Hager, Stephenson, Keating respond to Operation Burnham inquiry

Nicky Hager:

Hit and Run inquiry decision welcomed

Nicky Hager has welcomed the announcement today of an independent inquiry into civilian casualties during the August 2010 NZSAS raid in Afghanistan – Operation Burnham – the subject of the 2017 book Hit and Run.

“This is very, very good news for New Zealand,” he said. “It is vital that, as a country, we can face up to incidents where our military does terrible things.”

He said good people have been chosen for the inquiry, the terms of reference are broad and resources have been allocated so it can do a proper job. “It feels like the start of a sound and thorough process.”

“There have been years of cover up by the NZSAS and senior military staff ever since the raid – intended for insurgents – killed and wounded 21 civilians, most of them women and children. Even after we wrote a whole book setting out what had happened, the New Zealand Defence Force continued its denials. It is an intolerable situation when the military tries to cover up its own misdeeds.”

“The obvious answer was an independent inquiry and so we warmly welcome today’s announcement.”

“International law says that countries have a legal obligation to conduct an independent inquiry whenever there are credible allegations of civilian casualties. The New Zealand Defence Force and government refused to do this for seven years. At last another government is doing the right thing.”


Jon Stephenson:

The full story from Henry will be on Stuff.


And another reaction:


Little & Peters should see SAS video

Vernon Small points out that basically Prime Minister Bill English has said ‘trust me because I trust Tim Keating’ as his reasoning for not having an inquiry into the SAS attack in Afghanistan that was publicised by Nicky Hager’s and Jon Stephenson’s book Hit & Run.

Stuff: English’s Monday performance shows just how much National lost when Key quit

In the Hit and Run case, in contrast, English has been over-cautious in keeping the military sweet, leaving too many questions unanswered.

Add to that his extraordinary claim that Keating was “independent” and was not part of the operation.

He was in essence saying “trust me, because I trust Keating”.

I don’t think that’s good enough, and neither does Small.

So where to now on this?

If Labour leader Andrew Little wanted to put English’s assurances to the test, he should ask to see the classified video.

As the leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition there could surely be no objection to a similar briefing to that given to English and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, especially if other non-elected Government officials have been privy to the footage. If English wanted to buttress his position, he should invite Little to view it.

As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Little – and presumably Winston Peters – ought to have the appropriate clearances.

It might help achieve the kind of “reconciliation” between the conflicting accounts that former defence minister Wayne Mapp said were possible.

That is a very good suggestion. Our Defence Force should be trusted not just by the Government but by the whole Intelligence and Security Committee, and to do that they need to see the same evidence that English has seen.

The Defence Force line is that they they use coordinates not village names, but it should not be beyond their ability to establish that the villages named in the book are in the area they identified.

You can see why they might be reluctant. Having achieved headlines saying Hager and Stephenson had the wrong location for the villages, they will fight to the last spin doctor standing to avoid a headline that reads: “Defence Force confirms its attack was on the villages of Khak Khuday Dad and Naik identified in Hit and Run“.

In the larger scheme of things it may seem a minor point.

But it is that default to “spin” and a reliance on cute semantics that undermines English’s case – and his reliance on the Defence Force.

English hasn’t handled this decisively or convincingly. Everything can’t be revealed about our SAS and Defence Force as Hager and Stephenson want, but the public should have confidence in our military, and that requires more than the perception of one-sided spin.

I also agree with Small on the Key difference, our last PM is likely to have come up a better and more convincing way of dealing with and to the allegations.

I think the whole Intelligence and Security Committee, including Little and Peters, should see the evidence that English has based his decision on.

But English looks too dithery to deal decisively with this.

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.

Hager: NZDF rebuttal “doesn’t change anything”

After NZ Defence Force chief Tim Keating strongly contested claims made by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in ‘Hit & Run’ Hager says this doesn’t change anything.

1 News: NZDF Afghanistan raid rebutal ‘doesn’t change anything’, Nicky Hager says

Mr Hager this evening hit out at the press conference, saying the NZDF is simply desperate to avoid a formal inquiry.

“If they were right and I don’t think they are that the location of this destruction was 2km from where we were told it was, this doesn’t change anything,” he said.

“I think what is going on here, inside of the Defence Force they are very keen to avoid an inquiry.”

But it has changed things considerably, switching Hager and Stephenson from attack to defence as they try to counter Keating’s claims.

They will be well aware that their reputations are on the line – as is Keating’s.

RNZ: Hit & Run authors dispute NZDF account

It is impossible the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) carried out a simultaneous raid on a separate Afghan village the night that civilians in two nearby villages were killed, the authors of Hit & Run say.

The NZDF has not claimed simultaneous raids, they say the SAS were never at the villages that Hager and Stephenson claimed were attacked by them.

One puzzle – if a simultaneous  raid could not have been carried out how could two villages have been attacked as they claim?

Hit & Run co-author Jon Stephenson told Checkpoint with John Campbell both the Defence Force and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) agreed there was only one raid that night.

“It’s virtually impossible that there were two identical operations in the same area.”

He stuck to the book’s claim that the single raid that occurred was carried out in Khak Khuday Dad and Naik.

“Lots of things were found [in the two villages] that are consistent with our story, including cannon rounds from Apache helicopters,” Mr Stephenson said.

“We know that the Chinooks left big indentations in the wheat fields that were seen and measured by the villagers.”

That’s what the villagers are claiming. Villages where insurgents came from (Stephenson says they had left the villages to avoid being attacked).

The book’s other co-author, Nicky Hager, said General Keating’s claims were a bluff by the Defence Force, which Mr Hager said was doing everything it could to avoid a formal inquiry.

“If Tim Keating is confident that they have done nothing wrong, they should have a full inquiry.”

“Releasing selective information is not the way you get to the bottom of a story … and they should be welcoming this if they think they’ve got nothing to hide.

“But I believe they are desperately trying to avoid it [an inquiry] because they know the book is true.”

Keating said he would welcome an inquiry, although he thought there would be legal difficulties with that.  He said he would try and have video coverage of the attack released.

Hager is implying that if there is no ‘full inquiry’ the NZDF must be trying to hide something.

But if an inquiry is held and it finds no proof that the SAS attacked to two other villages as alleged, or that the SAS killed civilians contrary to terms of engagement, then Hager may still claim only selective information has been released.

It isn’t up to Keating to order an inquiry. Prime Minister Bill English sounds reluctant to have an inquiry at this stage.

NZDF news conference

 

Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Tim Keating held a news conference this afternoon to answer questions about the allegations relating to the SAS in operations in Afghanistan.

Stacey Kirk at Stuff lived blogged and has a lot of details, but she also summarises:

Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Tim Keating has made the following points on Operation Burnham.

  • Operation Burnham was not carried out in the two villages detailed in the book Hit & Run, Keating says.
  • Operation Burnham was conducted some 2km south of the two villages detailed in the book.
  • There may have been civilian casualities, but nothing was proven and the names of the people who were killed in Hit & Run were not present where the SAS was operating.
  • “Revenge was never a driver – we are a professional force,” said Keating.

More detail:

So that was a very detailed, and hence confusing, press conference.

The short of it appears to be that the NZ SAS and Defence Force were carrying out an operation – Operation Burnham – following intelligence received after the death of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell at the hands of insurgents.

The operation took place, some 2km south of the villages where authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson claim it took place in their book Hit & Run.

While Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Tim Keating acknowledges some civilian deaths may have occurred, they weren’t the villagers detailed in the book.

US Apache Gunships were firing at targeted points on the edge of a village where the operation was taking place.

It was realised that some of those rounds were falling short of the target, and going into a building.

But Keating says insurgents were known to have been present inside that building anyway, although there may have been civilians in there as well. (That’s where the possibility of civilian deaths may have occurred).

Keating suggested those civilians could have been being used as human shields by Taliban insurgents.

