NZDF has changed it's position on civilian casualties and never explained itself. It has two ministers with different versions. How does any government agency get away with this?

There’s so much to digest in the confusion surrounding the book Hit & Run.

But there is a key shift in the position of the New Zealand Defence Force that has become lost in the chaos swirling around the accusations made.

For six years, the NZ Defence Force maintained that claims of civilians casualties were “unfounded”.

In relation to the raid, it has repeatedly referenced an investigation by two Afghan government ministries and the International Security Assistance Force and stated: “The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”

By almost any common definition of the word, “unfounded” means it is not true. Baseless. Fiction. False.

And yet, now we know differently. And we know this because the Chief of Defence, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating (a former NZSAS commander) now says it is possible civilians were killed.

In his press conference last week, he said: “There may have been (civilian casualties), rather than ‘unfounded’. I’m not going to get cute here and say it’s a twist on words but it’s the same thing - ‘unfounded’, ‘there may have been’. The official line is that civilian casualties may have occurred.”

There’s nothing cute about the shift in position and this is why.

The question of civilian casualties arose in a New Zealand context in 2011, when then-defence minister Wayne Mapp was asked if they had occurred.

“That’s been investigated and proven to be false,” said Mapp in a 2011 TVNZ interview. Asked if he was satisfied no civilians had been killed - and if he had seen reports to support his belief - he said: “I am satisfied around that.”

This is important because Mapp is definite on this. His position came at the same time as NZDF made its first public statement, citing the investigation and saying claims of civilian casualties was “unfounded”.

That’s when the definition of “unfounded” was established. It meant no civilians had died. You can bet that interview was watched by NZDF commanders and they saw his rock-solid, cast-iron assertion that there were no civilian casualties.

Mapp’s position is in lock-step with NZDF’s at that stage. We all knew what “unfounded” meant, because Mapp had told us. NZDF also knew, unless (incredibly) it had decided not to watch any of the media around the previously unknown role of the NZSAS in the raid.

If Mapp had gone too far, then this was NZDF’s chance to correct its minister and the public.

But it did not.

In 2014, one of the Hit & Run authors Jon Stephenson produced a documentary for Maori Television on the raid. This is when NZDF’s definition of “unfounded” started to come apart.

Mapp’s successor Jonathan Coleman was then asked if civilians were killed and he said "you probably can't rule out" civilian casualties from the Apache gunship air support. NZDF referred any queries to its statement of three years earlier - the “unfounded” statement.

So right then we had a new definition. In 2011 “unfounded” meant no civilians died and in 2014 it meant they might have.

Forget about Hit & Run - this was NZDF’s opportunity to clear matters up.

But it did not. It let the conflicting definitions of “unfounded” - defined by its ministers’ statements - to continue through to 2017 when Hit & Run was published.

When the book was launched, NZDF released the statement afresh saying “allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded”.

Almost a week later, Keating got up in front of the press to explain that “unfounded” didn’t mean what almost all dictionary definitions said it meant. No, he said, it meant something else.

In making that case, it raises the question as to what it knew at the time Mapp was briefed. It also begs the question as to why it did not clear the matter up when it became clear Mapp had - it appears inadvertently - misled the New Zealand public.

Put to one side about whether civilians were actually killed, if revenge motivated the raid (a claim I personally find incredibly hard to accept), if international laws were broken and come back to this six-year position put by NZDF.

Government agencies - military or not - really should not be able to get away with misleading their ministers.

There was no doubt as to the question of civilian casualties among the NZSAS. It was a point of conversation among the elite unit in the months after the raid and through 2011 when Mapp went on television and said there were none.

Military leaders of those men should not underestimate the impact it has on soldiers when they see their ultimate political commanders making statements they know not to be true. And they knew, at the time Mapp was interviewed, that it was highly likely (if not certain) civilians had been killed.

I have reported on NZDF with some regularity. I visited the Bamyan base in Afghanistan where Tim O’Donnell - our first casualty of 10 in Afghanistan - served. I met men and women who likely served with him, albeit before the fatal attack in 2010.

The rank-and-file are good people who impress constantly. They are subject to high standards and strive to meet those. I believe those core values to be also present among those in the NZSAS I have met.

One other point. Among those fine men and women in uniform that I have had the privilege to meet and see at work in other countries have been those who are conscious their experiences have injured them in ways that can’t be seen.

There have been questions raised about the level of mental health support available to NZDF personnel. PTSD is real and it is affecting our returned service personnel.

When this issue arose in 2012, NZDF responded. In a statement, it said: “Recent criticism in the media about the Government’s lack of support for ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers is unfounded says the NZ Defence Force.”

