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PMO backtracks on detainees
Photo   Sandra Buckler
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CAMPBELL CLARK
From Saturday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — The Conservative government was engulfed in a furor over its comments on Afghanistan yesterday, when the Prime Minister's chief spokeswoman retracted her statement that the military had not informed the government that transfers of detainees to Afghan jails were suspended in November.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion revealed that Canadian officials told him and his deputy leader, Michael Ignatieff, of the change in confidential briefings in Afghanistan two weeks ago — and insisted the government must have known.

He noted that Defence Minister Peter MacKay was in Afghanistan when the decision was made. Mr. MacKay refused to answer questions yesterday, insisting it was a military operations matter that could put lives at stake.

"I'm not going to do anything that's going to endanger the lives of the Canadian Forces personnel or Afghans involved in this operation," he said.

This week's revelation from government lawyers that Canadian troops stopped transferring prisoners to Afghan jails on Nov. 6, a day after officials heard a credible allegation of torture, had the opposition politicians charging that the government misled them by failing to disclose the change under repeated questioning in the Commons.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister's communications director, Sandra Buckler, said in an e-mail that the military had not told the government that it halted the transfers in November.

Yesterday, Ms. Buckler called The Globe and Mail to say that she "misspoke" — but would not clarify whether the Canadian Forces briefed the government on the decision.

"I misspoke," Ms. Buckler said. "I'm going to call a few more reporters to say that upon reviewing your story, I made a mistake, and I wanted to make sure they knew that, because what I said was wrong."

She would not say precisely if the military had told the government that the transfer of detainees had been halted.

"I shouldn't have said it. And I'm not going to comment on operational decisions made by the military," she said.

Mr. Dion said he learned of the change in Afghanistan, but agreed to keep the briefing confidential — although he protested that it should be made public.

"When the spokesperson of the Prime Minister pretended the Prime Minister was not aware, the government was not aware, I knew it was a lie," he said.

He said it was difficult to believe that Mr. MacKay would not have known about the policy change.

"If I was aware, can you believe that he was not aware? The Minister of Defence?" Mr. Dion said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said nothing about the transfer policy in a late afternoon speech yesterday to mark the second anniversary of his minority government.

He also only briefly mentioned the recommendations of a panel led by former Liberal foreign affairs minister John Manley on the future of the mission in Afghanistan.

"The Manley panel report is a good report — strong, balanced and realistic. I urge you all to read it," he said, adding, "on a matter of national and global security like this, we will never make a decision based on polls." Recent polls found that fewer than half of Canadians favour keeping troops in Afghanistan.

A senior government source said yesterday it's "ridiculous" to suggest the government was not informed of the change in policy on detainee transfers, but added that they did not reveal it for the same reason that Mr. Dion didn't — because of warnings it could imperil troops.

A senior military officer said at a Federal Court hearing on Thursday that the Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, was informed that detainee transfers were halted. A Defence Department spokesman did not answer questions and it was unclear if Gen. Hillier had complained about Ms. Buckler's statements.

Documents obtained by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association show that several senior government bureaucrats, including Mr. Harper's foreign-policy adviser, Susan Cartwright, were routinely sent monitoring reports on detainees — including one on the Nov. 5 visit to an Afghan jail where instruments of torture were found.

A senior government source argued that the incident shows that an agreement on detainee monitoring signed last year works, because officials discovered the torture allegation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier revealed Nov. 14 that officials had seen a prisoner in "conditions that concerned them," but did not reveal that transfers had been halted.

With reports from Christie Blatchford, Gloria Galloway and The Canadian Press


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Interactive
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Related Stories
 •  Defence Department flouting information policy, Globe finds
 •  Blatchford: Government out of the loop on detainees? Give me a break
 •  Harper sets economy as key theme in election-style speech
 •  Forces kept Ottawa in the dark on halting detainee transfers
 •  Manley panel not told of change to detainee policy
 •  Canada quietly halts prisoner transfers
 •  Government can't be trusted, lawyers argue
 •  Tories assailed for secretive communications strategy
 •  Globe editorial: The fog that hangs over the detainees
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