Gordon Campbell on the RWC, and the Operation Burnham inquiry debacle

nzdf-imageRugby has to be the very definition of anti-cool. If you could distil the essence of rugby and put it in a spraycan, it would be the ideal hipster repellent. Too bad… because we could all probably use a bit of hipster detachment in the coming weeks, given how rugby fandom already seems to be swinging (in the usual fashion) between blaring self-confidence and raging insecurity at the drop of a hat, or pass.

The mood swings do take their toll. Only two days into the World Cup, Spark must be wondering whether the big bucks they paid for what has been a seriously brand-damaging exercise, was money well spent. Meanwhile, national anxiety appears to be simmering at an inexplicably high level, even though we’re still only in pool play and despite us scoring a ten point winning margin against one of our main rivals. Even the nominally chill Steve Hansen has suggested that the game would have been lost if our guy hadn’t managed to tackle their guy. Buckle up. There’s a lot more of this coming our way over the next six weeks. Oh, and the dictionary definition of “game” is – “an activity that one engages in for amusement or fun.” Sure.

Footnote One: Japan could care less. Thanks to a nationwide advertising blitz, an alleged 80% of Japan’s population are now aware there is something called the Rugby World Cup happening in their midst, up from less than half after Japan had just won the hosting rights. For Japan, the RWC will be a useful trial run for the real event, the Olympics in Tokyo next year.

Besides giving a boost to Japan’s current and downstream tourism the RWC will enable young Japanese to practice their English, now widely seen to be a useful-to-essential skill for success in commerce. The RWC will also enable Japan to develop its hosting skills for an influx of foreign guests – who mysteriously seem to be obsessed with a game that most Japanese normally wouldn’t cross the street to watch, let alone travel halfway across the world.

If that seems a bit harsh, the statistics bear it out:

According to a recent white paper there are around 100,000 registered rugby players in Japan, which is around a third as many as badminton has, a quarter as many as volleyball, a tenth as many as football. The average match in the domestic rugby league pulls in a crowd of around 5,000.

At this moment, the RWC is facing stiff competition from the autumn sumo championships and from baseball, in a land where rugby remains a minority interest, especially among the young:

The organising committee’s own research shows that four years ago 49% of the people here weren’t even aware that Japan was going to host this competition. Among [young people] the figure was just over 25%. They’ve been running that survey every four months for the last four years, and are very proud of the fact that, after four years of marketing, public awareness has risen to 80%. But of course flip that around and it still means that, even by the most optimistic measure, one in five people here don’t even know the World Cup is on, never mind who is playing in it.

If, against the odds, Japan do reach the knockout phase (they’d probably have to beat number one rated Ireland) sponsors may climb back on board. They will need to, if the massive gamble to stage rugby’s premier competition in a country where it is only a niche sport, is going to pay off. As things now stand, Japan’s flagship rugby team (the Sunwolves) will cease to take part in the Super Rugby international competition at the end of the 2020 season, thanks mainly to financial problems.

Footnote Two : While New Zealand still treats rugby as a fount of our national identity, top rugby is becoming more and more of a global market in which national allegiance is conditional and can be bought. Football, cricket and athletics already reflect that trend. With Japan for instance, 16 players in its RWC squad were born outside of the country, just behind Tonga (19) and Samoa (18) and just ahead of Scotland (14) and Australia (12). Currently, eligibility to play in the RWC is by birth, a parent/grandparent or via a 3 year continuous residency rule. As from next year, 5 years of continuous residency will be required to qualify for a nation’s RWC team. The logic of that rule change seems pretty dubious. Surely, it will only perpetuate the very dominance of the current main rugby playing countries that playing the RWC in Japan was meant to erode.

The Burnham Follies

“A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest” – Paul Simon

Given that the New Zealand Defence Force puts such a lot of parade ground emphasis upon spit and polish – buttons shining, uniforms pressed, hair just so – it was astounding last week to watch the NZDF reveal itself at the Operation Burnham inquiry to be an organisation with all of the internal rigour of Homer Simpson.

Testimony was given that damning evidence had been culpably ignored, lost or (deliberately?) mislaid. The systems for handling secret material from our allies were – to be charitable – only loosely observed.

Moreover… vital evidence was only belatedly made available to the inquiry, and former NZDF officers later found to be central to the events under scrutiny were strangely missing from the original witness list offered by NZDF. In short, last week’s cross-examination of the military’s former top brass demonstrated in detail that the NZDF had consistently misled its Ministers (and the wider public) for years, over the impact of our military activities in Afghanistan. The key question being… had a few good men of noble intent been let down by a series of lamentable flaws in their information systems, or had NZDF – from the night of the Burnham raid in August 2010, and afterwards – co-ordinated a series of untruths to protect the military tribe to which these officers had belonged at the time?

Not surprisingly, former Chief of Defence Tim Keating took the ‘bad systems/good intentions” option: “It wasn’t tidy and it wasn’t professional, but it wasn’t a conspiracy.” Well, he would say that. But surely, lawyers for the inquiry asked, there had been a system for recording who brought classified material in, and who took it out? Keating: “What you are describing is a good system. I don’t believe we had a good system in those days.”

What was the central issue at stake – long before the release of the 2017 book Hit&Run – was whether civilian casualties had resulted from the NZ-led raid on two Afghan villages on 21–22 August 2010. (According to subsequent reporting, six deaths and 15 injuries among civilians occurred and several homes were damaged or destroyed.) Between 2010 and 2014, the NZDF repeatedly told the Minister of Defence and the public that such allegations had been investigated, and proven to be “baseless” and “unfounded.”

Last week however, witnesses conceded that an investigation carried out on 29 August 2010 (a week after the raid) by the International Security Force (ISAF) had contradicted the NZDF version of events. This document had been locked away in an NZDF safe (since 2011 at least) by persons still unknown. It was disinterred only in 2014, in response to a media programme on the Burnham raid.

