Stephenson Responds To Govt Reaction On NZSAS/Torture Issue

Published: Wed 11 May 2011 12:37 PM
Response Critiques NZ Defence and Government's Reaction to NZSAS/Afghanistan Issue
Statement by journalist Jon Stephenson.
[Scoop note, 1/10/15: The NZDF statement referred to here has been the subject of a settlement between the NZDF and journalist Jon Stephenson. General Jones and the NZDF now accept that Mr Stephenson did in fact gain entry to the base and interviewed the CRU commander. See Agreed Statement Between NZDF And Jon Stephenson | Scoop News]
On 2 May, chief of defence force Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones issued a media statement about my article Eyes Wide Shut, published in the May edition of Metro magazine. That statement makes a number of claims that I believe to be misleading or false, and which I respond to below.
Eyes Wide Shut and last week’s 60 Minutes programme deal with the issue of New Zealand’s involvement and complicity in the transfer of detainees to torture in Afghanistan. It is important to point out that neither the Metro article nor the 60 Minutes story were intended as an attack on the SAS but to question the policy of successive governments and the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). Indeed, much of the information in these stories was provided by present and former members of the NZDF.
The Metro article is around 8,000 words long, and contains a huge number of facts and extensive first-hand testimony. The overwhelming majority of this information is not contested by the NZDF – including the claim that US forces in Afghanistan mistreated and in some cases tortured prisoners that the SAS transferred to them in 2002 (the so-called Band e Timur raid).
Indeed, Defence Minister Wayne Mapp admitted to 60 Minutes that New Zealand SAS troopers “saw and heard of abuse” and complained about it to the Americans – “and they did so not once, but twice.” Mapp confirmed that again when he told Parliament last week that US forces “mistreated” prisoners that the SAS transferred to them in 2002.
The New Zealand SAS has a well-deserved reputation for professional excellence. As I have stated repeatedly in articles and commentary, there is no evidence I am aware of that suggests they have in any way been directly involved in the mistreatment and torture of detainees.
This is not a story about wrong-doing by rank-and-file members of the SAS. It is a story about a failure of leadership at a senior level in the NZDF and government. SAS troopers have been put in the position of detaining people who have been sent to facilities with a history of mistreatment and torture.
That situation continues today. Mapp admitted last week in Parliament that the SAS had since 2009 been involved on 24 occasions when detainees were taken and transferred to Afghan authorities. Those authorities have a well-established record for mistreatment and torture.
Asked last year if people the SAS had been involved in detaining had been sent to facilities where they might have been tortured, Mapp said: “You can’t rule that out.” He said it was “clearly a concern” that the government had put SAS members in a situation where that could happen.
Mapp said that he had ordered a report into SAS involvement in detainee transfers in Afghanistan, and undertook to make that report public. Nine months later, he has not done so. Amnesty International, one of the world’s leading human rights organisations, has expressed deep concern about our government’s policy on detainee transfers, and has asked Mapp on several occasions to release this report. The minister has ignored them.
Meanwhile, after repeated claims that the SAS was not directly involved in taking detainees in Afghanistan, Mapp was forced to admit in Parliament last week that the SAS had directly taken a prisoner in January, and that this prisoner had been transferred to the Bagram detention centre – a centre that has a notorious record for the mistreatment and torture of prisoners.
Labour Party leader Phil Goff last week joined the Green Party in calling for an inquiry into issues surrounding the transfer of prisoners by the SAS to US and Afghan authorities. I strongly support this. My experience of the NZDF has convinced me that while most New Zealand soldiers are honorable, there are serious problems within NZDF culture at a higher level, and I am not confident the NZDF can be relied on to investigate itself.
In 2008 I reported a story that confirmed four senior NZDF officers had made false declarations and defrauded the UN of substantial sums. The officers involved said they believed NZDF headquarters had expected them to lie. The NZDF’s report into this incident was rejected as inadequate by then-defence minister Phil Goff, who referred the matter to the auditor-general.
In her 2010 report, the auditor-general was scathing of defence force culture. She said that “too many people told us that the command requirements prevented them from raising concerns about the integrity and legality of what was being done, and too many people accepted it as plausible that they were being directed to behave unlawfully.”
