How to (try) to run a cover-up: the case of the Harper government and the prisoners in Afghanistan
Has no one told the Tories that almost all cover-up tactics are supposed to be conducted in secret? A cover-up conducted in public is a farce—produced at taxpayer expense.
By W.T. STANBURY
Published November 30, 2009
The Hill Times
"Distant events spiral out of control, secrecy silences truth and the messenger is humiliated, then shot." (James Travers, The Toronto Star, Nov. 21, 2009).
The purpose of this piece is to outline the set of tactics used by the Harper government to try to cover up serious errors (and possibly worse) relating to the turnover of prisoners captured by Canadian troops in Afghanistan to local authorities who are believed to have routinely tortured prisoners. The cover-up has come to light largely as the result of testimony in October and November 2009 by diplomat Richard Colvin who spent 17 months in Afghanistan and sent many messages up the line to many senior persons starting in 2006.
The tactics are listed in roughly chronological order:
Bury Bad News
"In Jan. 2007, the government also tried to bury a human rights report on Afghanistan—an annual requirement of all Canadian embassies—that included a section on the abuse of Afghan detainees. It was later released, but still with all references to prisoner abuse blacked out," (Greg Weston, Ottawa Sun, Nov. 22, 2009).
Write Your Own Truth
A "former [NATO] official, speaking on condition his name not be used, told The Toronto Star that Harper's office in Ottawa 'scripted and fed' the precise wording NATO officials in Kabul [ in 2007] used to repudiate allegations of abuse 'at a time when it was privately and generally acknowledged in our office that the chances of good treatment at the hands of Afghan security forces were almost zero,' " (Mitch Potter, The Toronto Star, Nov. 22, 2009).
Use the Courts to Try to Derail/Contain Public Hearings
The Harper government went to court to try to quash or severely limit an inquiry by a quasi- independent body, the Military Police Complaints Commission [MPCC]. "A judge [ of the Federal Court] ruled early last week that the probe can examine the conduct of military police but that it cannot delve into broader issues of public policy....The inquiry has been delayed by a series of court challenges, including a government bid to block the probe [launched after a complaint was filed by Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association] on grounds that it could unfairly damage the reputations of Canadian Forces members, inadvertently divulge military secrets, and turn out to be a waste of money during tight economic times," (Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service, Oct. 1, 2009).
Refuse to Hand Over Documents and Stonewall
Military Police Complaints Commission chairman "Peter Tinsley shut down the hearings indefinitely [on Oct. 9, 2009], saying he had no choice because the government has refused to hand over any documents to help implicated military police mount their defence....The commission, the political opposition and human rights advocates have persistently accused the government of trying to stonewall the commission, after losing a court challenge to stop the public proceedings. Tinsley said the government has not produced a single new document since the commission decided last year that its probe would be public.... Alain Prefontaine, a Justice Department lawyer, blamed the commission for casting its net too wide in its quest for documents, given the relatively narrow mandate of the probe to investigate the actions of military police," (Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service, Oct.14, 2009)
Invoke National Security
"The Justice Department's argument is [that] the testimony of the 22 public servants [to the MPCC] is not relevant and, even if it was, they wouldn't be able to publicly testify because it could breach national security. In their motion to quash the subpoenas, Justice lawyers have invoked a section of the Canada Evidence Act that protects national security," (Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service, Oct.1, 2009)
Deny Getting Any of the Many Warning Messages
Gen. Walter Natynczyk, chief of defence staff, said "he's working to get to the bottom of what happened to reports from a senior Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan[ Richard Colvin]. [He said] he did not yet know where the [many] reports landed back in Ottawa, who read them, and what was done with the information."
In mid-October 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper "told reporters in Toronto he didn't see the reports from diplomat Richard Colvin 'at the time,' which said, among other things, he had seen first-hand evidence of abuse and torture while visiting Afghan detainees in jail in June 2007. Earlier this week, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and his predecessor, Gordon O'Connor, said they'd never heard a word about Colvin's reports," (Norma Greenaway, Canwest News Service, Oct. 16, 2009).
Note that in his affidavit unsealed on Oct.9, 2009, Colvin said he "wrote and widely distributed his formal and informal reports to top bureaucrats at the departments of foreign affairs and national defence, as well as to the senior military chain of command."(Ibid)
Retired defence chief Rick Hillier said Thursday "he cannot recall reading a 2006 Foreign Affairs report that first warned of 'serious, imminent and alarming' risks associated with transferring battlefield combatants to Afghan custody.... Hillier said his main focus in 2006 was on Canada's rising military death rate as the Taliban insurgency reared its head in earnest and began inflicting the first major casualties on the Canadian Forces,"(Mike Blanchfield, Canwest News, Oct. 22, 2009)
"In all 76 reports e-mailed to the most powerful people in the Canadian government. Today none of them can remember seeing or reading any of the e-mails. Memory loss is such a sad thing," (Richard Cleroux, The Westmount Examiner, Nov. 22, 2009).
The position of various persons to whom Colvin communicated his memos is summarized a CBC News report, Nov. 20, 2009.
