Defence Minister Peter MacKay knew about concerns over the handling of Afghan detainees, diplomat Cory Anderson says. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Concerns over the handling and safety of detainees in Afghanistan were relayed to Defence Minister Peter MacKay and other senior officials as potential "mission killers," a diplomat said Wednesday.

Cory Anderson, a former senior political adviser to Canada's provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar, said he briefed MacKay several times between 2007 and last year.

"We would talk about issues that we were concerned about in terms of what we would characterize as mission killers — and this was one of them," Anderson told MPs at a special committee studying the Afghan mission.

He said he had no specific allegations of prisoner abuse to pass on because before 2007, Canada had no way of tracking the people it handed over to Afghan authorities. However, there were general worries about torture.

Anderson said despite a lack of hard evidence of torture, senior civilians and military brass in Ottawa were "fully aware of the plausible risk of abuse" of prisoners handed over to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, or NDS.

He said he did brief officials, including MacKay, about the problems of the NDS, which he described as duplicitous and open to manipulation by politically powerful people behind the scenes.

"It's common knowledge amongst senior officials, civilian and military, the behaviour of the NDS when it comes to how they react to certain pressures placed upon them by tribal elders or people of influence throughout Kandahar."

He said in hindsight, it was probably a bad decision for Canada to work with the NDS in the handling of detainees.

Even though the present system allows for tracking Canadian detainees in Afghan custody and provides for unannounced spot checks of their condition, the NDS remains an unsavoury partner. Canada would probably have been better off to find another partner to handle the detainees it captured, he said.

"I wish I would have been a little bit more vociferous trying to come up with alternatives, given the knowledge that we had about the NDS as an institution," Anderson said. 

There were suggestions that the international force should set up its own prison, or explore ways for the Afghan army to handle detainees but nothing ever came of those ideas.

Debate over documents

Meanwhile Wednesday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson argued  that Parliament has no authority to demand unfettered access to documents related to the alleged torture of prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadians soldiers.

He rejected the opposition parties' contention that the government has breached parliamentary privileges by ignoring a Dec. 10 order, passed by the House of Commons, to produce the uncensored documents.

"I would remind the House that our parliamentary privileges are not indefinite nor unlimited," Nicholson told the Commons.

Nicholson said the government has a duty to protect information that could jeopardize national security, national defence, international relations and even potentially the lives of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. And he said Parliament is not immune to the laws of confidentiality on such matters, citing a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that concluded "legislative bodies … do not constitute enclaves shielded from the ordinary law of the land."

He also cited numerous examples in Canada, Britain and Australia in which the government's duty to protect sensitive information outweighed parliament's right to know.

"This debate is not new, nor is it limited to Canada. And while one might argue that in theory the House has absolute powers, Canadian and other Commonwealth examples demonstrate that this has not been recognized in practice."

Nicholson was rebutting arguments made two weeks ago when the three opposition parties asked Commons Speaker Peter Milliken to rule that the government has breached its parliamentary privileges by refusing to comply with the order to produce documents. Milliken told the Commons he wouldn't rule immediately on the matter.