As soon as it was realised there was a problem with the sight on one of those Apache gunships, that helicopter was called off.

Video exists of the battle, which is classified, but has been seen by Keating. He seemed open to finding out whether some of it could be released – though that comes down to the other ISAF coalition partners.

Today was the first time he acknowledged that there could have been civilian deaths, in line with statement that came out with the ISAF investigation in 2011.

Previously, the defence force said the claims of civilian deaths were “unfounded”.

Unfounded and “may have occurred” are two different things, after all.

But Keating was very clear that the performance of the SAS and NZDF troops on the ground was “exemplary”.

NZ ground forces only fired two bullets in the operation, which killed a single insurgent.

Keating was unable to give names of the insurgents that were killed, but it appears that previous claims that we did not get the specific insurgents that were the subject of the intelligence gathered beforehand, still stand.

A Military legal advisor was with the commander for the entire operation, and found no cause for concern.

The SAS suffered one injury, and another fact for you: the ISAF coalition forces announced their arrival to the battle sight by loud-haler, for benefit of any civilians present, but somewhat giving away the element of surprise.

Details: NZDF hits back at Hit and Run claims


Toby Manhire at The Spinoff compares thee claims of Stephenson and Hager versus NZDF and details common ground and differences:

Hit and Run: What are crucial differences in authors’ vs Defence Force version of events?


Stephenson and Hager ‘100% sure’

In response to the NZDF head Tim Keating’s claim that Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book ‘Hit & Run’ made fundamental errors (he says the SAS were never involved in attacks on the named villages) Hager and Stephenson said they are ‘100% sure’ they got things right.

Stuff: Defence Force chief slams ‘major inaccuracies’ in SAS Afghanistan allegations

Hager and Stephenson stood by the information in Hit and Run, with Stephenson saying the pair were “100 per cent sure” Kiwi soldiers had been operating in the villages they named.

“We’re absolutely confident we’re right, no question about it.”

The information came from “multiple, multiple sources”, Stephenson said.

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

“The NZDF press release is simply incorrect and implausible. To be true, it would require an identical raid by identical forces, using identical helicopters, on identical targets at the same time,” the statement says.

But a report by David Fisher – SAS soldier: We killed civilians – also had a different account to what the book claimed, so there is some doubt about it’s total accuracy.

“We are shocked that the NZDF believes this is a legitimate reply to the serious and tragic revelations in the book. It looks like nothing more than people trying to evade responsibility and reinforces the need for a full and independent inquiry.”

So the gloves are off between the NZ Defence Force and Hager and Stephenson.

Prime Minister Bill English met with Keating and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee in the weekend but is so far still non-committal on whether some sort of inquiry will be ordered.


Jon Stephenson on with Duncan Garner:

They have very strong overwhelming information. They have photos and testimony  from Afghan and SAS soldiers.

He says the NZDF statement is a continuation of a cover up.

He says there is absolutely no doubt there was only one raid that night.

Has Keating lied? Stephenson says he has given the public and the Government misleading information.

He says there will be an inquiry whether the Government orders one or lawyers force one on them.

Garner says that Bill English has said be believes the defence Force and not Hager and Stephenson.

The end result of this escalating stand off will be:

  • major NZDF embarrassment and a Keating resignation
  • serious discrediting of Stephenson and Hager
  • no clarity so everything left in doubt

UPDATE: A thought on Stephenson’s statement:

“The NZDF press release is simply incorrect and implausible. To be true, it would require an identical raid by identical forces, using identical helicopters, on identical targets at the same time,” the statement says.

I don’t think it’s implausible.

One possibility is that the US had multiple targets that night, and used their air power in all of them, but the New Zealand SAS was involved in just one attack on one of the villages.

 

NZDF disputes Hager/Stephenson claims

There’s usually more than one side to a story. The head of the NZ Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating has responded to accusations made in the book Hit & Run.

He claims that there are major discrepancies in Hit & Run, in particular the NZDF never operated in the two locations mentioned in the book.

