What’s happened to the United States of America?

For all its foreign policy lapses, the United States has long stood as a beacon of individual freedom. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights constrain government action against individuals to a degree unimagined elsewhere in the world. Even the most criticized parts of the Bill of Rights, like the Second Amendment guarantee of the right ro bear arms, are, in William O. Douglas’s felicitous phrase, “designed to take the government off the backs of people.”

It is commonplace to observe that the September 11 attacks undermined those constraints.

In the run-up to Christmas, Glenn Greenwald, Salon’s tenacious legal affairs reporter, produced a series of stunning posts about the US military’s inhumane treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing a massive diplomatic cable trove to Wikileaks currently detained  in solitary confinement in a two-meter by three-meter cell.

ManningSince his arrest in May, Manning has been a model detainee, without any episodes of violence or disciplinary problems. He nonetheless was declared from the start to be a “Maximum Custody Detainee,” the highest and most repressive level of military detention, which then became the basis for the series of inhumane measures imposed on him.

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs. Lt. Villiard protested that the conditions are not “like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole,” but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.

Remember, Manning hasn’t been convicted of anything. He is merely in pre-trial detention. A blog post by Lt. Col. David Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, fleshes out the picture:

Under the rules for the confinement facility, he is not allowed to sleep at anytime between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. If he attempts to sleep during those hours, he will be made to sit up or stand by the guards….
PFC Manning is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day.
The guards are required to check on PFC Manning every five minutes by asking him if he is okay. PFC Manning is required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see PFC Manning clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure he is okay.
He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets. However, he is given access to two blankets and has recently been given a new mattress that has a built-in pillow.
He is prevented from exercising in his cell. If he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups, or any other form of exercise he will be forced to stop.
He does receive one hour of “exercise” outside of his cell daily. He is taken to an empty room and only allowed to walk. PFC Manning normally just walks figure eights in the room for the entire hour. If he indicates that he no long feels like walking, he is immediately returned to his cell.
When PFC Manning goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his boxer shorts and surrender his clothing to the guards. His clothing is returned to him the next morning.

Under the rules for the confinement facility, he is not allowed to sleep at anytime between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. If he attempts to sleep during those hours, he will be made to sit up or stand by the guards….

PFC Manning is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day.

The guards are required to check on PFC Manning every five minutes by asking him if he is okay. PFC Manning is required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see PFC Manning clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure he is okay.

He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets. However, he is given access to two blankets and has recently been given a new mattress that has a built-in pillow.

He is prevented from exercising in his cell. If he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups, or any other form of exercise he will be forced to stop.

He does receive one hour of “exercise” outside of his cell daily. He is taken to an empty room and only allowed to walk. PFC Manning normally just walks figure eights in the room for the entire hour. If he indicates that he no long feels like walking, he is immediately returned to his cell.

When PFC Manning goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his boxer shorts and surrender his clothing to the guards. His clothing is returned to him the next morning.

The New York Times picked up the story this morning, albeit in a blog post, not in the paper itself. The UN’s top torture official is now  said to be investigating Manning’s case.

Find Greenwald’s initial post on Manning’s treatment here. A later post theorizes that the military is trying to break Manning down to obtain evidence of collusion with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Despite florid rhetoric directed against Assange (including repeated nonsensical demands he be charged with treason, a crime of which no non-citizen can be guilty), there is no credible basis for a charge against him.

Colvin redux

The clarity and detail of the rebuttal Richard Colvin filed with the House of Commons this morning stand in stark contrast to the government’s flimsy response.

With devastating thoroughness, Colvin documented factual errors and faulty logic underlying the testimony of government witnesses who tried to explain away Ottawa’s studied indifference to the likely torture of prisoners our soldiers handed over to Afghan authorities.

Download his statement—it’s well worth the read—or check out Kady O’Malley’s summary and the Toronto Star’s account.

In response, the best Dan Dugas, spokesman for Defense Minister Peter MacKay, could offer was another jingoistic attempt to portray criticism of government policy as an attack on Canadian soldiers, and the lame assertion that the impugned government witnesses had already refuted Colvin’s claims.

