Gordon Campbell on the virtues (and fluffed opportunities) of the Operation Burnham report

6484a2ed0e9c26a51aebb1483e922283One unspoken rule of thumb in any official public inquiry is : whatever you do, don’t conclude you were made to listen to “a litany of lies” even if the evidence of a deliberate cover-up is right there under your nose. In that respect, the report into the 2010 Operation Burnham military raid in Afghanistan has been a model of decorum. Bad stuff did happen and has been duly noted and lamented – but only as a lapse and departure from usual professional standards. Normal service can be trusted to resume shortly.

Really? After all, the Burnham report contains ample evidence of a remarkably consistent pattern of false information being created and sustained over the course of several years. From the outset, problematic facts were wilfully misconstrued, edited, suppressed, misfiled and lost. Regardless – according to the report – there was no deliberate plan to deceive the public. So…with the armed forces now under new leadership and with a bit of added external monitoring to keep them on track, the NZDF can (allegedly) be expected to ensure that nothing similar will ever happen again. After a stern chiding in the report and a couple of penitent press conferences, this leopard can be trusted to change its spots. It seems more likely that such optimism would be misplaced.

One cheer for transparency

On the bright side, the two helmsmen fronting the Burnham inquiry – Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold – did display some commitment to public transparency. Not that it was ever remotely a level playing field for all the parties appearing before this inquiry. On matters of research resources, legal firepower and ready access to the key evidence, it was evident that only one side had the big battalions. To its credit though, at least the Burnham inquiry did hold a series of open hearings where the public could witness the cross-examination of military witnesses.

In doing so, the Burnham inquiry has put to shame the Royal Commission of inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shootings. That investigation has chosen to drop a cone of total secrecy over its activities. Incredible, given the circumstances. The Royal Commission was set up to re-assure the public that the security services and Police had acted beyond reproach before, during and immediately after the worst atrocity in New Zealand history. Yet the public has been denied any opportunity to see justice being done. Secrecy has been the default setting of the Royal Commission, throughout.

With unprecedented frankness, the Burnham investigators have condemned the NZDF leadership for their actions in the wake of the Burnham raid. Moreover, and while the report did note the minor errors contained in the book Hit & Run, it also concluded that the book has fulfilled a valuable public service. Without it, there would have been no opportunity to expose and correct the series of false assurances issued by top NZDF officers (and disseminated by government Ministers) in the wake of the raid.

What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, the areas where the Burnham inquiry chose NOT to lay blame are as significant as where it did. By and large (a) the soldiers who planned and participated in the raid and (b) the politicians at the delivery end of the Burnham information chain escaped the sweeping criticisms levelled at the senior NZDF staff of the day. At the political level, only fleeting criticisms have been directed at Defence Ministers Wayne Mapp and Jonathan Coleman for failing (over the ensuing months and years) to correct the wrong picture given to the public that civilian casualties hadn’t occurred, and that supposedly couldn’t possibly have happened.

Even so, the Burnham report is missing in action when it comes to offering credible explanations for the recurring “lapses” in standards that it deplores. This is deeply unfortunate. Because on the evidence contained in the report, there seems to have been a remarkably smooth fit between the military culture that generated these “lapses” and the political culture that then peddled them to the public. Yet in the wake of this multi-million dollar report, we’re effectively none the wiser as to why the NZDF felt that its false narrative about the Burnham raid would be exactly what the politicians wanted to hear. For from reflecting a systemic malfunction, the supply of falsehoods by the NZDF and the demand for them inside the Beehive appear to have been functioning in perfect sync.

That’s a key failing in the report. Because unless we can find ways to shine light onto how these mutual understandings between the government of the day and its key agencies (like NZDF, the SIS, and the Police) are being formed and fostered, we have precious little chance of avoiding future variations of the Operation Burnham fiasco. Mutually re-inforcing bouts of military and political expedience will arise again, and with similar outcomes. Briefly, the Hit & Run book managed to prise open a window on that unhealthy process. With sighs of deep regret and wagged fingers at the miscreants, the Burnham report has effectively shovelled the misdeeds back in the closet and re-shut the window once again.

No lies, no cover-up

Of the senior NZDF individuals whose shortcomings were criticised at length in the inquiry report, all of them – Chris Parsons, Peter Kelly, James Blackwell, and Tim Keating – have since left the NZ armed forces. As mentioned, and despite noting their disbelief of the testimony that some of these individuals presented, Palmer and Arnold did not conclude that lies had been told, or that a deliberate cover-up had existed.

Instead, the carefully chosen language is one of “ineptitude” and of “surprising” lapses in professional standards. Readers of the Burnham report may conclude otherwise. When information is so carefully and consistently selected, interpreted, edited and recast as to generate a coherent narrative that is known – for months and years – to be false, at what point does it become necessary to conclude that hey, maybe the NZDF was not acting in good faith? Instead Palmer and Arnold have displayed an almost Victorian reluctance to arrive at the distasteful conclusions that are staring them right in the face..

