Operation Burnham Inquiry: Hager accuses Defence Force of spin and lies

3:27 pm on 22 May 2019

Journalist Nicky Hager has launched a scathing attack on the Defence Force during a presentation to the Operation Burnham Inquiry, accusing it of not telling the full truth about its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Investigative journalist Nicky Hager gives evidence at the Operation Burnham Inquiry. Photo: Photo / Alex Liu

The Inquiry, which is investigating allegations that six civilians were killed in Afghanistan during a New Zealand-led raid in 2010, and the military covered up what happened is holding a public hearing in Wellington today.

During his presentation Mr Hager spoke about the military and political context of events covered by the Inquiry, but said there was a gulf between what the New Zealand Defence Force does and what it chooses to tell the public and Parliament.

"NZDF seems to believe it is entitled to hide news that might not be welcomed by New Zealanders and to bend the facts whenever necessary to avoid criticism or scrutiny ... not just mistakes made in war, but toxic foam used in bases, the scale of sexual abuse in the forces and much more.

"NZDF almost never admits mistakes until utterly forced to, and even then they will minimise and spin the news. Reputation trumps being up front."

Mr Hager said the Defence Force's PR employees who helped set up the $2 million Special Inquiry Office did so without asking the Defence Minister's permission.

He referred to the role of strategic inquiry liaison advisor, which is working closely with the Defence Public Affairs Unit and its QC and quoted from the job description for that person.

"An ability to gather, analyse and synthesise information from a range of sources into a cohesive word picture.

"These 'cohesive word pictures' are what we have been getting from NZDF as it tries to deny that its staff killed and injured innocent people ... that it knew almost straight away that it had, that it gave no assistance to these people and that it has covered it up since."

Mr Hager said since the book Hit and Run, which he wrote with Jon Stephenson, was published, the military had claimed events it covered did not happen.

He also said a document outlining the Defence Force's "narrative" of what happened provided to the Inquiry shows the NZDF remained determined not to admit what the SAS did.

"Instead, in words that have clearly been carefully worked out and argued over by the PR staff, the document says that 'the NZSAS ground forces did not cause, or observe, any civilian casualties'."

Nicky Hager also questioned the Army's "narrative" which referred to a US drone observed an armed insurgent moving along the ridgeline south of the village towards the point where the SAS were.

He said that was simply untrue and documentation confirmed the Afghanistan person concerned had no weapon and the statement of the "narrative" was self-justifying and false.

He said despite that, the SAS commander assessed the man as being such a risk to the soldiers that he had to be killed on the spot.

Operation Burnham began on 22 August 2010 and Mr Hager said by 24 August intelligence updates referred to "a small number of civilians [having been] killed or wounded".

However, he said in successive reports over the following week the civilians gradually dropped from the lists and nearly everyone left was referred to as an insurgent.

Mr Hager said that was the start of the SAS cover-up.

He asked the Inquiry to order the Defence Force to release information, including the names of all the people it knew were killed or wounded in the raid, where and when they were shot and what grounds it had for believing they were insurgents.

Earlier a witness, whose name and identifying details were suppressed, gave evidence to the Inquiry about the effects the war has had on the people of Afghanistan.

The witness told the Inquiry the war in Afghanistan has left people constantly in survival mode, unsure at the start of the day whether they would make it to the evening alive.

"The war has left insecurity and poverty, which have become obstacles to education and prosperity.

"As parents if you don't have enough food for yourself and your children and no security and property shelter, and can't protect your children, thinking about other matters of life becomes secondary."

The witness said there had been a significant deterioration in the Afghanistan population's sense of hope and an increased sense of helplessness about their country's future.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was rife in the Afghanistan populace, with 62 percent of respondents to a study of almost 800 people revealing they had experienced multiple trauma events.

"Humans are quite resilient and some have more protective factors and coping skills to help them survive.

"But one of the risk factors is low socio-economic status and low education, which makes a stronger context for depression to develop into PTSD."

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