Special forces Afghan probe prompts oversight calls

There are calls for public oversight of the Joint Task Force 2 military unit amid allegations a Canadian soldier was involved in an unlawful killing of an Afghan.
A JTF2 helicopter touches down in Afghanistan. ((Image courtesy Denis Morisset) )
There are calls for public oversight of an elite military unit amid allegations that a Canadian soldier was involved in an unlawful killing of an Afghan.

Federal politicians and a former member of the military are making the calls in light of a series of closed-door investigations in Ottawa that have been looking into the explosive claims involving the covert unit, Joint Task Force 2.

The allegations included claims that members of JTF2 witnessed American soldiers killing an unarmed man, and, in a separate incident, that a member of JTF2 killed a man who was surrendering.

Earlier this year, CBC News reported that the first probe, named Sand Trap, looked into the allegations that a Canadian was involved in the 2006 shooting death of an Afghan who had his hands up in the act of surrender. That probe ended without any charges.

Sand Trap Two, which is looking at the claims against American forces, is still ongoing.

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The Canadian soldier who raised those allegations said that in January 2008, his team was sent to conduct a mission alongside an American special operations team. He said he witnessed the U.S. forces kill a man who was wounded and unarmed.

The Canadian military is also examining how the chain of command responded to the allegations, and what action it took.

The new details were uncovered by CBC's Investigative Unit and the Radio-Canada program Enquête.

Public comment from the military about the secretive JTF2 is exceedingly rare. Vice-Admiral Bruce Donaldson, who is vice-chief of the defence staff, acknowledged the allegations are being probed, but he would not discuss specifics.

"These are very serious allegations," said Donaldson. "We take them very seriously. We have our [Canadian Forces] National Investigative Service doing an investigation into those allegations."

Two members of the House of Commons standing committee on national defence said they know little about the investigations, and they suggest it will remain that way unless they get more information and access to oversight of JTF2.

"We know nothing about this formally," said New Democrat MP Jack Harris. "All we know is what individuals may tell us."

MP Claude Bachand of the Bloc Québécois believes there has to be a way to balance the need for military secrecy with the need for accountability.

"They're asking us for budgets, very big budgets concerning military contracts to make sure that the soldiers have what they need," Bachand said. 

"But when it comes to what's really going on on the field — and we've seen that with the Afghan prisoners — they don't review anything," he said. 

Donaldson said the lines of accountability are clear: the chief of defence staff reports to Parliament through the minister of defence.

Donaldson believes that additional oversight "would muddy that direct line of accountability that the chief of defence staff has for military operations."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office defended the fact the investigations were not carried out in public.

"The allegations which led to the first Sand Trap investigation were investigated and resulted in no charges being laid," Jay Paxton, a spokesman for MacKay, said in an email.

"With regards to investigations of certain allegations, it is important to protect and preserve evidence, to safeguard people's reputations, and to ensure the independence of these processes. Therefore, confidentiality is essential."

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, who is now a lawyer, said the military should not be asked to judge itself. He said an inspector general is needed "desperately."

That person should be named under the National Defence Act, be responsible to Parliament, have sufficient powers, and "basically, the authority also to go and investigate," he said.

Denis Morisset spent eight years in JTF2, and witnessed ugly battles in Bosnia and Afghanistan. He thinks more oversight would lead to paralysis on the battlefield.

"From my point of view, it's completely stupid," he said.

"To do things like that you need someone that's been on the ground — that know the risk that these guys are taking, know the danger of the area where we're sending those people...," he said.

Civilian oversight of elite military units already exists in the United States, where Senate and House committees receive regular briefings and can launch their own investigations.

Bachand said he learned more about Canada's activities in Afghanistan from Americans than he did from anyone in Ottawa.