They blew authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson out of the water for several claims in the book Hit & Run on SAS operations in Afghanistan. They gave a harsh serve to the NZ Defence Force, several senior officers and a minister.
But what did Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who conducted the inquiry into Operation Burnham, think of the book?
“Hit & Run is a collaboration between two investigative journalists, of whom one, Mr Jon Stephenson, provided most of the sources and the other, Mr Nicky Hager, did most of the writing. The authors relied on a variety of sources from both New Zealand and Afghanistan,” they reported.
“Although the authors succeeded in uncovering a considerable amount of factual material, they inevitably fell into error, especially in relation to the operation at the heart of the book: Operation Burnham. This is not surprising as the authors had to place heavy reliance on leaks and did not have access to the extensive intelligence, planning and operational material relating to the operation.
“The book does not attempt to present a dispassionate account of what happened on Operation Burnham or the other operations it discusses. It makes serious allegations about the conduct of NZSAS personnel, claiming that they were out to seek revenge on the operations and deliberately and without justification destroyed houses in the villages of Khak Khuday Dad and Naik.
“In this way, the book impugns the integrity and professionalism of the NZSAS personnel involved. The book also impugns their capability and skills, alleging that the intelligence on which NZSAS personnel relied was wrong and there were no insurgents in the villages at the time of Operation Burnham.
“The book is as much polemic as investigative account and contains many errors besides the obvious ones relating to location. Some of these could have been avoided if common research techniques had been followed, for example, taking metadata from photographs.”
However, they wrote, in important respects the book was right.
They thought it likely a child was killed on Operation Burnham; some civilians did suffer injuries; an NZSAS trooper did punch Qari Miraj. The evidence indicates that Miraj was tortured while in (Afghan) detention.
New Zealand breached its non-refoulement (not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution) and related preventative obligations to him. New Zealand agencies were advised that Miraj had been tortured when detained but did not advise ministers or take any other action.
NZDF gave erroneous information to ministers and the public about the allegations of civilian casualties on Operation Burnham over several years.
“Given this, and given that we have made recommendations that, if adopted, should assist in preventing or minimising failures of this type in the future, we think it right to acknowledge that the book has performed a valuable public service. We think Mr Stephenson made an important point when he submitted a healthy democracy and free society depend on more than Parliament and the judiciary.
“Our job, like yours, is to monitor power. The Fourth Estate, like Parliament and the judiciary, is an integral part of democracy, serving society by holding powerful people and organisations accountable,” they said.
The evidence given by NZDF to the Inquiry showed it is not necessarily one incident in conflict that defined the character of an organisation. Rather, it is how the organisation characterised and managed the incident subsequently that reveals its character and will either instill or undermine public trust in the organisation.
It is how military personnel choose to respond to situations where it is alleged that things have gone wrong that is defining. In relation to Operation Burnham, it is indisputable that NZDF’s response was woeful.
In Operation Yamaha, a person was transferred to (Afghan) custody despite a real risk of torture, and NZDF and other New Zealand agencies did not respond as they should have when they learnt of the possibility he had been tortured.
How NZDF addresses its failings and goes forward will reveal its true character and the strength of its purpose, concluded Sir Terence and Sir Geoffrey.