The New Zealand Defence Force is living to regret, twice over, its suggestion that journalist Jon Stephenson had fabricated an important element of his 2011 story on the SAS in Afghanistan.
Last week the Herald disclosed that an Afghan police unit commander on whose evidence the Defence Force had relied is still in New Zealand and has applied for refugee status. Subsequently we revealed the man was brought to this country after he declined a request to provide his evidence by video or sworn affidavit.
The Prime Minister agrees it is "concerning" that the Defence Force may have been used in this way. Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee calls it "somewhat unsatisfactory".
What is really concerning, as it was at the time, is the Defence Force's unwillingness to provide straight answers. Stephenson's article in Metro magazine reported that the NZSAS had passed prisoners of war to allied agencies that were known to be using torture. The Defence Force did not simply deny this but issued a public statement doubting that Stephenson had been inside the Afghan base and spoken to its commander as he had reported. Stephenson sued for this slight on his integrity. A jury could not agree on a verdict even though the head of the Defence Force at that time, Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones, had conceded the factual issue in court. Those who expose failings in respected institutions are seldom popular.
It took another 15 months for the Defence Force to settle with Stephenson, accepting that he had gone to the Afghan Crisis Response Unit base and interviewed its commander as he said, expressing "regret" for its press statement and paying him a six figure sum.
In the interim, it had flown the commander to New Zealand and his evidence was heard at a closed hearing at the High Court in Wellington. After that hearing the Defence Force decided not to contest Stephenson's claim before another jury. It was another 10 months before he received the settlement, in October last year.
Meanwhile, the Afghan witness has been here since December, 2014, and awaits a ruling on his request for asylum. The Defence Force is in an awkward position and its minister is ducking for cover. Mr Brownlee says the terms of the settlement with Stephenson preclude any comment on its dealings with the Afghan commander. Stephenson says their settlement agreement does not prevent the minister telling the public what arrangements were made with the witness, what action has been taken in response and whether our Defence Force has learned anything from this sorry performance.
In hindsight, it might wish it had not denied Stephenson's story at the outset. The public was not surprised to find out the SAS was involved in skirmishes in Kabul and not surprised to learn that any prisoners it took were handed over to allied agencies equipped to hold them. If Defence was not willing to admit this, it could have done so without challenging the reporter's word on such basic details as where he had been and who he had spoken to. Reporters do not make up these things. We hope that is the lesson our military leaders have taken to heart.
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