Declassified documents revealing the planning and execution of NZSAS operations in Afghanistan have been released, giving an unprecedented insight into the top-secret special forces regiment.

Hundreds of pages of intelligence briefings, operational documents and a post-battle assessment have been released in recent weeks by the Inquiry into Operation Burnham, set up to investigate claims of war crimes by the NZSAS in Afghanistan.

The documents reveal details which the New Zealand Defence Force had claimed were too sensitive to be revealed and doing so would place soldier lives at risk.

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NZDF's argument the information needed to be kept secret was accepted by the Office of the Ombudsman, which reviews refusal to provide information by agencies subject to the Official Information Act.

In rolling tranches, it is now being made public after the inquiry's specialist security reviewers found the information would not "prejudice national security" or place at risk "the safety of personnel".

The inquiry is investigating claims in the book Hit & Run that a 2010 NZSAS raid in Afghanistan's Baghlan province was actually a revenge attack which left six civilians dead and 15 others injured, mainly after an aerial attack from United States' Apache helicopter gunships.

Hit & Run further claimed the civilian casualties were covered up, and there was later alleged unlawful treatment of at least one Afghan prisoner by the NZSAS.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, QC, and Sir Terence Arnold, QC, who are leading the inquiry, have pledged to "get to the truth" of the accusations in Hit & Run, which the NZDF has denied. It has shifted its position on civilian deaths to now saying it was possible, but maintained its position that the raid left nine insurgents dead.

Journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson at the launch of Hit & Run, which alleged war crimes by the NZDF. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson at the launch of Hit & Run, which alleged war crimes by the NZDF. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In addition to details showing planning for the August 2010 operation, including intelligence reports before and after the attacks, planning documents showing how the NZSAS intended assaulting the village and summaries explaining details from the raid.

The most recent releases reveal legal assessments of risk for the NZSAS on taking prisoners.

There are a string of documents about the Rules of Engagement - the usually protected instructions to soldiers on the force which can be used on operations and the degree to which it can be exerted.

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It also includes emails showing the pressure on the NZSAS over the possible presence of civilian casualties - something which was floated within days of the operation - and the subsequent relief any injuries or death were the result of Apache "weapon problems rather than incorrect application of force".

"This called for a quiet whiskey and I can tell you it never tasted so good. I will sleep well tonight," writes an unidentified NZSAS member.

The Herald - and others - sought many of the details now released through the Official Information Act, only to have NZDF reject the requests because of the operational details it believed would be released.

A New Zealand soldier on patrol in Bamyan province, Afghanistan. The NZSAS raid in 2010 was said to have been carried out to stop attacks in Bamyan. Photo / Supplied
A New Zealand soldier on patrol in Bamyan province, Afghanistan. The NZSAS raid in 2010 was said to have been carried out to stop attacks in Bamyan. Photo / Supplied

NZDF had claimed "release of this information would reveal how an operation is planned, how troops will act in a given situation, and what air support and weaponry is available to them". It also raised concerns it would reveal how intelligence was gathered, and that it would disturb relations with the United States.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier heard from the NZDF and ruled: "I am persuaded that the release of this information in full would compromise the security of New Zealand forces by revealing how the NZSAS operates, how they are equipped and how the NZDF gathers intelligence."

Crown lawyer Aaron Martin told the inquiry in a memo the information released "does not reflect the nature or extent of information that would ordinarily be considered necessary or appropriate to make public".

Journalist Nicky Hager, who co-wrote the book with war correspondent Jon Stephenson, said the release of the information was a "really important precedent for the future". He said it showed NZDF objections over "operational secrecy" and "soldiers would die … wasn't true".

Former Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Tim Keating addresses media in 2017 after the publication of Hit & Run. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Tim Keating addresses media in 2017 after the publication of Hit & Run. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Ombudsmen said the Inquiry operated under a different law, and reviewed the material at a different time.

A spokesman for NZDF said the information was released under the inquiry's powers and not through the OIA. He said NZDF had to "strike a balance between being transparent with what we do, and protecting our people serving in operational environments".

Massey University's Dr Rhys Ball, of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, said the release of information was unprecedented.

But he said the inquiry itself was highly unusual. "It's the first time New Zealand special forces in the contemporary security environment have had their operations investigated in great detail."

Ball said the closest situation to the current information release was declassification of NZSAS operations in Borneo in the mid-1960s. In that case, the details were not made public until the mid-2000s - about 40 years later.