War is hell. Soldiering is not for sissies. But is a defence force that regularly covers up and denies wrongdoings among its ranks – from war crimes and sexual abuse to drunkenness and battlefield souveniring – operating above the law? In this exclusive investigative report, Nicky Hager reveals a culture of impunity within the New Zealand Defence Force.
Then he saw the publicity about the book I co-authored with Jon Stephenson, Hit & Run, which described the death and injuries of children during a New Zealand SAS raid on two Afghan villages. He started thinking about other things he’d experienced in Afghanistan. He wants to talk about them. “The book came out,” he says. “I bought it and looked through.” When he saw then-Chief of Defence Force Major General Tim Keating on TV responding to the allegations, in his opinion Keating was effectively lying to the public. “I felt really uncomfortable.”
Keating had fronted the media on 27 March 2017, six days after the book was published. He denied everything. The SAS hadn’t even been in the villages described in the book, he claimed. However, there had been an SAS raid that night in a different location, he said, where nothing went wrong, where they had the “best intelligence”, the raid was “executed with professionalism”, there was “no evidence” of civilian casualties and the conduct of everyone involved including the coalition aircraft was “exemplary”.
Seeing Keating’s public response to Hit & Run “was the end”, says the former SAS member. “We’re supposed to be a modern, democratic country. It was a joke.”
Then he remembered other things that had gone wrong during his years in the SAS – and that every single time they, too, had been covered up.
“The SAS is the extreme end of thinking they’re above the law, that they don’t have to be accountable to others,” he says. “We can say we never committed war crimes, but we have.”
He has another Afghanistan incident on his mind, not just the Hit & Run one.
On this ill-fated occasion, while the SAS troopers were out on patrol, the US special forces found themselves short of medics and asked for an NZSAS medic to take on a raid. The SAS commander agreed to the request. A medic named Corporal B (name withheld for privacy reasons) was assigned to provide medical support for a raid on an Afghan village.
There are very strict rules about what medical staff can do in war. A medic is a protected person under international law, a non-combatant, which carries an obligation not to take part in hostilities. As New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) lawyer Lieutenant Colonel Larry Maybee wrote in an internal report about a different operation: “Medical personnel are only to be required to perform duties which are consistent with their protected status under the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols.” Specifically, a medic can only ever shoot in self-defence or to protect wounded people under their care. These are very important and long-standing rules of war.
As the US forces approached a compound in the village, some people inside started shooting at them. Corporal B joined the US forces in firing back, killing two of the shooters.
This was not at all what a medic should do – as the SAS commanders later concluded; it wasn’t self-defence because he had the option not to take part in the fighting, which was part of an offensive operation against the villages. Engaging in the assault went directly against the NZDF rules for a medic and the Geneva Conventions.
But it was worse than this, because children had joined the adults in trying to defend the compound. When the US team moved forward, they were met by the sight of the dead bodies of two boys, aged about 12 or 13. The children reminded Corporal B of his own sons, who were a similar age. He was certain he had shot the boys and “it really damaged him. He was thinking, ‘Shit, I’ve killed kids’... He was in an awful position,” says the ex-SAS member sitting at my dining table. “He came unstuck.
“He came back to Kandahar and was a mess. He was angry at [the SAS commanders] for sending him into that and, when it turned to custard, for turning on him.” In the weeks following the incident, the US forces wanted to give Corporal B a medal for helping, they said, to protect their troops. But the SAS said no to this. They were thinking of court-martialling him – arguing that, as a medic, he wasn’t supposed to be shooting people as part of an assault. “The US was saying Silver Star, the NZDF court-martial and [Corporal B] was thinking about the boys,” the ex-SAS member tells me.
In response to questions from North & South, an NZDF spokesperson denied officers had considered court-martialling Corporal B. The ex-SAS member, however, is emphatic that they did.
This was a different kind of mess to the Hit & Run raid. The issue here related to the role of a medic – and, in this case, it was children with guns who were killed, not innocent civilians. What they have in common is that both incidents should have been faced squarely and investigated properly. Instead, it appears both were covered up.
