Helen Clark understood well the axiom that in politics the best defense is a good offense. She was a master of the art of character assassination and discrediting the opponent. This was particularly true when the opponent was not a politician but someone from outside of the partisan divide who pointed out a dubious policy decision or raised ethical questions about the behavior of her government. I know this first-hand, because I was the subject of one of her attacks (with regard to the role of former ambassador Richard Wood, then director of the SIS, in the Ahmed Zaoui case). She also knew the value of having everyone in her government play off of the same sheet of music when it comes to cover-ups, hence the “lying in unison” refrain. Love her or hate her, Ms. Clark knew how to play dirty.
When National came to office it argued that it was going to end the sort of practices Ms. Clark was so adept at. But as it turns out, it has done exactly the opposite and instead deepened the dark “art” of shooting the bearer of bad news. The latest instance of this is its treatment of independent war correspondent Jon Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson is by all objective accounts a remarkably brave and serious journalist. He is also a thorn in the side of the NZDF. The reason is because he travels independently to conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed, foregoes the embedded journalist niceties that accrue to the likes of TV talking heads, and asks hard questions about the actions of Kiwi soldiers as well as the polices and rules of engagement under which they operate. That line of inquiry does not conform to the scripted narrative that the NZDF would prefer that NZ audiences consume, so it makes the Defence brass uncomfortable. Â As a result some of the NZDF and Defence leadership are antagonistic towards Mr. Stephenson. The irony is that such antagonism does not extend down to the rank and file troops, many of who candidly share their views with Mr. Stephenson under conditions of anonymity. In fact, they are often the source of his insights into how the NZDF operates in combat environments. For his part Mr. Stephenson has repeatedly voiced his high regard for the integrity and professionalism of Kiwi soldiers, those in the SAS in particular. The animus, in other words, is not mutual.
In April Mr. Stephenson published an article in Metro magazine titled “Eyes Wide Shut.” In it he writes that in its previous and current deployments in Afghanistan the SAS transferred and continues to transfer prisoners to US and Afghan forces that have been implicated in abuses of the Geneva Convention. He makes very clear that the SAS does not abuse prisoners, although–contrary to the National government’s initial assertions–the SAS takes a lead role in counter-terrorism and search and destroy missions, kills adversaries as a matter of course (some of whom it turns out were not hostile but either misidentified or the victims of faulty intelligence), and detains and transfers prisoners to Afghan and US custody as part of its standard operating procedures. The trouble for the government is that after Labour withdrew the SAS from Afghanistan in 2005 in part because of concerns about the treatment of prisoners initially detained by the elite force, National turned around and re-deployed them in 2009 without getting ironclad assurances from either the US or the Karzai regime that prisoners detained by the SAS would be treated in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention. The lack of such assurances are what have forced UK forces serving in Afghanistan to refuse to hand over prisoners to the Afghan government and played a part in the Danish decision to withdraw their special forces from ISAF, so the concerns are wide-spread and well known. Yet, rather than wrestle with the ethical dilemmas involved, it appears that the NZ government has repeatedly misrepresented what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan, and on at least one occasion has played loose with the truth when asked about that role, to include, specifically, whether the SAS leads combat missions and takes prisoners on its own.
Mr. Stephenson’s article raises all of these troublesome points. Its well researched account of incidents in 2002 and 2010 raises questions about what National agreed to in 2009 that Labour could not stomach in 2005. It specifically questions General Jerry Mateparae, former NZDF head, current GCSB director and Governor-General-designate over his statements to parliament in 2010 that the SAS does not detain prisoners and does not lead combat engagements. It is damning stuff that should be the subject of an independent inquiry.
