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Gaffe on detainees file exposes role of politics, ex-colonel says

Bob Rae holds redacted documents on Afghan detainees tabled by the Conservatives in the House of Commons in April, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An apparent slipup in the federal government's censoring of Afghan detainee documents shows Ottawa is using its black marker to hide potentially embarrassing information, a military and information law expert says.

Under pressure from opposition parties, the Harper government made public 2,600 pages of heavily censored records on the detainee controversy this week. It insisted that civil servants, not Conservative staff, decided what to keep secret - only withholding information judged to be injurious to national security.

But in one instance, a description of rebellious activity by detainees is apparently blacked out in one portion of the 2,600 documents but inadvertently disclosed in another section. It's presumably the result of diverging censorship decisions by separate officials.

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If a Taliban intelligence officer reads this, I would be hard-pressed to suggest what he could do with this information. Is this about national security or potential embarrassment to the government? Michel Drapeau, military-law professor and former colonel




The sentences in question describe how detainees began testing and challenging their Canadian captors in early 2008. Prisoners are held in a short-term Forces detention facility before being transferred to Afghan authorities.

"Beginning in January 2008, detainees began to demonstrate increased defiance as well as well-planned and executed attempts to test MP [military police] reactions to veiled threats, rock throwing, failure to obey guard instructions and scuffles … ostensibly designed to provoke and test the reaction of … guards," the uncensored version said.

Michel Drapeau, a former Forces colonel and a professor of military law, said there's no justification for withholding this information from Canadians - as one of the censors processing the documents had apparently done.

"If a Taliban intelligence officer reads this, I would be hard-pressed to suggest what he could do with this information," Mr. Drapeau said. "Is this about national security or potential embarrassment to the government?"

Mr. Drapeau said Members of Parliament, however, would be keen to learn of such stories. "It has no utility from an intelligence standpoint that would justify a national security exemption, but it has tremendous value for the highest institution in the land: Parliament."

According to the version of the report that one censor blacked out, detainee defiance problems even spurred officials to consider whether military police should be equipped with non-lethal "intermediate" weapons - a category that includes tasers or pepper spray.

"The increase in institutional probing on the part of the detainees also prompted the MP chain of command and technical chain of command to examine the issue of providing intermediate weapons for … guards," the report said.

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Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said the slipup is troubling because it suggests censors have a lot of discretion in blacking out documents - and that there may be other instances where detainee records are being unjustifiably withheld.

"This is just one example," Mr. Dosanjh said. "It tells you they have such discretion they could hide almost anything."

The Conservatives, however, are leaving it to a retired Supreme Court justice to decide whether redacted information should be divulged.

The Justice Department, which is ultimately responsible for censoring the documents, could not answer queries on Friday. A spokeswoman said the department would look into the matter next week.

The Department of National Defence emphasized that it's not responsible for the redaction decisions and could not speak to them. In a statement, however, it said decisions about withholding information that concern operational security in the military are "not an exact science," but are ones where "experts and lawyers at a number of levels … do their utmost to ensure consistency" in censorship of information.

Uncensored portions of the 2008 military police reports describe a "sea change" in the behaviour of the prisoners captured by Canadians after Ottawa temporarily suspended transfers to Afghan authorities in November, 2007. This halt followed the discovery of a detainee who had been abused after being handed to the Afghans.

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Before the suspension, these reports say, detainees were compliant while in Canada's custody because they were still shocked at being captured and didn't have time to overcome this before being shipped to Afghan jailers.

But detainees grew cocky as a halt in transfers forced their stay in Canadian hands to lengthen, transforming into more defiant prisoners, according to a portion of the reports that censors alternately disclosed and blacked out.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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