No basis for probe into Hager book allegations, says English
Prime Minister Bill English has ruled out an inquiry into the allegations aimed at the SAS over a raid they undertook in Afghanistan in 2010.
The allegations were contained in the book Hit and Run by authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson who called for a formal independent inquiry into the raid.
Speaking at his regular post-Cabinet press conference, English said Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee had been given a briefing by the Defence Force in a letter on Friday and English had received a detailed briefing on Monday, when he'd also viewed classified video footage of the raid
English said the book's authors made a number of allegations, the most serious of which was that the troops may have been guilty of war crimes.
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Hager responded in a statement to English ruling out an inquiry, saying, it was a "result of military pressure on the government".
"The tail wagging the dog. That is not good for the country."
Hager said it was "disappointing and concerning" English had refused the country an inquiry when there had been so many calls for one from "all sides of the political spectrum".
The Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Tim Keating in his letter to Brownlee on Friday said he had reviewed all the documentation available about the operation.
"This includes material generated before, during and after the operation, the rules of engagement and the executive summary of the 2010 investigation by the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and the Afghan Ministry of Defence," English said.
Keating had told Brownlee "the material clearly shows personnel involved in the operation took deliberate and careful steps to ensure that it was conducted according to the law of armed conflict".
It had also showed the operation was overseen by a Defence Force legal officer and that personnel "took all feasible precautions to minimise potential civilian casualties and the destruction of property".
English wouldn't confirm whether Keating advised the government that he didn't think an inquiry was necessary.
"I trust the process and the view I have of it confirms what the CDF outlined last week."
Right from the start he said there was an acknowledgement that it was "possible" civilians were killed.
"There seems to be no evidence since that has happened...the CDF's investigation into it doesn't turn up any new evidence," he said.
INVESTIGATION WAS 'INDEPENDENT'
English insisted Keating's investigation, despite him being part of the Defence Force, had been "independent" because he "wasn't involved in the operation".
If the video he had seen was "presented in any way misleading that would be a very serious matter".
English confirmed those killed to the best of the evidence available were combatants, not civilians, which is backed up by the video footage he saw.
He wouldn't go into any of the detail of the video footage, which won't be released, because it's classified. He hadn't watched the whole video - only the "relevant parts".
Hager said English was an "experienced minister who knows the difference between being shown selective information by an interested party, as he has been by the defence force, and having an independent inquiry".
"This does not appear a rational decision based on evidence; it is helping the military bureaucracy to avoid having to front up. It is the next step in the seven year cover up," he said.
Labour leader Andrew Little said the need for an inquiry still exists despite the Prime Minister's "stubborn refusal to call one".
"If there was a chance that there were civilian casualties then we need to get to the bottom of it."
"Unless there's a process that can satisfy the need for an independent look into these allegations, that's at arm's length from the Defence Force, questions will remain," Little said.
"We can't risk the fine reputation of our troops to be undermined by a perception that these allegations were not properly investigated by a truly independent inquiry."
English said there were significant errors in the book, including the geo-references of the two villages provided in the book. The topography of the villages was also different from that where the authors claimed the raid took place.
He said if evidence emerged in the future that New Zealand troops had acted unlawfully the Government would take every step to establish the truth, and Keating had urged anyone with such information to come forward.
ALLEGATIONS 'CAUSED DISTRESS' TO FAMILIES
English said the SAS had an enviable reputation and was known for its skill and professionalism.
"The allegations in the book could be damaging to the reputation of troops that served their country with distinction including risking their lives," he said.
The allegations had also caused distress to the families of the troops who had been accused of acting dishonourably.
"I want to assure those families that there is no evidence that this is the case, and a great deal of evidence that their family members acted consistent with the rules of engagement and acted honourably in the way that New Zealanders would expect."
He said he was proud of the work the troops do.
In the book Hager and Stephenson alleged six unarmed civilians died and 15 were injured in the raid, which they said was botched and based on flimsy intelligence.
But Keating said the intelligence had been gathered carefully over 14 days. He said nine insurgents were killed, although there may have been civilian casualties caused by fire from a United States helicopter, which hit a house because of an equipment malfunction.
The book identified the two villages as Naik and Khak Khuday Dad but the location pin-pointed by the authors was wrong. They later conceded the raid took place two kilometres south of the location they identified - at the location identified by Defence - although they insist the names of the villages were correct.
Keating has only referred to the target area as Tirgiran Village, which the authors say does not exist as the name of a village - but he has not confirmed the village names given by Hager and Stephenson.