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The Globe and Mail

Canada must not con U.S. Congress on Omar Khadr

Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

According to news reports, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to speak to Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon Wednesday night about a proposed plea bargain in the case of Omar Khadr. The two countries, according to the same reports, will exchange diplomatic notes as early as Friday that would allow Mr. Khadr to serve part of his sentence in Canada. And the Toronto Star is reporting this morning that "sources close to the case … said that both Khadr, and the Pentagon's top Guantanamo official, have already signed an agreed statement of facts in the case. The recommended sentence is reportedly eight years - seven to be served in Canada. One source said that Khadr would not be given credit for the eight years he has already served awaiting trial."

Even if these reports are accurate, we'll not know until Monday whether Mr. Khadr will agree to plead guilty on these terms. If he does, and U.S. President Barack Obama makes a direct request for Canada to agree to a prisoner transfer agreement, it's inconceivable that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would refuse it. However, the government will have to be very careful in its diplomacy (the very basis on which the Supreme Court ultimately deferred to the government in the Khadr matter) - in recognition of the important role that Congress plays in U.S. foreign policy.

If Mr. Khadr agrees to a plea bargain, the announcement would be coming a week before Americans head to the polls in their mid-term elections. In these elections, the Democrats could end up losing control of one of both houses of Congress. Unless they can fire up their base, that is - a base that has been discouraged, among other things, by Mr. Obama's failure to close Guantanamo and by his continuation, with some modifications, of George W. Bush's trials by military commissions - the President is looking at an erosion of power and harassment by congressional subpoena power in the second half of his mandate.

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At the same time, a week before the elections, Mr. Obama will be concerned not to alienate Independent voters overly. He will be conscious of criticism that will come from the direction of the family and colleagues of the medic Mr. Khadr is alleged to have killed. And he will be most concerned that these criticisms will be jumped on by Republicans and their Tea Party allies, who as always will find an echo chamber on Fox News.

Mr. Obama has an interest, therefore, in presenting the plea bargain deal in as harsh terms as possible; as the New York Times reported earlier this week, even he is not above shading the truth in an election campaign, as PolitiFact and have been pointing out for some time.

Perhaps it is true that Mr. Khadr will spend seven years in prison in Canada - though it seems unlikely given our parole system. However, if the government of Canada allows this statement to pass without any caveat, we run the risk of being looked upon as skunks down the road by Americans if and when Mr. Khadr is granted an early parole. And, if and when that perception emerges, there would be no shortage of Congressmen and women to hold hearings on the affair even if it means damaging the bilateral relationship - as the British and Scottish governments are now discovering to their chagrin in the case of the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

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