Parker launches Hit and Run inquiry


David Parker has launched an inquiry into Operation Burnham. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Attorney-General David Parker announced on Wednesday an inquiry would be held into Operation Burnham and related events in Afghanistan.

Operation Burnham was a raid by the New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) on two Afghan villages in August 2010. It was retold in Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book Hit and Run, which alleged six Afghan civilians were killed and 15 were injured in the raids.

Parker said today that he had seen video footage of the raid held by the United States, which had confirmed that “armed individuals” were in the village, but it did not corroborate claims made in the book.

“The material that I have seen does not conclusively answer some of the questions raised by the authors,” Parker said.

“In light of that, and bearing in mind the need for the public to have confidence in the NZDF, I have decided in the public interest that an inquiry is warranted,” he said.

The inquiry would be led by former Supreme Court judge Sir Terence Arnold and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. The administrative set up would be completed by the end of May and the inquiry would report back after a year.

The previous Government refused to launch an inquiry into the claims, while the then-Labour Opposition demanded one. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked Parker to look into the Hit and Run claims in February.

Attempts so far

Attempts had been made to force NZDF to release information pertaining to the raids under the Official Information Act. NZDF withheld the information and the decision was appealed to Ombudsman, who said on Monday that they were right not to release the information.

“Some of the withheld information was received from other countries who didn’t wish to declassify or release it,” Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said on Monday,

“For NZDF to do so would have gravely affected other nations’ willingness to share information with us in the future,” he said.

“Much of the withheld information also contained sensitive details which, if released, could prejudice New Zealand’s defence and security,” Boshier said.

Terms of inquiry

The inquiry does not have the ability to lay charges against anyone, but it can make statements of fault and recommend further steps be taken to determine liability that could lead to charges being laid.

Given the classified nature of much of the information being considered by the inquiry it is possible that two forms of report will be provided, a public version and a second version containing classified or confidential information.

'Waste of time'

Former Defence Minister and now Opposition Spokesman Mark Mitchell said the Inquiry was a waste of time and money that could damage New Zealand's relationship with its allies.

“Two of the National Government’s Defence Ministers and the former Prime Minister have already reviewed New Zealand Defence Force evidence of what led to, and occurred, during Operation Burnham in the Baghlan province in Afghanistan.

“Much of it was highly classified and some of it was provided by our international partners in a mark of respect to the NZDF and the New Zealand Government. There was no requirement for them to share this information. The evidence shows the basis for the operation met all legal requirements and that it was conducted with the highest level of professionalism," he said.

“Based on the evidence we saw in Government, and the responses to our questions, this Inquiry is unwarranted.

“It will only be a distraction to our Defence Forces at a time when the Government is asking them to engage in major deployments around the world in theatres that present the same risks and challenges that Afghanistan did."

Waters muddied

Hit and Run co-author Nicky Hager welcomed the Inquiry.

“It is vital that, as a country, we can face up to incidents where our military does terrible things.”

“It feels like the start of a sound and thorough process. There have been years of cover up by the NZSAS and senior military staff ever since the raid – intended for insurgents – killed and wounded 21 civilians, most of them women and children. Even after we wrote a whole book setting out what had happened, the New Zealand Defence Force continued its denials. It is an intolerable situation when the military tries to cover up its own misdeeds," he said.

Co-author Jon Stephenson said he was astonished Parker appeared to prejudice the Inquiry with his comments about the video appearing to contradict the books' reporting.

"Having acknowledged that there was a prima facie need for an inquiry into the allegations in the book the Attorney General then appeared to muddy the waters by commenting on one of the aspects of the book without by his own admission having seen all the footage or knowing all the facts and without giving any context to that information," Stephenson told Stuff.

"To me that was highly inappropriate and prejudicial and something that should have been left to Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold to consider."