By David Fisher
The New Zealand Defence Force has admitted it was wrong to claim there were no photographs from the controversial 2010 raid in Afghanistan alleged to have left six civilians dead.
After 20 days checking and then asserting there were no photographs, it has now had to admit it was wrong and there were photographs taken during Operation Burnham.
NZDF has now conceded its claim there were no photographs is contrary to three images it published itself and additional unpublished images taken during the NZSAS raid.
The book Hit & Run alleged that the NZSAS had carried out a raid in Afghanistan to go after those responsible for the killing of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell but inadvertently killed six civilians and wounded 15 others instead.
That was in contrast to the official line that nine combatants were killed – and directly contradicting NZDF’s position since 2011 that claims of civilian casualties were “unfounded”.
While the book – written by journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson – called for an inquiry, Prime Minister Bill English said there was no need to investigate further based on information he was supplied by NZDF.
NZDF also shifted its position on the claims of civilian deaths, saying that “unfounded” meant that it was possible civilians had been killed by coalition air support.
The Operation Burnham raid came after New Zealand’s first fatality in the Afghanistan deployment and targeted two villages about 50km from the base of our Provincial Reconstruction Team in the mountainous Bamyan region.
NZ Herald inquiries have found the amount of information held by NZDF about the aftermath of the raid is limited, raising questions over how well-placed it was to answer allegations civilians were killed.
Our military held only a “summary” copy of the only investigation done – an inquiry that was completed within weeks of the raid by the International Security Assistance Force and two Afghan government ministries, none of which never visited the area.
And the only video it has admitted to having was from United States air support, even though the Herald has confirmed the NZSAS regularly wore helmet cameras on missions in Afghanistan.
In an effort to see what information NZDF held, the Herald sought through the Official Information Act a range of details to better understand the NZSAS mission and its outcome.
The information was sought because there has been a lack of clarity about the NZSAS actions after the raid – if soldiers had checked the bodies of those killed to determine identity, age, gender or whether they were armed.
In response, NZDF chief of staff Commodore Ross Smith said: “No video or still imagery was taken by the NZDF during Operation Burnham.”
The NZDF then went on to refuse that aspect of the request quoting the section of the Official Information Act stating the information would not be provided because it “does not exist or, despite reasonable efforts to locate it, cannot be found”.
The response appeared to contradict information released by NZDF itself when Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Tim Keating fronted media to reject the claims in Hit & Run.
NZDF released at the same time a 17-page “briefing” document, which included photographs that purported to have been taken on the raid.
Three images were shown in the document released by NZDF showing weapons and ammunition said to have been recovered from one of the villages that was targeted by the NZSAS and US air support.
When the discrepancy was raised with NZDF, it responded in an emailed statement which said: “The photos to which you refer were overlooked in the OIA response provided to you on 21 April 2017, but they had already been made publicly available by the Chief of Defence Force in his briefing on 27 March 2017.
“In the 21 April 2017 response, it would have been more correct to say that the photos provided in the slide are the best of the few photos taken of the arms cache discovered during Operation Burnham.
“We are not aware of any other still imagery captured by the NZDF during Operation Burnham. We can reconfirm there was no video imagery captured by the NZDF during Operation Burnham.”
Intelligence analyst Dr Paul Buchanan, who oversaw similar counter insurgency-style raids while working for the US government, said it would be “standard practice” for the NZSAS troopers to have worn helmet cameras and to have taken photographs.
He said helmet or body cameras were standard kit for professional militaries. Along with training and intelligence reasons for doing so, “if they get accused of war crimes then the cameras will absolve them”.
“The photographs are forensic evidence. It would be standard procedure to photograph the dead guys to make positive IDs.
“In this case, they say they killed insurgents but provide no evidence other than their assertions.”
He said it was standard practice to photograph, fingerprint and take DNA or dental impressions from those killed to match up with intelligence reports.
Asked what he made of the claim there were no photographs, Buchanan said: “That may be because they didn’t kill any insurgents and the people they did kill, they didn’t want to photograph.”