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Brigadier-General Tim Grant visits with troops in Shah Wali Kot district north of Kandahar city in June 2007. (The Globe and Mail/Graeme Smith/)
Brigadier-General Tim Grant visits with troops in Shah Wali Kot district north of Kandahar city in June 2007. (The Globe and Mail/Graeme Smith/)

Christie Blatchford

From screams to whimpers on Afghan detainees Add to ...

The same week that House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken made his historic ruling that Parliament has the right to see all the documents about Afghan detainees, the very man whose sensational allegations fuelled the whole shooting match was being delivered a thumping.

How amusing, except it isn't.

Richard Colvin is the diplomat whose testimony at a special committee last fall - chiefly, that torture of the Afghan prisoners Canadian soldiers handed over to their fellow Afghans was "standard operating procedure" and that he had warned senior military officials about it to no avail - was given war-sized treatment in the press.

His allegations were front-page news across the country, led to stern editorials in several major newspapers a day later, and added gasoline to the fire already simmering about alleged Canadian complicity in torture and government stonewalling of efforts to view uncensored documents on the subject.

But when Gavin Buchan, the former political director and senior official on the ground in Kandahar (but for two months, when Mr. Colvin replaced him) for most of 2006 and part of 2007, and Major General (Retired) Tim Grant, the commander of the Canadian military effort in Afghanistan during the same approximate time period, came to testify before the committee on Wednesday, their evidence collectively a profound rebuttal of Mr. Colvin's claims, the media coverage was a whisper.

Of the four major newspapers that put Mr. Colvin's claims on their front pages - The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen - last November, only The Globe even deigned to cover Mr. Buchan's and Mr. Grant's evidence in a separate story, this a piece by my colleague Bill Curry. The story appeared on Page 13.

The Citizen, in a story about the really big news of the week - Mr. Milliken's ruling - made passing mention of Mr. Grant's evidence, but didn't say what it was and didn't refer at all to Mr. Buchan's testimony.

The Post ran no story about what the two men said, nor did the Star, which did, however, devote a startling chunk of its front page to a photo of the backyard water park Celine Dion has built her son in Florida.

There were some extenuating circumstances: At the same time on Wednesday that Mr. Buchan and Mr. Grant addressed the special committee on the mission to Afghanistan, Nazim Gillani, the mysterious businessman involved with former Tory MP Rahim Jaffer, was sitting down before the microphone next door at another special committee.

In one room was the huge crowd of the press, slavering to hear from the guy allegedly linking "busty hookers," cocaine and the Tories; in the other, where the Afghanistan committee was holding court, there was only The Globe's Mr. Curry and two other reporters.

If it is a rather shocking indictment of the attention span of the modern press - so fleeting it renders the proverbial New York minute an eternity - not to mention its collective appetite, it would matter less if the story that was almost wholly overlooked wasn't so significant.

But what Mr. Buchan and Mr. Grant had to say was important and cast doubt on the veracity of Mr. Colvin's claims.

From Mr. Buchan's opening statement: "I would like to close on a personal note. Since the committee hearings last November, I have struggled with a fair amount of self-doubt. It has been alleged that in the period leading up to March, 2007, Canadian authorities knew we were transferring detainees to torture.

"I was the DFAIT [Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade]representative on the ground. I was the person meeting with the local representatives of the AIHRC [Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission]and the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] but it was only in April 2007 that it became clear to me [through a Globe story]that our detainee arrangement was not working.

"I was left wondering if I had overlooked information I should have seen.

"If everybody supposedly knew, then what had I missed?

"My review of documentation in preparation for this meeting has gone some way to reassure me.

"I saw nothing in the record through March, 2007, that indicated Canadian-transferred detainees were being abused."

From Mr. Grant's opening statement:

"I paid attention to this issue constantly. Without question, information from the ambassador and the embassy was important. But I also spoke to our allies, the Red Cross, the AIHRC and the United Nations. I made use of every possible source of information to inform my decisions, including dedicated legal advice.

"At no time before April, 2007, did anyone express to me that they had concerns involving transfers, and that includes Mr. Colvin, who had ample opportunity to do so."

From committee questions to Mr. Buchan and Mr. Grant:

Q: When you took over for Mr. Colvin, you would have received briefing or handover notes. … Did any of these documents allege that the Canadian-transferred prisoners were being abused?

Mr. Buchan: "In the handover note that I received on my arrival in Kandahar in July, 2006, there was no reference to the detainee issue whatsoever … there was nothing to that effect in the note."

Q: Why do you think Mr. Colvin said he had warned officials back in 2006?

Mr. Buchan: "I won't presume to speak for Richard or his motivations. What I will say is that in April, 2007, there were some very vigorous exchanges between the embassy in Kabul and headquarters in which he [Mr. Colvin]put forward strong, and I believe entirely legitimate views, but the key thing here is timing.

"Those views were expressed in April, 2007, not in the period prior."

Mr. Grant: "I have no idea, I have no idea. I saw Richard on numerous occasions, both when he came to Kandahar to visit and when I went to Kabul on business … But at no point did he come and say, 'General, there's an issue.'"

Q: How do you respond to criticism that Canada has turned a blind eye to torture?

Mr. Buchan: "It's something that I personally, I feel, touches me. It, it offends me, because as I said in my statement, had I been conscious at any stage in my assignment of the abuse of Canadian detainees, I would have reported that to headquarters and I would not have rested until something was done."

Mr. Buchan and Mr. Grant are hardly the only witnesses at the committee who have raised grave doubts about Mr. Colvin's claims - that long list includes former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier, Lieutenant-General (Retired) Mike Gauthier, General Dave Fraser and David Mulroney, Mr. Colvin's boss - but they are among those most short-changed by the press. These men aren't lightweights. Either they are all remembering wrongly, or Mr. Colvin is, and it appears the press already has decided which version we prefer - you know, when we're not more interested in busty hookers or Celine's backyard.

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