In Australia, an official investigation is currently under way, headed by New South Wales judge Paul Brereton, into many allegations of unlawful actions by Australian special forces. The inquiry was instigated by the Australian military, which has publicly called on military staff to come forward with any further allegations.
In contrast, NZDF is currently spending millions of public dollars trying to fight the government’s Hit & Run raid inquiry, and its actions following the Corporal B incident were truly bizarre.
A curious thing about our Defence Force is how much effort it puts into its public image, far beyond a normal government agency. Bad news is nearly always hidden, while 50-60 public relations staff pour out flattering stories, which are often the sole source of information on military operations – meaning most of what we see of Defence has been carefully scripted by NZDF itself to make it look good. In the period after the Corporal B incident, the SAS was in the midst of a campaign of self-promotion, including a TV series on New Zealand’s “most famous”, “most revered” fighting unit, and had plans for a movie and book about Willie Apiata’s Victoria Cross.
It would be the same with the medic and dead children. An apparent breach of rules became a PR opportunity. Instead of court-martialling Corporal B, they decided to give him a medal. On the same day Apiata’s VC was announced, 2 July 2007, an unnamed SAS soldier referred to – for national security reasons – as “Corporal B” was given this country’s third-highest medal, a New Zealand Gallantry Decoration. It was the same Corporal B – but there was no mention of dead children, the Geneva Conventions or that he was a medic.
Prime Minister Helen Clark said Corporal B’s award was “for displaying outstanding courage and leadership, and accepting extraordinary risks... testimony to the dedication, skill and professionalism of the NZSAS”. It seems very unlikely she had been told about the earlier plans for court-martial, or about the shot boys. The NZDF press release said, “For operational reasons no further details will be released.”
Corporal B had left the SAS and NZDF by the time of the award. He had quit within months of the deployment, upset and disillusioned. The ex-SAS member at my table was disgusted by the whole thing. “Courage, commitment, integrity,” – the NZDF’s espoused values – “they’re joke words and no one will be held to account over them,” he says. “I’m pleased to be out. There was so much crap.”
It started, he says, with the SAS attitude to coalition-wide rules about alcohol. All troop-contributing countries in Afghanistan, a Muslim country, had a strict ban on alcohol in the early stages of the war. Nearly every unit obeyed the rules. But the SAS flagrantly ignored them.
When supplies were flown from New Zealand on large pallets, the outer layer of the pallets would be boxes of ration packs, made up by a firm at Linton. But most of the load, hidden inside the ration packs, the source says, was “beer, spirits, everything. You name it, it was in there. The [SAS] unit organised it all.”
The SAS personnel drank “shitloads” – the culture is “drink and drink and drink like there’s no tomorrow”, he says – and alcohol was also used “as currency to barter with the US troops”. The SAS hosted “huge piss-ups with allied troops” at its compound.
“It was a blatant slap in the face to the fact we were in a dry theatre of operations. Americans weren’t allowed it [alcohol]. Other New Zealand troops weren’t allowed it.”
The NZDF told North & South “small quantities of NZSAS-branded wine and spirits, brought and paid for privately by Papakura Camp Mess members, were taken into Afghanistan for consumption and used as gifts for coalition partners and friends”.
Another example: “badged” SAS troopers were encouraged to see themselves as superior to other troops, including SAS support staff (“supporties”). One time, according to this source, an SAS support staff major in charge of SAS radio communications and other technology in Afghanistan (a position called “S6”) made a decision the SAS troopers did not like. “The guys came in from a mission and had a party on base and got shit-faced drunk.” One of them, a more junior officer, picked a fight with the major and “punched him to the ground. He threatened to kill him,” the ex-SAS member says.
“If you assault someone above you [in rank], and especially major or above, you lose your job straight away.” But when the major went to the SAS commanding officer and complained, the commanding officer refused to charge a badged member of the SAS. Neither would the more senior SAS boss at the US Bagram headquarters north of Kabul.
