The New Zealand military officer who accidentally published an email calling the Timor-Leste Prime Minister a “puppet” has been permanently removed from his posting in the country, but escaped further disciplinary action.

In July, Newsroom revealed Wing Commander Kerry McKee had been suspended from the NZ Defence Force (NZDF) after an email outlining the political climate in Timor-Leste was published to a mailing list used by thousands.

McKee, who was in the country as a strategic advisor to the Timor-Leste Defence Force, said newly appointed Timor-Leste president Taur Matan Ruak was “merely a puppet” who had been appointed as part of politicking by revolutionary hero Xanana Gusmao.

The email also discussed tensions between the new government and the military, with McKee saying a coup was unlikely “but not beyond the realm of possibility.”

At the time, the NZDF said McKee had been pulled from Timor-Leste to return to New Zealand while it carried out a review into the incident.

McKee’s comments were rebutted at the time by Timorese military chief Major General Lere Anan Timur, who said he would never consider a coup, while an NGO monitoring the country’s security sector said public opinion was “strongly against the idea of military involvement in politics”.

In a statement to Newsroom, an NZDF spokesman said the internal review took the form of
“a situational analysis…verbal in nature” conducted by its strategic commitments and engagement branch.

“It is my understanding NZDF have determined the email to be a serious mistake, in that he intended to forward his personal thoughts, but instead hit reply all.”

“This analysis reviewed the impact of [McKee’s] actions and considered his ability to remain in the position as an effective advisor.”

It found his ability to be effective in the role had been compromised, with a command decision taken for him to be permanently replaced, although he was still serving with the NZDF.

Asked about what exactly the analysis consisted of, or whether there had been any changes to internal processes and procedures as a result of what happened, the spokesman said the NZDF had “nothing to add”.

Defence Minister Ron Mark told Newsroom the NZDF’s investigation was an operational matter, but added: “It is my understanding NZDF have determined the email to be a serious mistake, in that he intended to forward his personal thoughts, but instead hit reply all.”

Mark said the NZDF had acted quickly to address McKee’s email, standing him down from his post while it made further inquiries.

“After discussions with officials in Timor Leste, it was clear [his] position was untenable and he was brought home.”

The Timor-Leste government had accepted an apology from New Zealand, as well as an assurance that the email’s contents did not reflect the Government’s views.

Mark said no additional action had been taken against McKee, who remained in the NZDF.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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