That’s “refute,” as in “to prove false,” but the only refuting in evidence was by Colvin of the parade of government and military apologists who had attempted to discredit his testimony. By times, the rebuttal bordered on embarrassing, as when Colvin pointed out that his critics don’t seem to know the difference between the Taliban and al-Qa’ida:

Witnesses who testified that ‘the Taliban are trained to claim torture’ seem to be confusing Taliban insurgents (poorly educated Pashtuns, usually illiterate, with a parochial, Afghanistan-centred agenda) with al-Qa’ida terrorists (international jihadists, often highly educated). There is to our knowledge no Taliban equivalent of the al-Qa’ida ‘Manchester manual,’ which was aimed at a sophisticated, literate audience.

Colvin’s credibility, and the reason Canadians overwhelmingly believe him and not MacKay, arises from his palpable reluctance as a whistleblower. He came forward only under subpoena or “invitation” tantamount to subpoena.

[I]t was not the job of DFAIT officials in Afghanistan to push our concerns on ministers, unless they explicitly invited them, which none ever did. Doing so would have invited a reprimand from our superiors. The chain of command for DFAIT officers was back to DFAIT officials at HQ. Circumventing that chain of command would have been evidence of ‘going rogue.’ I was always very correct in my relations with the political level. I volunteered views to fellow bureaucrats, such as Clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch and DFAIT Associate Deputy Minister David Mulroney. But to have done so with ministers would have been inappropriate.

Anyone who has ever witnessed the sometimes awkward interface between the civil service and their political masters knows that this is precisely correct.

Text of the ambassadors’ letter – feedback

Contrarian reader Cliff White writes:

What a wonderful letter: short, succinct, to the point, and balanced.

I’ve personally found this whole affair very disturbing.  Although the media in general have been very good in following it and keeping it on the front burner, they have also, at times, let what seems to me the main issues slide out of focus.

The issue is not whether there was proof that Canadian detainees were tortured. Anyone with a scintilla  of sense knew torture by Afghan forces was common place and it you’d have to be a complete fool to suggest that, for some reason, only those detainees captured by Canadians wouldn’t receive the same treatment.

Insisting there was no evidence of such treatment was simply an exercise in government obfuscation. Unfortunately instead of ignoring this red herring reporters and commentators have given it weight I don’t think it deserved.

The main issues from my point of view are, first, the government’s obvious ignoring the issue of torture, in the first place—it seems quite clear that in the early days at least they just didn’t want to know about it. Second, the unscrupulous attacks on Colvin. These attacks have underlined the moral bankruptcy of this government.  Unfortunately I also feel they have tainted us all.

Christie’s comeuppance

Ten days ago, we speculated on the embarrassment Globe and Mail journalists must feel over columnist Christie Blatchford’s obsequiousness to the Harper government, as displayed in her columns attacking diplomat Richard Colvin. Paul Wells of Maclean’s has an interesting and detailed follow-up in his Inkless Wells blog. Moneyquote:

In 20 years in journalism I have never seen anything resembling the systematic and sustained repudiation to which Christie Blatchford, the Globe and Mail’s marquee columnist, is being subjected by her own newspaper. There is room in any good paper for disagreements among colleagues, and frankly there should, for a long time now, have been room for more of that at the Globe. But this goes further. This is breathtakingly methodical.

Wells goes on to give chapter and verse on Blatchford’s extraordinary comeuppance.

Text of ambassadors’ letter

The following is the full text of the open letter from 38 former Canadian ambassadors, protesting the Harper government’s attacks on Richard Colvin:

The issues raised by the Richard Colvin affair are profound. Colvin, a Foreign Service Officer dedicated to discharging his responsibilities to the best of his ability under difficult circumstances, was unfairly  subjected to personal attacks as a result of his testimony provided in response to a summons from a parliamentary committee.

While criticism of his testimony was perfectly legitimate, aspersions cast on his personal integrity were not.

A fundamental requirement of a Foreign Service Officer is that he or she report on a given situation as observed or understood. It is only in this way that any government can draw  conclusions knowledgeably and make its considered decisions, even if at variance with the reports received. The Colvin affair risks creating a climate in which Officers may be more inclined to report what they believe headquarters wants to hear, rather than facts and perceptions deemed unpalatable.