General Jones said in 2008 that there was “a disconnect” between what was supposed to be done and what was actually done. New Zealand now needs an independent inquiry to ensure that there is no “disconnect” between what the NZDF is meant to do to ensure detainees are not transferred to torture and what they have been doing.
General Jones’ media statement about my article, Eyes Wide Shut, includes:
(1) An allegation, or suggestion, that an interview with a senior Afghan security official was fabricated
In Eyes Wide Shut I report details of an interview I conducted with Colonel “M,” the then-commander of Afghanistan’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU), which members of the New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) have been working with since September 2009, based at Kabul.
In the interview, which took place at the CRU base, Colonel “M” told me that, contrary to claims by the New Zealand government and NZDF, SAS members had been “very, very involved” in detaining insurgent suspects during joint SAS-CRU operations.
General Jones suggests in his statement that the interview with Colonel “M” did not take place as described. Indeed, he claims that the CRU commander says he has never spoken to me. General Jones suggests that I did not enter the CRU base – that “the guards turned him away at the gate.” He further states that I have provided no evidence I ever entered the CRU base.
The suggestions or claims that I did not enter the CRU base and did not interview Colonel “M” are false. I confirm what I told the NZDF in writing last May, when it first insinuated that I had not entered the base: that my account of the visit to the CRU base and my interview with Colonel “M” is accurate.
I entered the CRU base in Kabul on Monday 26 April 2010. My entry to the base was witnessed by my driver and also by my translator, who accompanied me throughout the visit. My presence in the CRU compound was witnessed by more than a dozen members of the CRU, some of whom were playing a game of volleyball.
The notes from my interview with Colonel “M” were taken on distinctive notepaper that was supplied by the colonel himself. During the interview, which lasted approximately 30 minutes, the colonel showed me documents, maps, and photos relating to recent SAS-CRU operations. He divulged other details about the work of the SAS including the names of prisoners, the date they were detained, and the fact that they were transferred to another Afghan organisation that I later confirmed was the National Directorate of Security – an organisation with an extensive track record of mistreating and torturing prisoners.
Most details I received about SAS-CRU operations were withheld from the article I subsequently wrote, on the grounds that they were not directly relevant to the article and their publication could have been perceived as endangering the safety of SAS members.
As my translator left the compound after the interview we encountered a uniformed member of the SAS emerging from a New Zealand hut which had a Maori carving hanging above it. The New Zealand flag was flying from a nearby flagpole, with the Afghan flag nearby.
In summary, I stand by what I wrote about my interview with Colonel “M,” both in the Sunday Star-Times and in Metro magazine.
(2) A claim that the SAS did not detain people in a 24 December raid in Kabul
In Eyes Wide Shut I also reported details of an SAS raid that took place in Kabul on 24 December, 2010. During the raid, on NATO/ISAF contractor Tiger International, the SAS shot dead two security guards and wounded two others, one seriously. That is not contested by the NZDF.
As General Jones suggests in his media release, the Metro article also suggests that the SAS detained Tiger International staff members during the raid and handed them to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), who were known to use torture.
The general says he rejects this. “In fact,” he says in his statement, “no detainees were taken by either the NZSAS or anybody else.”
However, the evidence Metro and 60 Minutes has seen – including a report from former chief of defence force Mateparae – either fails to support, or directly contradicts, General Jones’ position.
The government and NZDF – specifically, defence minister Mapp and General Mateparae – had previously told the public that there must be an “Afghan face” on all SAS operations; that the CRU lead the joint operations, not the SAS; and that the CRU, not the SAS, is the “detaining authority” on operations.
But the testimony of the company’s security staff and management, as well as statements by a senior Kabul criminal investigator and an Afghan government spokesman, strongly suggest that:
the SAS led the raid on the Tiger International offices;
the SAS, not the CRU, detained Tiger staff, including security guards and management; and
that the detained Tiger staff were eventually released by the SAS to Afghan authorities – namely a senior member of the NDS
In Parliament last week, Mapp appeared to concede that the Metro and 60 Minutes’ claims about this were in fact correct. Asked by Green MP Keith Locke if the SAS ever held Tiger staff in the building at gunpoint, depriving them of their liberty. Mapp replied:
“They [the SAS] were fired upon and they returned fire. They then went into the rooms and asked the people to stay down, and the Afghan unit arrived a few minutes later. So clearly, whilst they [the Tiger staff] were down, essentially, the SAS were there.”