“This doesn’t happen. There should have been discipline.” The major was “very unhappy. It did not go with his view of the Defence Force.”
Instead, he claimed, the SAS bosses instructed the major to keep quiet about it and paid for him and his partner to go on an extended course in the UK, where he was from. “But it was really just a holiday for most of the time. The major knew it was a deal to shut him up.”
The ex-SAS member says he saw senior NZDF officers repeatedly keeping things quiet and buying people off in this way. (Both the SAS commanding officers mentioned here were later involved with the Hit & Run cover-up.)
Another example, from a different Afghan deployment when the SAS were based at Bagram Air Base: again there was bullying of the SAS supporties by SAS troopers. “This supporty [a ‘loggie’, meaning logistics] was in Bagram and the SAS guys had threatened to kill him.” He didn’t report it because the commander of the unit in Bagram was SAS. He was so worried about violence that “he spent the whole deployment sleeping under someone else’s bed”. The worst thing was “everyone knew it and nothing was done”. The SAS component commander in charge was the same SAS officer who a few years later commanded the Hit & Run SAS raid.
Another source, someone who trained SAS personnel, told me a culture of “comradeship” means these stories never usually come out. The “warrior brotherhood” means they will protect each other and hide anything that looks bad. “You know, what happens on deployment stays on deployment... Protection of the institution is more important than accountability.” This person also says, “There are some amazing SAS officers”, but not all. “Some act like the SAS application form has boxes that say, ‘I’m an arsehole’, ‘I don’t believe in accountability’, ‘I’m a bully’ that need to be ticked to get the job.”
Two more examples point to a culture of impunity. The first is that soldiers are not supposed to take trophies from the battlefield. The International Security Assistance Force rules in Afghanistan stated, “We will never collect unauthorised souvenirs.” The NZDF rules of engagement card for Afghanistan ended: “Do not steal. Do not take trophies.” But the SAS troops “do this all the time”, one of the former SAS members says, reflecting a belief they don’t have to obey the same rules as other people.
At the SAS headquarters at Papakura, there are many weapon souvenirs from Afghanistan – “machine guns, mortars, Kalashnikovs” – hidden when official inspectors come through. The message was that if the senior staff were taking souvenirs, everyone could.
Another NZDF rule is about not paying money to informers (“human intelligence”), since this so easily compromises the quality and accuracy of the information received. But paying sources was a standard part of SAS operations in Afghanistan, according to one former SAS member. A logistics officer called “S4” looked after a stash of tens of thousands of US banknotes, “bribe money” handed out to SAS troopers going on patrol.
In paying for information, the SAS was following the example of the US military and CIA forces in Afghanistan (indeed, it may have been the US military that provided the large wads of banknotes handed out to the New Zealand SAS troopers). Buying information could sound justified, but it has often been a cause of poor intelligence that led to the wrong people being killed.
An NZDF spokesperson told North & South no such fund existed.
The ex-SAS sources who shared these stories are part of a succession of former NZDF and SAS staff who have made contact with me, in all manner of ingenious ways, since Hit & Run was published. Their motivation has been concern at seeing bad things covered up.
Exactly the same issues are being raised in Australia. Former infantry soldier and now Flinders University associate professor Ben Wadham wrote last year about alleged unlawful killing of children in Afghanistan and the Australian special operations task group’s “code of secrecy”: “a culture of no-reporting, cover-up and deceit”.
Wadham listed three “key influences”. First, the “notorious but highly secretive ‘kill-capture’ strategy of the Afghanistan war” that “resulted in reckless and avoidable deaths”. (This involved US commanders authorising the killing or capture of certain Afghans by bombing, drone attack or special forces raids, often when the target was not actively engaged in fighting.) Second, a “culture of impunity”, where soldiers would simply claim dead civilians were insurgents, as NZDF is doing with Hit & Run.
His third category seems very different but actually goes to the heart of a messed-up military culture, in both New Zealand and Australia: “institutional abuse within the forces”, meaning drug abuse, binge drinking, sexual assault, violence and bullying – again accompanied by “a culture of cover-up and deflection across the chain of command”.
It was these problems, especially sexual violence, that were on the mind of a recently resigned military officer who also made contact and agreed to provide information for this article.
It would be “the actions of your leaders, not our words, that will ultimately show the whole Defence Force how committed to this issue we are”, he said.
However, the military officer who contacted me believes the commitment is more “cosmetic” than real. He gave various examples from before and during NZDF’s anti-sexual abuse campaign.
In recent years, the officer says, but before the actual campaign, a senior NZ Army figure was known to regularly physically assault and sometimes hospitalise his wife. He was honoured and promoted during this time, before leaving the military with no consequences for the alleged crimes. The officer was disgusted that “everyone knew and no one would do anything”.
Then there was Jack Steer, the 1990s NZ Navy frigate commander accused of telling 19-year-old sailor Larissa Turner, in front of male crewmates, that she had “nice tits”.
Turner claims to have suffered continual sexual harassment from various personnel during that six-month deployment to the Middle East. Back in New Zealand, she laid complaints against a number of crew members, including Steer, and after four years, got a compensation payment. However, none of those involved was found guilty of sexual harassment and the Defence Force kept it all quiet for years. Steer rose through the navy ranks, Turner did not. She left. In 2012, Steer became Chief of Navy and worked his full term.
When news of the sexual harassment allegations became public, after Steer’s appointment, NZDF supported him in brushing it off. Steer told media he accepted he had made mistakes but that he was a different person today. However, in May 2015 – a year into the Defence Force’s campaign against sexual harassment and abuse – Steer is alleged to have confirmed his attitudes while speaking as Chief of Navy to mid-level officers at an NZDF command course. A student asked him whether, if he had his time again, he would do anything different. According to a source who was present, Steer looked out at the roomful of future NZDF leaders and said, “I wouldn’t have had that bitch Larissa Turner on my ship.”
Then there’s the story of Hayley Young, a navy marine engineer in her early 20s who loved her job but says she was raped in 2009 while posted by the NZDF on a British warship and then suffered years of sexual harassment on New Zealand ships. Her navy friends warned her that speaking up would make her the “next Larissa Turner”: career suicide. So she kept quiet. But eventually it became too much. She left the navy in 2012, sending a long letter called “My Story” to the captain of fleet personnel and training.
The captain wrote a report saying that her experiences highlighted “a significant number of failings on our part, across many environments and many ranks, including some of our COs” [commanding officers]. “It saddens me to read the aspects of when she asked for assistance but did not receive support.”
Despite that report, the NZ Navy continued to not give Young support and did not even approach the British Navy about the rape allegations, not wanting to ruffle alliance ties. (When a female NZ Army corporal was raped by a US soldier on a peace-keeping mission in Egypt in 2001, the response was similar. The soldier was given a “written reprimand”, NZDF kept the incident quiet. “It would be inappropriate for New Zealand to raise the matter further with the US military,” an NZDF legal officer wrote in an internal NZ Army minute.)
The navy had done almost nothing to help Hayley Young but, almost unbelievably incompetently, 18 months after leaving NZDF, she learned the navy was using her face, without asking her, on thousands of brochures and posters promoting NZ Navy careers to young women. Re-traumatised, she wrote a letter of complaint. Her letter was not even acknowledged for months. She found a lawyer and lost in court over the Defence Force’s use of her face, but has continued the fight – so far successfully – on the main issue of NZDF not providing her with a safe workplace.
The point here is that for four years, NZDF has used its vastly superior resources in court proceedings to fight her every step of the way – the same four years as NZDF’s supposed campaign to stop sexual violence.
The NZDF brass, of course, don’t want sexual violence occurring, just as they don’t want war-time civilian casualties. Operation Respect, introduced after a series of embarrassing public scandals, included some useful changes, notably three-hour sexual ethics workshops and a sexual assault response team. But if senior officers won’t take action when abuse does occur or, worse, work to shut down the victims, it perpetuates a culture of impunity. Young’s lawyer, Jol Bates, told Stuff: “It is hard enough for victims of sexual violence to come forward without such tactics being employed to prevent a case proceeding.”
The story concerned a woman working in a civilian role at Ohakea Air Force Base, near Palmerston North. It was a Friday social event, with a lot of drinking, for staff of one of the units on the base (“to build esprit de corps”, the officer said). As the event became more drunken, two of the men decided they would go after the woman colleague. One came up in front of her and grabbed her by the breasts at the same moment as the other came from behind and ground his pelvis into her, pinning her between them.
The woman did come forward – making a complaint to her unit commander – but she was not taken seriously. Her commander refused to take action. The same thing happened when she went to her commander’s boss. Nothing. The two men who had assaulted her had specialist skills – “at-risk trades” – which meant that if disciplinary action occurred and they were sacked, they might be hard to replace.
The woman tried again, and again – base commander, component commander, air force deputy chief – and at each level, according to the recently resigned officer, the commander either refused to find anything wrong or failed to make a decision and referred it upwards.
The woman had pursued the proper channels, making a formal complaint, and the Defence Force lawyers had concluded that there should be prosecution. Eventually the lawyers took the matter to the Chief of Air Force, Air Vice Marshal Mike Yardley, presenting him with a formal report saying a sexual assault had occurred. But like the others, Yardley refused to let them take action. People involved say he responded that what had happened was just a bit of fun. The legal staff were not at all happy that “keeping planes in the air was the priority” over sexual assault, the recently resigned officer says.
This wasn't quite the end. The lawyers tried one more time, taking the issue to the top: Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating. However he, too, refused to act, telling them curtly it was a single service issue – meaning he would not overrule the air force officers’ decision.
An NZDF spokesperson told North & South appropriate action had been taken “in accordance with the established policies and procedures in place at the time”. No further comment would be made “because to do so may breach the complainant’s privacy”.
As Keating said at the launch of Operation Respect, the actions of the leaders, not their words, ultimately show the whole Defence Force how committed to this issue they are. As with the experiences of Larissa Turner and Hayley Young, stories like the Ohakea one get around. The officer spoken to for this article believes this case sends the wrong message. “If a commander says we are not going to deal with grabbing breasts, it allows all sorts of other behaviour. By not dealing with it, it effectively says it’s okay. It’s the same as the Afghanistan thing. Keating turned his back on this.”
Further examples of sexual abuse within NZDF appear regularly in the news and many others remain secret. “I know I’m the very tip of an iceberg.” Hayley Young told North & South.
What’s below the surface includes the abuse of gay men, and people believed to be gay.
Convinced a male nurse must be gay, a drunk air force pilot started abusing him and then grabbed him by the balls. The nurse, feeling extremely violated, punched the pilot. However, when the case went to trial, the pilot was acquitted and the nurse was fired by NZDF for punching the officer.
If that was bad, the following story is truly terrible. It’s about Ethan Hall, a 20-year-old soldier at Linton Military Camp, who died after falling from a building in central Palmerston North in 2010. News reports characterised him as a fun-loving daredevil who’d fallen while horsing around on the building, and coroner Carla na Nagara found there was no evidence he deliberately jumped to his death.
In her official report, she noted that Hall’s birth mother, Karen Hall, had raised concerns that “something sinister” happened that night, based on her belief he had been a victim of bullying in the army. Hall’s commanding officer confirmed the young soldier had been assaulted in the barracks some 18 months before his death and the perpetrator had been dealt with. “He further stated there had been no further incidents of violence or bullying against Ethan,” wrote na Nagara in her report, “and confirmed that the incident was considered isolated.”
News stories at the time of Hall’s death reported he had given evidence in court-martial proceedings the previous month against three soldiers who had “interrogated” him while burning his leg with a gas burner.
The real story, Hall’s former colleagues say – kept quiet by the Defence Force – was a shocking case of abuse. The three soldiers believed Hall was gay and had tortured him by holding him down and scorching his leg. After this physical and psychological abuse, Hall was very unhappy, not coping, these colleagues say. He still had to live around his tormentors: “At school you can go home, in the army you can’t escape it.” They believe he committed suicide. NZDF was more comfortable with the happy daredevil story.
The problem wasn’t the three young soldiers involved in the abuse, says one of Hall’s colleagues, it was the NZDF “culture of violence” they had absorbed. “If you’re anything other than macho, heavy drinking, sleeping with anything, then you’re suspect. Their instinct was to seek revenge on him for [so they believed] being gay.”
An NZDF spokesperson told North & South that “sexuality was never raised as an issue” in a review of statements regarding “the incident”.
When a highly decorated SAS officer got married, he acknowledged his wife in his groom’s speech, saying, “[She] used to be well known to the unit before I finally got her.”
Then there’s the story of a female army officer who, very drunk, was “serviced” by officer after officer on a billiard table in a Linton Military Camp mess. All these stories, which are enthusiastically told, reinforce attitudes to women. “You wouldn’t have that, widely known, in most government agencies,” observed a male officer who witnessed some of these incidents first-hand.
A second key ingredient is alcohol. Defence spokespeople are quick to say NZDF problems with binge drinking (and domestic violence) are part of New Zealand-wide problems. But NZDF has a particular problem with both, a number of sources told North & South. Social life on military bases revolves around drinking or pre-loading in messes (officers’, sergeants’ and “baggies’”) where they serve extremely cheap drinks. A drunken warship party was described as “packed with people and beer bottles everywhere, like a trashy nightclub”. An officer concerned about the binge drinking culture says many personnel “drink every Friday and Saturday night to a point where they can’t remember a portion of the evening”.
In Auckland, the SAS got sponsorship from a beer company when it redecorated its Papakura Army Camp mess with schist on the walls, stuffed animal heads and large leather couches; a pseudo gentlemen’s-club look and “so bizarre”, according to one former SAS member. NZDF confirmed that “Lion Breweries provided support for the establishment of the Papakura Camp Mess all-ranks bar”. The sponsorship included fridges and “post-mix equipment”.
Mess functions “are renowned for still going at four or five in the morning; it’s an awful culture,” says the former SAS member. “You can’t train people to be aggressive, have alcohol and then go home and not have domestic violence.” He named SAS members who had committed serious acts of domestic violence that had been hushed up.
Add to this a sexist and homophobic culture, a sense of superiority and impunity, and no effective mechanisms for accountability, and it’s inevitable bad things will happen, at home and overseas, the former SAS member says. “Compared to all the rest, not fronting up on Hit & Run is just normal. It’s ingrained from day one that we’re different,” he says.
Another factor is untreated mental health problems, a huge issue after 17 years of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. The insiders say there are large numbers of people unwell and suffering – creating “a ticking time bomb”. These problems often have to be dealt with by young unit officers: “Three to six months after a deployment, you start to see people with alcohol problems, domestic violence, drugs, financial problems, affairs, suicide, anxiety and depression. For a soldier to tell you this stuff – it’s gone pretty pear-shaped,” a former army officer says.
“There’s a joke that if you picked up Joint [Forces] Headquarters and shook it, it would rattle because of all the anti-depressants people were taking,” this former officer says. Of course, that’s not at all funny. It’s a cost never considered when governments send troops to far-away war zones. And like everything else, it is mostly hidden afterwards.
A recurrent and genuinely surprising complaint heard from many NZDF staff is the lack of care they receive from their employer. One of Defence’s many secrets is the number of its acrimonious disputes with staff, according to a currently serving mid-level officer with his own long-running dispute. Likewise, the former SAS trainer says, “NZDF doesn’t care about the people who work for them... When they come home, anger management and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] are treated as their personal problems.”
If NZDF is bad at hiding problems, it is good at public relations. In August, it was chosen as the 2018 Supreme Winner of the Diversity Awards, given out by an organisation called Diversity Works NZ – based on information NZDF had provided about itself. In the submission, defence chief Tim Keating said: “Few organisations in New Zealand have so deliberately and forthrightly set about tackling inappropriate behaviours... Indeed, I think we lead many others in New Zealand in this space.”
That’s not what the Ohakea woman thought, nor Hayley Young. They’d been neglected and mistreated during the years of Operation Respect. A previous defence chief, Rhys Jones, funded an internal LGBT group called Overwatch. That deserved a diversity award. But, according to the recently resigned officer, the next defence chief, Keating, was conservative and unsympathetic. He cut back the funding, for instance withdrawing funding for Overwatch conferences.
The NZDF told North & South that Overwatch activities are “funded on a case-by-case basis” and during Keating’s tenure as defence chief those activities have been funded “where NZDF has been able to do so, and there have been no cuts or reductions”.
There’s a final, curious, aspect of NZDF culture. In camps, officers’ houses are in different streets from NCOs and soldiers. The wives and partners don’t usually mix with other ranks, either. In the officers’ messes, there are three-course dinners, sometimes silver service, while lower ranks get lower-quality meals. Senior staff are paid royally (more than 1600 were paid more than $100,000 in 2017) but, other staff believe, most don’t work very hard, leaving lower-paid staff to pick up the slack.
“It's like the English gentry,” the recently resigned officer says. “Defence, as a culture, is the last vestiges of the class system in New Zealand.” Senior officers are accustomed to being saluted and deferred to, not being questioned and getting their way. The public pays for this “separate little world”.
We are getting closer to why a cover-up culture exists in the NZDF. Another staff member interviewed for this article was a woman in a skilled NZDF civilian (non-uniform) job. She describes finding a quite serious problem that needed fixing and advising her boss. His immediate reaction, she says, was to say, “You need to bury that.” Her boss then explained that pointing out a problem could get her, and him, in big trouble.
She realised, she says, that an environment of fear existed, where it was much easier to hide things rather than to face up to them: senior people believed that if they didn’t know about a problem, they couldn’t be held responsible. “If someone says everything is fine,” she says, “it lets people further up off the hook.” But, “if you take the initiative you expose yourself. I’ve never been in an environment where I had to watch my back so much.”
Military secrecy, in this culture, becomes very useful to hide mistakes, or just mediocrity. “If something goes wrong, it’s denied,” she says, “or you blame someone else, that classic thing that management books say is toxic in an organisation.”
“Yes,” she concludes, “thank god New Zealand doesn’t have any serious security threats...”
Another officer says much the same: “No one wants anything bad to come to light on their watch, so they ignore, cover up... The culture is, rather than confront something, we try to cover up with rewards or shutting people up.”
A further factor that contributes to an environment of fear inside the Defence Force is a security plan, adopted uncritically from the US military, called the Insider Threat Programme. Introduced by US agencies after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, it is designed to detect possible future whistle-blowers by monitoring their behaviour – yet another reason not to speak up or disagree, lest you’re tagged as a possible threat.
If that’s the goal, it isn’t working. I have had more present and former NZDF staff approach me in the past year than the rest of my career combined. These are thoughtful people who are not happy about the culture and cover-ups explored in these pages.
So, here is an alternative whistle-blower prevention programme for the NZDF leadership. It’s simple. The way to stop whistle-blowers is to earn their respect. Act with integrity. Treat your staff well. Show the public respect. Tell the truth.
That’s all anyone wants. The ex-SAS man, the one who told the story about Corporal B, stands up from the dining table to mark the end of our talk. “I hope something in that was useful to you,” he says. He shakes my hand, then pauses. “The reason I’m talking to you is I hope it will change.”
Nicky Hager is the author of seven books, including The Hollow Men (2006), Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror (2011); Dirty Politics (2014) and, with Jon Stephenson, Hit & Run (2017). Hager is the only New Zealand member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.