Skip to main content

Remember the Afghan detainees' controversy? You might not because the Liberals, who had the government cornered on this explosive file, have let it fade from public view.

The dispute over the question of whether the government knowingly allowed war captives to be tortured by Afghan authorities is an issue that has visited more embarrassments on the Conservatives than perhaps any other.

The detainees' imbroglio figured prominently in the resignation of defence minister Gordon O'Connor. It prompted revelations by diplomat Richard Colvin that tore holes in the government's credibility. It prompted a mea culpa by Chief of the Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk. It was a factor behind Stephen Harper's much-regretted decision to prorogue Parliament, a move that sparked a national protest. It led to an extraordinary ruling from House Speaker Peter Milliken condemning the government for breach of parliamentary privilege in its refusal to release uncensored documents.

The issue is still potentially lethal. The documents, if released, could show that the Prime Minister's Office orchestrated a major cover-up. They could show that the Conservatives were in breach of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners.

But, although the controversy is a potential gold mine for the Liberals, they have allowed a pall of silence to fall over the matter. For six months, the detainees' issue has barely been mentioned. That's because, as has happened so often in the past, Mr. Harper and his team have outfoxed the Official Opposition.

The Speaker's ruling granted the opposition parties access to the Afghan documents. The matter of national security concerns had to be worked out. Rather than hold the Conservatives' feet to the fire, the Grits allowed the national security issue to trump all others. They agreed to soft terms wherein an ad hoc parliamentary committee, as well as a panel of jurists, would deliberate on the question of the documents' release, seemingly ad infinitum.

The NDP could smell a trap. Believing that a judicial inquiry was the only way to go, Jack Layton refused to be party to the committee plan. He sensed it would experience all kinds of delay and obfuscation.

Bryon Wilfert represents the Liberals on the ad hoc committee, along with Stéphane Dion. Mr. Wilfert didn't negotiate the terms but is stuck with a set of them that appears stacked in the government's favour. Committee members have not been allowed to speak out on documents they have seen so far. Confidentiality concerns restrain them. It's uncertain, from what I could gather from talking to Mr. Wilfert, that the committee will have access to all the documents. Also uncertain are deadlines and lines of authority between the jurists and the MPs on the panel.

The Conservatives have a crack legal team adept at using legal loopholes and litigation as instruments to paralyze the system. That could well be their route on this file. The government's recent decision to extend the duration of Canadian troops in Afghanistan makes the job easier. If the troops were gone, it would be difficult to use the national security argument to block the release of documents.

Mr. Wilfert says he's confident all will come out in the end, whenever the end is. He says he expects the ad hoc committee to be providing an update on what's going on next month. Maybe at that time, members can let us in on what documents they have seen so far and why they can't talk about them, and how talking about them could put Canadian soldiers in danger. Maybe they'll explain if and how they can be sure the government is making all documents available to the committee and when the document review process might come to an end.

Meantime, hats off to the Conservatives for running rings around their opponents and neutralizing the issue for months on end. The opposition and journalists have been at work for years trying to get to the bottom of this story, only to have it disappear, at least so far, into committee fog.