There has been a second embarrassing blunder over photographs taken during the top secret NZSAS raid in Afghanistan called Operation Burnham.
First the NZ Defence Force said there were none – and the NZ Herald showed it was wrong.
Then they said there was only one camera taking photographs – and now the Herald has proved that was wrong too.
The NZ Defence force is blaming an “administrative error” but it has led to further claims of a cover-up.
The details have emerged through Herald inquiries into the allegations made in the book called Hit & Run, written by journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, which claimed six civilians were killed and 15 wounded during an attack motivated by “revenge”.
Until then, NZDF called claims of civilian deaths “unfounded” and allowed former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp’s statement that it was “false” to stand for six years.
The book forced NZDF to shift position, saying “unfounded” actually meant it was possible civilians had been killed, although it has strongly denied claims of “revenge”.
Instead, it has said the raid was to eliminate a threat to the NZDF base 50km away and the nine people killed were armed with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
The Herald sought copies of imagery from the raid, having been told by military sources that NZSAS troopers often wore cameras on missions to record events and that soldiers used cameras to exploit intelligence.
In the case of the Operation Burnham mission into Baghlan province – supported by US helicopters and other aircraft – the mission had specific people it was targeting.
The Operation Burnham raid came after New Zealand’s first fatality in the Afghanistan deployment and targeted two villages about 50km from the base of our Provincial Reconstruction Team in the mountainous Bamyan region.
Military sources said the NZSAS soldiers would have been trained to recover information – and even DNA – which would allow intelligence specialists to identify whether those targets had been killed.
NZDF initially responded saying: “No video or still imagery was taken by the NZDF during Operation Burnham.”
But the denial conflicted with information the Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating made public in a 17-page media briefing about the raid after the book’s publication.
NZDF backtracked, saying the photographs had been “overlooked” and “it would have been more correct to say that the photos provided in the slide are the best of the few photos taken of the arms cache discovered during Operation Burnham”.
The three photographs showed ammunition said to be found during the raid, including machine gun, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with ammunition.
NZDF stated: “We are not aware of any other still imagery captured by the NZDF during Operation Burnham.”
The Herald then sought through the Official Information Act details of the photographs taken during the raid, asking for copies of the electronic files which would include metadata revealing the time and place the images were taken.
NZDF chief of staff Commodore Ross Smith then provided computer file information for five photographs – not the three the military conceded existed – and said the images were “captured on a New Zealand camera”.
He said it was “the file information that the camera gave to the photographs”.
Examination of the file information showed that four of the images were recorded in a different file format from the fifth image, strongly suggesting there was more than a single camera.
It also raised questions about further photographs, as the standard operating practice for “sensitive site exploitation” – the intelligence-gathering technique used on raids such as Operation Burnham – meant it was unlikely the NZSAS took only a single photograph.
Again NZDF backtracked: “Two cameras were used to capture the images provided.”
In a statement apparently in reference to the camera with a single image, he said: “Given storage capacity limitations with that camera only the single image of the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) was retained following the operation. Other images have been deleted.”
The Herald had questioned why the cameras were not used to capture images of those killed – a standard practice in post-battle intelligence-gathering.
“The body of only one insurgent was checked by NZDF personnel. They were not equipped with a camera and given the prevailing operational conditions it was not feasible to undertake any further action in respect of the deceased.”
While the NZSAS did not have to contend with incoming fire from an opposing force, it did have to contend with a seriously injured soldier who was hurt when a wall – weakened by air support – collapsed.
The claim only a single body was checked is a key detail given NZDF’s insistence that it killed insurgents during the raid and Hit & Run‘s counter-claim that civilians were killed.
The single body checked was likely to have been the person shot and killed by the NZSAS sniper team watching over the target area.
US video of the raid has not been released but both the Apache helicopters and the AC130 Spectre gunship that fired in support of the NZSAS on the ground have cameras capable of picking up clear ground movement – including whether people are carrying weapons.
But the claim only a single body was checked means there was a lack of after-battle identification to establish whether those killed were the people targeted and whether civilians had been killed.
It would also leave it unclear as to whether any armed people killed were “insurgents” or the armed groups known to rove the Hindu Kush mountains trafficking poppies to the north.
It adds context to NZDF’s ability to respond to the claims in Hit & Run. The inquiry carried out the week after the raid by two Afghan government agencies and the International Security Assistance Force did not actually visit the area.
There has been no other boots-on-the-ground inquiry.
Without the NZSAS inspecting the bodies while there, it was never able to be categorical about civilian deaths. It raises questions about why it allowed it defence minister’s absolute denial to stand.
It appears the NZSAS had time to make a wider sweep of the area. The first helicopter landed about 12.30pm and the weapons believed to belong to the insurgents were secured by 1.55am – the photographs from the two cameras were taken between 1.44am and 1.53am.
It could be the injury of the NZSAS trooper from the wall disrupted plans to do so. From the chain of events in the book, the injury happened after the weapons were secured.
The NZSAS and supporting Afghan troops left the area at 3.45am, by NZDF’s timeline.
Intelligence analyst Dr Paul Buchanan, who worked on counterinsurgency at the Pentagon, said the injury would have changed the scope of the mission. “That would explain putting serious fire (from air support) in the perimeter of where this guy was evacuated.”
Buchanan – who has been involved in counterinsurgency operations in Central America with United States forces – said the checking of only a single body “strains credulity”.
“You would think they would take DNA and photographs of these people so they could confirm they had a ‘good kill’ and got the ‘bad guys’.”
If they had found that those killed included women and the child said to have died, then there would be “no need”.
“Maybe that’s why there wouldn’t be any photographs or DNA.”
He said air support video of those who were killed might show weapons being carried but that did not help with identity.
“Even from the height of the AC130 they’ll be able to see these people are carrying weapons. If these guys were sheepherders, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were carrying rifles.”
The shifting position over the existence of photographs and the one camera which became two cameras also came in for criticism from Buchanan.
He said there was evidence of a “cover-up culture” in NZDF. “There seems to be at (senior level) a reluctance to admit mistakes happen.”
Hager said it was hard to accept the issues around the cameras and photographs was an “administrative error”.
“It completely lacks credibility to suggest the SAS would go on their biggest and most important raid in their whole time in Afghanistan and take just five photographs.
“The idea on such an important raid they would delete all but five photographs because they would need the space on the cameras just isn’t believable.
“I’m absolutely certain that what we’re seeing is part of the ongoing cover-up.”
Commodore Smith said NZDF had provided all the information that existed.
“NZDF did not overlook the existence of the second camera. It was an administrative error drafting the response to you that was not corrected before release.”
He said the deleted images – which NZDF said had happened to save space on a camera – showed “the same weapons and ammunition shown in images already released”.
“All images not required were deleted several hours after being taken.”