Serge April, Marc Baudouin, Michael D. Bell, Rod Bell, Eric Bergusch, Fred Bild, Marius
Bujold, Robert Collette, Jacques Crête, Brian Davis, Anne Marie Doyle, Paul Durand, James Elliott, Nick Etheridge, Marc Faguy, Robert Fowler, James George, Stan Gooch, John Graham, Nick Hare, Jean-Paul Hubert, Rick Kholer, Gabriel Lessard, Daniel Marchand, Patricia Marsden-Dole, Émile Martel, François Mathys, Carolyn McAskie, John Noble, Gar Pardy, Jacques Roy, Michael Shenstone, Joseph Stanford, Howard Strauss, William Warden, Christopher Westdal, Jack Whittleton, Ron Wilson.

The Globe and Mail newsroom steps up

Several Globe and Mail reporters who looked looked at the leaked Colvin emails that fueled Christie Blatchford’s recent philippics against the diplomat came up with a very different picture. To begin, here’s Paul Koring:

The Harper government has blacked out large sections of relevant files handed over to the independent inquiry probing allegations of transfer to torture of detainees in Afghanistan, despite the fact that its investigators have the highest levels of national security clearance.

The heavily redacted documents… underscore the sweeping nature of the government’s efforts to keep the documentary record from the Military Police Complaints Commission, which is attempting to conduct an inquiry into allegations that Canada knowingly transferred prisoners to likely torturers in Afghanistan…

“I’m not sure ‘cover-up’ is the right word but someone is going to considerable lengths not to disclose what was known,” said Stuart Hendin, an expert in the law of war and international-rights issues…

“It’s almost impossible for any independent authority to conduct a meaningful inquiry” with documents rendered so unreadable, Mr. Hendin added. “It all suggests someone knew there were issues.”

Koring also offers a useful reminder:

Transfer to torture is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. It is also outlawed by international convention.

The whole article is must-read material.

Meanwhile, the Globe’s Campbell Clark reviews the evidence and finds three points of agreement…

  1. The government knew that abuses and torture took place in Afghan jails when the Canadian mission in Kandahar began in December of 2005.S
  2. Sometime in 2006, it became clear that detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers were not being properly tracked and monitored, meaning that Canadian officials could not know if they were being abused or tortured.
  3. Once Ottawa changed the transfer arrangements in May, 2007, serious allegations of torture of detainees captured by Canadian soldiers came to light. Colvin  warned that the reports appeared credible; the generals and senior diplomat David Mulroney said they stopped transfers several times because of serious allegations.

…and one unanswered question:

  1. Why the government take so long to change the transfer arrangements?

Finally, the Globe’s Jane Taber has two blog posts (here and here) cataloging the Harper Government’s resort to jingoism in their efforts to thwart any inquiry into diplomat Richard Colvin’s testimony that senior Canadian military and foreign affairs officials ignored warnings that low-level prisoners we were turning over to Afghan security officials were likely being tortured.

Stephen Harper’s Tories wrapped themselves in the Canadian flag in Question Period today, aggressively accusing the Liberals of being anti-soldier, anti-athlete and by default, anti-Canadian.

“When will they stop attacking these men and women who are heroes,” demanded Transport Minister John Baird, dodging a question from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Blatchford resorts to the bucket defence

In a follow-up to her screed against diplomat Richard Colvin, Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford resorts to a full-blown bucket defence. According to Blatchford:

  1. There is no evidence Afghan security forces abused prisoners Canada turned over to them: “This is not akin to officials knowing that Afghans were being tortured.”
  2. Everyone knew Afghan security forces abused prisoners Canada turned over to them: “[It’s] obvious that Afghanistan is a brutal country where cruelty, hardship and physical violence are a way of life. No one with a lick of sense would expect that Afghan prisoners would live in comfort or ease.”
  3. Colvin never actually complained about torture: “If Mr. Colvin had been shouting TORTURE at the top of his lungs… word would not have leaked out” and, quoting retired lieutenant-general Michel Gauthier,  “There was nothing in [Colvin’s] reports that caused me or my staff to see in them serious, imminent or alarming new warnings of torture … and to suggest that senior officials or commanders ignored these or covered them up is wrong.”
  4. Colvin’s complained about torture in a manner so shrill as to be hysterical: “Mr. Colvin… spun himself into a hyperbolic fury over it.”
  5. Colvin only discovered the torture problem in April, 2007, after Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith blew the lid off the issue.  “Within days of [Smith’s] first story… Mr. Colvin had found his issue and was off to the races” and “Mr. Colvin discovered the abuse story shortly after or as this newspaper did.”
  6. By early 2007, everyone in Kandahar knew about the torture problem: “In other words, by early 2007, it was clear to just about every senior Canadian military and Foreign Affairs official in Afghanistan that there were serious questions with the monitoring of how Afghan prisoners taken by Canadian troops were being treated. From early 2007 on, recognition of the problem wasn’t the problem; figuring out how to fix it, and winning political approval for the fix, was.”

