Fran O'Sullivan: PM should recall the old 'loose lips' advice

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John Key has drawn fire on social media for spilling military secrets

US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta (left) and New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman at Government House in Auckland yesterday. Photo / Steven McNicholl
US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta (left) and New Zealand Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman at Government House in Auckland yesterday. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Surely it wasn't the imminent arrival of US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that emboldened John Key to this week lift the lid on the plan to send four SAS soldiers back to Afghanistan on scouting mission?

New Zealanders - or for that matter the Taleban - don't really need to know that the Government has injected four SAS "logistics experts" back into play to ferret out the whereabouts of those who slaughtered several of our Kiwi soldiers in preparation for a US search and destroy mission.

Many of us would have been happy for the Prime Minister to do the chest-beating stuff when and if US special forces do take out the killers of our soldiers and our force has been returned safely to New Zealand.

But ratcheting up international - and Taleban - attention on this score is just plain dopey.

New Zealand's defence force is tiny. It is justifiably proud of its record in the field. But it is also bruised and saddened by the sheer number of New Zealand soldiers who have recently lost their lives. Feelings are also running deep over Key's verbal incontinence, which some see as violating standard operating procedure.

Former Labour Defence Minister Phil Goff hit the nail on the head.

"By big-noting in the way that he has, the Prime Minister has effectively put in jeopardy the lives of the four New Zealanders that he sent up there. That would never have happened in the past; I can't understand why he would have made a comment like that in advance of any operation."

Chatter on New Zealand Defence Force-related social media has been particularly cutting.

"This is the second time 'don key' has breached OPSEC. The first was letting everyone know when we're pulling out. Now this. He's painting targets for the EN [enemy]," said one Facebook respondent. (OPSEC stands for Operational Security.)

Here's another comment in a similar vein: "Just like when our SAS are deployed. That should be kept a secret too. Why the Govt insist on telling everyone is beyond me. The Brits and the Yanks wouldn't do it. This country is far too PC."

Key needs to take note of these social media comments. Social media can be a safety valve. But it can also be a major pressure force, as happened last month when defence personnel mounted a Facebook campaign against activist Barbara Sumner Burstyn for dishonouring their dead.

The real issue that this Government has to confront is what is the acceptable level of "success" which will enable both New Zealand and the America political leaders to withdraw from Afghanistan with some concrete achievements under their respective belts.

The Government has already announced a withdrawal programme.

In Auckland yesterday, Panetta revealed that the additional 33,000 "surge" troops that President Barack Obama sent to Afghanistan two years ago have now departed.

Panetta reportedly said the "surge did accomplish its objectives of reversing the Taleban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increasing the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces".

The US was on track to achieve its goals.

But how real is this?

From a New Zealand perspective the US Defence Secretary's comments are rather surreal, given the spate of "insider attacks" in recent weeks in which insurgents dressed in Afghan army uniforms have turned their guns on American forces. And further, the fatal attacks on our own soldiers.

Much of this was glossed over by Panetta's announcement that New Zealand naval vessels would once again be able to tie up at US Defence Department or coastguard facilities.

The US did need to make this move.

New Zealand's navy was humiliated when Te Kaha and the Endeavour were not allowed to berth at Pearl Harbour alongside other "allies" during the Rimpac international defence exercise.

That humiliation has now been buried by further steps towards a new defence relationship which will cover greater co-operation, counter-piracy activities, military exercises and training on amphibious ships.

The unwritten part of that relationship may also include a US-launched revenge mission on the Taleban killers who took out our soldiers. Tell us about it if it succeeds.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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