Who to Believe?

Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.

John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.

Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.

I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.

The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.

Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner?  If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.


13 thoughts on “Who to Believe?

  1. I think it ought to be remembered that John Stephenson is a professional journalist, but I am not so certain we can label John Key a professional politician.

    By this I mean that Key came to be Prime Minister within six years of entering Parliament, whereas his predecessor was an MP for 18 years, including periods in Government, and Cabinet, before she became Prime Minister.

    I don’t think Helen Clarke would have been tripped up and caught out by journalists in the way John Key’s comments sometimes come back to bite him. But Clarke had decades to learn how to deal with the media.

    I think part of Key’s public appeal is that people identify with him in a way they could never identify with the aloof Clarke. When pressed, Key does appear to admit when he has made a mistake. I can’t immediately recall Clarke ever doing so. And the public think better of their politicians when they admit their errors – well documented when President Kennedy admitted the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was a fiasco.

    I think too that Key is a naturally gregarious person who wants to be helpful to the media, to be available to answer their questions and so forth. But a problem he faces is that this openness (casualness?) with the media does not sit well when he is talking about security and defence issues – he hasn’t really learnt how to handle these responsibilities by simply saying nothing. He really is a much better Minister of Tourism, than he is a Minister in charge of the intelligence agencies.

    In their hearts most New Zealander’s will have quickly concluded that the SAS has probably gone back to Afghanistan on a revenge killing mission (and very pleased the public will be, too), so what is the point of journalist John Stephenson trying to catch out the Prime Minister on this topic? Publicly Key has to say it is not a revenge mission, but we all know otherwise.

    There are some areas where journalists need to leave well alone, and NZ troop activities in a war zone is one of them. The risk that Stephenson and other journalists run is that Key will become wary of them and become less readily accessible if he senses entrapment. The public will be less informed if Key becomes less accessible and journalists will have found they have shot themselves in the foot with Key no longer being so ready to talk to them.

  2. Chris:

    I hear what you are saying but disagree slightly. The main problem with political journalists is that they trade access for favor. That is, in order to maintain privileged access to the political elite they tend to avoid hard questioning and instead place political explanations in a favorable or neutral light. They do so because they do not want to piss off the politicians to the point that they are denied access. With access come all sorts of perks–invitations to parties, insider info, participations in foreign travel junkets etc.

    Mr. Stephenson and a few others are not interested in access, They are interested in the details and consequences of policy decisions, as well as corroborating the explanations given for them. Because such lines of inquiry make politicians uncomfortable if they have played loose with the truth, the reporter who dares to pursue them tends to be denigrated and ostracized. That has been the case with Mr. Stephenson and to a certain extent Nicky Hagar.

    But these journalists survive and in fact thrive because they source their stories from the “little” people actually involved in policy or political implementation. They cut through the PR gloss given by parties, ministries and senior managers and get to the heart of the matter in question. It is their lack of concern for elite access that make them less supplicant to and more dangerous for the politicians and senior bureaucrats.

    The most important role of the media in a democracy is to hold elites to account on the decisions they make in the name of all. Jon Stephenson is merely doing that. It is a pity that many of those in the press gallery prefer to pursue access rather than follow his example.

  3. Pablo
    You agree with SAS going back to Afghanistan and offer plausible reason why. You and Jon Stephenson are both smart enough to figure that and the implication. The Prime Minister of a small country cannot brag in the media about the mission of an elite fighting force without jeopardizing that mission. Are you naive enough not to understand that or simply filling your role as a liberal media critic.

    I believe that the NZ SAS have done enough in Kabul that the attacks on Bamiyan PRT were revenge on an easier target.
    The New Zealand armed services can be very proud of what they have helped to achieve.
    The final outcome will be entirely dependant on whether Afghan or Taliban step up when allies leave.

  4. Phil:

    If Mr. Key wanted to protect the troops and safeguard the mission, all he had to do was revert to the “nether confirm or deny” policy. Deliberately misleading the public as to the nature of the mission, which has been his approach from the beginning of his term in office both with regard to the SAS counter-terrorism “mentoring” and the security conditions in Bamiyan, demonstrates something other than concern for the troops.

    What I find odd is that there really is no political downside to his being honest about the SAS. Other than the fringe Left and Greens, most Kiwis would likely support the return of the SAS to track and hunt the killers in the context of a larger withdrawal. That makes Mr. Key’s position all the more puzzling.

  5. Pablo, I support what you say. I think too there is another dimension to consider, and that is the nature of the relationship between our intelligence and defence agencies, and their relevant responsible Minister. It is like no other departmental/Ministerial relationship.

    These defence & intelligence organisations have decades of experience in dealing with ministers in which almost everything they discuss is classified. So from the very moment of their appointment the relevant Minister is constantly told how secret something is and that public disclosure would undermine the security of NZ’ers, or our relationship with allies. Key hasn’t quite learnt this with defence matters, he has with intelligence matters.

    The SIS Act even requires it to brief the Leader of the Opposition, so long before Key had become a Prime Minister he had been inculcated by the SIS. No other Ministry is legally obliged to formally brief opposition MP’s in this way, and it is likely these were one-on-one meetings so as Opposition Leader he would not have had one of his staff with him to later discuss and question what he was told – he has to keep it to himself.

    I feel in these circumstances that the defence and intelligence departments effectively “capture” the heart and mind of their political master – firstly when they are in Opposition and then later when Prime Minister. It’s a wonderful way to have a Minister on your side! It would be interesting to compare the ebb and flow of the SIS and GCSB annual budgets over 20 years and compare them to that of other departments, given the PM of the day is always in charge of those two organisations.

