From Friday's Globe and Mail
Misleading the Canadian people on the Afghan detainee file has become a habit for the Harper government. While it is reassuring that this country's military respects its duty under the Geneva Conventions not to turn its prisoners over to torturers, it is disheartening to find yet again that Ottawa has not conveyed the truth about the detainees.
Late yesterday, the Prime Minister's Office told reporters that the government did not purposely distort the truth. Rather, it was not aware that since Nov. 5 -- nearly three months ago -- the military had stopped handing its detainees over to the Afghan authorities. Why was it unaware? Because the military acted on its own and didn't tell anyone in the government. If this is true, the Harper government was in the dark on an issue that has occupied it for months at the highest levels, and on which it is fighting a battle in the Federal Court of Canada. It is evidence of an astonishing lapse in communications. If it is not true, it is an embarrassing attempt by the government to cover up for its having told falsehoods, by blaming the military. Either way, it intensifies the fog surrounding this important matter.
Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier was asked directly on Nov. 14 by Bloc Québécois MP Claude Bachand whether, in light of calls from human-rights groups, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would halt the transfer of detainees to the Afghans. Mr. Bernier replied there was no evidence of systematic torture. "If we have evidence, the Afghan government will do an investigation."
There was not a true word in that response. The military already had the evidence (torture instruments found beneath a chair in a prison cell). Mr. Bernier misled Canadians. The PMO now says he did so inadvertently because the military acted on its own discretion. If so, the military allowed a misleading impression to stand.
The Prime Minister argued earlier this week, through his spokeswoman Sandra Buckler, that anything to do with the detainees is a security matter, and is therefore secret. This is hard to credit when the government voluntarily revealed the truth in a letter to human-rights groups challenging its detainee policy in Federal Court, a letter that it knew would become part of a public court record. The truth - that word again - is that Canada has a political agreement with the government of Afghanistan that allows for Canadian officials to monitor the treatment of detainees. The Harper government has boasted about the agreement. The Canadian public has a stake in what Canada is doing to uphold it.
The list of half-truths and untruths that the Harper government has fed Canadians on the detainees is a long one. Ottawa has denied prisoners were abused, claimed the prisoners were being monitored when they weren't, and signed a decent monitoring pact only after its falsehoods were revealed. Far from building support among Canadians for the mission, all this prevarication has led to more skepticism.
In Federal Court yesterday, a government lawyer insisted that what Canada has been doing with detainees since Nov. 5 is a state secret. If the PMO is to be believed, it was clearly a secret from the government. How Canada conducts a war fought and paid for by Canadians is the business of Canadians. Only Mr. Harper can clear up the fog that has settled over the detainees.