It matters a lot that the NZDF’s Burnham mis-information campaign has been depicted in the report as a deviation from the norm. So much of the evidence indicates that this bending of the truth – to protect your mates – was actually the norm, barrelling along in top gear. The takeaway lesson should be that this is exactly what strongly collegial organisations (such as the Police, Army, and spy agencies) routinely do, in order to protect the authority and the important powers that society has bestowed on them.

The report’s timidity in analysing – let alone denouncing – the rationale for the false Burnham narrative does look a lot like a simple failure of nerve. (Clearly, no-one wanted to risk becoming the 2020 version of Peter Mahon and the Erebus inquiry.) As a result, it has laid the blame for these regrettable lapses in standards on people who have since left the premises, and then crossed its fingers and hoped that the fresh military leadership team will behave far better in future.

The unfortunate reality is that the finessing of the Burnham cover-up was seen at the time to be the professionalism of the day, in full flower. There is no good reason to think this noxious climate has magically evaporated. At heart, the Burnham raid aftermath looks like an example of the military club protecting its reputation in the wake of a bungled mission that failed to kill or capture its two targets – while managing to kill seven other people instead, one of them a child. To repeat : this wasn’t an overnight lapse. A central flaw in the Burnham report is that it failed to adequately explain why the false narrative was maintained for so long..

The Defence Ministers in question ( Mapp and Coleman) are depicted as being initially misled by the NZDF Thet are then chided for not correcting the public record in a timely fashion once the “errors” were known, and got out into the public arena. Again the opportunity to analyse the role the political culture played in this saga has been almost entirely avoided.

Footnote One : The Raid. The Burnham raid was deemed by the report to be legal under international law and justifiable in military terms. Obviously, there is a tactical military advantage in staging such an attack under cover of darkness. However, the wisdom of conducting this kind of surprise night-time raid – where it would be virtually impossible to distinguish civilians from insurgents – was worthy of more critical attention than it received in the report. Especially when the raid’s over-riding aim should have been to minimise civilian casualties, as NZDF had been directed earlier in the same month (August 2010) by the ISAF commander.

Lest we forget, there were real victims of this failed raid, which did not succeed in killing or capturing its two declared targets. Whether any of the victims were insurgents is open to question, and the Burnham inquiry reached no final conclusion on that point. As this

Stuff report pointed out:

At least seven men were killed in the raid, and the inquiry did not confirm any to be insurgents. Two men had possible links to the insurgent group but may have been civilians, and the inquiry declined to decide whether two other men were insurgents. Three or more men were killed more than a kilometre south of the raided village, and while New Zealand’s intelligence reports later deemed these men insurgents, the inquiry said there was insufficient evidence to determine they were insurgents. The inquiry said all were killed with “proper justification”, and only one of the killed was shot by a SAS soldier.

Right. That person killed by the SAS sniper was found (see Chapter Four para 25) to be unarmed, with only a pocket knife and torch in his clothing. As the report says, he appeared to have been “ sleeping rough.” When the helicopters arrived and shooting broke out in the middle of the night, this rough sleeper then wandered along a ridge near the village – as he was observed to be doing for some time before the kill order was given. Evidently, such behaviour provided “proper justification” for killing him without further ado.

What we also know from the report is that the three or four people killed in the US Apache gunship attack (authorised by NZDF) were moving south, and away from the village when they came under fire. Was this a sinister attempt to escape, or a case of innocents trying in vain to get out of harm’s way? The NZDF seems inclined to classify dead villagers as insurgents, by definition.

If so, that’s obviously a problem. After all, you might have reasonably expected that NZDF should have at least entertained the possibility of civilian casualties from the moment it realised it had failed to kill or capture the raid’s two prime targets. Instead, NZDF dug in, “Dead villagers” was taken to mean“ likely to have been insurgents.” Anyone who suggested otherwise (eg Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson)was treated as the enemy. Can we really expect an organisation with this bunker mentality to reform itself voluntarily, from the inside?

Creating an SIS Inspector-General of Defence – as the Burnham report has recommended – would seem a welcome move – better than nothing – but is an inadequate solution to the problems this episode has laid bare. As experience with the SIS Inspectorate has shown, some individuals in such a job have been more prone to capture than others by the agencies they are meant to be critically monitoring. Already, one can imagine the calls from NZDF that anyone entrusted with investigative powers must have had a deep working acquaintance with the culture of the armed forces. In the circumstances, such levels of empathy could be both an asset and a liability, if you’re looking for an effective watchdog.

Footnote Two : the treatment of prisoners. One prisoner taken into custody was assaulted by NZ troops, and then handed over to a known Afghan torture facility where he was, indeed, subsequently tortured. The assault and handover were condemned in the report – and subsequently by Attorney-General David Parker – as a breach of expected standards. Yet again, it has to be taken largely on trust that NZ troops engaged in any future overseas conflict zone would no longer hand over prisoners for interrogation to the host authorities, and without us having any residual ability to influence the consequences of doing so.