Cablegate: Canada: Defence Minister in Hot Seat Over Alleged Abuse Of
OO RUEHDBU RUEHPW RUEHSL
DE RUEHOT #0944/01 3442100
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O R 102058Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY OTTAWA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0144
INFO AFGHANISTAN COLLECTIVE
ALL CANADIAN POSTS COLLECTIVE
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 0003
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 OTTAWA 000944
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PHUM MOPS AF CA
SUBJECT: CANADA: DEFENCE MINISTER IN HOT SEAT OVER ALLEGED ABUSE OF
REF: OTTAWA 940; OTTAWA 890
1. (SBU) Summary: Canada's opposition parties united on December
9 and 10 to demand the resignation of National Defence Minister
Peter MacKay and to institute a public inquiry into allegations
that the government ignored credible evidence of abuse at least in
2006 of Afghan detainees transferred by Canadian Forces (CF) to
Afghan custody. All three opposition parties alleged that MacKay
had misled Parliament by repeatedly denying the existence of
credible proof in at least one case of abuse. Chief of the Defence
Staff (CDS) General Walter Natynczyk reversed his own December 8
testimony to Parliament and, citing newly received information,
acknowledged on December 9 that an individual turned over by CF to
Afghan custody in 2006 had been beaten by Afghan interrogators.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears determined to sit tight,
especially given a noticeable lack of public interest in the issue.
The more the opposition demands MacKay's resignation, the more
likely PM Harper will keep MacKay in place. The government's
public support remains steady, and still significantly higher than
the Official Opposition Liberal Party. However, with three
separate investigations into the detainee issue now ongoing, or
pending, the government necessarily remains in damage-control mode,
and will continue to be dogged by the controversy into 2010, even
though Parliament's six week holiday recess should cool the waters
somewhat. End summary.
CORRECTING THE RECORD
2. (U) On the morning of December 9, CDS General Natynczyk called
a hastily assembled press conference to correct testimony he had
provided twenty-four hours earlier to the House of Commons'
National Defence Committee. In the course of a briefing on planned
withdrawal of CF from Afghanistan (ref a), opposition members had
questioned him about a June 2006 incident in which CF had
intervened with Afghan police after the beating of a detainee by
Afghan interrogators. General Natynczyk had told the Committee
that, in his assessment, the individual had been detained by Afghan
police and had not been transferred by CF.
3. (U) At his press conference the next day, General Natynczyk
stated that he had that morning received "new information"
confirming that CF had taken the individual into custody before
turning him over to the Afghans, although it remained unclear
whether CF ever officially processed the man as a CF detainee.
Reading from field notes, he said that CF had photographed the man
prior to the transfer to ensure that, if Afghan police assaulted
him "as had happened [with prisoners] in the past," CF would have a
record of his condition. The correction contradicted repeated
assertions by Defence Minister MacKay that there was not "a single,
solitary proven allegation" of abuse involving a prisoner turned
over by CF. General Natyncyzk insisted that he was personally
responsible for the error in misinforming Parliament, and "I am
accountable for it today." He announced that he would convene a
military board of inquiry to investigate the matter, including why
the information took so long to reach his office, and would seek a
report "fast, fast."
STAYING THE COURSE
4. (U) In the later daily parliamentary Question Period and again
on December 10, all three opposition parties praised the
"integrity, courage, and honor" of General Natynczyk and the CF but
questioned the honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity of Minister
MacKay. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff charged that the
emergence of credible proof of transfer of detainees to abuse "in
at least one case" and Minister MacKay's "changing story" had
undermined public trust in the Minister. All parties demanded
MacKay's resignation as well as a public inquiry "to get to the
bottom of the matter." They complained that a military board of
inquiry would be "insufficient." In response, PM Harper and
Minister MacKay repeatedly insisted that the government and the CF
had acted appropriately, that -- where credible evidence of abuse
existed -- the government had acted, and that "the government is
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going to stay on course and continue to back our military."
Minister MacKay insisted that the military board of inquiry should
be allowed to "do its job" and repeatedly tried to spin the
opposition demands and questions as a lack of support for the CF.
"NO ONE TURNED A BLIND EYE"
5. (U) Minister MacKay made a previously scheduled appearance
before the House of Commons' Special Committee on Canada's Mission
in Afghanistan (AFGH) later the same day, along with Foreign
Minister Lawrence Cannon and former Defence Minister Gordon
O'Connor (now Chief Government Whip). In his prepared statement,
Minister MacKay underscored that "no one ever turned a blind eye"
to abuse and that the Government of Canada "has never been
complicit in torture or any violation of international law by
willfully allowing detainees taken by the CF to be exposed to
abuse." O'Connor testified that he had visited Afghanistan on four
occasions in 2006 and 2007, including visits to Afghan prisons, and
insisted that "at no time" did anyone inform him of abuse of
detainees transferred by CF. Opposition members had only limited
opportunity to grill the ministers, since mandatory votes in the
House of Commons twice cut the meeting short, prompting opposition
members to allege that the government wanted to hamper their
investigation. Minister Cannon highlighted C$7.7 million in
assistance to Afghan correctional reform since the Conservatives
took office in 2006, as well as another new grant of C$21 for rule
of law projects in Afghanistan.
THREE DETAINEE PROBES
6. (U) The AFGH probe is one of three investigations already in
process, or pending, into the Afghan detainee controversy.
Opposition MPs (who outnumber government members on the AFGH) may
try to force the AFGH to continue to sit through Parliament's
holiday recess, which begins December 11. (The House of Commons
will not return in session until January 25.) The Military Police
Complaints Commission (MPCC) has conducted an ongoing investigation
since 2007 into complaints by two human rights groups, which allege
that Canada has handed over prisoners in Afghanistan to certain
torture in violation of international law. CDS Natynczyk will
separately convene a military board of inquiry into the 2006
detainee transfer incident.
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT REMAINS STEADY
7. (U) According to a new EKOS poll, 83% of respondents believe
that the government was aware there was a strong possibility that
prisoners turned over to Afghan custody would be tortured. This
finding was constant across all gender, age groups, and regions.
However, the results also suggested that many Canadians remain
undecided on the government's handling of the controversy: 41%
were satisfied with the government's level of transparency and
disclosure regarding the alleged torture of prisoners, while only
24% were dissatisfied. Thirty-five percent had no opinion.
Nationally, Conservative support dipped slightly to 35.6% (from
36.9%) in a late November EKOS poll. The Conservative decline did
not result in higher support for the Liberals, who slipped to 26.5%
(from 27.1%), while the New Democratic Party (NDP) rose slightly to
16.7% (from 15.3%).
8. (SBU) Comment: General Natynczyk's somewhat confusing
corrective to the detainee narrative has circumscribed the
government's ability to contain the controversy, which so far
centers around only one report of a specific allegation thatt
Afghan authorities, after a joint operation with the CF, beat one
Taliban suspect with shoes. As in the case of post-2011 Canadian
plans for Afghanistan (reftels), public interest is extremely
limited, and confidence levels in the PM and the Conservatives
remain relatively high. PM Harper is unlikely to throw Minister
MacKay to the opposition wolves, and their "demands" for his
dismissal probably ensure that MacKay will keep his job, at least
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for now. Absent more "smoking guns" of specific abuses, the
government is also unlikely to call a public inquiry, which have
historically taken a corrosive toll on the popularity of sitting
governments. The Parliamentary recess affords the Conservatives a
chance to get back on track and reformulate the government's
strategy, which has yet to address the central political issue --
of what the government knew and when - in this affair.