Weston: A consistent move on Afghan detainees

In a hail of political spin and censor's black-out, the Conservative government has announced it is shutting down the latest investigation of Canada's role in the treatment of Afghan prisoners, calling the exercise a waste of time and money.

In a hail of political spin and censor's black-out, the Conservative government has announced it is shutting down the latest investigation of Canada’s role in the treatment of Afghan prisoners, calling the exercise a waste of time and money.

If nothing else, the move is perfectly consistent with the Conservative government's promise of transparency.

For almost four years, Stephen Harper’s administration has been doing just about everything legally possible to kill the Afghan detainee controversy, an exercise in stonewalling and aggressive obstruction that has indeed wasted millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

The proclamation that the detainee issue is now officially dead accompanied the release of some 4,000 pages of heavily censored government documents  that don’t appear to be telling Canadians much that they didn’t already know.

The documents were the first batch of classified military and diplomatic memos to have undergone national security vetting by a special panel of MPs and retired supreme court judges over the past year.

Notably, the government initiated the process only under duress of being found in contempt of parliament if it didn’t cough up all documents on the Afghan detainee issue.

The panel of judges was apparently still in the process of reviewing thousands of other confidential documents when the government pulled the plug on the whole process this week.

All of which could have been avoided if the Harper administration had simply lived up to its own promise of open government when a commission of inquiry first asked for the documents four years ago.

In 2007, the quasi-judicial Canadian Military Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation into allegations that Canadian forces were turning over Afghan prisoners to local authorities, knowing the detainees faced a significant risk of being tortured.

If true, Canada would have been in violation of international law.

At first, the Harper government agreed to give the commission more than $5 million over three years to conduct the probe.

But a year later, the same government was taking the same commission to court to prevent public hearings on the same detainee issue.

In the end, most of the $5 million from the Harper government was spent fighting itself in court.

Federal justice department lawyers appearing before the commission admitted the government and military were in possession of tens of thousands of documents relevant to the detainee issue — "enough to fill two sea containers," as one of them put it.

But time after time, the government lawyers showed up at commission hearings empty-handed.

More than two years after the hearings began, the commission’s chief counsel reported in evidence: "Despite numerous document requests, and despite continuous assurances the documents would be produced…the commission has not been provided with a single new document."

In 2009, as the commission was preparing to conduct pre-hearing interviews with potential military and diplomatic witnesses, the Harper government put a chill on the whole process.

The federal Justice Department wrote to 28 potential government witnesses, warning that their testimony could be damaging to their reputations and the careers of their colleagues.

The letter recommended they all retain the Justice Department as their legal counsel.

Only one of the 28, apparently, ignored the not-so-subtle threat from his government bosses, hired his own lawyer, and agreed to co-operate with the commission.

That person was Richard Colvin, at one time Canada’s highest ranking diplomat in Kabul, and now deputy chief of intelligence at the Canadian embassy in Washington.

During his 17 months in Afghanistan, Colvin had written several dozen  memos, some copied to as many as 85 diplomatic and military brass there and in Ottawa, warning that prisoners being turned over to Afghan authorities faced a high risk of "serious, imminent and alarming" abuse.

In response, Colvin says he was encouraged to drop the issue.

If nothing else, by the time he was shipped out of Afghanistan, Colvin had a mountain of documentation of interest to the subsequent complaints commission inquiry.

But the day before Colvin was scheduled to appear as a witness, the Justice Department declared all documents in his possession were a matter of national security, warning that if he released any of them to the commission, he would be immediately arrested.

That wasn’t the end of it.

Later in the Commons, Defence Minister Peter MacKay launched an extraordinary personal attack on Colvin, calling Canada’s second-ranking intelligence boss in Washington "not credible."

Meanwhile, at least one Conservative minister had trashed his own credibility over the detainee issue.

In 2006, even as Colvin was in Kabul writing his first warnings of probable prisoner abuse, then defence minister Gordon O’Connor was publicly declaring: "If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross would inform us and we would take action."

O’Connor was subsequently forced to issue a public apology for misleading parliament after the Red Cross issued a stern rebuke.

In 2007, the Harper government attempted to hide a human rights report on Afghanistan, prepared by the Canadian embassy there, and which included a section on the abuse of Afghan detainees.

The government first claimed no such report existed, but later released it with all references to detainee abuse blacked out.

By the 2009, the complaints commission’s inquiry had ground to a virtual halt, and the detainee issue — especially the government’s attempts to smother it in secrecy — had moved to front and centre in Parliament.

On Dec. 10 of that year, opposition MPs ganged up on the then minority Conservative government, and formerly passed an order to turn over all documents related to the transfer of detainees from Canadian forces to Afghan authorities.

The government refused, citing concerns that the documents contained information potentially damaging to national security.

In April of last year, then Commons Speaker Peter Milliken effectively ruled the government had to find a way to turn over the documents without compromising national security.

Two months later, the prime minister and leaders of both the Liberal Party and Bloc Québécois inked a deal to set up a special committee to review all available documents.

Under the deal, any disagreements over what information had to be censored for national security would be settled by the panel of retired supreme court justices.

Everyone involved would be sworn to perpetual secrecy.

NDP Leader Jack Layton refused to sign the deal, calling the whole process a "sham" intended to perpetuate the Harper government’s attempts to keep Canadians in the dark on the detainee issue.

This week, as the Conservatives shut down the whole process after releasing only a tiny fraction of the detainee documents, Layton was saying 'I-told-you-so.'