NZDF’s inability/refusal to credibly explain how and when a secret ISAF report had entered the country, who had accessed it and who had “marched” it into a safe (where it lay attached significantly to draft ministerial briefings, until that 2014 media inquiry triggered its re-emergence ) verged at times, on farce. Sample testimony: “I don’t know how it arrived, and how it got into the safe.” Little wonder that the-then Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman had been enraged at being misled into uttering false public assurances.

Whose handwriting was that on the ISAF report? Nope, no one on the witness stand claimed to be able to identify it. The most likely person – who had apparently signed out the ISAF report on September 1, 2011 – seemed to be former special ops commander Jim Blackwell. However, Blackwell was not on the list of former senior personnel put forward by NZDF to the Burnham inquiry, supposedly to enable it to get to the bottom of the organisation’s series of untrue public statements. Similarly, the existence of a register of those who had accessed the ISAF report was not volunteered by NZDF; but was discovered by the inquiry only last week, via its own efforts.

Errors of their ways

“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it…” – Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

Barely had the dust settled on that August 21-22 raid in 2010 than a wealth of evidence had pointed to the likelihood of civilian casualties – including video footage of a misfiring Apache gunship laying explosive rounds near to occupied homes, and a ISAF press release from late August 2010 admitting the possibility of civilian casualties. (At the time, ISAF had also signalled the need for a second, more extensive investigation.)

Instead of relying on such evidence – and instead of conducting its own transparent investigation, out in the field as per recently issued exhortations by ISAF commander David Petraeus – the NZDF chose to cling entirely to a September 8. 2010 email from one of its senior officers who claimed to have sighted an official ISAF report that – allegedly – had completely exonerated both the ground forces and the air cover of causing civilian casualties during the raid.

Unfortunately, last week’s testimony revealed that this assurance had been based on a “fleeting” glance at only three or four sentences of that ISAF report, glimpsed over the shoulder of a coalition colleague. Regardless, this shaky assurance quickly evolved into a solid exoneration – using quote marks purporting to be from the report but which were (in reality) embellishments generated by NZDF itself. All of which caused then-Chief of Defence Jerry Mateparae to mislead his Minister in two separate briefings during December 2010. Even after the likelihood of civilian casualties was conceded by Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman in 2014, NZDF did not issue a statement correcting its previous false assurances.

Moreover, this pattern of NZDF misinformation – only insurgents were killed during the raid etc – also permeated the NZDF response when the Hit & Run book was published in 2017. On the witness stand last week, Keating was still insisting that the book had claimed that the SAS had deliberately killed women and children – despite the co-authors’ repeated public assurances from the outset that neither they, nor their book, were doing any such thing.

When does incompetence/stupidity reveal itself to have been so systematically and collegially pursued by so many, that the people involved must be held culpable? There is a problem here that goes wider than the NZDF and Operation Burnham. All around Wellington this week and every week, public servants and communications advisers are putting the available data on the rack and stretching and hammering it to fit a narrative, in line with what they know top officials and their political masters expect and desire to hear.

Such behaviours seem particularly rife within organisations like the Police, the military and security services – which happen to combine significant powers, a tribal sense of collegiality, and a shared belief among these guardians of democracy that too much democracy can sometimes be bad for the public, in that it would only immobilise their own best efforts, which are – of course – always being carried out with the greater good in mind. That assumption should be open to debate, but (often) any such public debate is deliberately stifled, before it gets a chance to begin. That’s the real problem before the Operation Burnham inquiry, and the inquiry will probably choose not to address it.

Postscript

In the end last week, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold decided to bring this highly fruitful public session of the Operation Burnham inquiry to a premature halt – mainly to enable those freshly discovered NZDF witnesses to be presented to it at a later date. Just before the close though, Palmer spoke directly to Keating. Instead of looking back, Palmer asked dismissively, what systems had, or should be put in place to ensure that such things would not happen again? Keating was happy to oblige, with a stream of management jargon and a list of changes he had personally made to the NZDF organisational pyramid.

It was hard to avoid a sinking feeling. After all, the inquiry exists to look back, to ensure that past wrongs are not perpetuated. What was implicit in Palmer’s query – that the fixing of what’s wrong with the NZDF can be entrusted to those (and their chosen successors) who created and nurtured those failings – would seem to be entirely fallacious. It is a remedy that looks less like a remedy, and more like another symptom of the same disease.

Regardless, the Burnham inquiry appears inclined to treat this near decade long debacle as a (fixable) systems failure that caused good men to let down themselves, and their Minister – rather than as disturbing evidence of an entrenched tribal loyalty to the organisation‘s proud traditions, and to the perceived needs of its political masters. That unpleasant prospect would be much, much harder to address, uproot and change. The Operation Burnham inquiry will almost certainly not want to go there.

Footnote One: In passing, the Operation Burnham inquiry has to be commended for conducting this vital part of its proceedings in public. The transparency it has shown in subjecting those in authority to public cross examination stands in stark contrast to the Kremlin-like secrecy with which the Christchurch mosque attacks inquiry is being conducted. If the public is going to have confidence in its security services, Police etc. there is no justification for the Christchurch inquiry being held behind closed doors. It has been a failure of process from the outset – and the Burnham inquiry proves the necessity of doing the opposite.

Footnote Two: As mentioned above, the initial ISAF report had recommended a second investigation into the Operation Burnham raid. It was this second report that Nicky Hager and the lawyers for the villagers obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act (and threat of court action) a few months ago, and released to the public.

Reportedly, the NZDF has known about this second ISAF report since 2017 at least. The journey of this second report into and within NZDF might also be a fruitful line of inquiry, once the public hearings resume.