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Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin arrives at a Commons special committee on Afghanistan on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, November 18, 2009.
Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin arrives at a Commons special committee on Afghanistan on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, November 18, 2009.

David Eaves

Has Canada entered a 'Bush-like vortex'? Add to ...

Obviously, I'm a fan of government transparency. But I want to acknowledge its limits. You can't ATIP information that never gets written down or recorded.

No matter how transparent or open our governments strive to be, we will rely on the character and accountability of a public service that serves us, the people, first and in doing so is willing to speak truth to power.

Consequently, these two passages from The Globe and Mail's coverage of the Richard Colvin rebuttal letter struck me as particularly chilling. First is Mr. Colvin's claim that while informing government officials that transferred prisoners were being tortured by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, the military note-taker proceeded to "stop writing and put down her pen."

Second, is Mr. Colvin's claim surrounding former ambassador to Afghanistan Arif Lalani and Interdepartmental Co-ordinator David Mulroney, both of whom warned him not to report on the country's eroding security. "Mr. Mulroney sent instructions via Ambassador Lalani that we should either not mention the security situation at all, or to assert that it was getting better. The ambassador accordingly sent a report in which he said security was improving."

This despite all evidence to the contrary. And worse still, "In September 2007, an embassy staffer, in response to a written request from DFAIT's Afghanistan Taskforce to contribute to a security assessment by one of our NATO allies, sent a report that security in Kandahar had got worse and was likely to further deteriorate. Mr. Mulroney severely rebuked the officer in writing."

I've met Mr. Mulroney briefly on two occasions (he won't remember me). He seems like a nice guy and there is no doubt of his intelligence. But these orders - if true - are the antithesis of everything public servants should endeavour to do. It would be easy to blame him - but that would be a mistake. The above story, if true, is less a reflection of Mr. Mulroney's character than an indication of the enormous pressure he was likely under from superiors to "shape" the truth and so to tell the minister what he wanted to hear.

We in Canada are now experiencing our own miniature version of America's quest to prove Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Pre-war, the administration was so set on getting an intelligence brief that showed WMDs existed in Iraq it bullied the public service and intelligence community into manufacturing the evidence. Same again on the progress on the war in Iraq. It all smacks of that famous quote by a senior adviser to George W. Bush:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

In the United States, even conservator bloggers and commentators like Andrew Sullivan wrote about how such a dangerous view of " imaginationland" could not last - or risked irreparably damaging America.

Now it is our turn.

Mr. Colvin's allegations suggest that the government has entered a Bush-like vortex where facts are irrelevant - be it on torture, Canadians abroad or on climate change. We have a government who's view is: "If we don't know it, it doesn't exist." Moreover, it is prepared to attack the bureaucracy if it isn't prepared to shape the truth or willing to keep its political masters in the dark in the appropriate ways.

When the most senior ranks of the public service - those who pride themselves on their ability to speak truth to power and whose job it is to protect junior ranks from political interference - feel pressured to do the very opposite, it should send a chill down every Canadians spine. Worse still, we may never know the full truth of what contrary evidence was presented to politicians since, when confronted with countering facts, today's public servants feel increasing pressure to "put down their pen" and stop writing.

In the end, transparency is a powerful tool, but we Canadians rely on a public service that speaks truth and engages in facts and evidence. If we have lost that, then we can never know, can never learn, can never hope for even the tiniest bit of accountability. In short, our challenges are even greater than the already terrifying allegations that we may be handing prisoners over for torture.

David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver

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