Afghanistan at the time, he personally approved the mission, and all that is from his own words.

He was the minister at the time, he authorised the mission, he knew there were other casualties, and yet he did nothing. Worse he waited some seven years to then become a dirty little weasel and ratfink by becoming a source to Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson.

Now he has the audacity to demand an inquiry based on nothing more than hearsay and a rehash of information he has held onto for seven years.

But Slater has made a fundamental error. Mapp didn’t authorise the mission. In his post at Pundit yesterday he said:

I had been fully briefed on the plan on the morning before it took place. Based on the briefing, and on the advice of the military professionals, I recommended that it proceed.

That seems fairly clearly not authorisation the mission, and Mapp clarifies in a comment:

But one point of clarification (it arises on another blogsite). The use of words “recommended that it proceed” is suppossed to indicate that I referred the matter up, though with a recommendation.

Hager and Stephenson’s book says that the Prime Minister had the final say and that fits with what Mapp has said. The PM is likely to have based his decision on the advice of Mapp and the Defence Force but had may well have signed off on it.

Hager makes some point by point rebuttals of NZDF claims, also at Pundit in Operation Burnham: the cover-up continues

The New Zealand Defence Force claims that it has replied fully to the allegations raised in Hit and Run. It hasn’t – and what it has said just continues its cover-up of what happened in Afghanistan.

The Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating presented the NZDF response to the book Hit and Run at a press conference on Monday 27 March 2017. For 45 minutes he and his colleagues suggested that everything in the book was incorrect.

Jon Stephenson and I, the authors of Hit and Run, have now had time to study the defence chief’s statements. Our conclusion is that the NZDF criticisms are wrong – with one exception – and that they have failed to address almost everything of substance in the book. This is what a cover up looks like.

He details a number of points, here are the headings:

1. The raid described in the book “is not an operation the NZSAS conducted”:  INCORRECT

2. The SAS raid was in a different village with a different name: INCORRECT

3. The SAS raid was about two kilometres from the position we gave in the book: CORRECT, BUT DOES NOT CHANGE THE STORY IN ANY SIGNIFICANT WAY

A major part of the confusion over where the attack took place and the differing claims was due to the book giving an incorrect location. It may not change things in a significant way but it caused significant disputes until this was all clarified.

4. The NZDF has now replied to the allegations in the book: INCORRECT

5. An ISAF investigation has already occurred, there is no need for another inquiry: A WEAK SELF-SERVING ARGUMENT

6. Keating said the insurgents may have used civilians as human shields; aircraft video showed insurgents were killed; the conduct of the New Zealand ground forces was “exemplary”; and so on: UNSUBSTANTIATED CLAIMS AND SELECTIVE INFORMATION

7.  Lieutenant General Tim Keating told the press conference: “The ground force commander was an NZSAS Officer who controlled both the ground activities and provided clearance, after the appropriate criteria had been met, for any involvement of the aircraft. These elements were co-ordinated by an air controller in his location.” CORRECT AND IMPORTANT INFORMATION

His last point and commentary:

8. Finally, Keating told the press  that there were legal complications for having an inquiry: INCORRECT

This is not correct. We are not proposing an inquiry by the defence force about itself. The  government has the power to launch a full and independent inquiry at any time. 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.

Graeme Edgeler responded to that in comments:

This is selective. I understood LTGEN Keating to be saying that there would be difficulties in requiring people to give evidence. An inquiry under the Inquiries Act could require people to attend and give evidence (subject to rights of silence, etc.), but it would not be able to, for example, require Afghan military personnel, or US military personnel to give evidence, which may be necessary to provide a full picture.

In addition it is likely to be difficult getting legally admissible witness statements from people from the attack area that can be cross examined. The area is now apparently in Taliban hands and Jon Stephenson didn’t visit the actual attack site because of the dangers involved.

It will be difficult determining who actually died in the attack, how they died and who was responsible for their deaths.

And other evidence will be difficult to tie to the attack. For example I think the photo of the cartridges that circulated this morning (it also had drink bottles in the whole photo in the book) was taken a long tome after the attack – it appears to be a collection of things that had been gathered purportedly from the attack scene but there is no evidence substantiating that, just claims from people from the area.

I really think it is unlikely anything substantial will be able to be determined seven years after the attack that occurred in an area still occupied by the Taliban.

It is important to hold military forces to account, but there are hints that obsessions may be more prevalent than balanced investigations on the part of Stephenson and Hager, and the NZDF will be reluctant to reveal any more than they have to to help their arguments.