The government response has been to take a page out of Helen Clark’s book on character assassination, and then attempt to write it more crudely. Prime Minister John Key, current head of the NZDF Lieutenant General Richard Rhys-Jones and Minister of Defense “Dr.” Wayne Mapp have all attacked Mr. Stephenson as being “non-credible” and of having an anti-NZDF bias. Military sycophants like Ron Smith of Waikato University (who is reported to have a personal connection to General Mateparae) have accused Mr. Stephenson of having a “hidden agenda,” with the insinuation that the agenda is pro-Taliban as well as anti-NZDF. Although General Rhys-Jones has disputed some facts in the Metro article, Mr. Mapp has been forced to admit under questioning in parliament that the SAS does in fact lead combat missions, does detain prisoners and does indeed hand them over to Afghan or US authorities without proper follow up monitoring (worse yet, Mr. Mapp initially claimed that the NZ government has an arrangement with the Red Cross for the latter to monitor prisoners captured by NZDF forces once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, but the Red Cross denies any such agreement exists, among other things because it only signs agreements with the governments holding prisoners, not with those who may have initially captured them). Â
The result of Mr. Stephenson’s reporting and its follow ups reveals that in effect, the National government re-committed the SAS either ignorant of what its operations would entail or fully cognizant of them, but then lied to the NZ public rather than admit the truth (or has the NZDF lie on its behalf). Either way it is not a good look.
Rather than own up to what was agreed to in 2009, the government is pursuing a campaign of character assassination against Mr. Stephenson. It cannot argue his facts so it is playing him instead. It is not surprising that a money-changer like Mr. Key would not have a strong ethical compass, or that a career politician like the good “Dr.” Mapp would weasel rather than front on the ethical dilemmas involved in the deployment. But it is unfortunate that the top military brass have joined in the campaign, regardless of whether or not they are simply trying to close ranks around General Mateparae. They of all people should know that the integrity of the force should come before politician’s political machinations.
If there are reasons of state behind the decision to commit the SAS back into Afghanistan under less than optimal ROEs (at least with regard to the treatment of prisoners), then they should be stated clearly and openly. It is quite possible that a majority of New Zealander’s would have no problem with the mistreatment of prisoners initially captured or detained by the SAS. However, if there are domestic political considerations behind the government’s apparently duplicitous approach to revealing the considerations involved and the terms under which the SAS was re-deployed, then the NZDF should not carry the water for it. Responsibility for the decision lies with the civilian command authority to which the uniformed crowd are ultimately subordinated, and if the NZDF has been asked to misrepresent the terms and conditions of the re-deployment, that is unethical as well as injurious to morale. Troops do not like to be pawns in some political game played by people with no experience in soldiering and no regard for their individual fate, which is why the NZDF leadership should come clean on what it has been asked to do and not do when it comes to its commitment of troops abroad.
In reporting on what the SAS does in Afghanistan, Jon Stephenson was just doing his job, in the time-honoured fashion of war correspondents. In that he is a rare bird in NZ, where flak-jacketed and helmeted media figures “report” in hostile theaters from “sanitised” positions miles away from the action that are surrounded by layers of armed security (i.e. these journalistic poseurs are kept away from real harm and instead are the guests of government-orchestrated field trips in the proximity of battle zones). It is because he adopts the independent, non-scripted line that Mr. Stephenson is being attacked, and in the measure that a democracy is only as good as the free flow of information allows it to be, the actions of this government against him are not only despicable, but a clear sign of the ingrained authoritarian (some would say bullying) ethos that permeates the NZ political elite.
The Greens have called for an independent inquiry and sensing a chance to wound National, Labour has joined them (since it can now use its 2005 decision to not continue the SAS deployment and objection to the 2009 re-deployment as ammunition against the government). Mr. Key has refused to agree to the demands, insisting that he is satisfied with NZDF explanations about the incidents Mr. Stephenson has reported on. What he really means is that he is applying the first rule of bureaucracy when it comes to handling prickly issues: CYA (Cover Yer A**e).
As a political community we should not allow the government to get away with such a cynical response, nor allow its slander of Jon Stephenson to go unchallenged. After all, basic principles of democratic accountability and NZ’s international reputation as a defender of human rights are at stake, as is Mr. Stephenson’s career.