Former Defence Force chief Tim Keating has told an inquiry the military missed chances to earlier admit civilians may have been killed in an SAS-led raid in Afghanistan.

His predecessor, meanwhile, has faced questions about how a file proving the NZDF had wrongly denied the possibility of civilian deaths ended up locked away in safe for years.

A Government inquiry looking into Operation Burnham is this week questioning current and former top-ranking military brass about why the Defence Force changed its story about whether there could have been civilian deaths during the raid targeting insurgents.

The probe 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.

Advertisement

The NZDF described the claims of possible civilian deaths as unfounded, including to Government ministers, until 2014, and briefly again following the release of the book.

But an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) report in 2010 found that during the raid a gun-sight malfunction on a US Army helicopter led to rounds accidentally hitting two buildings and may have possibly killed villagers. It cleared New Zealand troops, who were on the ground.

The inquiry earlier heard the NZDF only changed its position in 2014 after finding a copy of the ISAF report had been sitting in a safe in its headquarters for years.

Former Chief of Defence Force Rhys Jones has faced questions about how a key report about Operation Burnham ended up locked in a safe for years. Photo / Boris Jancic
Former Chief of Defence Force Rhys Jones has faced questions about how a key report about Operation Burnham ended up locked in a safe for years. Photo / Boris Jancic

On Wednesday, the former Chief of Defence, retired Lieutenant General Keating was called to give evidence and began by outlining in detail the efforts the military went to after the release of Hit & Run to clarify the situation.

Questioned about whether he thought he had made any mistakes, Keating could not identify anything he would have done differently.

But he said the Defence Force could have changed its stance earlier.
"What we didn't have was irrefutable evidence of civilian casualties ... And that probably clouded our judgment," he said, adding the stance had changed as soon as the facts of the ISAF report were known.

"Yes, there were missed opportunities for us to clarify the fact that civilian casualties may have occurred and that should have been the Defence Force's position earlier – but we didn't."

The majority of Keating's evidence will be heard on Thursday.

Advertisement

The lost report

But much of Wednesday's hearing focused on how the NZDF's copy of the ISAF report ended up locked away for three years without being made public – and who had left a series of notes on it before it came out.

Retired colonel Michael Thompson told the hearing the file had arrived as a bundle of classified documents and he placed in his safe on September 7, 2011, registered until the generic title "briefing pack".

"I have never read the bundle … I believe someone must have asked me to put it in the safe; in other words, my safe was simply used as a classified repository. I cannot recall who that person may have been," he said.

"I put the briefing pack in the safe, recorded it in, and that was it."

Under questioning, Thompson accepted the file could have come from somewhere in the office of the Chief of Defence – which totalled about 15 staff.

In a written testimony read to the hearing, the man who inherited the safe, retired Captain Christopher Hoey, said the bundle had been given to Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman after a request for information.

Retired Major General Peter Kelly has told the inquiry there was never an intention to mislead the Government. Photo / Boris Jancic
Retired Major General Peter Kelly has told the inquiry there was never an intention to mislead the Government. Photo / Boris Jancic

He said the ISAF report had been underlined and marked by someone.

Former Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones – who took over in January 2011 and was succeeded by Keating - also faced questions about the file on Wednesday, saying he too had no clue where it had come from or who had made the notes.

Keating told the hearing he had first heard that the NZDF had a copy during a phone call from Coleman.

"I couldn't believe that the NZDF had the IAT report, without knowing it, and without having read it," Keating said.

Turning a blind eye

Earlier in the day, retired Major General Peter Kelly – who was the Director of Special Operations at the time – faced questions about why he had, in a December 2010 briefing, told Defence Minister Wayne Mapp the allegations were "baseless", despite earlier information to the contrary.

The inquiry earlier heard the senior SAS officer in Afghanistan – Brigadier Chris Parsons - had only been allowed to read one paragraph of the ISAF report in September 2010 and misunderstood it to categorically rule out civilian deaths – emailing his superiors that conclusion.

That followed:

• A press release from ISAF on 29 August, 2010 about the report that said civilian casualties were possible.

• Parsons' predecessor, Rian McKinstry, saying a video of the attack he had viewed showed it was possible civilians could have been killed.

• Early NZDF intelligence reports raising the possibility of civilian deaths.

Kelly told the inquiry that while it had been made clear to him that Parsons had only glanced at the report, the email had superseded all other information because it was seen as a direct link to the conclusions of the ISAF report.

If they had seen the full report, they would have reported its conclusions, he said.

"The fact is he had seen the report, albeit it briefly. Until that point in time we had not seen anything about the conclusions of that assessment … Chris having seen those conclusions was a really important piece of information for us," Kelly said.

"When we saw the report that put that issue to rest."

Pressed on whether the NZDF had been under pressure to provide answers and simply turned a blind eye to information that was inconvenient, Kelly said he "absolutely categorically" denied the assertion.

He also said while the briefing to the minister did not make clear Parsons had only seen a fragment of the report, it was not intended to mislead.

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.