It seems clear, not only from the statements of the Tiger personnel but from the minister’s own statements, that the SAS, not the CRU, were “in the lead” during this raid. In fact, given that an Afghan unit “arrived a few minutes later,” according to the minister, it seems likely that there was no “Afghan face” during the initial phase of the operation at all.
Finally, it seems clear both from NZDF reports and the testimony of Tiger staff and Afghan authorities that NDS officers entered the Tiger premises some time after the SAS detained the staff, and that the NDS vouched for the bona fides of the detained men. The SAS then departed, having released those men into the custody of the NDS.
The Tiger staff were then allowed to leave. But had they been insurgents, as the SAS clearly suspected when they launched the raid, they would have been transferred to the custody of the NDS. As the “detaining authority,” New Zealand SAS troopers would have been responsible for their transfer to an organisation with a well-established track-record of mistreating and torturing detainees.
(3) A claim that there the SAS were not involved in an operation last year in Wardak province
General Jones claims that an operation in Wardak province allegedly involving the SAS did not take place as described in Metro and on 60 Minutes. In the account I reported, the SAS were said to have intervened to prevent a captured insurgent being tied and dragged behind a vehicle by the Afghan National Army.
General Jones insists in his media release that “no such operation, or any operation resembling the account in Metro magazine has occurred.” He adds: “The NZSAS has never witnessed nor had to intervene to prevent a person being dragged behind a vehicle as the article describes.”
My account of this incident was based on the evidence of a member of the Afghan security forces who said he participated in the operation. He was interviewed by me in the presence of three witnesses, and the interview was recorded electronically.
The source was introduced to me by a highly-respected Afghan journalist. He was wearing the uniform of his unit, and had an Afghanistan government identification card confirming his membership of that unit. He was not offered, and nor did he ask for, any money or other favours in return for the information he gave me – and he did not receive any.
The source was questioned extensively, and he repeatedly claimed that New Zealand special forces were present on the raid in Wardak province that he described. He gave specific details about the SAS mission in Afghanistan that I had previously confirmed from other sources.
Some weeks after the interview, I asked the journalist who had introduced me to the source to interview him without me to cross-check a number of the details the source had supplied. The answers were given to me in the form of a written statement. There were no inconsistencies between that statement and the information the source had given me earlier.
Like General Jones, I rely for the accuracy of my information on the sources that provide it. Extensive efforts were made to establish the veracity of the information the source provided about the alleged operation in Wardak province, and the information I received was reported accurately. That information is being re-checked.
(4) A claim that there has not been any kind of cover up or lies told concerning detainees in Afghanistan
Unfortunately, the evidence – much of which is outlined in Metro – suggests otherwise. Again, no one is claiming that rank-and-file SAS troopers are directly involved in a cover-up. But it is clear both from documents and the testimony of officials and members of the NZDF that both the government and NZDF leaders have since 2001 been less than open or honest about New Zealand’s involvement in the transfer of detainees.
For instance, NZDF chief – now governor general-designate – General Mateparae stated in January 2010 that the SAS had assisted Afghan forces in detaining people. However, in March 2010 he said: “NZSAS personnel have been in the vicinity when members of the Afghan National Security Forces have arrested or detained Afghans, [but] NZSAS members have not assisted in detaining persons or making those arrests.” It is difficult to see how both statements can be true at the same time.
The Defence Force legal chief, Brigadier Kevin Riordan, has stated that the SAS did not take the names of prisoners that they handed to the Americans in 2002 because there were problems with translating and that SAS troopers were not trained to do interrogation in the field. However, the SAS’s own official history, which was signed off by the NZDF, says the SAS “located and interviewed” those suspects. If you can interview someone, you can surely take their name.
On two occasions, the NZDF and defence ministers have claimed that there was an agreement with the Red Cross to monitor prisoners transferred by the SAS to US and Afghan custody. On both occasions, the Red Cross has said there is no such agreement.
There are many other examples of inconsistent and contradictory statements made by the NZDF – none of which the defence force has adequately explained.
Jon Stephenson.

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