Friday, April 03, 2009

CSIS backtracks on use of torture information

The CSIS lawyer who testified the other day at the Public Safety Committee to the effect that CSIS might use information obtained through torture in other countries has now disavowed the substance of what he said in his testimony. The CSIS Director and Peter Van Loan did so as well yesterday. So do we believe the CSIS lawyer then or do we believe him now is the question. At the end of the day, we're left in doubt:
In a letter to the Commons public safety committee Thursday, Geoffrey O'Brian of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said his comments to MPs this week "may have provoked some confusion."

"I wish to clarify for the committee that CSIS certainly does not condone torture and that it is the policy of CSIS to not knowingly rely upon information that may have been obtained through torture," O'Brian wrote.

He is a lawyer who provides advice on legislative issues at the spy service, where he has worked since its inception almost 25 years ago.

The letter contrasted sharply with his testimony at a committee hearing on Tuesday

O'Brian told MPs then that the agency would use information gathered through torture in the rare instance that it could prevent a catastrophic terrorist plot like the 1985 Air India bombing or the 9-11 attacks.

"The simple truth is, if we get information which can prevent something like the Air India bombing, the Twin Towers - whatever, frankly - that is the time when we will use it despite the provenance of that information." (emphasis added)
The line from the CSIS Director yesterday was that the italicized part of that preceding sentence was Mr. O'Brian "venturing into a hypothetical." Judge for yourself how hypothetical the statement was. It's quite capable of being read as a green light on using such information rather than the prohibition which is supposed to be government policy. Most potential terror attacks can be argued to be significant and put in the category he suggests. And it's simply difficult to believe that a long time CSIS employee and lawyer who knows the significance of what he was saying can so readily turn on a dime about his testimony.

As for this:
Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, who also appeared before the committee on Thursday, said government policy is clear — it doesn't condone torture, nor does it knowingly use information obtained through torture.

"I'm happy to write it down, put it any kind of directive, any kind of memo and continue to restate it in any form."
Sounds like he's looking for someone to tell him what to do. The problem of confusion at CSIS sounds like an organizational culture kind of thing which might require a little more than writing it down. Sounds like a leadership kind of thing.

Speaking of which, if there's confusion at CSIS over relying on information produced as a result of torture, it might have something to do with the message sent by the Harper government's inaction on Omar Khadr's continued detention at Guantanamo Bay, that locus of broken international law. We know that torture has occurred there and that Khadr and his lawyers claim he was tortured. A Canadian judge ruled that Khadr had been mistreated. So the ship has sailed on the notion that our government does not condone torture. There's just not a lot of credibility in the Harper government providing assurances about a rigorous policy it enforces for others.

If the Harper government doesn't act to get one of our citizens out of Gitmo, the message on torture is sent. They turn a blind eye to it. Which is also what the CSIS adviser conveyed that CSIS would be willing to do.

So the backtracking and assurances from the minister? All in all, ringing a bit hollow.

(See also Galloping Beaver.)

Update (5:05 p.m.): Alison at Creekside brings the clarity, as usual.