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Government out of the loop on detainees? Give me a break


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Oh, please: The Stephen Harper government didn't know that the Canadian military had stopped handing over Afghan detainees last fall, after Canadian monitors found what they called a credible allegation of torture?

This claim, made Thursday night by the Prime Minister's communications director, Sandra Buckler, was being hastily retracted by Ms. Buckler less than 24 hours later.

“I should not have said what I said to you,” she told The Globe and Mail's Campbell Clark yesterday. “I misspoke, and I wanted to make sure you were aware of that.” Then she refused to say whether she “misspoke” because she said something she shouldn't have or because she said something that was wrong, and declined further comment. And she – madness! — is the PM's communications director.

Knock me down with a feather: Ms. Buckler misspeaks, slurs the Canadian Forces and gives credence to all those who were already, as Mike Duffy noted Thursday on CTV NewsNet, pointing the finger of blame at Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier and what? She gets to say, albeit in a magnificently unhelpful way, “Oops”?

Off with her head.

Oops, I misspoke. I mean, fire that woman.

Then later yesterday, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said that when he and deputy leader Michael Ignatieff were in Afghanistan earlier this month, they were briefed on the policy change. If that doesn't put the lie to the government's claim of “We didn't know,” what does? You can be sure that if the opposition is being told about something, the government knew eons before.

Yet what is far more interesting than the duplicitous double-speak coming from this government is what it reveals both about its control-freak mentality (that if its first instinct is to say nothing, its second is to blame someone outside the circle of wagons, often the military) and the troubling, giddy eagerness with which the claim was sucked into the 24-7 media machine and spun out virtually unaltered for hours at a stretch.

The very notion that the evil Canadian military machine had kept the government in the dark on this is – and was from the get-go – preposterous on its face.

Documents obtained and posted online by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, whose lawyer was this week in Federal Court trying to stop the prisoner transfers, which, as it happened, had stopped already, make it blindingly clear that practically everyone of importance in Mr. Harper's government certainly knew that Canada's monitors had identified at least one credible case of torture.

Copied on every one of the reports of the monitors' eight site visits – including the seminal one on Nov. 5 when the credible case came to light – was David Mulroney, associate deputy minister in Foreign Affairs and the PM's hand-picked interdepartmental co-ordinator for Afghanistan.

Also copied on some or all of the site reports are Susan Cartwright, the Privy Council Office adviser on foreign and defence policy to Mr. Harper; Jill Sinclair, assistant secretary to the cabinet; Vera Alexander from the PCO; Cindy Termorshuizen, a deputy director in Foreign Affairs; Colleen Swords, assistant deputy minister in the international security branch of Foreign Affairs; Suzanne Hurtabise, deputy minister in the Public Safety Department headed by Stockwell Day and Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Keith Coulter.

The author of the Nov. 5 report was Nicholas Gosselin, Canada's human-rights and detainee officer in Kandahar who, according to evidence he gave recently in the Federal Court case, was in Afghanistan for the rest of the month.

Now, perhaps none of these people who received Mr. Gosselin's report on the Foreign Affairs net – marked SECRET CEO, for “Canadian Eyes Only” – was moved to ask the screamingly obvious question, that is, what are we doing about this?

In fact, as the Federal Court heard this week, as soon as Colonel Christian Juneau, then the acting commander on the ground in Kandahar, was told about the case, he did what most Canadians would expect he do – on Nov. 6, the day after Mr. Gosselin's report was sent out, Col. Juneau ordered that our troops stop transferring enemy prisoners to Afghan authorities.

Would the colonel have kept this a dark secret when he had to know all of Foreign Affairs and the PCO were as a matter of course getting Mr. Gosselin's report? The answer is no. Would General Hillier have done it? The answer is no. And had the military tried to keep it quiet, would they have succeeded? Only if David Mulroney et al are possessed of a remarkable lack of curiosity on the file the PM has identified as his most critical one.

So how, then, did the story get such traction, both on television and in print?

The answer is that under Mr. Harper, the messages are so tightly controlled that many in government and in the military, having felt the sting of the PM's disappointment or fury before, have been rendered timorous, afraid to speak up, on the record or off it.

The result in this case was that with Gen. Hillier in the air Thursday when this story broke – he was en route to resume the rare holiday he had already interrupted to return to Ottawa to discuss the Manley report, apparently with the PM and cabinet – there was in his absence no one willing or able to risk disputing Ms. Buckler's now-discredited allegation that the Canadian Forces had kept the government in the dark.

A second factor, I think, is that every story now, whether it is about Paris Hilton or the mission to Afghanistan, is subjected to the same unquestioning hyperbole. We in the press seem to suffer somewhat from a version of what in badly behaved children is called oppositional defiance disorder; we mistrust our own institutions such that we are fully prepared to accept, at least for story purposes, that the Canadian military would try to keep the government, which soldiers know better than anyone else is properly its master, out of the loop.

In this instance, it was evident from the beginning that if all the wheels in Foreign Affairs and the PCO knew about the original sin – that is, the allegation of torture – the odds were awfully good they would also have been informed about the short-term cure, the policy change instituted by Col. Juneau.

Mr. Harper made a speech to Tory faithful late yesterday. He made not a mention of the disgraceful whirlwind his very office set in motion, although he urged the gathering to read the Manley commission report. He ought to give it another go himself. He seems to have missed its central thrust – that he has done a hideous job of keeping Canadians up to speed about the mission to Afghanistan.

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