Wednesday, April 01, 2009

CSIS in need of oversight

About this bit of sorry information that jumped into public view yesterday via testimony of a CSIS adviser before the Public Safety Committee:
In stunning testimony that flatly contradicts stated Conservative government policy, a senior CSIS official admitted the spy agency still uses information that might have been obtained by torture in national security investigations "if lives are at stake."

Geoffrey O'Brian, a lawyer and CSIS adviser on operations and legislation, told the Commons public safety committee there is no absolute ban on using intelligence that may have been obtained from countries with sketchy human rights records on torture.

"Do we use information that comes from torture? The answer is we only do so if lives are at stake," O'Brian said.
Pogge and Galloping Beaver have both laid the smack down severely on this extraordinary admission from CSIS and should be read to clearly understand why Mr. O'Brian, the CSIS adviser, was sorely wrong in his statements. Canada does not torture, we do not condone torture and our security agency should not be winking and nodding to countries that do.

This is why such a fuss was raised, in case Mr. CSIS missed it, over the detainee handling in Afghanistan. The allegations of torture of prisoners in Afghan hands once Canadians had handed detainees over posed the risk of contraventions of the Geneva Conventions for Canadian soldiers. It is why Peter Tinsley, the chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, is attempting to hold hearings on the issue of the handling of those detainees in Afghanistan, because "Knowingly turning over prisoners to those who would torture them is a war crime, a violation of the Geneva Conventions as well as other international treaties and Canadian law." Mr. Tinsley is attempting to hold those hearings despite the express opposition of the Conservative government. Which may provide a clue about the confusion CSIS is apparently operating under.

If CSIS is under the impression that it can rely on information that is the product of torture, Tonda MacCharles' report this morning points out that CSIS is acting contrary to the public positioning that has been taken by the Conservatives on this issue. Suggesting that the hearing yesterday is a wake up call about a distinct lack of civilian oversight being properly exercised by our government over CSIS or maybe something worse.

Not surprisingly, both Peter Van Loan's reaction...
"The Government of Canada does not condone torture. Period."
and a CSIS spokesperson's...
"[CSIS] does not knowingly use information gleaned from torture," spokeswoman Manon Bérubé said.

"It goes without saying that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service abhors torture, has never practised it and does not in any way promote or condone its use."
...attempted to back away from the testimony of Mr. O'Brian by the end of the day yesterday. Although Van Loan's statement is deficient in stating how that policy prevents CSIS from keeping on doing what they relayed yesterday. And the "knowingly" qualification from the CSIS spokesperson is a gaping hole in the assurance.

The opposition did react well to these revelations and Van Loan and CSIS have been put on notice that the testimony was totally unacceptable. But it all means nothing if CSIS oversight doesn't get a good dose of more adult active supervision. The Conservative assurances to date about how properly they've acted as opposed to previous governments, we learned yesterday, have been bunk.