Secrecy will govern the landmark inquiry into accusations the NZSAS killed civilians in Afghanistan, it has been revealed.

"To be effective, the inquiry must get at the truth," said its first ruling, issued today.

Some aspects would be public - the government's decision to send troops to Afghanistan and the function and nature of the NZSAS would be subject to public hearings in March or April.

But, it stated, "we are convinced that our best chance to get at the truth is to conduct the Inquiry's evidence-gathering from witnesses in private".

Advertisement

READ MORE
Inside the NZSAS - creating the elite soldier
Big Read: How NZDF says the NZSAS struck deep inside Taliban territory
Secrecy debate over Hit & Run inquiry into NZSAS raid in Afghanistan
VC-winner Willie Apiata's high profile 'adversely affected' NZSAS
These are the issues the Hit & Run inquiry will investigate

The ruling from inquiry heads Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold followed a hearing in which the pair were urged to dismiss security concerns and allow greater transparency around the Inquiry into Operation Burnham.

The inquiry is named for the August 2010 NZSAS operation into Taliban-held Afghanistan to target insurgent leaders behind attacks on New Zealand and other coalition troops.

The raid was disclosed in the book Hit & Run which claimed the NZSAS had carried out a "revenge" raid which left six civilians dead and 15 other wounded. NZDF has rejected the claims, saying nine insurgents were killed.

The inquiry has been under way for about eight months after being ordered by the new government.

NZSAS troopers leaving a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied
NZSAS troopers leaving a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied

The only public hearings so far were held last month into the proposed rules for the inquiry. Submissions calling for openness appear to have budged the inquiry only slightly.

Arnold and Palmer said the public needed assurance the NZ Defence Force version of events would be strongly tested, particularly given claims of a "cover-up".

The new ruling said there would be public "modules" on aspects which would not trouble security considerations.

Advertisement

Along with studying the deployment to Afghanistan, and the way the NZSAS is intended to function, it would also hold public hearings on how rules of engagement are devised generally.

Journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson at the launch of their book Hit & Run. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson at the launch of their book Hit & Run. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Kill missions would also be studied - the decision to use force against targeted individuals.

The inquiry said its ability to hold other hearings in public was constrained by the classified nature of information or the need for protection insisted upon by allied nations.

The patchwork nature of secrecy requirements meant only limited aspect of the inquiry could be public, the minute said.

Trying to compromise with some evidence and testimony being public and other secret was an unworkable option, the inquiry said.

Trying to manage such a process meant it was possible to create a "misleading" picture, it said.

In the same way, it found no reasonable way cross-examination of witnesses could be allowed.

They said lawyers asking questions would not be fully informed because the evidence needed to be full briefed was confidential.

Likewise, there would be questions witnesses would be unable to answer because of the secrecy rules.

It would result in cross-examination which would not help the inquiry in its truth-seeking role, the minute stated.

The inquiry heads said their reading of the law allowed them to set rules for the operation of the inquiry which included - or excluded - any party.

Some of the weapons found and destroyed on the Burnham mission in 2010. Photo / Supplied
Some of the weapons found and destroyed on the Burnham mission in 2010. Photo / Supplied

In making the ruling, it dismissed efforts by the Afghani villagers' lawyers to be included in "private" sittings.

Deborah Manning - one of the villagers' lawyers - said those involved in the inquiry should have the ability to hear evidence being taken, to cross-examine those giving it and to see classified information.

Instead, the inquiry heads found the legislation empowered them to construct the inquiry in the way they believed best got to the truth.

The inquiry ordered permanent non-publication of the identities of NZSAS members, and their families, after being told identification could harm their ability to operate.

The ruling was made contrary to NZDF's decision to identify Willy Apiata after he was awarded the Victoria Cross. During a hearing last month, NZDF's lawyers said his ability to fully function as a member of the NZSAS was constrained by the loss of anonymity.