Tuesday 6 September 2011

No Place For Partisanship

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.


Chris Trotter said...

To: My Proof-reader.

Many thanks ;-)

Michael said...

I can understand your frustration, Chris, that the CIA in Bamiyan is not going to be a big story. Perhaps it should be. But rather than being unwise, John Key's response shows he has his finger on the pulse of both the NZ public and the press. The latter have given up opposing the government (they did the same for Labour). The public knows if they give it a moment's thought that Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan must have dealings with the CIA - the CIA do bad things - there's no news here. The americans are good allies if you want allies at all? Most people probably think Nicky Hagar is throwing muck around in a mucky situation he has no answers for. Rightly or not, Nicky Hagar is much less a national hero than our soldiers who by all accounts have done us proud and done some good in Bamiyan. John Key knows that too. His whole demeanor was, 'I've got the measure of this.' And he has.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't mind quite so much if the press weren't so po-faced about their role as purveyers of the 'truth' voice of the 'public' etc. Dompost editors seem very susceptible to this pomposity. Better a system where media are publically partisan I think, then you know where you stand.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Michael.

It's difficult to know which is harder to take, Michael, your deep ignorance concerning the war in Afghanistan; your obvious unfamiliarity with Nicky Hager's thoroughly researched and impeccably sourced book, which explains it; your appalling moral apathy in the face of deliberate deception on the part of your own government and its media apologists; or your smug assumption that New Zealanders feel as little moved by this situation as you do.

Read the book, man. Or would that be just too hard?

Dave Kennedy said...

Have just had the book arrive on my doorstep so have only begun to read it. I will say, however, that for many years National has done well in diminishing the value of science and research. In past National governments all they needed to do was call someone an academic or intellectual and they immediately devalued anything they had to say. Dr Mike Joy has been sidelined and Nicky Hager will be dealt with in a similar fashion, he's just too clever for words.

Michael said...

Concerning my earlier post, I neither made any judgement about the book, or the war in Afghanistan, but only public opinion and the sources and general tone of information that inform it, and whether John Key has the measure of that opinion. How carefully did you read my post? If I was wrong about the things I did write about, the National government would right now be reeling from the impact of Nicky Hagar's observations. If that indeed happens I will stand corrected.

Victor said...

I have yet to read this volume but look forward to doing so. I'm a slow reader so it might take me some time.

In the meantime, the aspect of the affair that has amazed me most has been the shortage of comment on Nicky Hager's reported finding that the Royal New Zealand Navy disobeyed instructions from its political bosses by directly aiding the American-led assault on Iraq.

I suspect that we all understand the Afghanistan embroilment to involve close cooperation with United States agencies that no longer regard the Geneva Convention as in any way prescriptive. Some will approve of this and others will be appalled. But only the naive would be surprised at Hager's reported findings in this regard.

However, deliberate disobedience of both the orders and overall policy settings of an elected government on an issue of considerable substance could, to my mind, be viewed as bordering on mutiny, if not treason.

If the civil power cannot rely on total obedience on the part of its military servants, then it does not necessarily follow that we are on the path to the traditional Latin American coup-infested model of governance.

We would, however, be on the path to a state in which democratic sovereignty was subjected to rather greater limitations than most of us would find acceptable. The example of Turkey, prior to a couple of years ago, comes to mind.

We have added cause for concern if we place such a threat against the background of existing globalist restrictions on democratic sovereignty, the (far from wholly unjustified)links between our military and those of more powerful countries and the elevation of a former military man to supreme titular office.

I'm genuinely surprised that Hager's allegations about Iraq did not assume centre stage when his book was released. Perhaps this lack of focus can be laid at the door of the remorseless triviality of our media. But perhaps there are other, more worrying, causes at play.

Michael said...

Concerning the broader issue of the war in Afghanistan, I would not fight there myself so I cannot condone it and I never have. I recognise that if all New Zealanders shared my stance it would result sooner or later in our occupation by a foreign power. I don't think that should be overlooked in assessing the morality of foreign wars because that is where the buck stops. I both dread and accept that. The alernative is to have allies and to fight in their wars. The US has a terrible war record, including in Afghanistan, but what nation has a good one? Or even a better record than the US? So there are the alternatives. A middle road where we do no evil and suffer no harm is not reality.

Tiger Mountain said...

There are obvious professional jealousy issues here for the word processing ‘literary’ eunuchs of what passes for the press in NZ. Nicky should be celebrated for his contribution to a more decent open society.

Victors gentle ramble has a salient point. If the military can get away with not doing as directed what does that hint at for our society given the nearby Commodore’s example. The ruling class has enough people pleasantly subdued, subject to false consciousness and under Shonkey’s spell at the moment to get by. But we ignore “Other People’s Wars” at our peril for New Zealand democracy.

Anonymous said...

I wrote for NBR on defence from 1983 to 1997. After that NBR were neutered and ceased to offer any independent defence commentary-it being replace by regurgated foreign affairs mush provided by the establishment cock sucker, Stuart MacMillan who understood nothing about power, defence or foreign affairs.
Generally speaking the dominion was always the urinal for the views of the navy,army and SIS.
And really shouldn't Rachel Smalley take her immaculate makeup to Fox News. RFM

Anonymous said...

In terms of Victor's comment about the Navy-riding alongside the US Iraq invasion fleet, it would just be a diplomatic gesture by NZ's HMNZS Te Kaha. Like a private non photographed conversion between Washington official and NZ diplomats during the Bolger years.Our presence would have had no military naval sig as Te Kaha would have been no more than a missile magnet and many of the USN cruisers and destroyers even in 2003 would have had close to the power to intercept an ICBM. It is true a RN Type 42 shot down a silkworm missile aimed at the battleship Wisconsin in 1991 but our frigates have nothing like that capability. In terms of doing surveillance and interception patrols in the gulf this has been seen as the priority mission for the RNZN since the the British decision to withdraw from east of Suez, by the both the USN and RN. Clark was clearly somewhat more sympathetic to the US than the left admits. In l982 Muldoon did not allow our frigates to enter the gulf for trade sensitivities even though the purpose of the deployment with the RN was to enter and patrol those waters

Victor said...


I think you've missed the point.

It's not the obviously miniscule military significance of the RNZN's alleged contribution to the assault on Iraq that is so perturbing. It's the political significance of such cooperation.

According to newspaper reports prompted by Nicky Hager's book, the RNZN disobeyed its civilian masters in assisting the invasion.

It seems to have done so , moreover, in connection with a significant issue of foreign policy.

If this was so, then it raises an issue of fundamental importance in the governance of New Zealand, viz. whether are our armed forces are properly subordinated to the elected civil authority.

It might be that the allegations are incorrect and that the RNZN, which had legitimate business in the Gulf, was merely tipping its hat to opposite numbers from friendly nations and not assisting them in the invasion.

But this is not the story as reported, however briefly and inadequately, in our media.

What is so extraordinary is that these reports did not spawn a massive nationwide debate and that discussion, such as it was, of Hager's book was largely restricted to his much less surprising revelations about Afghanistan.

I agree with you, though, that Clark was(and is)far from a knee-jerk anti-American and her initial opposition to assisting the Iraq invasion got somewhat watered down once "Shock 'n Awe" was over.

And, by the way, I'm far from being a knee-jerk anti-American myself and believe that the current tenuous balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region requires a level of military cooperation with the US.

The questions are 'where?', 'how?' and 'with what limitations?'