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steven chase

Diplomat Richard Colvin waits to testify before the Military Police Complaints Commission in Ottawa on April 13, 2010.Reuters

Franz Kafka would have been proud to have penned an episode from Tuesday's Afghan detainee hearings where the government sought to undermine testimony from one of its own civil servants.

The catch, for the civil servant, is he can't talk about information the government has censored. Even if it could vindicate him.

As readers will know, the Harper government has censored diplomat Richard Colvin's email records and won't even let the Military Police Complaints Commission see the unredacted versions. This is the civilian-run watchdog charged with reviewing Canada's record on Afghan detainees.

Just before a couple of prickly exchanges take place (transcript below), Department of Justice lawyer Alain Préfontaine argues Mr. Colvin did not provide clear warning to Ottawa in 2006 that Canadian-transferred detainees were at serious risk of abuse. Using the censored version of the email records, the government lawyer says Mr. Colvin's warnings weren't that urgently or sharply worded.

Defending himself, Mr. Colvin says the censored portions of his emails bear out his assertion that he offered significant warnings. He is barred from speaking about these blacked out passages, however.

The government lawyer, however, takes it upon himself to tell the hearing he's seen what is behind the blacked-out lines and assures the assembled that there's nothing critical or important there.

So Military Police Complaints Commission chair Glenn Stannard, the civilian watchdog on the case, asks the obvious question: why can't he see what's behind the censor's black pen?

The response, of course, is the censorship is vital to national security.

The government lawyer says ultimately the commission will have to render its judgment of Mr. Colvin's reports using only the censored versions of these documents.

Transcript excerpts from the April 13, 2010, hearings on detainees at the Military Police Complaints Commission follow:

Diplomat Richard Colvin: "If we had access to the un-redacted version then there would be some crucial information, additional information which we obviously don't have because of the redactions."

Justice Department lawyer Alain Préfontaine: "I have had access to the un-redacted document. I don't see there anything that is missing or crucial or important."

Colvin : "Well I am afraid you are acknowledging that you are new to this issue because if you were someone who was involved in this file, involved in Afghanistan, involved in this issue, what has been redacted is extremely important and it is critical to understanding that there is nothing particularly subtle about this message. I don't agree that it's a subtle signal."


Préfontaine: "The commission will decide whether it was too subtle for the reader to pick up your meaning."

Colvin: "I think the commissioner is only given the redacted version so he may have some difficulty fully assessing the subtlety or lack thereof of this report."

Préfontaine: "I realize it's difficult for the commission to have to contend without ability of independent verification of what you say, or for that matter, what I say."

Colvin: "I am fully prepared for the commissioner to see the un-redacted version and to form his own opinion."

Préfontaine: "So would I. But it's not my call to make, Mr. Colvin."

Military Police Complaints Commission chairmain Glenn Stannard: "Did you say the information contained in the un-redacted [version] really isn't critical - or did I misread that?"

Préfontaine: "No, you didn't Mr. Stannard."

Stannard: "Just a real silly question then: any reason why we don't have it? "

Préfontaine: "Because disclosure would be injurious to either national defence, international relations or national security."

Stannard: "Even though it's not critical information?"

Préfontaine: "Well it might be that the information has nothing to do with what Mr. Colvin makes it out to be."


Colvin: "Obviously critical information has been removed by the censor. And I'm not allowed to speak to what's behind the blacked-out portions. So I am not sure what good it is to read simply read the little bits which the censor decided is available to the Canadian public."

Préfontaine: "Because at the end of the day, Mr. Colvin, this commission is going to be asked to pass judgment on the actions of some on the basis of this material. That's why."

Colvin: "I can give you my assessment of the significance of this section if you like."

Préfontaine: "No. I just am looking at what information you relayed to the reader, who will eventually end up being the commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, who is tasked to make the decision of whether to transfer or not."

Colvin: "But your redactions ... have made my content somewhat incoherent because big chunks of it have been sliced out. So I am not sure what good it does to read all these little bits."

Préfontaine: "I have heard your opinion, Mr. Colvin."