Unfounded. There’s that word again. Looking back, I wonder which definition NZDF was using that time.

* This article also appears at the NZ Herald.

Comments (28)

by Rab McDowell on April 06, 2017
Rab McDowell

Fisher states “By almost any common definition of the word, “unfounded” means it is not true. Baseless. Fiction. False.” His piece is then built around that “common definition”.

But the link he inserted leads to the Collins definition as “not yet founded or established”. Isn’t that what Keating has been saying. That there may have been casualties but, at least to the degree of evidence he would be satisfied with, it has not yet been established.

So how is that a “key shift in position?”

Fisher says the definition of unfounded was established in Mapp’s 2011 TVNZ interview but, in the clip Fisher links to, Mapp never used the word.

They say the first casualty of war is the truth but I don’t think we will get to the truth by dancing on a pin as Fisher does here.

by David Fisher on April 06, 2017
David Fisher

Hi Rab, As the piece says "almost any common definition". And if you take the secondary, less common definition, then (as the piece says) you're accepting NZDF allowed its minister to mislead the public in 2011. That's the point - NZDF can't have it both ways and currently it is doing exactly that.

by Richard James McIntosh on April 06, 2017
Richard James McIntosh

"I don’t think we will get to the truth by dancing on a pin as Fisher does here."

It amounts to accusing the journalist of being pedantic, Rab. It reads like you'd prefer the detail not to get in the way of a defence of LtGen Keating.

This is about civil servants potentially concealing crucial info from Ministers. It's a theme Nicky Hager has addressed before in Other People's Wars

Great work David.

by Katharine Moody on April 06, 2017
Katharine Moody

And given the NZDF now acknowledges there may have been civilian/non-combatent casualties - the question arisies as to what they intend to do, i.e., what obligation do they believe they may have to those possibly injured and/or killed in Operation Burnham. Did Lt Gen Keating address this issue of 'if there were...' at his press conference? At the moment it seems that if there were... we just forget about it because we don't know for sure. But is the what the law requires of him in respect of his duties and obligations? 

by Ian MacKay on April 06, 2017
Ian MacKay

Thank goodness David Fisher is arround to point to this type contradiction. Perhaps the Editors at the Herald would regard such work as unhelpful but we don't.

by David Fisher on April 06, 2017
David Fisher

Thanks for updating the comment Ian - I've also cross-linked to the Herald at the end of the article.

by Chuck Bird on April 06, 2017
Chuck Bird

David, with respect I think you and Wayne Mapp have your priorities wrong.  What happened a couple of days ago with the gas attack is a war crime.  Most or all of the civilians who may have been killed in case you are writing about were killed be Americans.  An inquiry with public disclosures may not be in the best interest of NZ.  If you and the public think otherwise you other can vote for an Andrew Little led government.  I for one trust Bill English's judgement and honesty ahead of Little's.

I am much more concerned about judge's giving child bashers, peadophiles and someone convicted of sexual assault permanent name suppression for the benefit of the perpetrator not the victim.  These perpetrators are not the unemployed or unskilled but people from a privileged background and with the right political and/or judicial connections.

Do you as a senior journalist think the public have a right to know about how permanent name suppression is abused?  Do you think the public have a right to know the names of perpetrators unless requested by the victim?  


by Anne on April 06, 2017

A goodly amount of diversion and distraction there Chuck Bird.

by Charlie on April 06, 2017

David - another failed hit job eh?

You must be very frustrated!




by David Fisher on April 06, 2017
David Fisher

Chuck, the post isn't about an inquiry or war crimes. In fact, I would suggest you have another read as it suggests people put those questions to one side. It asks how any government agency - NZDF in this case - can inaccurately brief its Minister (and in doing so, the public).

And Charlie, you have the whiff of troll about you. Try reconciling the two positions and I'll engage.

by Richard James McIntosh on April 06, 2017
Richard James McIntosh

It's easy to make up an identity to sabotage a blog thread, as above. It's bread and butter to Carrick Graham & Cameron Slater, for example.

Gee, come to think of it, a lot of that bile around name suppression sounds like...

It's an attack on the journalist, not welcome here. It underlines the importance of the piece though, when the haters can't keep themselves under control and have to lash out.

So just to reiterate - NZ civil servants are accused of covering up what amount to war crimes. Not in my name thank you very much! They've got the power of life and death on overseas deployment so let's examine every single word they say about it.


by Chuck Bird on April 07, 2017
Chuck Bird

Richard, kindly explain what you mean by making up an identity.  Are you accusing me of making up an identity?  If so it looks like you are making an accustion without any evidence.

by Chuck Bird on April 07, 2017
Chuck Bird

Chuck, the post isn't about an inquiry or war crimes. In fact, I would suggest you have another read as it suggests people put those questions to one side. It asks how any government agency - NZDF in this case - can inaccurately brief its Minister (and in doing so, the public).

