CIA torture report: Why Canada can't claim innocence

Stephen Harper's claim that Canada played no role whatsoever in the torture tactics laid out in a U.S. Senate report misrepresents our relationship with American spies, say security analysts.

Harper says U.S. Senate report has 'nothing' to do with Canadian government

When asked about the damning U.S. Senate report on CIA torture tactics, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it "has nothing to do whatsoever with the government of Canada." (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canadian agents may not have physically participated in CIA torture tactics, but Stephen Harper's claim that Canada played no role whatsoever misrepresents our relationship with U.S. spies, say a number of security analysts.

"It gives us a good conscience" to be able to deny participation in torture, but "it doesn't take away the fact that we're as guilty as them," says Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer with CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

As Juneau-Katsuya sees it, Canada's spy agencies have a tremendously close relationship with the CIA and probably had a pretty good idea how the intelligence was generated.

Adds security expert Wesley Wark, "When Prime Minister Harper says it's an American problem with an American issue with no Canadian ramifications, that's not really accurate – or oversimplified on any number of fronts.

"We tapped that intelligence. We relied on that."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate intelligence committee released a damning report on "enhanced interrogation tactics" carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency on suspected terrorists between 2002 and 2009, following the 9/11 attacks.

The committee found not only that CIA interrogators had used "brutal" tactics, such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and rectal feeding to obtain intelligence from suspected terrorists, but that the intelligence itself was largely unreliable.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee chairwoman, said, "Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured" and that the program is "a stain on our values and on our history."

The report contained at least three references to Canadians involved in extremist activity, including a mention of "al-Qaeda operative" Abderraouf Jdey, a Canadian citizen, and an FBI interview in which another prominent suspect, Abu Zubaydah, alleges he sent a Canadian to meet with a Malaysian al-Qaeda member.

Government 'does not condone' torture

Speaking in the House of Commons Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed the idea that the Canadian intelligence community was in any way implicated in the report.

"This is a report of the United States Senate," Harper said. "It has nothing to do whatsoever with the government of Canada."
Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein called interrogation tactics the CIA used on terror suspects between 2002 and 2009 "a stain on our values and on our history." (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

A statement released by the office of Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney said, "Our Government does not condone the use of torture, and certainly does not engage in it." It added that Canada "will continue to ensure that intelligence is reviewed and assessed by Canadian intelligence experts before it is acted upon."

However, as Juneau-Katsuya points out, intelligence Canada shared with the CIA led to the torture of a number of Canadians.

"That's exactly what took place with Maher Arar, that's exactly what took place with Omar Khadr, that's exactly what took place with tons of other people," says Juneau-Katsuya, who calls Harper's stance "a very hypocritical position."

Harper's dismissive tone about the Senate report obscures how closely Canadian intelligence works with its American counterparts, says Juneau-Katsuya.

He says that Canadian spies have a "phenomenal" relationship with the CIA. Not only do they share intelligence related to foreign threats, but CSIS has liaison officers that work in CIA headquarters, and vice versa.

Given their close working relationship, did Canadian intelligence agents witness any of the CIA's torture tactics?

"It would be speculation on my part," says Juneau-Katsuya, "but I think it's very likely."

He adds that "some [Canadian agents] might have had the wise reflex not to be there and simply say, 'I wasn't present.'"

But the bottom line is the Canadian government "cannot deny the fact that we were aware of the practices."

Wide latitude

The Senate report is deeply troubling for the CIA. But it also reflects the fact that, since 2001, the agency has had greater authority to carry out intelligence-gathering to thwart potential terror threats, says Scott Stewart, a senior analyst with the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor.

Among other things, the 9/11 attacks demonstrated "intelligence gaps," says Stewart.

"The CIA didn't know what al-Qaeda's capabilities and intentions were. They were panicked, they were running scared," he says, and that compelled the U.S. administration "to give them the leeway to conduct these operations against some of the moral issues."

While Canada has a tight relationship with the U.S., our intelligence agencies don't have the same latitude, says Christian Leuprecht, a security expert affiliated with the Royal Military College and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"We need to make sure we don't just throw Canadian intelligence in with American practices," he says, adding that "the courts keep CSIS on a pretty tight leash."

He cites a Federal Court decision last year that constrained CSIS's attempts to enhance its surveillance powers and expand its ability to share information with allies.

That judicial oversight might allow the Harper government to distance itself from torture allegations, but it doesn't change the fact that in the years after 9/11, Canada and other U.S. allies relied heavily on American intelligence, says Wark.

Because of their inferior intelligence agencies, countries such as Canada and the U.K. were "looking to the CIA for information on terrorist threats abroad."

With files from Janyce McGregor