Detainees in Afghanistan: Why are our soldiers allowed more secrets than our spies?

Tonight is one of those nights I wish the late, great David Beatson was still with us. Tonight, in his honour, I’ve been reading the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s report into whether NZSIS and GCSB had any connection to the CIA's "enhanced interrogation", detention and rendition programme in Afghanistan between 2001-2009. I struggle to know whether David would be pleased or frustrated by the findings.

Today’s report is a thorough investigation into our intelligence agencies and it comes to some striking conclusions. Behind today’s headlines that the agencies were cleared of being involved in torture and rendition, there is strong criticism of the then-Directors-General of both the SIS and the GCSB.

The report rather damningly says they had “a low level of awareness” of the public allegations being made against the CIA over its work in Afghanistan, which would later be shown to include rendition, “torture and other cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment of CIA detainees”, as the report puts it.

The Inspector-General says that – even taking a conservative approach and allowing for their defence that they didn’t want to interrupt the flow of intelligence out of the US – by mid-2004 they should have known enough to have been asking questions of our US partners. They did not. They failed to see the “legal and reputational risks” to their organisations and the New Zealand government that stemmed from just going along with the CIA.

In other words, they should have been reading a few more newspapers and paying attention. They should have been asking questions at least after the “tipping point” of mid-2004, but they preferred not to rock the boat.

The Inspector-General also pulls no punches regarding the US itself, saying we cannot take for granted than even our closest allies will obey international law.

I’ll be interested to see what journalists and experts with a better understanding of these things make of the report and if it is considered rigorous enough. But I’m left with the sense that at least the security services have been thoroughly probed and we have a detailed account of their involvement in Afghanistan.

If only the same could be said for our defence forces, specifically the SAS.

When Pundit started in 2008, David was a founder writer, determined to keep the then Clark Labour government accountable on its actions in Afghanistan. He took seriously a government’s decision to send its citizens into a war zone, especially one as fraught and dubious as Afghanistan in the years after the 9/11 attacks.

He wrote OIA request after OIA request, and in late 2008 revealed New Zealand soldiers in the SAS may have broken the Geneva Conventions when in 2002 they handed over 50-70 Afghan detainees to US forces without checking on their welfare. Under the Geneva Conventions it’s the detaining power’s duty to ensure the “transferee” (the US) is willing and able to treat the detainees humanely, as per the conventions.

Given the American’s use of torture and rendition it seems likely those conditions were not met.

You can read some of the work on Pundit at the time here , here and here. Beatson discovered, for example, that assurances given by then-Defence Minister Phil Goff that the Red Cross were called to check on the detainees were false.

Jon Stephenson also investigated those detainees and, with Nicky Hager, wrote their book, Hit & Run, on Operation Burnham, which came eight years later. The inquiry into that continues with hearings next week. But the NZDF has been resolute in its obstruction to discussing its role in Afghanistan. While our intelligence services have now been reported on, questions raised by David and others have never really been answered. Goff got off lightly and NZDF boss Jerry Mateparae even more so. It remains unclear what he knew about those detainees and our observance of the conventions, yet he has been rewarded with a knighthood and several senior government posts. He’s currently our High Commissioner in London; if only he would be as open about our role in Afghanistan as he is to cucumber sandwiches and high teas.

It’s interesting to note that the Inspector-General is scathing of the intelligence services not knowing more about US mistreatment of prisoners as early as 2004, yet when David was seeking answers from Goff, Mateparae and the NZDF four years later, it still took him months to get answers to straight-forward questions.

I’m sure David would still love answers to those questions he was asking more than a decade ago. I wonder if anyone will ever require the NZDF to be accountable (for good or ill), or if they are considered even more worthy of secrecy than our intelligence agencies.