David, my position is much the same.  I have responded to Graeme Edgeler in Wyatt Creech’s thread.  I believe we elect a government to govern.  There are thing I am not happy with about this government.  I will base my vote accordingly.  The PM has taken all things into account including the six years since the incident.  If there was found to a case where government agency inaccurately briefed its Minister the next thing that Nicky Hager and his supporters would be calling for would an inquiry. 

If a Minister is inaccurately briefed the Minister must bear some responsibility.  They need to make their expectations clear to those reporting to them.  

by Richard James McIntosh on April 07, 2017
Richard James McIntosh

Chuck -

That's better, mate. You've got around to expressing an opinion about the content of the blog post.

Well done!

by Wayne Mapp on April 07, 2017
Wayne Mapp

Just to make it perfectly plain, which I also stated on radio and TV, I do not consider that war crimes were committed, and I never did think that. That is clear from my own Pundit item. In fact Lt Gen Keating covered that in a comprehensive fashion.

The specific point I was concerned with is the obligation to find out whether civilains, and in particular a three year old child, was killed accidentially. I consider there is enough information about the question that makes it neccesasay to find out. 

That does not require a judicial inquiry. It is simply a matter of ascertaining that fact. Hence my reason of using diplomatic channels to do so.

by Chuck Bird on April 08, 2017
Chuck Bird

Wayne, you are using semantics.  You are talking about using diplomatic channels.  I do not consider secretly feeding information to an anti-American socialist directly or indirectly using diplomatic channels. 

After events of the last week I do not think very many people are interested in finding out whether civilians, and in particular a three year old child, was killed accidentally possibly by the US helicopter gunship.  I also doubt if many people are worried if you were not fully informed by the NZDF six years ago.

The may be a few Greens and some other anti-Americans on the far left.  Had to laugh when Andrew Little said if he was PM he would launch an investigation.  That is not going to be very likely.  He has more pressing issues now.

I am glad that we have Bill English as PM and Gerry Brownlee as Minister of Defence.  I see the PM has given his support for President Trump’s proportionate response to what really is a war crime.   

I see there has been another terrorist attack in Sweden when innocent civilians have been targeted.  That is my concern.  I saw the results of the gas attack on civilians.  I was moved unlike the Greens who are attacking Trump for his leadership.

by Chris Morris on April 08, 2017
Chris Morris


You seem to be hanging a lot of your argument on different meanings of the same word. I agree with Gen Keating's use of it, but that could just be an age/ education thing.  I note my old Websters defines it as ""having no real foundation".

However, disregarding the actual word used, the thing is that the civilian deaths are unproven. Non-combatants probably did die, but there is no reliable evidence. We don't even know if Fatima ever existed. In the 2010 report, the child was a six year old. The account in Hager and Stevens, which is about third hand, cannot be reconciled with the topography. If those basic facts are wrong, everything else is suspect.

Anyway, the issue is now a ten minute wonder and has been overtaken by other events. It will go back in the dark, just like Mr Stephenson's Maori TV programme on the Tirgiran village attack.

by Megan Pledger on April 09, 2017
Megan Pledger

Within context though, I don't believe there was any intent to mean "not yet established".

The quote is “The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”

The key here is "concluded" - specifically "investigation concluded".  There is an expectation that all evidence has been evaluated and there is nothing left to make the assertions of civillan casualties true.

If you replace "unfounded" with "not yet established" it has a quite different ring to it e.g.

“The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were not yet established.”

It suggests that their may be other evidence that the investigation hasn't been able to look at that may suggest that their were civilian causalties.


The former is looking at the concept from a position of non-guilty and the latter from a position of guilty.




by Chuck Bird on April 09, 2017
Chuck Bird

Megan, what are you trying to achieve - prove guilt against NZ or the US or help protect civilians in Syria?

by william blake on April 09, 2017
william blake

Chuck, Nicky Hager and John Stevenson may have named the villages wrong but you have the wrong country, the mishap occurred in Afghanistan not Syria. By your own reckons this disqualifies you from free speech.

by David Fisher on April 10, 2017
David Fisher

Hi Chris, you're missing the point. NZDF has allowed both definitions to be used without explaining how one minister was given one story and the next was given another. Wayne Mapp spoke publicly when "unfounded" meant there were no civilian casualties, without NZDF correcting him. Jonathan Coleman spoke publicly when "unfounded" meant there might have been. NZDF has not explained how it got from one position to the next. It should.

by Megan Pledger on April 10, 2017
Megan Pledger


What I am trying to do, is keep politicians honest.  What they do, they do in my and other NZers name.  

