The Harper government is training its guns on a diplomat whistleblower who says Canada was complicit in the torture of captured Afghan prisoners, trying to undermine Richard Colvin's credibility as pressure builds to hold a public inquiry into the matter.
"There are incredible holes in the story that have to be examined," Defence Minister Peter MacKay told Parliament Thursday, even as he rejected opposition calls for a probe into Mr. Colvin's serious charges that Canada's soldiers handed over Afghan prisoners with the knowledge they'd likely be tortured by local interrogators.
The long-simmering detainee issue, ignited again by Mr. Colvin's explosive testimony Wednesday, looks set to dominate the agenda into next week when top military commanders will be hauled before MPs to answer the accusations.
Retired general Rick Hillier, who led Canada's 2006 military foray into southern Afghanistan, joined the Conservatives in dismissing Mr. Colvin's story. He told a Toronto audience Thursday night that he can't recall ever coming across reports from the diplomat, who was a senior Foreign Affairs staffer in Afghanistan for 17 months.
Mr. Hillier derisively compared the political uproar that surrounded Mr. Colvin's parliamentary testimony to people "howling at the moon" and said nobody ever raised torture concerns with him during the 2006-2007 period in question.
"I don't remember reading a single one of those cables [from Mr. Colvin]... He doesn't stick out in my mind," Mr. Hillier said of the diplomat's warnings and criticism.
"He appears to have covered an incredibly broad spectrum, much of which I'm not sure he's qualified to talk about."
The former soldier rejected suggestions Canada was "complicit in any war crimes" - saying Ottawa had a responsible system in place. He also played down the fact Afghan prisoners got hurt in jails.
"Even in our own prisons [in Canada]somebody can get beaten up. We know that."
The Harper government devoted the day to a public-relations counteroffensive against Mr. Colvin through phone calls and e-mails to reporters, as well as Mr. MacKay's attacks. It painted the career diplomat's testimony as groundless and "ridiculous" and suggested his reports of torture ultimately stem from Taliban propaganda.
"We are being asked to accept testimony from people who throw acid in the faces of schoolchildren and who blow up buses of civilians in their own country," Mr. MacKay told the Commons.
The awkward fact for the Conservatives, however, is that Mr. Colvin is trusted by the Canadian government on sensitive matters. He is currently working for Ottawa as a senior intelligence officer at Canada's embassy in Washington.
In a damning indictment of how Canada handled prisoners early in its southern Afghan mission, Mr. Colvin told MPs Wednesday that all that captives Canadian soldiers transferred to local authorities ended up being tortured - even though many were likely innocent. He said he started red-flagging concerns for senior officials in Ottawa as far back as May 2006 - a year before the Conservatives acted on detainees.
It wasn't until May of 2007 that the Harper government overhauled its prisoner-transfer agreement with the Afghan government, negotiating a new one that allowed for follow-up visits to ensure detainees weren't tortured. Before then the Conservatives had fiercely defended the treatment of Afghans they had handed over to Afghan security services for interrogation, even though reporting by The Globe and Mail in 2007 showed they were aware of the possibility of torture as far back as 2006.
Even as he attacked Mr. Colvin's credibility, however, Mr. MacKay conceded that the bolstered prisoner-transfer agreement in 2007 came about in part because of the diplomat's warnings.
Parliament will delve further into the Colvin testimony next Wednesday when a committee probing the Afghan mission hears from military leaders who oversaw operations in 2006 and 2007. Major-General David Fraser and Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier are scheduled to testify - and the committee is still trying to secure Mr. Hillier as well.
NDP Leader Jack Layton said Canada's reputation as a champion of human rights has been damaged by the Colvin testimony and said Canadians should be angry at how the Tories treat whistleblowers.
"The first thing that Canadians should conclude is that if you're going to raise a criticism about this government, you'd better get ready to be insulted. That's how they treat people raising legitimate questions, including employees of the government of Canada."
Senior Tory ministers have repeatedly denied hearing of Mr. Colvin's early warnings.
On Thursday, however, Gordon O'Connor, who served as Canada's defence minister in 2006 and 2007, acknowledged Mr. Colvin's reports may have been read but then dismissed by officials in Canada's military and federal bureaucracy.
"Reports like this may have occurred and gone through the system and people at lower levels may have decided there's no credibility to different reports," he told reporters.