Sunday, November 22, 2009

Torturegate North: the "6,000-mile screwdriver"

The phrase above is used in military circles to describe far-flung command-and-control systems. And we now know who was turning that tool
as far back as 2007: Stephen Harper.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office used a "6,000-mile screwdriver" to oversee the denial of reports of Afghan detainee abuse when the scandal first erupted in 2007, according to a former senior NATO public affairs official who was then based in Kabul.

The former official, speaking on condition his name not be used, told the Toronto Star that Harper's office in Ottawa "scripted and fed" the precise wording NATO officials in Kabul used to repudiate allegations of abuse "at a time when it was privately and generally acknowledged in our office that the chances of good treatment at the hands of Afghan security forces were almost zero."

"It was highly unusual. I was told this was the titanic issue for Prime Minister Harper and that every single statement that went out needed to be cleared by him personally," said the former official, who is not Canadian.

"The lines were, 'We have no evidence' of coercive treatment being used against detainees handed over to the Afghans. There were very clear instructions for a blanket denial. The pressure to hold to that line was channelled via Canadian military and diplomatic personnel in Kabul. But it was made clear to us that this was coming from the Prime Minister's Office, which was running the public affairs aspect of Canadian engagement in Afghanistan with a 6,000-mile screwdriver."

The Americans, of course, set their usual "Abu Ghraib" standard:

"The Americans in particular were not remotely squeamish on this. To them, everyone was an enemy combatant."

And as for diplomat Richard Colvin, who, it has been suggested, might someday be remembered as the man who ended our war in Afghanistan:

"Richard Colvin behaved as a straight-up-and-down person, completely honest and doing his job to the best of his abilities," the former official said.

"He had to be terribly careful. He couldn't speak to us about this. But it was clear that the tone at the Canadian Embassy had changed. It became far more politicized – and it was clear that Richard Colvin was struggling enormously to do his work on the question of detainees." [emphasis added]

Not hard to read between the lines there.

Far from showing any signs of moving to page two, this story may prove to be Harper's Waterloo. It has more legs than a centipede, and if I might extend the metaphor, new shoes are dropping every day. Colvin's credibility, never at issue, is being continually reinforced. Other well-placed individuals, appalled by the crass attacks on him by baying Conservative hacks, are now emerging, one by one, to have their say.

Canadians are not normally moved
sufficiently by international issues to change their votes. But this isn't really about Afghanistan any more. It's about the brutal perfidy of the Conservative government, its gall, its utter lack of class, its willingness to cover up, to prevaricate, to temporize: hell, to lie its way out of a tight spot. It's a character issue. The electorate seldom rewards such flagrant political turpitude.

Attacking Richard Colvin, the messenger? Is that the best that wretched lot can do at this point? Even Harper's old mentor Tom Flanagan is showing signs of unease. It's like lighting a fuse. Guy Fawkes isn't in the parliamentary cellar these days: he's sitting
in plain sight on the government front benches.

But still no word from the ever-elusive former human rights advocate Michael Ignatieff. To borrow a phrase that I've used before in this connection, the present Liberal "leader" never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And that may be the only thing that ultimately rescues this government from the fate it so richly deserves.

[H/t the ever-more-impressive Impolitical, via CC]

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