What are you trying to do Chuck?  

by Chuck Bird on April 10, 2017
Chuck Bird


"What I am trying to do, is keep politicians honest."

So am I. That is why I am voting NZF.  Who are you voting for the Greens?


by Chris Morris on April 10, 2017
Chris Morris


My understanding is that the ISAF report used the word "unfounded" and the NZDF just quoted that. NZDF did not do the investigation, nor did they seek clarification on the intended meaning of the word. If this is the case, no-one is misleading the Minister.

With regards the 2012 article, was the media criticism able to give actual cases as evidence, not just third party comments? If no specifics, then "having no real foundation" could be appropriate. The military are just another group that likes using jargon, often without understanding the meaning of words. It is a fault that many journalsts are also guilty of.

It cannot be established with any confidence what happened in the village during the raid. The "eyewitnesses" have already demonstrated that their evidence is not credible. There can be no scene examination. There is no coroner's reports or any other official documentation. There seems to be just the gunsight video plus what the NZDF lawyer heard/saw onscreen that night (some of which may have been recorded). No concerns were raised at the time. Why should there be now?

by Megan Pledger on April 11, 2017
Megan Pledger


I'm not voting NZF beyone that the information is mine to enjoy in it's secretiveness.



by Tim Watkin on April 11, 2017
Tim Watkin

I'm interested in how we let these debates become semantic ones and treat the people who choose what language the NZDF uses as babes in arms with no agenda.

I think it's naive to think that "unfounded" was chosen by chance. I'm sure it was picked for its ambiguity. I think most people reading that back in 2011 and 2014 took that as a denial of civilian casualties. Certainly that was the minister's clear statement on the Q+A interview and, as Fisher said, if the NZDF meant 'we just don't know yet', then they did nothing to correct Mapp's interpretation, that he was "satisfied" there were no civilian casualties.

Clearly the public impression NZDF meant to create in 2011 and 2014 with its statement was 'no deaths, no story'. But the language gave it wriggle room later on. If you think I'm being cynical, I can only point to the many years people like David and I have spent around PR people and the diversionary tools of their trade that are openly discussed.

So David's post cuts exactly to the heart of this. Amidst the distraction around the village names, NZDF made a profound change in its position on the raid. It went from letting Mapp say he was "satisfied" there were no civilian deaths to suddenly admitting civilian deaths were possible. The talk of rounds falling short suggest those possibilities are not long shots.

That alone is enough to question the integrity of the information they've given about this raid. Either they let Mapp say something they knew may not be true or they genuinely didn't know what happened, yet led the public to believe they knew enough to downplay the events of that night.

If Mapp could be allowed to say he was "satisfied" when doubt now exists, then that surely raises question as to whether we can rely on Coleman's 2014 comments that civilian deaths or not, there is "absolutely no suggestion that New Zealand soldiers were involved in inflicting civilian casualties".

Again, look at that wording. Not a pure denial, plenty of wiggle room. The fact is that there now is a suggestion of New Zealand soldiers being involved, at least at a command level, sourced from inside the SAS (a fact often over-looked when people talk about 'Hager and Stephenson's claims'. Those claims came in part from soldiers).

Add to that the fact the NZDF only has the executive summary of the only report written on the raid and the knowledge it was hardly a thorough investigative effort.

It's clear a) the NZDF does not have the evidence to answer questions about the raid and b) that it has been less than fully and frankly transparent about what it knows. I would go further and say it looks like NZDF misled the public, but we can't know that for sure with the information we have to hand. (Although David's sources saying that the SAS knew there were civilian casualties from the start is pretty damning. I understand Wayne's reluctance to get drawn into discussion on this, but I do wonder whether he was aware of that and whether that changes his mind on the NZDF's integrity). 

I don't like the lack of answers and accountability, especially when representatives of my country may have left a three year-old girl dead from a raid they ran. As Mapp has said, we as NZers have higher standards than that, don't we? We don't 'hit and run' away, we stand up and take responsibility. And we value all life (especially innocent life), not just the lives (and careers) of our own.

If no wrong was done, we can lay it to rest. If wrong was done, he take our licks. But neither of things can happen without answers.

So I'm not sure if it has to be an inquiry, investigation, diplomatic work or what. But we need to know, for exactly the reasons David has explained.


by Chuck Bird on April 25, 2017
Chuck Bird

I see some of Nicky Hager's supporters have had a little protest at Wellington Anzac day commemoration ceremony about 6 civilians who may have died because of action or inaction on the part of the NZDF.

My view is the timing of this protest is disgraceful.  Does Nicky Hager and his supporters on this blog approve of this sort of protest? 

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