In the wake of the Operation Burnham inquiry, a new report has concluded our defence forces must move out of the shadows and into the sunlight if they are to maintain their social licence

New Zealand’s military must improve its organisational structure to ensure there is sufficient democratic oversight of operations, a new report says, identifying problems with self-censorship and a lack of transparency.

The elite New Zealand Special Air Service has also come under the microscope, with the expert review group saying it should be moved more closely into the national security sector and greater attention must be paid to the “tone at the top” of its leadership.

The group was set up in response to the recommendations of the Operation Burnham inquiry, which investigated claims from the 2017 book Hit & Run that 21 civilians were killed or injured in a 2010 Afghanistan raid by the SAS subsequently covered up by military officials.

The inquiry concluded that a civilian child had died during the raid, but that claims of a cover-up and a motive of revenge were incorrect.

However, the NZ Defence Force had made misleading statements to ministers and the public about the raid, with a senior defence official deployed in Afghanistan showing an “inexcusable lack of care and rigor” in misrepresenting the findings of a multinational investigation into the claims of civilian casualties and broader “failures of organisational structure, systems and culture”.

In its report, the expert review group said that while it and the Ministry of Defence had well-established joint working arrangements for the development of a deployment mandate, the Secretary of Defence and its policy officials were “largely excluded from the subsequent planning and execution phases” and generally did not have a role in advising ministers at those stages.

“This exclusion appears to be driven by the thinking of some Defence Force personnel that policy functions should not be involved in ‘operational’ matters. In our view, this is erroneous; policy needs to be grounded in reality.”

The defence agencies were overly reliant on personalities and relationships when it came to working on deployments, instead of “hard-wired systems and processes” which were less vulnerable to erosion by a change of personnel.

It was important that the defence minister was given “added assurance that they have the information and advice required to properly exercise democratic oversight”, the report said.

Transparency ‘critical enabler’ for social licence

The review group also highlighted concerns with the military’s approach to transparency, which it described as “a critical enabler for building and maintaining a social licence to operate”.

While the importance of transparency had become better recognised in the wake of Operation Burnham, the defence public affairs unit still had “an overt focus on maintaining a favourable public image”, while the emphasis on openness had not filtered throughout the entire organisation.

“We also heard how pockets of the Defence Force ‘self-censor’ at times and unilaterally decide to hold back information from [public affairs] for reasons that are not always justifiable. This presents both timeliness and attitudinal challenges, and means [public affairs] staff often have to question why information is being withheld and educate other parts of the Defence Force about why it is necessary to share information outside the organisation.”

Some interviewees had also spoken about Defence Force information being “over-classified” – a problem also identified within the intelligence agencies by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security – which limited the organisation’s ability to be transparent about its work.

In recommendations directed specifically at the SAS, the report said the elite unit needed to become more integrated with the wider Defence Force and national security sector.

It said the military should continue to invest in training and development for future SAS leaders which gave them “opportunities to develop political acumen and a better understanding of the wider government authorising environment”.

Reinforcement of the SAS tenets and wider Defence Force values was important, while ongoing attention needed to be paid to “the ‘tone at the top’ set by commanders of the NZSAS and senior ranks”.

“If you want to be transparent, you have to be able to talk about some things with the public, because if the public don’t get information and they don’t trust that information, you lose your social license.”
– Lyn Provost, review chair

Defence Minister Peeni Henare said the Government had accepted all of the group’s recommendations, and was keen for the changes outlined to come into effect.

“What we want from this process … is to make sure that our public and our community have trust and confidence in our defence force. It is there – in fact, we continually rate very highly in trusted organisations in the New Zealand public view – but we want to make sure we can strengthen that and we’ll continue to look at how we make those improvements.”

Despite the concerns outlined in the report, Henare said a review of the decision to deploy troops to Afghanistan was “not a top priority” for Cabinet, although that could change in future, while he was comfortable with the quality of advice he was receiving from defence officials.

Group chair and former auditor-general Lyn Provost said the report’s focus on transparency and social licence were intertwined, and the defence agencies needed to take heed of its recommendations.

“If you want to be transparent, you have to be able to talk about some things with the public, because if the public don’t get information and they don’t trust that information, you lose your social license.

“I can speak now as a former auditor-general, who did a number of inquiries into information voids and in my opinion it’s better to be upfront, be transparent and provide the information.”

Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman says the report into the NZDF’s organisational structure could be a “watershed moment” for the culture of the NZSAS. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Henare said the Government was also set to begin targeted consultation on another recommendation from the Operation Burnham inquiry, the establishment of an Inspector-General of Defence to provide independent oversight of the NZDF.

Green Party defence spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman told Newsroom the report had identified “major gaps in the levels of transparency, accountability, and even just the internal communication of our defence force, which all of which are incredibly worrying”.

Ghahraman was particularly concerned that the need to bring the SAS more closely into the national security apparatus had not been identified sooner, saying: “To think … that’s been uncovered and recognised as a problem as a result of some pretty harrowing allegations against them, you know, it’s sort of a watershed moment for them.”

She believed the establishment of an inspector-general had the greatest potential to transform the defence system, although that would still rely on a wider culture change within the agencies themselves.

Ghahraman was in favour of reviewing New Zealand’s deployment to Afghanistan, saying greater transparency and accountability from military figures was critical to guard against any future violations of international law.

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

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