Thursday, January 24, 2008

Buckler: Lies, Cover-ups and Deceit

Let the acrimonious political slime-fest begin. On Monday, the opposition will attack the Harperites for failing to inform the Canadian public about the conditions under which prisoners taken by Canadians were detained. And the Harperites will deserve everything they get.

What Harper and his crowd of dilettantes don't seem to get is that misplaced secrecy will only cause to anger Canadians; and that anger is fully justified.

When pressed to explain why the Conservatives had deliberately chosen not to explain that detention arrangements had changed in the case of enemy fighters captured in Afghanistan, this is what happened.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister denied there was any attempt to cover up the decision and put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Canadian army.

"The military make decisions each and every day based on what is happening in theatre," Sandra Buckler, Harper's communications director, said in an e-mail.

"Concerning the matter of detainees, the number of detainees, if they are being transferred or not, these are all operational matters and are the responsibility of the Canadian Forces."

Let's clear one thing up right now. Sandra Buckler is a flat-faced political operative. She wouldn't know the difference between an "operational matter" and a beet-green. Her statement isn't just an obvious dodge, it's a dangerous one - for the Conservatives.

As far as operational security where the taking of prisoners is concerned Buckler might want to do a little research.

Canadian policy is to treat all prisoners taken during military operations as prisoners of war and to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of those prisoners. That means that Canada is responsible to make every effort to communicate the identity of those captured back to the other side - something that is normally done through a third party. Canada is also responsible to ensure that an independent third party has access to any prisoners in custody to monitor the conditions of incarceration and their continued humane treatment.

As a part of that access the third party, by convention, usually agrees not to disclose the location of prisoners held by the belligerent party. Although not mandatory, it is a condition of access.

The numbers of prisoners taken and the names of those captured is not an operational consideration. The "enemy" already knows who is no longer in their units and can easily discern who was taken prisoner.

So Buckler is absolutely full of it in describing prisoner statistics and generalized detention arrangements as being secret for operational reasons. If prisoners are transferred to the custody of another country, that information must be transmitted to the independent third party. Period.
Buckler, of course, is attempting to deflect responsibility for any prisoner arrangements directly onto the Canadian Armed Forces. In doing so she is tacitly suggesting that the civilian political establishment has nothing at all to do with prisoner arrangements.

There are instances where she might have even been considered to have been correct. But the last time that held true Buckler wasn't even born, and even then, the Canadian government was very much involved in prisoner of war policy.

Since the 2nd World War Canada has not been a declared belligerent. All combat missions and peacekeeping or peace enforcement operations have been conducted under the cover of a United Nations or NATO engagement. Both of those bodies require all parties under their operational authority to maintain the highest levels of humane treatment for those who, despite the way they may conduct themselves, become captive. The easiest way to accomplish that is to abide fully with the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.

Given that even the sloppiest of the Harper and Buckler supporters continue to point out that Afghanistan is a UN sanctioned and a NATO led mission, they have no choice but to accept that the treatment of prisoners must meet the standards expected of those two bodies.

Is that simple enough?

So, then we get to the part where Buckler is trying to push all responsibility onto the Canadian Forces.

Big deal. Her statement suggests that the whole issue, both the actual detention and the communications of policy, is out of the hands of the prime minister, minister of national defence and whatever else is not in uniform.

That suggestion isn't just wrong, it's an outright lie. What she is hoping is that we'll all look at the Chief of Defence Staff for an answer. Even on a short leash, she is about to make him the one squirming in front of the news cameras.

It is not, however, the problem of the CDS.

The Canadian Forces can deal with immediate custody arrangements but it is up to the civilian government of Canada to formulate how to deal with longer term arrangements. The political leaders must not only know what is being done, they are required to provide approval.

Again, I expect there are a lot of people who are shrugging their shoulders. After all, if prisoners are being held by Canadians at least we know that no harm will come to them. Right?


I was there when, during the regime of the last Conservative government, there was no room left for that form of ambiguity. I clearly remember the priority messages and the directives. I don't blame the government of the day for the initial incident which led to that flurry of message traffic and endless direction, but I do blame them for keeping the entire episode a secret in an attempt to hide it from the Canadian public to save their own political hides.

Here's a word Sandra Buckler needs to look up and we all have to remember. It's why the Harper obsession with secrecy over prisoners can only make us even more suspicious than we already are.


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