Saturday, May 01, 2010

Harper's troop shield goes poof

As Bowie, Dave, CC and Dawg pointed out yesterday, General Natynczyk has pulled the rug out from under Harper in the wake of the Speaker's ruling that MPs are entitled to see the withheld detainee documents. Harper's backstop, the floated electoral trump card has been that he and his party support the troops and disclosing national security secrets contained in detainee documents would put the troops at risk. That is the notion that's been seeded at the behest of Conservative talking point land and is in the backdrop to present parliamentary discussions and maneuvering in trying to work out how exactly MPs get to see those detainee documents. That Harper might actually want an election where he can run around the country waving the Canadian flag, invoking the troops.

But when the General has weighed in with statements like this...
The Conservative government says national security considerations bar it from releasing the material.

CBC News asked Natynczyk on Thursday, "Do you have any fears of people poring over those documents?"

Natynczyk responded: "Not at all, not at all." (emphasis added)
...Harper's refuge has gone poof, up in thin air.

This means that the backdrop to these "negotiations" has changed, the opposition's hand is immensely strengthened. It will be all about Harper if he decides to defy a ruling of the Speaker of the House of Commons, not the military. They don't want his protection. What a break between the government and Natyncyzk that is. Did you see the look on Natynczyk's face when he said the above? Telling. (Video at CBC page linked to above.) So what is going on here?

Maybe the General does not relish the possibility of an election being fought on such terrain. That the Canadian Forces would be used, in effect, by a Prime Minister to save his political hide. That the Canadian Forces would be inserted into the middle of a national, divisive political battle, and that would not be healthy for the Forces. This, one would think, the chief of defence staff would be concerned about.

Even more so if the refusal to disclose the documents may have more to do with the political leadership of the country and what it did or did not do in its position of command responsibility in Afghanistan. We don't know for sure, but the extraordinary efforts of the government to withhold information certainly suggest where we should be looking as to who might be most concerned with the release of the documents. The military is now publicly stating they're ok with a parliamentary resolution (as they should be, respecting the rule of law as Natynczyk wrote), the question is why isn't the Prime Minister?

Also in the recent mix, the very serious allegations by the Afghan translator Malgarai made at the Afghan Commons committee meeting a few weeks ago, including the allegation that Canadian Forces shot an unarmed 17 year old Afghan in the head. Natynczyk wrote a letter to the committee about that incident, referencing documents, etc. that present the Forces side of the story. But unless the government frees up the process, we're left with the public version from Malgarai and a closeted version from Natynczyk. Natynczyk can state in his letter that the operational reports back up the Forces all he wants. But unless there's some independent verification, he can't vindicate the Forces version. In effect, he and the Forces are left in limbo, unable to defend themselves against these public allegations. Maybe they're simply tired of that and the Malgarai allegations were a bridge too far.

This week, by the way, there was that announcement that there would be an investigation into the incident Malgarai alleged. From that report, there were some possibly insightful statements from a Natynczyk aide, as greater context to all this:
"My understanding is that they will take a look at the shooting and other allegations," Davidson said. "It's entirely consistent with what the chief said in his letter we would do. We've had serious allegations made and it's in the interest of the institution to take a look at serious allegations so that Canadians can continue to have confidence in their Canadian Forces."
Davidson took strong exception to the torture subcontracting allegations in an interview and to comments by Malgarai about Natynczyk. "He subsequently made the allegation that the chief of defence staff wouldn't investigate because he doesn't investigate other people in uniform which is, of course, absolute nonsense."

Davidson wrote a letter to the committee denying the subcontracting torture allegations. "The bottom line is of course, no, we don't transfer people for torture. I'm a Canadian like you are. I don't believe in torture any more than you do. We don't transfer people for the purposes of gathering intelligence by having the NDS torture them. We do transfer people we believe pose an ongoing threat to coalition forces . . . for the purposes of allowing Afghan sovereign authorities to determine whether they want to do criminal prosecution." (emphasis added)
If you have serious allegations swirling in the public realm, unresolved like these ones, if you care about your institution's integrity, you deal with them in a way that has integrity. As Natynczyk said in the CBC report, linked to way above:
"I'm very proud of what our men and women do. We're not perfect," Gen. Walter Natynczyk told CBC News on Thursday. "But when our men and women do the right things, we're proud. When they don't do the right things, we take action, as is happening with regard to various trials ongoing right now."
Harper's continued gamesmanship about the Speaker's clear ruling might obstruct the ability of the Forces to clear their name, for good or ill. Natynczyk seems to be saying enough, we don't need anybody to protect us. Adverse interests or what?

Natynczyk seems to have fundamentally altered the dynamic now, that's for sure.