Sunday, November 22, 2009

"[T]he titanic issue for Prime Minister Harper"

Looks like Richard Colvin's got even more company. The effort to tar him this past week has brought out allies, it appears, providing information to corroborate his testimony last week. An additional report today magnifies the story enormously for the Prime Minister himself:"PMO issued instructions on denying abuse in '07."
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 former official, speaking in a telephone interview Saturday, said that throughout the ISAF Headquarters in Kabul "everyone knew that if a detainee got handed to the NDS (the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence service), they were not going to be in any way looked after the way they should have been. (emphasis added)
Some issues these allegations raise...

The Prime Ministerial denials to date about involvement in the issue should be questioned. The credibility of the Prime Minister is being called into question directly. Presumably, the NATO official cited in the report could name the individual who told him that the Prime Minister himself needed to clear statements on the issue personally.

The above allegations raise questions about involvement by Harper and the PMO in a direct manner that even Colvin did not allege. Colvin cited Harper's national security adviser, Margaret Bloodworth, for e.g., and various deputy ministers, David Mulroney, Colleen Swords as having been included as recipients of his reports on torture allegations. These allegations would make the PMO into a much more active participant in the matter.

What to do?

At a minimum, the case for an inquiry gets much more compelling with this report. A relevant precedent for action may have been set by Prime Minister Harper's own terms of reference on the Mulroney matter, where the justification for the calling of a judicial inquiry was that the allegations with respect to Mulroney "raise questions respecting the integrity of an important office of the Government of Canada," i.e., the Prime Minister's Office. Here, however, Mr. Harper is in a conflict of interest, given these allegations, and whatever actions are taken now need to be viewed with that in mind.

"[T]he titanic issue for Mr. Harper," perhaps in more ways than one.