The Defence Force has denied trying to cover up the possibility of civilian deaths in a New Zealand-led raid on an Afghan village, and says a misunderstanding and a long series of bungles led to it giving "clearly wrong" information to the Government and the public.

But questions have now been raised about how a report contradicting the official position that claims of civilian deaths were "baseless" ended up locked away in an NZDF safe for years.

The military's current and former top brass have this week been ordered to appear in front of a Government probe looking into Operation Burnham, as it looks into inconsistencies in the Defence Force account of whether there could have been civilian casualties during the attack.

The investigation was sparked by the 2017 book Hit & Run, in which journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson alleged six civilians were killed and 15 others wounded during the NZSAS-led raid in August, 2010.

Advertisement

The NZDF had previously described the claims of possible civilian deaths as unfounded.

But it has since come to light that a gun-sight malfunction on a US Apache helicopter led to bullets accidentally hitting two buildings during the raid.

Representing the Defence Force, Paul Radich, QC, on Monday told the inquiry personnel had accurately reported the situation as they understood it, but that mistakes had been made.

"There was no cover up," he said.

The inquiry heard the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had launched an investigation shortly after Operation Burnham and concluded civilians might have been killed.

But the NZDF's liaison, Brigadier Christopher Parsons, had only been allowed to see one paragraph of the report in September, 2010 - and as a result incorrectly reported back no civilians had died, Radich said.

The officer's conclusion then went up the chain, forming the basis of briefings to two Defence Ministers and Prime Minister John Key - and information given to media - until 2014.

 John Key visited Bamyan in 2010 wheh he was prime minister. Photo / Maggie Tait
John Key visited Bamyan in 2010 wheh he was prime minister. Photo / Maggie Tait

That was despite an ISAF press release issued on August 29, 2010 raising the possibility of civilian deaths.

Advertisement

It was not until June, 2014, after a story and further questions by Stephenson, that the NZDF's communications team became aware of the full conclusion of the ISAF report and changed its position, Radich told the inquest on Monday.

"Had the NZDF know that, in fact, the IAT report had gone on to say that there may been civilian casualties as a result of the misaligned sight on the helicopter gun – then it would have said that again," he said.

But when Hit & Run was released in March 2017, the military again called the allegations unfounded.

Radich described that as "regrettable", saying with the Chief of the Defence Force and the Minister of Defence in Iraq at the time and, because of a lack of time to respond, staff had grabbed an old press release.

No one had linked the raid in the book to the 2014 report until the next day, Radich said.

Key report locked in a safe

The inquiry also heard the full ISAF report was in the hands of the Defence Force by December 2011.

The chief of staff for the Chief of the Defence Force in both 2014 and 2017, Commodore Ross Smith, on Monday told the inquiry the document was found in a safe in the Defence Force's headquarters after Stephenson's 2014 inquiry, but it was not clear how it had ended up there.

Smith said he had only learned of it after it was given in a bundle to Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman, who would later call demanding answers about why he had not been told.

"My stomach sank," Smith said, adding Coleman had been "not happy".

Facing a grilling from Kristy McDonald, QC, Smith said he had not done any analysis to work out where the file had come from after the two likely sources told him it had not come from them.

He also defended the NZDF's initially incorrect response to Hit & Run, saying no one had remembered the change of stance in 2014 in a rush to get a statement out.

"We were scrambling to read the book," he said

"I thought the most prudent way to proceed … was to take a position that was consistent."

Under extended questioning, Smith said he had forgotten the contents of the ISAF report when the NZDF issued its first statement responding to Hit & Run.

Earlier on Monday, Sir Jerry Mateparae - New Zealand's current High Commissioner to Britain, former Governor-General and the chief of the Defence Force at the time of Operation Burnham – faced questions about briefings to Defence Minister Wayne Mapp in 2010 which explicitly said there was "no way" there were casualties, despite knowledge of the ISAF press release.

Mateparae said the minister had already been aware of the press release despite it not being included in the briefings but, pressed, agreed the minister had been given wrong information.

"Clearly they are wrong and clearly they are inconsistent," Mateparae said.

"We did not provide all of the information to the minister and the Prime Minister."

But he denied there had been intent within the NZDF to deny there had been casualties to avoid blowback and said it had provided the best information available at the time.

"The intent would be to provide as accurate information as we could to the minister," he said.

Mateparae described Parsons as an officer with a good reputation.

"I would take the advice of people I trust to be accurate," Mateparae said.

The inquiry – being led by Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer – continues. Other witnesses this week will include former Defence Force chiefs Rhys Jones and Tim Keating.

Authors Nicky Hager, left, and Jon Stephenson during the launch of their book, Hit & Run, at Unity Books in Wellington. 21 March 2017. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell WGP 13Ap
Authors Nicky Hager, left, and Jon Stephenson during the launch of their book, Hit & Run, at Unity Books in Wellington. 21 March 2017. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell WGP 13Ap

What the Defence Force says happened

August 22, 2010 – Operation Burnham is carried out. Reports of civilian deaths emerge the day after and an investigation is launched.

August 29 – A press release from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) about its Incident Assessment Team (IAT) report raises the possibility a faulty gun-sight on a US helicopter may have led to civilian causalities in the attack.

September 7 – The New Zealand Defence Force is allowed to see one paragraph of the report. Then Senior National Officer Brigadier Christopher Parsons conveys that the paragraph says there were no civilians killed. This becomes the basis of briefings to government ministers and public statements.

April, 2011 – The NZDF reports to media questions by claiming there were no civilian deaths.

December, 2011 – By now, the NZDF has received a full copy of the report. It ends up in a safe.

June 30, 2014 – The NZDF stands by its 2011 statement. The report is taken to the minister as part of a briefing, and the NZDF becomes aware of its conclusion that civilians may have died.

March 21, 2017 – The book Hit and Run is released. The Defence Force in error initially again denies the possibility of civilians deaths, but after further investigation changes its story the next day.

April, 2018 - The Government launches the inquiry into Operation Burnham.