Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Harper's last stand

Its complicity in the torture of Afghan civilians no longer in question, the Harper government really has only two ways to go: brazen it out and hope for the best, or cut and run.

Brazening is the current favourite. Harper wants his well-prepared and articulate flunky David Mulroney to testify before the parliamentary committee that heard from Richard Colvin last week, without providing the committee members with documentation that would allow proper questions to be put. Needless to say, the other parties are unwilling to be set up in this fashion, and attempts to paint them as obstructionist are so far proving unsuccessful.

Canadians, 51% of whom prefer Colvin's account over the government's ever-widening bucket defence, know what is being attempted here. Unable to formulate searching inquiries, committee members would be placed in the position of having well-phrased government denials read into the record with no means to clarify or rebut them effectively.

Harper has now weighed in with his own attacks on Colvin. These strike me as slightly schoolboyish--"Well, you say yes, but your friends say no, nyah, nyah"--perhaps reflecting the growing desperation of a government increasingly anxious to extricate itself from what is, in fact, clear involvement in a war crime.

Its case is not helped by a clarification issued by Colvin through his lawyer yesterday. In his testimony to the committee, he had opened up the possibility, at least, that government ministers had been kept blissfully ignorant of any unpleasant goings-on in Khandahar, by stating that he had not personally sent warnings directly to them. But he has now recollected, one assumes through a careful review of his files, that he did indeed transmit warnings to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, although it is unclear whether Peter MacKay or the ill-starred Maxime Bernier held that office at the time.

Meanwhile the Globe and Mail has acquired some emails that further weaken the government's case. It appears that as far back as 2007, officials were leery of publicity about the treatment of detainees, realizing that Canada might be vulnerable on the issue:

E-mail conversations in February, 2007, show that the federal government sought to minimize media questions on its record of tracking Afghan prisoners. At the time, Foreign Affairs staffers were preparing to designate an Afghan human-rights commission as a watchdog for the treatment of people transferred from Canadian hands. In effect, Ottawa was trying to remedy shortfalls in a 2005 agreement with Kabul that was supposed to ensure the humane treatment of suspects handed over to the Afghans.

But one official questioned how much this move should be publicized.

It was, after all, 14 months after Canada struck what was supposed to be a solid agreement on prisoner transfers.

"There is some discussion ongoing here still re: whether there should be a public affairs push on this," Department of Foreign Affairs official Elizabeth Baldwin-Jones wrote in a Feb. 1, 2007, e-mail to colleagues about how to herald the pending watchdog designation.

"I'm of two minds – the detainee-transfer agreement was signed in December, '05," she said. "A high-profile event now invites the question, why did it take us so long?"

The government eventually decided against attracting the attention of journalists on the matter. "This is not intended to be a media event in any way," one Canadian Forces major wrote on Feb.16, 2007, citing a Foreign Affairs official as his source.

Stay tuned as ever-sleazier attacks on Richard Colvin emanate from the PMO. The cornered Harper is playing for keeps: and at this point, he really has no choice.

UPDATE: Peter MacKay received warning emails from Colvin--in 2006.

UPPERDATE: CBC's Kady O'Malley has some of the memos up. [H/t reader Navvy]


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