The Defence Force's erroneous denials of the possibility of civilian deaths during a NZSAS-led raid in Afghanistan in 2010 began with a New Zealand officer reading one paragraph of a report over someone's shoulder and possibly being misled by an American official, an inquiry has been told.

A Government inquiry into Operation Burnham is this week questioning the military's top brass about allegations of a cover-up and shifting NZDF accounts of the raid.

The inquest was spurred 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.

The NZDF described the claims of possible civilian deaths as unfounded until 2014, but it later came to light that a gun-sight malfunction on a US helicopter led to rounds accidentally hitting two buildings during the operation.

Advertisement

The inquiry on Tuesday heard from the "National Senior Officer" – the top SAS officer in Afghanistan during the raid - Colonel Rian McKinstry.

He described how Kiwi troops had been cleared by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of wrongdoing during the operation, but that possible deaths from American air support were being probed in the weeks after.

A misunderstanding

McKinstry ended his tour and was replaced by Brigadier Christopher Parsons on September 7, 2010.

And on his first day, Parsons visited the ISAF's command centre hoping to get a copy of its full report into Burnham.

He wasn't given the full file – but returned that night and emailed his superiors that he had "sighted" it, and – incorrectly - that it had "categorically" cleared both ground and air forces.

The conclusion then went up the chain, forming the basis of briefings to two Defence Ministers, Prime Minister John Key, and the public until 2014.

Parsons on Tuesday told the inquest he had met with an officer – who he could not identify but was possibly American – at the command centre and was told the report could not be released to New Zealand.

Advertisement

But the man allowed him to briefly see one four-line paragraph, Parsons said.

"He turned to the final page of the document and, pointing to the first paragraph of that page and told me that was what I needed to know," he said.

Colonel Rian McKinstry gives evidence to an inquiry into Operation Burnham inquiry. Photo / Boris Jancic
Colonel Rian McKinstry gives evidence to an inquiry into Operation Burnham inquiry. Photo / Boris Jancic

Parsons said he then had a "quick conversation" with the American that reinforced his understanding of the conclusion.

"I faithfully reported what I took from that discussion and reading that document."

The Brigadier said he had not realised he had misunderstood the actual conclusion of the report until 2018 and that he had misread the acronym "AF" as "air force" - when the full report clarified it meant ground "assault force".

"In other words, it only clears the New Zealand and Afghan troops … Had I read those paragraphs at the time, I would have never expressed the email of 8 September, 2010 in those terms," he said.

His account on Tuesday was met with intense questioning from the lawyer for the inquiry, Kristy McDonald, QC.

She asked how he had mistaken the term AF for Air Force, when the helicopters were provided by the United States Army.

"When you talk about the air force and ground force in those conceptual terms, rather than organisational terms, then it makes sense," Parsons replied.

She also questioned whether he was saying if he had been misled by the American officer about the conclusion. Parsons said that was possible - but that it also may have just been a miscommunication.

Page from official Operation Burnham document shows a possible Nematullah location. Photo / Supplied
Page from official Operation Burnham document shows a possible Nematullah location. Photo / Supplied

The Brigadier told the inquiry he would later, over the phone, clarify to Major General Peter Kelly – the director of Special Forces – that he had only read four lines of the report.

Kelly, also giving evidence on Tuesday, said he could not remember the conversation, but that it possible he was told in the following weeks.

But he told the inquest Parsons' email – nonetheless - superseded all previous information the Defence Force had about civilian deaths, and would form the basis of briefings to the Minister of Defence at the time, Wayne Mapp.

Kelly was questioned about a briefing that said Parsons had read the ISAF report.

"Granted he had not read the entire report and I accept the wording here is sloppy," Kelly said.

"But there certainly was no intent to deceive the minister … Our intent was to convey the information as we knew it and the information, as we knew it, was what Chris passed to us in that email."

Video showed civilian deaths were possible

Earlier, Parsons' predecessor, McKinstry, described how from the day after the operation, "wildly inaccurate" accounts of what had happened began to come in from untested sources, including of 20 houses being burned down and 20 civilians being killed.

Image from official Operation Burnham document appears to show villagers carrying weapons. Photo / Supplied
Image from official Operation Burnham document appears to show villagers carrying weapons. Photo / Supplied

He said in following weeks he was shown video footage from helicopters of the attack by ISAF.

"It becomes clear to me that the rounds have hit the building so and I can infer from that it's possible civilians causalities have occurred," he said.

"It was starting to become clearer where the [civilian casualty] allegations may have had legs."

Parsons on Tuesday said he had been briefed by McKinstry on the issue before taking over, and was also aware of a press release from the ISAF stating that said civilian deaths were possible.

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.

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.