19 Sep 2019

Operation Burnham: The documents locked away in a safe

6:56 pm on 19 September 2019

A former Defence Force chief has admitted he could have been clearer immediately after the publication of the book Hit and Run, when he wrongly called its allegations "unfounded".

Lieutenant General Tim Keating at the Operation Burnham inquiry.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating at the Operation Burnham inquiry. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Retired Lieutenant General Tim Keating gave evidence today at the Operation Burnham inquiry, which is investigating claims in the book, by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, that six civilians were killed during a New Zealand-led raid in Afghanistan in 2010, and the military covered up what happened.

The focus today was on a bundle of documents - locked away in a safe in 2011 - and discovered in 2014.

That bundle included a report from the International Security Assistance Force, which said civilian casualties may have occurred, contradicting statements made by the Defence Force for a few years following Operation Burnham that that was unlikely.

Tim Keating told the inquiry today he had no idea who put the report in the safe, nor why it lay undiscovered for so long.

After a Native Affairs documentary in 2014, the bundle was found in the safe, and then Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman was furious - and contacted Tim Keating.

Dr Coleman corrected the public record - but Tim Keating did not.

Retired Lieutenant-General Keating said today he was not forced to correct the record himself, because Dr Coleman had.

"When a Minister of the Crown stands up and says civilian casualties may have occurred and it's widely reported in the media, then I would assume that the public is well assured that with the position that civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of Operation Burnham."

No caption

Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

However, three years later, in 2017, in the immediate rush following the release of Hit and Run, the chief of defence repeated the wrong information that ruled out civilian casualties.

Lieutenant-General Keating admitted today that response could have been "clearer".

"Our response was to respond to the accusation that New Zealand Defence Force troops were deliberately involved in civilian casualties to the extent that we deliberately targeted civilians."

He told the inquiry the media response should have included a line saying civilian casualties may have occurred, but he denied it was a shambles.

"I think that our process of the Defence Force were not coherent in giving the response that we should have been able to give, in hindsight now."

The current head of Defence, Air Marshal Kevin Short, was to due to be the last witness tomorrow, but the hearing has been adjourned.

Late this afternoon the inquiry told media the hearing will resume "at some point once certain issues that were raised earlier today in relation to a NZDF document register have been resolved".

That may require other witnesses to be called, or recalled.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs