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Gordon Campbell on Shifty Bill’s Last Stand

Gordon Campbell on Shifty Bill’s Last Stand

First published on Werewolf

So that’s alright then. Nothing to see with this SAS raid bizzo, move on. Or so PM Bill English would have us believe, at yesterday’s post-Cabinet press conference.

No, there would be no independent inquiry into the events described in the Hit and Run book, because… he’d been briefed by the Chief of Defence Force and his officials, and he’d also seen video footage of the raid. And he felt convinced that everything had been done consistent with the rules of engagement, every feasible step had been taken to minimize civilian casualties, and the conduct of our troops has been exemplary throughout etc etc and the only people saying otherwise were the authors of what he deemed to be a ‘discredited’ book.

From then on, things became decidedly surreal. There didn’t seem to be a single member of the press gallery who was buying it for a moment. Would he release the video of the raid? No, its classified. So there’s no independent verification of any of what you're saying? Well, English explained, the current CDF (Chief of Defence force) was independent in that he wasn’t the CDF who had authorised the original raid, and the CDF had taken “independent” legal advice from his own NZDF legal counsel as to the legal issues involved. And besides, there had been the original “independent” investigation by the ISAF coalition forces, under whose banner the raid had been carried out.

Clearly none of this amounts to“independent” verification in any normal sense of the word. The fact that everyone involved in this raid is singing their own praises in unison only suggests the opposite. It is, as one questioner pointed out, like having the Police Commissioner “independently” investigating complaints against the Police – and by the logic English is using, who then needs the Police Conduct Authority?

Other journalists tried to probe the evidence the video contained. When had he seen the video? Today [Monday]. How long was it, and had it been edited? English stonewalled. That was classified information, and no, he wasn’t going to go into the details of the video. The raid was two hours long, one questioner said – so was that the duration of the footage that he’d watched? No, he couldn’t /wouldn’t go into those sort of details. Was the footage shot from the helicopter? Yes, English finally conceded. So how could the footage verify what the SAS troops were doing [eg, on the ground, at night]? He was satisfied that it did.

On and on. Former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp, English was reminded, had called the raid a “fiasco.” That, English argued, had been on the basis of Mapp seeing a documentary that had been made by one of the book’s co-authors. What about the NZDF claim that there were nine dead insurgents, yet supposedly, the NZDF couldn’t identify any of them – so how could they possibly know they were insurgents? Did the footage show they were armed, and did it show them acting as combatants? English replied that he was satisfied they were insurgents. He was also satisfied with the prospect while there may have been civilian casualties there was no one, he claimed, who had yet proven that there were any. (Apart from the claims in that ‘discredited’ book, that is.) Evidently, he wasn’t about to authorise an inquiry to find out, either way.

If the villagers pursue legal action, I asked, did he expect to have to release the video as part of the normal disclosure process? He hadn’t, English replied, received any advice on that. A mechanism exists, I added, whereby a special advocate can be appointed to verify and interrogate classified information on behalf of the court, and the public. English said he wasn’t aware of that mechanism, and it was all legal speculation at this point.

So what is going on here? The claim that there has already been an independent official investigation is patently absurd. So are the claims by English that the book has been ‘discredited.’ The only (minor) error detected in the book to date has been with regard to the exact geographical co-ordinates given for the villages where the attacks took place. These quibbles about geography – which the NZDF and English are using as a life raft to sail off to safety – pale into insignificance when compared to the litany of errors made down the years by the same NZDF (especially regarding the shifting NZDF position on civilian casualties) whose current claims we are being told to take on trust.

Clearly, a political decision has been made by the English government that (a) very few people care about this issue and (b) very few people will read the book and (c) the sort of people who read books written by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson are never going to vote for National anyway. In 2014, the government pursued the same strategy with respect to Hager’s last book Dirty Politics. That is, claim repeatedly that it is fake news, rely heavily on public indifference and treat anyone who thinks otherwise as politically expendable. If they’re dead they’re insurgents and if they believe Hager, they're dead to us. QED.

At this point, the main hope of daylight will be if/whether a legal action (for compensation) on behalf of the villagers does proceed. Mounting such a challenge would be an exhausting, very expensive process. We have been down the road before, where our meagre constitutional safeguards collide with an Executive prone to acting on the basis of political expedience. During the Ahmed Zaoui case in the 2000s, the rolling series of legal challenges and appeals came to serve as a virtual Royal Commission of inquiry into the powers and performance of our security and intelligence services, and into the adequacy of the oversight mechanisms that are supposed to safeguard us from the misuse of their powers.

It now looks like we may need to do the same thing all over again – this time with respect to our military services, and their lack of any meaningful oversight. As things stand, our military are literally a law unto themselves. While the lawyers mull over their options – and their resources – the incident has been a useful example of just how difficult it is for journalism to hold the powerful to account when politicians are determined to stonewall. Trust Bill? Yesterday, Shifty Bill did nothing to inspire public trust.

Uncertainty? Who Can Be Sure

Probably, there can’t be many people still feeling ambivalent about the contents of the Hit and Run book. Yet the feeling of looking on with bafflement/outrage as the party goes on regardless did remind me of this great video (for the song “Uncertainty”) by the under-rated 1960s garage band, the Seeds. That’s Peter Sellers on the sidelines, playing the role of Nicky Hager….

And here’s the Seeds again, this time serenading the National Party’s core constituency. Great nasal whine, matching whine from the keyboards… Mr Farmer, let me water your crops, you're always working with a rake and hoe. But is this song the hymn to the joys of irrigation that it seems – or is something more subversive really going on here?

See the farmer a walking down town, always draws a crowd when he's around
He's always wearing seedy clothes, he's shows them off wherever he goes…

I said, he looks like something from a very bad dream


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