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Tim Powers

Credibility and the Colvin debate Add to ...

I have been struck by a couple of things watching, reading and listening to the debate about Richard Colvin's testimony to the Foreign Affairs committee last Wednesday. The battle over "credibility" is a fascinating one. In communications credibility is the currency that captures the day.

1) By his own admission, Colvin - though clearly able to speak to then-foreign minister Peter Mackay while he was in Afghanistan - chose not to mention his information on the treatment of detainees when he had the chance. To me this is perplexing and not getting enough attention. I have known many civil servants who, in the performance of duties while still being respectful of their political masters, have always found ways to raise crucial matters directly with politicians. And of the all the ministers in the Harper government, Peter Mackay is one of the most affable and approachable.

Colvin copied 70 people on an e-mail about the serious concerns that he had, yet didn't use face time with his minister to raise it? To say that is strange is an understatement. Add to that his openness now with numerous politicians when he appeared before the standing committee and you have to wonder what he would do if he had the time to do it all over again.

2) The Liberal strategy around the Colvin testimony is quite fascinating. First of all, they seem to be keeping Ignatieff as far away from this story as they can. That makes some sense given the Liberal Leader's past comments and interpretations of said sayings on torture. But more puzzling to me is the speed at which they've lauded him and depth of commitment they have made to Colvin's testimony. They have inflated him to some sort of prophet of the absolute truth. The danger with this sort of wholesale adoption without scrutiny is that it can blow up in your face if Colvin's arguments aren't validated by others.

While the Liberals no doubt see in Colvin's appearance an appealing narrative about Canadian values that they don't mind appropriating, they have their own troubled history with managing detainees in Afghanistan. In 2007, it was the Conservatives who changed and improved the existing detainee transfer agreement. Different arrangements were in place when the Liberals were in power.

Also the Liberals have either deliberately or inadvertently picked a fight with one of Canada's most credible citizens - Rick Hillier. There is no love lost between the Liberals and Hillier but unlike Colvin, Hiller has a huge reservoir of popularity with the media and public. If Hillier - the beloved, straight-talking, populist contemporary Canadian hero - continues to disarm the Colvin bomb, the Liberals might find their without-reservation endorsement of the star witness sinking their credibility. The Liberals have engaged in their own form of expediency, arguably it as egregious as the government's (as some have described it) attack on Colvin. Colvin's observations are fair game for comprehensive scrutiny as is anyone's testimony on this crucial matter.

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