The ranks of Navy personnel taking part in American war games were deemed too sensitive to give to a peace activist, but their names and photos were published just weeks later in a publicity push

The New Zealand military has been criticised for a lack of transparency after it declined part of an official information request on the grounds of national security – only to publish the same information just weeks later in its own public magazine.

In early July, peace activist Valerie Morse sent an Official Information Act request to the NZ Defence Force via the FYI website asking for the ranks and total number of military personnel embarking on the American warship USS Mobile Bay as part of RIMPAC, the world’s largest maritime war games held near Hawaii every two years.

In a response to Morse’s request on July 14, Defence said there were eight personnel taking part, but declined to provide their ranks (other than the captain) on the grounds of “avoiding prejudice to the security or defence of New Zealand”.

However, just weeks later, the names and ranks of all those taking part – as well as a photo – were published in the August edition of Navy Today, an in-house magazine produced by the military to “inform, inspire and entertain serving and former members of the Navy, their families, friends and the wider Navy community”.

Morse told Newsroom she had filed a complaint with the Ombudsman about her information request in light of the Defence Force’s publication.

“In my experience, the ‘national security’ excuse has frequently been deployed simply as a way to obstruct inquiries or hide what is potentially inconvenient information,” she said, referring to a previous request where trade material relating to weapons contracts was redacted in one version but visible in another.

“The material that was redacted could in no way have met the threshold of national security, but would have been embarrassing to have weapons company execs wining and dining with various MFAT, NZ Trade and Enterprise and NZ Defence Force people,” Morse said.

In a statement, a Defence spokesperson said the organisation gave “careful consideration” to its use of conclusive withholding grounds in response to OIA requests, but added: “We also take the safety and security of our personnel seriously, especially when operating in an exercise intended to replicate real-world security concerns.”

It was “inappropriate” to provide the ranks of the Navy personnel on the American ship at the time it responded to Morse, as the military exercise was still underway.

“The names and ranks of the Royal New Zealand Navy personnel aboard USS MOBILE BAY were made available with the publication of the August issue of Navy Today on 13 August 2022 because the exercise had concluded and the security concerns no longer existed,” the spokeswoman said.

The spokesperson did not say whether officials had considered releasing the information to Morse after the exercises concluded; had the Defence Force provided the material on August 4, the day RIMPAC ended, it still would have met the statutory 20-day timeframe for a response.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Peeni Henare told Newsroom the Defence Force’s handling of the response was an operational matter, but added he “expects all central government organisations he is responsible for to comply with the Official Information Act”.

New Zealand’s newest and largest naval ship, the HMNZ Aotearoa, took part in RIMPAC along with other navy, army and air force teams.

Morse and other activists had previously called on Aotearoa to withdraw from the exercises, citing the environmental impact of live combat training as well as the potential to increase tensions.

“Combat training like RIMPAC only makes war more likely and does nothing to address the real concerns of Pacific peoples in a time of climate crisis,” Morse said in July.

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

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