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Fran O'Sullivan: Bluster won't bury Hager's revelations on military

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Coverage of Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq has seemed little more than a Defence PR exercise. Photo / File
Coverage of Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq has seemed little more than a Defence PR exercise. Photo / File

Controversial source documents deserve wider airing, Wikileaks style

The tsunami of flannel emanating from John Key, Phil Goff and the former Defence top dogs will not bury Nicky Hager's latest exposure on New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan, Iran and the war on terror.

Nor should it.

Whatever your position on New Zealand's relationship with the United States - and I have been a long-time advocate for much closer political, trade and defence ties - Hager's Other People's Wars makes public plenty of new material about the origins of this country's entry into the first wars of the 21st century.

I haven't had time yet to undertake more than a very cursory matching exercise on some areas which I have previously covered.

But the chapter that deals with the negotiations on the rules of engagement that former Prime Minister Helen Clark sought before committing "engineering troops" to Iraq is fascinating.

So, too, the disclosures that New Zealand troops were under British marching orders not to talk to Kiwi journalists about their mission; and the way in which those journalists were later deliberately gulled as to the extent of the full contribution of our Army personnel in Basra.

This matches with the impression I had earlier formed through background discussions with politicians and officials in New Zealand, the US and Britain that Kiwi troops were simply being used as PR cosmetics to dress up the on-the-ground reality of the post-Iraq invasion.

It was a pawn Clark was prepared to play to ensure that New Zealand regained entry to the club.

In a 2003 Herald series "In the National Interest" I wrote about how New Zealand troops were being used as instruments of foreign policy in military hotspots such as Iraq and the Solomon Islands. That series canvassed a culture of secrecy which means New Zealand journalists can obtain clearer information from military websites overseas than is made readily available at home and said much of the official information which the Labour Government chose to publish was hopelessly outdated.

Much of the subsequent coverage of New Zealand's deployments to Iraq or Kabul has seemed little more than a Defence public relations exercise: designed to produce compelling television coverage of Prime Minister John Key - and Clark before him - in "theatres of war".

And it set up the justification to extend those deployments.

There is a pattern here.

When Wikileaks dumped a document by a US official who claimed senior New Zealand Defence officials told him that Clark found her face-saving Iraqi compromise after former Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen pointed out New Zealand's absence might cost Fonterra its lucrative "Oil for Food" contract, the revelation was (of course) also denied by all concerned. So who is to be believed?

Indulge me here in another personal example.

In October 2009 I traipsed up to the State Department in Washington to fire two allotted questions to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after her meeting with Foreign Minister Murray McCully.

Clinton and McCully had just made the usual soothing but completely anodyne noises about the health of the relationship.

So I asked Clinton what "real role" did she see for New Zealand at a "more substantive level" - particularly in the areas of defence, security, the Pacific and more particularly in East Asia, where there was a vacuum in leadership which China was filling to the detriment of the US.

Clinton again acknowledged how much the US valued New Zealand's partnership and its leadership in all those areas.

Then she revealed: "We are resuming our intelligence-sharing co-operation, which we think is very significant."

As indeed it was. The US Embassy in Wellington made sure the videotape of Clinton's briefing went to New Zealand media that evening.

But when journalists asked Key to comment he refused, saying simply "I just don't comment on issues of national security".

What is - and remains - outrageous is the fact that Clinton was advised by the US Embassy that the restoration of intelligence sharing was a "no comment" issue during her subsequent visit to New Zealand.

This pattern of absurd secrecy is why the revelations that Hager's ferreting have brought to the public eye are important. So too the work of independent journalist Jon Stephenson, whose disclosures in Metro magazine prompted the PM to undermine his credibility rather than engage seriously on the content of his article.

Clearly Hager has filtered the new disclosures through his own predictable prism. That's what he does. In my view the focus on whether or not the CIA is working alongside NZ's provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan is banal. So what. But that does not negate the substance of leaked military and intelligence documents he has unearthed.

It's obvious to other than the obviously obtuse that Hager is not going to disclose the identity of his confidential sources. They would appear to be well-placed.

But he should now follow in Julian Assange's footsteps and make his confidential source documents public through an open-source website so journalists and Defence commentators can independently assess them.

- NZ Herald

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