Canada sought U.S. help in crafting a national hostage policy, hoping to follow the secretive American policy as "closely as possible," a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by whistleblower website WikiLeaks shows.

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Retired top Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was held hostage by al-Qaeda for four months. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

In early January 2009 — after five kidnappings in as many months — Canada asked for a briefing on U.S. policy in hostage situations as it planned to create a formal national policy of its own.

"Canada seeks to coordinate its policy as closely as possible with that of the U.S.," the leaked U.S. State Department diplomatic cable states.

The cable, marked "secret," was among a batch of leaked U.S. diplomatic documents released to CBC News by WikiLeaks.

Neil Brennan, a senior policy adviser on counter-terrorism working for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, was leading the Canadian process and put in a request to visit Washington on Jan. 29 to speak about the U.S. policy.

Five hostages in five months

On Aug. 23, 2008, Alberta reporter Amanda Lindhout was snatched by gunmen in Somalia. Fifteen months passed before her freedom was secured with a ransom payment.

CBC journalist Mellissa Fung  spent 28 days in captivity after she was abducted in Afghanistan. She was kidnapped while visiting a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul on Oct. 12, 2008.

There's no confirmation of what happened to Beverly Giesbrecht, a controversial B.C. journalist kidnapped in Pakistan on Nov. 15, 2008. The Canadian government recently acknowledged it believes she's dead.  

Robert Fowler, a retired top Canadian diplomat working as a United Nations Special Envoy to Niger, and Louis Guay, his aide, were kidnapped on Dec. 14, 2008. Four months later, the two were found and freed in northern Mali.

The diplomatic cable cites Brennan as saying the spate of recent kidnapping and hostage incidents involving Canadians motivated the Prime Minister's Office to order the drafting of a comprehensive national strategy.

It quotes Brennan as acknowledging that "Canada realizes it may have conflicting priorities in mixed U.S.-Canada hostage situations, given the much broader strategic role."

"Senior Canadian officials nonetheless want to see as little divergence as possible," the cable quotes Brennan as saying.

In the second half of 2008, there were five Canadians kidnapped abroad: Alberta reporter Amanda Lindhout in Somalia; CBC reporter Mellissa Fung in Afghanistan; controversial B.C. journalist Beverly Giesbrecht in Pakistan; and Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay in Niger.

In those hostage cases, Canada was forced to "develop responses 'on the fly'" and "constantly found itself revisiting important policy issues mid-crisis," Brennan is quoted as saying.

Policy died in prorogation

According to the cable, Canadian officials intended to create a policy addressing how the government should deal with hostage-takers, the media, families of the victims and third parties such as employers and insurance companies.

The Canadian officials hoped to seek a cabinet endorsement of the first-ever national hostage-taking policy by April 2009.

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A ransom was paid to free Amanda Lindhout, a journalist from Red Deer, Alta., after she was kidnapped in Somalia. ((Red Deer Advocate/Canadian Press))

John Proctor, who worked on the policy as part of the Department of National Defence at the time, said the policy worked its way through the approval process that year but died when the government prorogued Parliament in late 2009.

"When Parliament was prorogued, it was one of the papers sitting, waiting to go, and it didn't survive," said Proctor, now vice-president of Ottawa-based Integrated Human Risk Solutions. "And it's never been re-initiated."

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Pierre Floréa would not respond to the specifics in the U.S. diplomatic cable and wrote in an email, "We do not comment on leaked documents."

According to the U.S. document, one of the specific issues the Canadian officials sought to address was the controversial issue of ransom payment. Foreign Affairs wanted Canadian elected leaders to give a "high-level political blessing, especially with regard to policy on ransom payments," the cable says, quoting Brennan.

A U.S. cable released by WikiLeaks earlier this year suggested a ransom was paid for Canadian diplomats Fowler and Guay. The Canadian government denies that was the case. A ransom was paid by family and supporters in the case of Alberta journalist Lindhout, who was held with an Australian freelance photojournalist.

Brennan also commented, according to the WikiLeaks document, that mixed nationality hostage cases were seemingly becoming the norm and asked for discussion on co-ordination between "Four Eyes" partners, a reference to countries with a history of working together including the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia.

Little is published on the U.S. policy dealing with Americans taken hostage abroad, called the National Security Presidential Directive-12. Most of the policy is classified. It was signed by George W. Bush in 2002, months after the Sept. 11 attacks when the U.S. feared an increase in hostage-takings.

Policy needed: expert

Canadian officials from several departments — including National Defence, RCMP, CSIS and Public Safety — went to Washington to discuss the current policy, as well as lessons learned since its implementation in 2002.

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Beverly Giesbrecht, also known as Khadija Abdul Qahaar, was kidnapped in Pakistan. Her case was one of the five that prompted Canada to plan a national policy on hostage-takings. (CBC )

Among the issues Canadian officials specifically wanted to discuss with American counterparts were how to treat government employees versus contractors, how to handle situations where Canadians had insurance companies with written kidnapping policies, and negotiation strategies.

"Brennan cited the possibility of secretly negotiating with hostage-takers as a means of entrapping them, while publicly claiming 'no negotiations with terrorists,'" the cable says.

Yet another issue raised was the kidnapping of CBC reporter Mellissa Fung — because she worked for the public broadcaster, which is state-owned but independently operated.

"Brennan said that Canada was still contemplating how to deal with such entities and their employees who wander into harm's way," the cable says.

The most recent hostage-taking case facing Canadian officials is that of Colin Rutherford, 26, a tourist from Toronto. He was kidnapped in Afghanistan three months ago and is being held by the Taliban.

The militant group recently threatened  to put him on trial for espionage if Canada does not meet its demands. The Taliban spokesman didn't list the demands, saying the Canadian government is aware of what they want.

Proctor said the Canadian government's experience with kidnappings has "increased dramatically" in the past six years and he hopes the government develops the planned national policy.

"Certainly having a policy that gives the government a framework is a key piece in this puzzle," said Proctor. "The bottom line is Canada needs a policy."

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