Hit & Miss: The Coalition Government should have done everything in its power – up to and including the passing of special enabling legislation – to ensure that the military was prevented from hiding behind the smoke-screen of “national security”. To preserve public confidence in the decency and honesty of the NZ Defence Force it is imperative that everything the military knows about Operation Burnham, the people of New Zealand should know also.
THAT MOST OF the Operation Burnham Inquiry will be closed to the public is deeply troubling but hardly surprising. From the moment of its announcement by Attorney General David Parker, the inquiry had about it an air of reluctance and limitation. As if the entire exercise was in some way illegitimate: the product of forces which had usurped the natural order of things and were being placated only because failing to do so would undoubtedly make matters worse. The heavily armed guardians of our society neither encourage nor welcome scrutiny. On the contrary, they expect the state to keep them safe from citizens’ prying eyes. From the outset, it was clear that the public (and its proxy, the news media) would be prevented from seeing and hearing anything it hadn’t already seen and heard about Operation Burnham.
It is worth asking why political parties so sharply critical of Operation Burnham when they were in Opposition have been so ready to accede to the demands of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) now that they’re in government. The Inquiry is, after all, being held to ascertain the truth or falsehood of allegations levelled against the NZDF in the book “Hit & Run” by investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. Was the NZDF responsible for the deaths of six Afghan citizens – including a little girl – or wasn’t it? Did our Special Air Service hand over captured Afghan insurgents to the Afghan security forces to be tortured – or didn’t it?
Such questions put the decency and honesty of the New Zealand military squarely in the cross-hairs of public scrutiny. Surely, a government determined to have a decent and honest defence force would not only move heaven and earth to have these questions answered, but also to have them seen to be answered. To that end, the Government should have done everything in its power – up to and including the passing of special enabling legislation – to ensure that the military was prevented from hiding behind the smoke-screen of “national security”. To preserve public confidence in the decency and honesty of the NZDF it is imperative that everything the military knows about Operation Burnham, the people of New Zealand should know also.
Naturally, the NZDF’s defenders have objected that the idea of politicians sending civilian investigators to rifle through the military’s files is outrageous. How can our allies trust the NZDF with their secrets if at some future point they could be revealed for all the world to see? The problem with that question is the implied assumption that there are some secrets that the world has no right to see. Like the video recording handed over to Wikileaks by Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning showing innocent Iraqi civilians being gunned down by the crew of an American helicopter gunship. But why should evidence of a war-crime be hidden beneath the shrouds of national security? What sort of military hides proof of murder?
A decent and honest NZDF would not have the public doubt in any way its willingness to co-operate fully in an inquiry into whether or not it deliberately gunned down unarmed civilians? After all, a military that could collude in suppressing evidence of murder could collude in all manner of crimes. It could be guilty of commissioning perjury, or conspiring to pervert the course of justice. It could be guilty of crimes so numerous and so serious that its commanders can only tremble at the thought of civilian investigators applying the disinfectant of sunlight to the accumulated reek of its misdeeds.
Which is why the fact that most of the Operation Burnham Inquiry will be carried out in the dark is so concerning. What sort of inquiry grants the legal representatives of interested parties only “summaries” of the evidence presented? What sort of a judicial officer submits to a “security clearance” before being allowed to view that evidence? And, when did the doctrine of national security override the right of the people to see justice done?
Two thousand years ago the Roman poet Juvenal asked: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Who will guard the guards themselves?” In relation to the Operation Burnham Inquiry the answer would appear to be: Not the Government. And, not the Inquiry heads; Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer.
In New Zealand, the guardians have no guards.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 September 2018.