There’s also a question of why Stephenson and Hager are trying so hard to ensure the Afghan, US and New Zealand military adhere to strict terms of engagement (fair enough for that) but seem to be taking the word of people from a Taliban controlled area, some of whom may be Taliban supporters or even combatants.

The Taliban has been notorious for their military tactics, and also for the abuses of human rights, especially of females and people who won’t comply with their extremely strict religious diktats.

‘Geopolitical analyst’ Paul Buchanan has added to the commentary at The Spinoff with An inquiry into the Hit and Run claims is now essential. And there is an obvious person to lead it

The bottom line is this: as a public institution in a liberal democracy, the NZDF is accountable for its actions to the New Zealand public. It can do so without compromising operational security. It must do so because now its professionalism and integrity are in question.

It has been suggested that the New Zealand Police conduct an investigation of the events that fateful August night. I disagree.

Instead, it seems reasonable to convene a Board of Inquiry chaired by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS). Although not usually focused on military operations, the IGIS has authority to look into all security-related matters and is the key oversight mechanism on matters of intelligence and security. With the widely respected inspector general, Cheryl Gwyn, as chair, a panel could be convened that involves a senior military judge, a retired High Court justice and perhaps an international jurist of some reputation and experience in such matters. They should have powers of compulsion under oath and be given access to all evidentiary material as warranted (beginning with the account and sources in the book as well as the NZDF response).

There should be plenty of evidence to sift through. Modern military operations involve the use of helmet and body cameras on soldiers as well as gun sight and other cameras on aircraft. Audio recordings of communications between ground and air forces likewise serve as real-time referents on how things unfolded from the vantage point of the participants.

But this would require the full cooperation of the US and Afghan militaries.

 

Cartridge challenge to ‘Hit & Run’ claims

The NZ Defence force has been disputing claims made by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in their book ‘Hit & Run’, and it has been determined that the book pointed to the wrong location for the attacks. This caused confusion over attack claims.

This was after Hager and Stephenson  made a brash claim on Sunday:

In a statement sent to media on Sunday night, the authors say it’s “actually impossible that the story is wrong”.

Now a gun shop owner is disputing more evidence from the book.

Newstalk ZB: Further doubt cast on Hit & Run allegations

EXCLUSIVE: As calls for an inquiry into civilian casualties in Afghanistan grow, a crucial aspect of the controversial book Hit & Run is being challenged.

Now, Richard Munt of gun shop Serious Shooters in Auckland is contesting a further aspect of the account: a photograph of used shell casings supposedly discharged by SAS snipers who allegedly shot to death an Afghan teacher.

Without knowing the background of the photo, Munt argues the shell casings are too large to come from any weapon the soldiers would have carried, but must have come from an Apache helicopter.

AfghanAttackCartridges

“The SAS are generally issued with something usually no larger than a fifty-calibre Browning machine gun – and that’s a squad support weapon – and that would be approximately one half of the diameter of those cartridge cases.”

Munt believes there’s no way the shells could have come from the SAS.

“I would say they are from some form of large calibre cannon from Apache helicopter. They are not from a shoulder-fired firearm.”

“It would be almost impossible to fire from a shoulder-fire firearm without injury to the shooter. They are large, they are an anti-tank weapon.”

The cartridge evidence has been raised before.

I presume the cartridges are just claimed as evidence and there is no evidence that links them specifically to the attack in question, or the time in question, or the location in question.

And there is certainly no way of linking them directly to the SAS.

I’m not an expert but if the above cartridges are from a helicopter firearm, or if they were even fired from a hand held weapon, they are unlikely to have naturally fallen in a small area like that. Ejected shells usually end up well scattered.

More on ‘Hit & Run’

Two more developments in the ‘Hit & Run’ Afghan attacks.

Wayne Mapp, who was Minister of Defence at the time, has posted more about it at The Pundit – Operation Burnham

We can honour both our soldiers and the Afghans, but only by finding out what really happened on that August night in 2010… though that may not require a full inquiry.

Over the past 25 years, New Zealand has spent a great deal of time examining the consequences of the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. We have done so because we want to do right, not because we were legally obliged to do so. The restorative and recuperative value of doing so is internationally recognised. In the process we have built a fairer and more just nation.

The war in Afghanistan has been New Zealand’s biggest military engagement since Vietnam, which is now two generations ago.

As much as anything this explains why I agreed to be interviewed by Jon Stephenson. He has spent more time in Afghanistan than any other New Zealand journalist. As with many independent journalists reporting from war zones this has not been without controversy.

In August 2010 when Operation Burnham took place I was in Afghanistan on a visit arranged months before. I understood that the operation was among the most significant operations that New Zealand had undertaken in Afghanistan.