Stuff: Defence Force chief slams ‘major inaccuracies’ in SAS Afghanistan allegations

Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Tim Keating has slammed “major inaccuracies” in a book about alleged SAS involvement in the death of Afghanistan civilians, saying Kiwi troops never operated in the two villages identified as the site of the attack.

In a statement, Keating said the central premise of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, Hit and Run, was incorrect.

Keating said there were “some major inaccuracies” in the book, including the location and names of the villages where the civilians were allegedly killed.

Updated – see NZDF statement below.

TirgiranMap

It is certainly hilly. I couldn’t find Naik or Khak Khuday Dad on Googlee maps, only Tirgiran. It is in a very remote area.

So the counter claims contend that there are major discrepancies. This is one reason why it pays not to jump to conclusions in reaction to stories like this.

The villages where civilians were killed may not have known the nationality of those involved in the attack on them.

My guess is that Nicky Hager and/or Jon Stephenson will respond to this.

UPDATE:

Defence Force link: NZDF Statement on Hager/Stephenson Book

The central premise of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, Hit and Run, is incorrect, says the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating.

NZDF troops never operated in the two villages identified in the book as having been the scene of combat operations and civilian casualties.

Since the release of the book, the New Zealand Defence Force has spent considerable time reviewing the claims contained in it, despite the allegations of civilian casualties being the subject of a NATO investigation in 2010.

Upon review of Hit and Run, it is evident there are some major inaccuracies — the main one being the location and names of the villages where the authors claim civilians were killed and property was destroyed wilfully during a New Zealand-led operation.

The villages are named in the book as Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, but the NZDF can confirm that NZDF personnel have never operated in these villages.

The authors appear to have confused interviews, stories and anecdotes from locals with an operation conducted more than two kilometres to the south, known as Operation Burnham.

The villages in the Hager and Stephenson book and the settlement which was the site of Operation Burnham, called Tirgiran, are separated by mountainous and difficult terrain.

The NZDF has used the geographical references in the book and cross-referenced them with our own material.

During Operation Burnham, New Zealand was supported by coalition partners, which included air support capacity as previously reported.

The ISAF investigation determined that a gun sight malfunction on a coalition helicopter resulted in several rounds falling short, missing the intended target and instead striking two buildings.

This investigation concluded that this may have resulted in civilian casualties but no evidence of this was established.

Hit and Run does not prove civilian casualties were sustained in the village where Operation Burnham took place.

The NZDF reiterates its position that New Zealand personnel acted appropriately during this operation and were not involved in the deaths of civilians or any untoward destruction of property.

The NZDF welcomes anyone with information relevant to Operation Burnham to come forward and be assured that any allegations of offending by NZDF personnel would be taken seriously and investigated in accordance with our domestic and international legal obligations.

Their map:

NZDFMap.jpeg

This response was quick.

PM won’t commit to inquiry yet

Bill English says he fully backs the NZ Defence Force (he pretty much has to say that) and won’t yet commit to whether an inquiry will be held into allegations made in the book Hit & Run.

RNZ: PM 100 percent behind defence services

In their new book Hit and Run, investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson said six civilians died and 15 were wounded in raids led by SAS soldiers in 2010.

They said there needs to be an inquiry – something three New Zealand human rights lawyers, acting for the Afghan villages involved – agree with.

Labour, Green, New Zealand First and Māori parties have also called for an inquiry, and United Future leader Peter Dunne said that one was inevitable.

Mr English is to meet with the Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee and the chief of defence Tim Keating tomorrow.

He said he could not say how long it would take to make a decision about whether to initiate an inquiry.

I think some sort of inquiry is inevitable but this current lack of commitment to one is no surprise, it was always going to take time to evaluate the claims and decide whether an inquiry or investigation was justified.

Brownlee and Keating have just returned from a trip to Iraq and English had to wait for them before he could discuss things with them.

Governments don’t and shouldn’t operate on the same time frames demanded by media rapid news cycles.