Defence Force top brass at odds about who knew of possible civilian deaths
Oct. 16, 2019
Military top brass are increasingly at odds about who knew of possible civilian deaths during an SAS-led raid in Afghanistan.
The conflicting accounts from defence chiefs have emerged at the Operation Burnham inquiry, which has at times appeared frustrated by deleted emails, incomplete records and constructed memories.
The Government inquiry is this week investigating claims of a cover up, holding a restarted hearing after new evidence upended a week-long session in September.
A crucial report that confirmed possible civilian deaths, described last month as mysteriously found in a Wellington safe by unknowing defence chiefs in 2014, now appears to have been widely distributed three years earlier.
The revised evidence only came after Colonel Jim Blackwell on Tuesday told the inquiry he received the report in a now-deleted email in September 2011. He said it was provided to the chief of defence and former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp.
But the former chief and his senior officer say they have no memory of this conversation.
Captain Chris Hoey, now retired, previously told the inquiry he had no knowledge of the importance of the ISAF report in 2014 when he pulled a bundle of documents from a safe in the office of the chief of defence.
The inquiry has learnt that Hoey, at the time, told an advisor to then-Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman that New Zealand had never received a copy of the report.
But Hoey revised this on Wednesday, telling the inquiry he must have handled the report multiple times when it arrived in Mapp's office three years earlier
Hoey was an advisor to Mapp in September 2011, but he does not remember reading the report in detail or remember Blackwell briefing the minister on it.
He faced questioning on whether he really remembered receiving the report, as it was not specifically listed in a classified document register he relied on.
Hoey said he could not be certain, but "to my mind the evidence is there".
He said he only understood the report was important because it mentioned Afghanistan.
"Clearly the Government was sensitive to any matters relating to Afghanistan around September. There was an election in November, I believe, but we had also suffered our first SAS casualties in Afghanistan."
He also recalled shredding the report when Mapp left the office the next year, which he said was standard practice.
Blackwell also told the inquiry he handed the report to Colonel Michael Thompson, then deputy chief of staff, and asked him to inform the Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones.
But Thompson, on Wednesday, said he did not recall the conversation with Blackwell. After repeated questions from inquiry lawyer Andru Isac, QC, Thompson confirmed he disagreed there was a conversation with Blackwell.
"I don't recall it, it would stick in my mind, I'm sure."
Former defence chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said he had no memory of any briefing from Blackwell.
"I do not think I was briefed on the document or have knowledge of the [possible civilian casualty] report."
Commodore Ross Smith said, when he was tasked with investigating who had the report in 2014, Blackwell did not tell him it was received in 2011.
Blackwell would have known Smith was investigating the report's origin, he said.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) report confirmed possible civilian deaths during the 2010 raid in Afghanistan, due to the malfunction of a US Apache helicopter gun sight.
Both Mapp and the Defence Force claimed the allegations of civilian deaths were unfounded, both publicly and internally, repeatedly throughout 2011.
Only in 2014 was the report acknowledged by the Government, though the Defence Force again denied the possible deaths in 2017. The record was corrected by chief of defence Tim Keating shortly afterward.
Mapp will appear before the inquiry on Friday.
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