A handful of Ottawa's most senior bureaucrats are ultimately responsible for deciding which Afghan detainee records to withhold from a watchdog probing transfer-to-torture allegations, an inquiry has heard.
Deputy ministers at departments including Foreign Affairs, National Defence and Public Safety set direction for the file, the Military Police Complaints Commission was told Monday. They're advised by Justice lawyers and work with an equivalent from the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office.
It's the first time the probe, whose commissioners complain about being denied vital detainee documents, has made headway in identifying the gatekeepers responsible for denying access to records.
Members of Parliament have also demanded to see the records, and yesterday expressed hope they might be able to strike a deal this week in negotiations that follow last week's historic Speaker's ruling on the subject. They're looking at creating a select group of MPs - as little as one from each party - to screen documents.
At the Military Police Complaints Commission yesterday, it took persistent and prolonged questioning before a senior mandarin would finger the officials responsible for decisions to stonewall document requests as far back as May 2009.
Len Edwards, deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, did not volunteer this information, and a lawyer for the federal government initially instructed him not to answer questions about exactly who decided to hold back mountains of documents.
"There wasn't a name," Mr. Edwards said. "This was a collective decision that was taken among senior officials on the basis of advice of counsel. ... It was a consensual decision.
"No one individual took the decision."
The hearings grew testy at times yesterday as the commission's lead lawyer struggled to extract the information. "I want to know who's responsible for the decision. You understand the concept of responsibility?" commission counsel Ron Lunau asked.
"I sure as hell hope so," Mr. Edwards shot back.
The Military Police Complaints Commission, a civilian-run body, was set up after the Somalia Affair to prevent future military cover-ups.
It has faced repeated roadblocks from government lawyers as it tries to investigate allegations that Canada knowingly transferred prisoners to torture at the hands of Afghan jailers.
Separately, the Harper government and opposition parties said they're making progress in finding a way to grant MPs access to the documents without breaching national security. The Speaker ruled last week that Parliament has a right to the documents.
There could be between 20,000 to 40,000 pages to read, Bloc Québécois House Leader Pierre Paquette estimated.
Conservative Government House Leader Jay Hill, whose party has been pushing for a deal this week, said he's optimistic one can be reached by Friday.
"I'm certainly hopeful. I think we all are," Mr. Hill said.
Opposition parties favour relying on a small group of MPs to screen the documents instead of leaving it to a third party such as former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci.
"We haven't seen the pushback from the government on what appears to be an emerging consensus about how to do this," NDP defence critic Jack Harris said.
The biggest obstacle to a deal will be deciding on a mechanism to resolve inevitable disputes between MPs over whether a particular bit of censored information should be made public.