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Whistleblower's warnings on detainees reached Minister's office

Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin testifies at a commons special committee hearing on transfer of Afghan detainees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 18, 2009.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was sent some of the reports on Afghan detainees written by diplomat Richard Colvin - the first evidence that his warnings about the torture of prisoners who left Canadian hands might have reached Ottawa's political desks.

Mr. Colvin reignited the long-simmering detainee controversy last week when he testified that Ottawa ignored and tried to suppress his warnings that prisoners captured by Canada and handed over to Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service in 2006 and early 2007 were likely tortured.

In a letter from his lawyer to a parliamentary committee Tuesday, Mr. Colvin said he wished to correct the record on testimony last week that failed to answer the question of whether his warnings were sent to ministers' offices. On Nov. 18, he told MPs he was unable to say whether he copied his reports from the field to ministers, but suggested he typically didn't do so.

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Mr. Colvin's latest revelation comes as Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a fresh attack on his credibility and e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail demonstrate how worried Ottawa was in 2007 about drawing attention to fixes it was making to detainee-transfer arrangements.

"Mr. Colvin has since gone back to verify the accuracy of his response to the committee. He can now confirm that, contrary to his initial answer, he did in fact copy the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs on some of his reports from Afghanistan that relate to detainees. We apologize for any confusion caused by this inadvertent inaccuracy in Mr. Colvin's initial response," lawyer Lori Bokenfohr wrote.

The letter does not say who was Foreign Affairs minister when his reports were copied to that office. Peter MacKay served as Foreign Affairs minister throughout much of Mr. Colvin's tenure in Afghanistan. Maxime Bernier took over in August, 2007.

Mr. Bernier could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but MacKay spokesman Dan Dugas said it's impossible to comment without more detail on the reports and when they were sent.

In mid-October, after Mr. Colvin first revealed he'd sent warnings to Ottawa, Mr. MacKay said he knew nothing of them, saying "I have not seen those reports in either my capacity as Minister of National Defence or previously as minister of foreign affairs."

On Tuesday, Mr. Dugas noted that Mr. MacKay has recently said he'd seen briefing notes that included information from various sources, including Mr. Colvin. "The government takes in information from all its diplomats, all the Canadians on the ground there, and when it had credible evidence, it has acted."

The parliamentary committee delving into Mr. Colvin's allegations will on Wednesday hear from military commanders set to counter the charges he's levelled. Retired general Rick Hillier, who as Canada's former top soldier led the country into the costly Afghanistan war, is one of three military players being called to testify before MPs Wednesday.

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Separately, e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail show that one year into its southern Afghanistan military mission, the Canadian government was acutely aware that it was vulnerable on its record of monitoring prisoners handed over to possible torture by Afghan authorities.

E-mail conversations in February, 2007, show that the federal government sought to minimize media questions on its record of tracking Afghan prisoners. At the time, Foreign Affairs staffers were preparing to designate an Afghan human-rights commission as a watchdog for the treatment of people transferred from Canadian hands. In effect, Ottawa was trying to remedy shortfalls in a 2005 agreement with Kabul that was supposed to ensure the humane treatment of suspects handed over to the Afghans.

But one official questioned how much this move should be publicized.

It was, after all, 14 months after Canada struck what was supposed to be a solid agreement on prisoner transfers.

"There is some discussion ongoing here still re: whether there should be a public affairs push on this," Department of Foreign Affairs official Elizabeth Baldwin-Jones wrote in a Feb. 1, 2007, e-mail to colleagues about how to herald the pending watchdog designation.

"I'm of two minds - the detainee-transfer agreement was signed in December, '05," she said. "A high-profile event now invites the question, why did it take us so long?"

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The government eventually decided against attracting the attention of journalists on the matter. "This is not intended to be a media event in any way," one Canadian Forces major wrote on Feb. 16, 2007, citing a Foreign Affairs official as his source.

The e-mails were obtained by Amnesty International during a court battle with Ottawa over whether Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to the actions of Canadian soldiers overseas.

Also, Tuesday, Mr. Harper opened up a new line of attack on Mr. Colvin, suggesting those who worked alongside him do not support his startling allegations.

"We also know that a large number of his colleagues did not agree with those opinions," Mr. Harper told the Commons Tuesday.

In his first comments on Mr. Colvin's explosive Nov. 18 testimony, Mr. Harper derided opposition parties' efforts to delay testimony from another former Afghanistan hand.

David Mulroney, a career bureaucrat who served as Canada's former point man on Afghanistan, has already flown back from China, where he is Canada's ambassador, to defend his record against Mr. Colvin's allegations.

But opposition parties are leery of giving Mr. Mulroney a public forum to beat back Mr. Colvin's allegations until they get information that allows them to ask more probing questions. They've insisted Ottawa deliver confidential documents related to Mr. Colvin's assertions before letting Mr. Mulroney testify.

But Mr. Harper said it's wrong for the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois to delay testimony from Mr. Colvin's colleagues.

"They have asked for their right to speak, so I encourage the opposition not to muzzle them," Mr. Harper said.

The door still appears open to Mr. Mulroney testifying tomorrow. Opposition parties want to wring documents out of the Tories but also want to avoid being seen censoring who appears at committee.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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