    As to why Key can not be honest, or discreet about the deployment back to Afghanistan is strange, and really the whole matter is more properly the domain of the Defence Minister anyway.

    Key needs to step away from being Minister of Everything, and concentrate on being Chairman of the Board. He would be more effective if he had no portfolio responsibilities at all, and perhaps that is a line that journalists might want to consider. The leaders in Australia, UK, Canada, etc, do not have ministerial portfolios, why is it necessary for our Prime Minister to have three?

  6. The only thing I want to hear is that the bad guys are feeding crows somewhere in the Bamyan mountains. How they achieve that status and at whose hands are technical issues and therefore irrelevant. If you want to instill fear and send the message you don’t ever advise the other side how or where you will strike them. The story is misguided and misplaced and reeks of a journo who can’t keep his mouth shut and has to be first into print regardless of the damage. “Look at me, I know some secrets and I’m going to tell them to you” Crikey, Kath and Kim do a better job of it than this bloke Stephenson.

    The much better story, tellable only after a successful mission, will now have the newsworthiness of a David Shearer brain fart and will send no message to anyone – neither Taliban nor Kiwis.

  7. Lotta years have passed now and those damn Afghanis still don’t feel much love for us cool bridge building kiwis, could Stephenson be onto something our dear yankee pocket warming leader is not?

    –Randy Newman “Political Science”
    “No one likes us-I don’t know why
    We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
    But all around, even our old friends put us down
    Let’s drop the big one and see what happens

    We give them money-but are they grateful?
    No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
    They don’t respect us-so let’s surprise them
    We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them”

    This is where davidw’s attitude leads us. Asymmetrical wars do not have a great success rate for the West.

  8. davew:

    You are mistaken in your harsh assessment of Mr. Stephenson. He is not an attention seeker–quite to the contrary–and merely seeks to hold political leaders to account for their decisions and statements (in other words, to keep them honest). In doing so he has not compromised operational matters and in fact has withheld information that could jeopardize the mission.

    You also seem to not understand the role of professional journalists in a democratic society, which is precisely that of holding elites to the standards of honesty and transparency that lie at the core of the social and political contract. Instead, you seem to want the type of press coverage that Kim Jong-un would favor.

    Chris: I agree that the PM has a full time job without adding on other ministerial portfolios. I especially agree that the PM should not be the Minister for Security and Intelligence (Tourism is fine) precisely because of the “capture” that you describe but also because, as I have written elsewhere, the potential for political manipulation of intelligence or security by the PM when left unchecked by other “veto points” (which are the counter-balancing agencies or individuals that help prevent concentration of decision-making power in specific policy areas).

  9. I think the simplest explanation for all of this is what was summed up in Nicky Hager’s Other People’s Wars – in that the PR message for the entire Afghan campaign has been ‘massaged’ since its inception.

    This has simply been in order to make the whole thing more palatable to the New Zealand public.

    Speaking with close friends who have toured Afghanistan both as part of the SAS and ELINT the message that they provide relative to that from Government PR merchants is far removed.

    If the NZDF’s default line of ‘take what is happening/happened and soften by 30%’ has served them for 10+ years why would they change it for the last 6 months?

    As an organisation they are simply institutionally incapable of doing it and the PM as a mindless mouthpiece peddles what he is told to peddle.

  10. Oh Mr sage, I must say I admire your perseverance, if not your analysis; which I often find baffling in it’s not-seeing-the-blindingly-obvious-flaw-in-what-I’m-saying-ness.

    Firstly, with regard to Mr. Stephenson’s criticisms, note that his sources for this include ‘the SAS community’.

    If you want to run the line that what he is doing is a grave risk to operational security, and imply that he is a traitor, at least have the intellectual honesty to sheet the blame to where it belongs. Mr. Stephenson is a journalist, his sources are military. Who has what jobs?

    Think carefully about who you are smearing eh.

    As to whether there is any risk in this reporting, I have my doubts. Likewise about your theory that the attacks in Bamiyan are revenge for the successes in Kabul.

    The Taliban, for want of a better term, are not fighting a counterinsurgency. Their strategic imperatives are quite different. Especially at this late stage in the game.

    As things stand, we here in the west all know that we are pulling out over the next couple of years. Shockingly, the Taliban also know this. They have nothing to prove to us, we are leaving. Everything they do now, and have been doing all along, is about domestic politics for them.

    At this point, the Taliban seem focussed on demonstrating that not only have they not been defeated, but that they are in a position to operate in large areas of the country. That alone would account for why they would be expanding operations into areas like Bamiyan.

    Likewise, it seems likely that they have plenty of domestic sources of intel without having to rely on the output of the western press. It always amuses me to hear people (usually right wingers) urging their own media to keep secrets from their own population so that the people living in the country where it is all going on, don’t find to what is going on. Newsflash, they probably already know, they are there, with their extended networks of families and the like.

    It’s not about us to them. It really isn’t. They have their own plans strategies and tactics, and they are about their own goals for Afghanistan. It’s not about us, and they already know far more about what is going on than we do. That last point is why counter insurgencies are so damn hard for foreign forces.

    Some light reading, from another filthy big noting journalist trying to big note himself:


  11. Interesting bit of conspiracy theory scandal-mongering. Even if it were true I don’t think we should know the full ins and outs of our armed forces’ deployments and activities. How are they supposed to do their job if what they are going off to do is shouted from the rooftops by people who want to make a name for themselves?

    Anyway – it is FAVOUR not favor
    I would have thought a journalist (?!?) would know how to spell in English…

    (er, and also focused, not focussed).

    That’s my piece – night night

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