Public servant Richard Colvin "has been told to shut up on this file or risk being charged under the Canada Evidence Act," (Don Martin, National Post, Nov. 20, 2009).
"On July 28, the federal Justice Department wrote to 28 high-ranking government and military officials with knowledge of the Afghan detainee file, warning that their testimony could damage their reputations and potentially put their colleagues' careers at risk. The letter 'strongly' recommended they all retain the Justice Department as their legal counsel," (Greg Weston, Ottawa Sun, Nov. 24, 2009).
Stop the Emails; Block the Paper Record
Richard Colvin, whose emails are at the centre of the cover-up, was ordered to stop putting certain kinds of information into writing. "While serving in Kandahar, [Colvin] was told his insights were too sensitive to be put in writing, he says. His emails have been declared off limits on national security grounds," (Don Martin, National Post, Nov. 20, 2009).
Columnist Chantal Hébert (The Toronto Star, Nov. 20, 2009) notes that "according to Colvin, the clampdown order came from the very top, from officials who reported directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper or his ministers, often on a daily basis."
"There was a phone message from the DFAIT assistant deputy minister suggesting that we should not put things on paper but instead, use the telephone," (quoted in The Ottawa Citizen, editorial, Nov. 21, 2009).
There is No Proof
The Minister of Defence, Lawrence Cannon, said " 'There were a lot of allegations, but there is no proof to what Mr. Colvin had to say,' in testimony to a parliamentary committee ...during a telephone interview," (Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service, November 19, 2009).
Smear the Messenger
The Conservatives' tactic of choice has been to "smear" Richard Colvin. "The attack script written this week for Conservative MPs by the Prime Minister's Office and party research office impugn Mr. Colvin for (a) wanting to assist the Taliban, (b) undermining the morale of the Armed Forces, and (c) making recruitment difficult," (Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail, Nov. 21, 2009.)
The Harper government devoted the day [of Colvin's testimony] to a public-relations counteroffensive against Mr. Colvin through phone calls and e-mails to reporters, as well as Mr. MacKay's attacks. It painted the career diplomat's testimony as groundless and "ridiculous" and suggested his reports of torture ultimately stem from Taliban propaganda," (Steve Chase et. al., The Globe and Mail, Nov. 20, 2009).
"Defence Minister Peter MacKay called [Colvin's ] testimony [before a Commons Committee] 'not credible.' 'What we're talking about here is not only hearsay, we're talking about basing much of his evidence on what the Taliban have been specifically instructed to lie about if captured," (Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press, Nov.19, 2009). "MacKay claimed that his comment were "not attacking the individual."
Chantal Hebert (The Toronto Star, Nov. 20, 2009) noted that MacKay "did not say the government had not been apprised of Colvin's reports."
"The awkward fact for the Conservatives, however, is that Mr. Colvin is trusted by the Canadian government on sensitive matters. He is currently working for Ottawa as a senior intelligence officer at Canada's embassy in Washington," (Steve Chase et. al., The Globe and Mail, Nov. 20, 2009). (For more detail, see, Tonda MacCharles, The Toronto Star, Nov 21 2009; note that the title wrongly implies that Colvin is a whistleblower. See The Ottawa Citizen editorial, Nov. 24, 2009)
"Conservative MPs at a special House of Commons committee called [Colvin] a Taliban 'dupe' after he provided an account this week of how government officials ignored or played down his reports of the torture of Afghan detainees," (Ditchburn, The Canadian Press, Nov. 19, 2009).
Rick Hillier [former head of Canadian Forces] "derisively compared the political uproar that surrounded Mr. Colvin's Parliamentary testimony to people 'howling at the moon' and said nobody ever raised torture concerns with him during the 2006-2007 period in question," (Steve Chase et. al., The Globe and Mail, Nov. 20, 2009).
Pollster Nik Nanos said that going on the offensive from the start—as the Tories have done—can be remarkably effective. "It muddies the narrative of anyone trying to criticize the government, [the] Tories know the power of first impressions. [A sort of negative framing ]. It sends a signal to anyone else who's thinking of doing that, that if you're thinking of taking this government on, be prepared for a full-on offensive. It's a clear media strategy and an effective deterrent for future problems." (Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press, Nov.19, 2009). "The instinct to attack is part of a larger Conservative Party strategy that is consumed with controlling all messages as tightly as possible," (Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail, Nov. 24, 2009).
No Public Inquiry
"The Tories have already dismissed calls for a far more thorough public inquiry into detainees" (Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, The Globe and Mail, Nov. 24, 2009). "So far, the deny, delay, disparage strategy has worked. There seems little chance of any inquiry until after the government pulls Canadian combat troops out of the fight about 18 months from now," (Paul Koring, The Globe and Mail, Nov. 24, 2009).
The newspapers of late have been filled with overwhelming evidence of the Harper government trying to conduct a cover-up with great energy and no scruples. Has no one told the Tories that almost all cover-up tactics are supposed to be conducted in secret. A cover-up conducted in public is a farce—produced at taxpayer expense.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Posted by Fillibluster at 2:06 PM