Hail To The Chief: Members of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team based in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, welcome US General David Petraeus to "Kiwi Base", 9 May 2011. According to Nicky Hager's latest book, Other People's Wars, the base also contains a communications post staffed by non-military US personnel - almost certainly CIA/NSA employees. Kiwi journalists embedded with the NZ Defence Force had not considered this US intelligence presence sufficiently newsworthy to be included in their reports to the New Zealand public.
WHAT SEPARATES the great from the merely successful prime minister is knowing when to leave partisanship behind. John Key, in responding to the Canterbury earthquakes and the Pike River disaster, spoke for all New Zealanders. He’s not an eloquent man, but on those tragic occasions it wasn’t important. Most Kiwis mistrust the easily eloquent, and are actually rather proud of having a prime minister who not only speaks for them – but like them.
After the high and solemn rituals of mourning associated with natural disasters, the most important responsibilities of national leadership are those attached to the grim exigencies of war and peace. Committing the nation’s blood and treasure in war is, perhaps, the most important decision a prime minister makes. Which is why, when confronted with serious questions about the conduct of his country’s armed forces, a prime minister cannot afford to be careless, or flippant, or dismissive in his responses. Above all, he cannot afford to be partisan.
And yet, last Thursday, when confronted with the plethora of serious questions contained in Nicky Hager’s latest book, Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror, Prime Minister Key’s response was careless, flippant, dismissive and partisan.
“I don't have time to read fiction,” quipped the Prime Minister, adding that the book contained “no smoking gun”, just supposition, which, “makes it business as normal for Nicky Hager.”
Lawyer, Stephen Price, captured the extraordinary rudeness of the Prime Minister’s response on his Media Law Journal blog:
“Just heard John Key discussing the book on [Radio New Zealand’s] Checkpoint. He said (a) there was no evidence for Hager’s claims; and (b) he hadn’t read the book. I hope other people find that as breath-taking as I do, given that the book contains more than 1300 footnotes, most of them referring to documentary sources.”
Curiously, our Prime Minister – more than any other New Zealander – has reason to honour Mr Hager. It was, after all, Mr Hager’s last book, The Hollow Men, which precipitated the downfall of Dr Don Brash, and elevated Mr Key to Leader of the Opposition. Without Nicky’s “smoking gun” back in 2006, it’s possible some other National Party MP may have become prime minister.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s peculiarly beholden to Mr Hager which explains why the Prime Minister feels obliged to add his own full measure of bile to those of all the other right-wing critics of Mr Hager’s work?
One can only speculate as to why the New Zealand Right responds with such irrational and defamatory fury to Mr Hager’s publications. He is, after all, an award-winning investigative journalist with an international reputation. His first book, Secret Power, on global intelligence systems (including our own Waihopai listening station) was described by intelligence expert, Jeffrey Richelson, as “a masterpiece of investigative reporting” and led to a year-long European Parliament inquiry.
In his own land, however, Mr Hager is without profit and seldom honoured. Victim of a right-wing demonstration of the Tall Poppy Syndrome? Perhaps. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I suspect that Mr Hager represents what the Right fears the most – an effective Fourth Estate. In this country, investigative journalism is (just) tolerated in the fields of crime, business and public administration. When it comes to the dark arts of public relations, political campaigning, intelligence-gathering and national defence, however, it is not tolerated at all.
The revelations contained in Mr Hager’s book, augmented by fellow investigative journalist and war correspondent, Jon Stephenson’s, Metro article, “Eyes Wide Shut”, tell us why. Both men succeed in directing a very bright light into some of the most fiercely protected areas of “national security”.
It also explains why Mr Hager and Mr Stephenson arouse such animosity among less independent journalists. Bluntly expressed, these others stand exposed for the crude “stenographers of power” they have allowed themselves to become.
In Other People’s Wars, for example, Mr Hager reveals the co-existence, within the New Zealand Defence Force’s Bamiyan base, of an American intelligence-gathering operation almost certainly staffed by members of the CIA and/or the US National Security Agency. New Zealand journalists who’d been embedded with the NZDF in Afghanistan moved with indecent haste to pour scorn on Mr Hager’s revelations.
Once again, quoting Stephen Price: “The line on the CIA seems to be, simultaneously, that (a) they were not there, and (b) if they were, it was obvious to everyone.”
In which case, why wasn’t this “obvious” presence reported?
Serious though the failures of these embedded reporters may be, they do not approach the Prime Minister’s failure to leave petty partisanship behind. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 looms before them, John Key owes New Zealanders a much more statesmanlike response to the serious questions Mr Hager’s investigative journalism has raised about New Zealand's longest engagement in somebody else's war.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 September 2011.