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Jeffrey Simpson

We shouldn't be embarrassed by hard truths Add to ...

Jim Judd, formerly Canada's top spy, might be discomfited by the WikiLeaks affair. He shouldn't be. What emerged in a leaked cable from a U.S. official following a conversation with Mr. Judd makes him look good.

He apparently grumbled to the U.S. official about how Canadian courts were tying the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that he ran "in knots." That might be a slight overstatement, but the civil libertarians and Charter-conscious judges who rule the country's judiciary have not been sympathetic, generally speaking, to the security agencies.

There's a natural tension between the courts and security people, and that tension has been manifested time and again. We can presume that, if a senior judge commented off the record about the security services, he or she might well complain about their inability to see the big picture of civil rights, just as Mr. Judd groused about the judiciary's inability to understand the imperatives of security.

For the rest, Mr. Judd's comments were frank, as were those of Canada's ambassador to Kabul, William Crosbie, whose memo about President Hamid Karzai was also leaked. Mr. Judd correctly noted, as have others, that there's a "knee-jerk anti-Americanism" in some parts of Canada, and that Canadians occasionally show "paroxysms of moral outrage." His reported comments about Afghanistan were correct, namely that the mission staggers because of Mr. Karzai's "weak leadership, widespread corruption, the lack of will to press counter-narcotics and limited Afghan security force capability."

Mr. Judd could have listed five or six other reasons why the Afghan mission is hopeless, but these four will do, especially the bit about widespread corruption. The whole country has operated on the basis of what we in the West would call corruption: Tribal and political leaders in a desperately poor country grab spoils to enrich themselves and their followers to secure their loyalty. The massive injection of foreign money - "aid" - into Afghanistan vastly increases the moneys available for "skimming." The new money, of course, increases the amount of corruption.

Therefore, to insist as Prime Minister Stephen Harper did that Mr. Karzai must clamp down on corruption is as useless as Mr. Karzai's telling Mr. Harper not to engage in attack ads and spin-doctor methods. It's the way politics gets done by each, and neither is going to change. After all, Mr. Karzai recently admitted - although he put an anodyne spin on it - that, yes, he's been receiving money in bags from the Iranians. So Mr. Judd was merely telling a hard truth, but one acknowledged by everyone about Afghanistan.

Was the memo an accurate reading of a conversation? Who knows? Some officials report accurately, other less so - a bit like journalists. For example, another memo purportedly said French President Nikolas Sarkozy had invited Mr. Harper and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to D-Day ceremonies because he felt sorry for their fragile political situation. A photo op in France might do them some good, Mr. Sarkozy apparently reasoned.

Well, maybe. But there are a lot of Canadian and British crosses implanted in the soil of Normandy, and they cry out from the grave for national recognition, whether their country's leader is temporarily popular today or otherwise.

So you get what you get with these leaks. They are deeply regrettable in the sense that they might make the conduct of international affairs that depends on a degree of candour and secrecy more difficult to maintain. Governments have every right to be furious with the leakers, because what countries want from each other, especially among friends, is frankness and reliability, of the kind, alas, that can't always come publicly.

Having said that, very little in the leaked material hasn't already been said. True, some of the leaks have been vetted by the newspapers publishing them, so perhaps some of the information from diplomats was indeed shocking. But from what WikiLeaks has produced thus far, it recalls Pierre Trudeau's putdown of Foreign Affairs diplomats that he learned more from The New York Times than from them.

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