I had been fully briefed on the plan on the morning before it took place. Based on the briefing, and on the advice of the military professionals, I recommended that it proceed.

Hager and Stephenson have said that Prime Minister John Key gave final approval but that would seem to have been a littler more than rubber stamp involvement.

I knew that the operation had not achieved its stated aims of arresting or otherwise dealing with the people who had been identified as leading and organising Taliban operations against the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). I knew this because I was formally briefed on that fact at the time. I also knew that other people had been killed. As I have said in interviews, these people were acting as insurgents, in effect acting as enemy combatants.

As in all guerrilla war, it is often a case of villagers by day and insurgents by night. It was a reasonable and appropriate decision to engage them as they looked to be attacking the New Zealand soldiers on the ground. In such a case we have an absolute right to defend ourselves.

But it became clear later that it was also possible there were other casualties. In particular, the death of a three year-old girl.

This emerged in a television documentary in 2014.

Stephenson also told me enough about what had happened for it to be believable that this could have occurred, even if it was not fully proven.

It was claimed then, and has been claimed again in ‘Hit & Run’. I don’t know what actual evidence there is to support this, but it seems to have played a significant part in motivating Mapp to speak out.

For me, it is not enough to say there might have been civilian casualties. As a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out, to the extent reasonably possible, if civilian causalities did occur, and if they did, to properly acknowledge that.

This does not necessarily require an independent inquiry, such as lawyer Deborah Manning wants. In fact we are most likely to get this sort of information through diplomatic approaches to the Afghan government, and trusted NGO’s on the ground.

… the accounts of the NZDF and Stephenson are reconcilable, given the recognition that civilian casualties may have occurred.

They could both be largely correct – but with the identity of those killed and whether any of them were anti-Afghan Government combatants or not potentially contentious.

New Zealand has good reason to be proud of the professionalism of its defence forces. The SAS are among the most highly trained and respected soldiers in the world. In our name, we ask them to undertake the most hazardous military missions, often deep within enemy held territory. They have an absolute right to defend themselves against attack. The risk of capture of our soldiers by the Taliban would be beyond contemplation.

Part of protecting their reputation is also finding out what happened, particularly if there is an allegation that civilian casualties may have been accidentally caused. In that way we both honour the soldiers, and also demonstrate to the Afghans that we hold ourselves to the highest ideals of respect of life, even in circumstances of military conflict.

The Spinoff details some of this in ‘As a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out’: former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp admits he was a source for Hit and Run and also says this:

The Spinoff understands that Mapp has been weighing his conscience over the past few days, and has been particularly troubled by the book’s account of a three-year-old girl, Fatima, being killed in the operation. He believes that neither the NZDF nor the media has focused enough on her fate, and this is thought to be part of what motivated him to write the piece for Pundit: a sense that there is a moral obligation on the part of the New Zealand government to atone for these acts, should they be found to have occurred broadly as described in Hit & Run.

The NZ Defence Force has also added to their claims about this and have put out more maps- see Defence moves to undermine Afghan raid book with map comparison (which includes the maps):

The Defence Force has issued a new document in the war of words over the book Hit and Run, making a direct comparison of maps of the locations described in the book, and the satellite view of the actual raid area.

Explanations from Defence, accompanying the document released on Thursday, include maps of the actual raid site. They say no personnel were targeted at any of the locations identified in the maps on pages 64-67 of the book, none of the houses identified were destroyed and helicopters did not land at the points identified.

“Only positively identified armed insurgents were targeted,” the Defence Force document claimed.

Defence claims nine insurgents were killed in the raid, but have named none. They said SAS troops only fired only two bullets and killed one insurgent. The others were killed by other coalition forces including US helicopter gunships.

@FelixMarwick has a response from Bill English:

PM responds to latest comments by Wayne Mapp on “He’s a private citizen and is free to follow whatever opinions he has”.

PM also says Mapp “doesn’t have any new, or particular, information” Doesn’t believe speculation about events is a reason to hold an inquiry

More from NZ Herald: NZDF advice will decide if inquiry held, PM says

A decision on whether an inquiry or further investigation is needed into allegations an SAS raid led to civilian deaths will be based on advice from the Chief of Defence Force.

…Prime Minister Bill English told reporters today that he was waiting for further advice from Keating – a former commanding officer of the NZSAS – into whether any further action is required.

“He will tell us whether he thinks there is a basis there with any new evidence or any new information,” English said.

“It’s his job to look into these kinds of allegations…the book has turned out to be wrong, pretty fundamentally wrong about events that might have happened but certainly happened somewhere else.”

This looks like to continue.