The Defence Force’s policy of not commenting on the activities of New Zealand’s Special Operations Forces (NZSOF) is well known. Some within the public domain accept the need for this policy, while others question it. The following will outline the reasons for the policy, and the conditions under which it is or is not applied.
There are three key reasons why the Government of New Zealand and the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) generally choose to provide no comment to queries about NZSOF:
- To protect, as much as possible, the individuals and families of those who serve or have served with NZSOF
- To safeguard operational tactics, training, procedures and capabilities
- To support New Zealand’s good relations with other countries
First, to protect the individuals and families of those who serve or have served with NZSOF is necessary, because to release identities may make those individuals vulnerable to exploitation by those who might seek to undermine the work or wellbeing of Special Operations Forces and its personnel. This includes not only individuals engaged in current operations, but also those engaged in future operations.
Second, safeguarding operational tactics, training, procedures and capabilities is essential, because to release such information would give those against whom NZSOF might be deployed the opportunity to better anticipate and counter their efforts. Special Operations Forces are usually relatively small, and achieve the greatest effect at least risk by concealing their intent, modes of operation and capabilities. Operational security enables them to present an unidentified threat against which potential or actual opponents cannot fully prepare. This greatly increases the likelihood that NZSOF will be able to operate successfully.
Third, to employ a general policy of ‘no comment’ is to support New Zealand’s good relations with other countries. Most nations recognise Special Operations Forces, and specifically tier one Special Forces like the NZSAS, as strategic forces. This means that their operations invariably have an effect not only on military activities and goals but also on political and international outcomes. The sensitivities which often occur around the deployment of NZSOF involve sensitive communications between the government departments or heads of state of more than one country, or internal discussions and advice about how New Zealand’s best interests are supported by such deployments. To release such information could potentially be detrimental to New Zealand’s interests, or would ignore the conditions under which information of mutual interest has been shared between New Zealand and its partners.
Although there are good reasons why the ‘no comment’ policy is generally applied by the New Zealand Government and the NZDF to queries regarding NZSOF, there are conditions placed upon that application. Recognising that there is significant public interest in this branch of the NZDF, on certain occasions suitably vetted material will be released where it is deemed in the public interest to do so. These occasions may include the death or injury of NZDF personnel, major combat in locations where NZSOF are known to be operating, or where NZSOF have made a contribution to a publicised coalition operation. For example, when two NZSAS troopers were killed in 2011 while serving in Afghanistan many of the details about the incident were released in a media briefing as soon as was practicable after the event had occurred.
The decision to release information must always be balanced with the need not to compromise or put in jeopardy ongoing or future operations.
A secondary means to release information to the public is via responses to requests made under the Official Information Act 1982. The content of responses will depend on meeting the obligations of the Act while at the same time taking into consideration the security classifications and constraints which must be adhered to. Due to the business-as-usual demands on the time of those working for NZSOF, should requests be substantial in nature then an approximation of cost for time and resources will be issued to the requester, and compensation will have to be made by them to the NZDF.
The Defence Force will, where appropriate, always make a genuine effort to be open with the New Zealand public and better inform New Zealanders about what NZSOF are doing around the world on their behalf. Usually such disclosures will be made by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence or the Chief of Defence Force (or their appointed representatives). The only individuals within the NZSOF community who comment publicly (when called upon to do so) about such matters are the Special Operations Component Commander or the Commanding Officer of the 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment.1 Comment to the public about the involvement of NZSOF on operations either domestically or overseas is the prerogative of the New Zealand Government.
Regardless of whether the ‘no comment’ policy is enforced or a release of information is deemed necessary, NZSOF remains a capability which at all times is answerable both to the senior leadership of the NZDF and the elected Government of New Zealand. NZSOF are accountable to the Chief of Defence Force. Its roles and actions are closely scrutinised by the Government, and operational deployments always require Cabinet authorisation. No mandate exists for NZSOF to operate outside the parameters set for it by those authorities.
1 One exception to this rule is Corporal Willie Apiata, VC who has been able to speak on his own behalf