From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
OTTAWA The military is free to release information about Afghan detainees if it chooses, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday, as he was criticized for excessive secrecy on how Canadian troops handle their prisoners.
As opposition parties challenged his assertion that all such information must be kept secret because of military operational security, Mr. Harper said that revealing details is the Canadian Forces' call.
"These are operational matters of the Canadian military. If the Canadian military chooses to reveal that information, that's their decision. But the government certainly isn't going to release it on their behalf," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons.
Opposition MPs pressed for information about what Canada is doing with prisoners since it stopped transferring them to Afghan authorities in early November because of a credible allegation of torture - a policy change revealed by government lawyers last week.
They raised concerns that the government might be allowing informal detainee transfers in the field when Canadian Forces conduct joint operations with the Afghanistan National Army.
The Globe and Mail reported yesterday that Canadians were holding detainees at Kandahar airfield, taking fewer prisoners and releasing some quickly.
In the House, NDP Leader Jack Layton asked why Canada will not reveal information about detainees when some NATO allies do.
"Is he saying that the British, Dutch and the Americans are imperilling their national security by releasing information about their detainees to the public? Is that what he's saying?" Mr. Layton asked in the House.
Mr. Harper replied: "I guess what it means is that Canada makes its own policies."
The United States regularly issues news releases about the number of prisoners it captures in Afghanistan, but does not provide comprehensive information about how many have been detained. Britain and the Netherlands report how many prisoners they have taken and how many were transferred or released.
One military expert, retired Colonel Mike Capstick, said military commanders would have concerns that revealing precise information about the number of detainees could give insurgents an estimate of how effective Canadian efforts are, and allow them to guess who had been captured. He said broader information about how they are handled is unlikely to be as sensitive, and information on when the government knew transfers were halted is not a security concern.
Government lawyers revealed last week that Canada quietly suspended the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities on Nov. 5. The Opposition charged that Mr. Harper and other government ministers misled the public by failing to disclose the change.
On Thursday, Mr. Harper's communications director, Sandra Buckler, said the military did not tell the government about the suspension of transfers, but retracted that on Friday, saying she "misspoke."
The Globe reported yesterday that General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff, angrily called Mr. Harper on Friday to say he was "tired of being used" in political controversy. Mr. Harper denied that yesterday.
"In fact, I have not had any telephone conversation in the last several weeks with General Hillier," Mr. Harper said in the Commons. "I did talk to General Hillier last week, not about prisoners but about the Manley report and also to wish him well on the well-deserved vacation with his wife in the Caribbean."
In a statement last night, Gen. Hiller also denied that a conversation about prisoners took place.
"The recently alleged conversation between myself and the Prime Minister of Friday past did not take place," the statement said. "At the time I was on one of the few breaks I have had since I became CDS, and made no effort and felt no need to contact the Prime Minister - being furious over anything was the furthest thing from my mind. I know that I, and the men and women who work for me, have the support of our Prime Minister in all the dangerous missions undertaken routinely."
Asked if Gen. Hillier spoke to anyone in the Prime Minister's Office or if someone called on his behalf, a spokeswoman said: "Not that I am aware of."
The detainee controversy has dominated questions in the Commons in a week where Mr. Harper asked for Liberal support to extend Canada's mission in Afghanistan beyond 2009, as long as NATO provides 1,000 more troops and helps resolve equipment shortages.
Mr. Dion said he will discuss the issue, but has not dropped his assertion that the "combat" mission must end in February, 2009, to focus on training - although he said troops might do that in Kandahar.
Germany's ambassador to Canada, Matthias Hopfner, said yesterday he was "optimistic" that NATO will meet Canada's demands, but strongly doubts that Germany, which has 3,200 troops in Afghanistan, will move troops south to Kandahar province.