When military leaders cover up and lie to elected civilian authorities, the foundation of democratic civil-military relations is undermined because it is those authorities who are entrusted to hold the military accountable to the public that they mutually serve. But this is only true if civilian political authorities take their responsibilities seriously and accept that when it comes to military operations the policy buck stops with them.
The same is true for intelligence agencies in democracies. While specific operational details remain within the agencies involved, the general policy guidelines for how they conduct those operations, and the responsibility for them, rests with a) the legal framework governing their activities and b) the elected civilian governments that are their overseers at any given point in time. For both the military and intelligence community, this means exchanging corporate or institutional autonomy-that, is, the ability to set internal standards, practices and objectives free from political interference–in return for submission to civilian political authority on broad matters of policy and accountability.
In recent weeks we have discovered, thanks to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s report on NZ involvement in the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program, that the NZSIS and GCSB received and supplied information that was directly linked to detainees who were subject to torture by the US and other allies in the coalition fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The directors of these agencies at the time claim that their agencies did not know about the program even though they worked hand-in-glove with the CIA in Afghanistan and elsewhere and even though knowledge of the extraordinary rendition/black site program and the use of torture was in the public domain as early as 2004. From what is described in the IGIS report, it appears that NZ intelligence bosses had their own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to what the US was up to. As Richard Woods, former NZSIS director general, is quoted as saying in the IGIS report (I paraphrase here), “do you really expect us to ask the US directly about such things and risk our relationships with it?”
When confronted about this discrepancy by the IGIS the former directors maintained the high-ranking government ministers of the day were privy to all of the sensitive information regarding NZ’s intelligence relationships and that as agency directors they had no authority to engage in moral, ethical or legal judgements about what their allies were doing even if these actions violated NZ and international law–all while maintaining that they knew nothing about unmarked airplanes, black sites, torture and suspects being captured (including by the SAS) and then “disappeared” into the covert operations labyrinth.
That broaches the question as to whether former directors Richard Woods and Warren Tucker are simply lying (former GCSB chief Bruce Ferguson was a late arrival to the events under investigation and inherited his situation from Tucker) and prefer to put NZ intelligence relationships with the CIA ahead of their supposed duties to the NZ government and nation as a whole. Or, did the governments of the day, led by Helen Clark and John Key, know about the extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program and authorised and covered up NZ participation in it? It should be noted that Barack Obama ended the extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program shortly after he assumed presidential office in January 2009, so the bulk of NZ’s involvement with it happened under the 5th Labour government.
With regards to the NZDF, thanks to the book “Hit and Run” by Jon Stephenson with Nicky Hager and the ensuing Royal Commission of Inquiry into Operation Burnham (the subject of the book), we now know that the military brass did not inform (at best) or mislead (at worst) senior government officials about the possibility of civilian deaths in that mission until news of it became public (again, mostly thanks to the work of Mr. Stephenson in his series on NZSAS activities in Afghanistan). The NZDF story constantly changed as more was revealed, and the Inquiry has now found out that a critical NZDF document recognising the possibility of civilian deaths was “lost” in a secure safe for three years and that a register of who opened and closed that safe during that time frame somehow went undiscovered until this week. Former ministers in the Key government, which was in office when the mission was conducted, maintain that they were unaware of the existence of anything that would contradict the original NZDF version of events, which claimed that only “terrorists” were killed.
That raises a profoundly disturbing possibility whichever way the truth falls in each case. On the one hand, it would appear that senior NZ intelligence and military officials do not inform and in fact cover up controversial operations that occur under their watch. The civilian authorities to whom they ostensibly answer to in the division of labour that constitutes the foundations of democratic civil-military/intelligence relations are deliberately left in the dark. This suggests a level of arrogance and sense of imperiousness that is inimical to democratic governance because there is no regard for personal or institutional accountability embedded in their decision-making. They simply do as they see fit and lie about it afterwards.
On the other hand, it is possible that military and intelligence officials respect the concept of civilian political authority and inform governments of the day of everything that they are doing, including when things go wrong or unpleasant compromises are made in the interest of national security. This can be considered to be a variant of the “no surprises” policy in which governments are informed apriori of controversial decisions so as to not be caught off-balance when said decisions become news. If that is the case, then political managers shoulder responsibility for the policy decisions under which the NZ intelligence community and NZDF operate, including taking the blame when things go wrong or uncomfortable facts are revealed about what NZ security forces are doing at home and abroad.
However, it appears that in NZ there is not only a variant of “don’t ask, don’t tell” operating in the intelligence community, but it is attached to a civilian political management approach whose operating premise is “don’t want to know.” That is, civilian political authorities display willful ignorance in an effort to maintain plausible deniability when things go wrong or prove politically fraught. That may be expedient over the short term but abdicates responsibility when it comes to civilian oversight of the military and intelligence community, thereby tacitly encouraging military and spy agency impunity during and after (often lethal) operations.
Coverage of the Royal Commission on Inquiry into Operation Burnham has focused on the supposed incompetence of senior NZDF officers when it came to document security and disclosure. “Incompetence” is the most generous interpretation of what was at play here. “Conspiracy based on deliberate and coordinated lies and misrepresentations authorised from the top” is an alternative interpretation. The questions now are: which of these two interpretations seems more plausible and will anyone be held to real account in any event? Surely, if the government of the day was deliberately lied to or mislead by the NZDF and was not complicit in the coverup, then there is criminal liability involved.
The same goes for the intelligence agency chiefs who say they did not know what their subordinates were doing during the years in which the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program was running. If they lied to their political masters about what they knew, then there should be consequences for that even if it has taken time to uncover their deception. If the political authorities at the time knew about NZ intelligence community involvement in the program, that should become a matter of public record even if little can be done in terms of retroactively applying punitive sanctions on their behaviour..
Not to put too fine a cynical point on it, but perhaps there is another hand at play in both instances. The IGIS report on NZ involvement with the CIA extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program speaks at length about managerial misadventure in the NZSIS and GCSB and even “naivety” in the discharge of their duties (when was the last time anyone ever heard the word “naive” associated with spy agencies?). The Inquiry into Operation Burnham has heard about “mistakes” and “oversights” on the part of NZDF senior leaders. It would seem that the common denominator in both is incompetence rather than wilful or deliberate circumvention of ethical norms, legal obligations and constitutional responsibilities.
Could it be that “incompetence” is the ultimate “get out of jail” card for public servants found to have failed in the discharge of their basic obligations and responsibilities?