In other words, there was no torture; everyone knew there was torture. Colvin never complained about torture; Colvin was hysterical about torture. Colvin only discovered the torture problem in April 2007; by April 2007, everyone and his dog knew there was a torture problem.

Or, to put it another way, “I never borrowed your bucket. It was in perfect shape when I gave it back to you. I wish I had never borrowed the bucket anyway because the damed thing has a hole in it.”

One can scarcely imagine the embarrassment in the Globe newsroom at this meretricious imitation of journalism, especially in light of the excellent work Smith and other Globe reporters have done on this story.

In a world where bloggers often deride their mainstream counterparts, it’s important to note that Blatchford is an exception to the many mainstream reporters (Smith, Murray Brewster, Paul Koring, Steve Maher, and others) who have done solid reporting on the torture scandal.

Blatchford makes herself useful

In the PMO War Room, columnist Christie Blatchford must have seemed an inspired choice. She can turn a purple phrase with the best of them. She stands foursquare for troops, widows, and orphans. She’s against plummies, toffs, and pointyheads. She’s long on guts and glory, short on assay. She has an ego as big as the Ritz, and fragile as a Gruyère Soufflé. To receive a document drop on a Matter of National Importance would be sweet validation.

So the Harper Government—someone in the Harper Government—got the brilliant idea of handing Blatchford a trove of Richard Colvin’s long-sought emails from Kandahar, the same documents Harper has thus far refused to surrender to Parliament.

This is a standard bit of hardball damage control. Before releasing damning documents to anyone who might review them critically, pass them instead to a compliant journalist—a “high-value third-party,” in PR lingo—who can be counted on to convey their content with government-friendly gloss.

sky27nw2Blatchford did not disappoint. Her piece in Saturday’s Globe is replete with snide references to Colvin, who did not spend enough time outside the wire for her liking. Apparently volunteering to step into the shoes of the highest ranking diplomat ever to be killed in Afghanistan isn’t sufficient for our combat-besotted scribe.

Blatchford says the document drop  “appears to be the entire collection” of Colvin’s Afghan e-mails. Journalists who have actually followed the torture testimony confirm that she appears to have some documents not among those previously released, but she is also missing others. Even by Blatchford’s own account, the documents she got range from “virtually completely blacked out” through “heavily redacted” to [snideness alert] “rattl[ing] on at such length they could have done with a little more redacting.”

The omissions neither trouble Blatchford nor deter her from complaining about what Colvin doesn’t say. She finds nothing in the documents that might have alarmed Colvin’s superiors, noting one memo’s observation that the Kandahar prison was, “not that bad” and “not the worst in Afghanistan.” She somehow overlooked these sections of  Memo Kandh-0138:

Of the [redacted] detainees we interviewed, [redacted] said [redacted] had been whipped with cables, shocked with electricity and/or otherwise “hurt”….detainees still had [redacted] on [redacted] body; [redacted] seemed traumatized.

Individual sat with his toes curled under his feet. When he straightened his toe, it could be seen that the nails of the big toe and the one next to it, were a red-orange on the top of the nail, although the new growth underneath appeared fine. When we asked him about his treatment [redacted] rather than Kabul, he became quiet. He said that [redacted] he had been “hurt” and “had problems.” However, he is “happy now.” He did not elaborate on what happened [redacted]. [Redacted] seemed very eager to please, very deferential, and expressed gratitude for our visit. General impression was that he was somewhat traumatized.

When we asked him about his treatment [redacted] he said he had “a very bad time. They hit us with cables and wires.” He said they also shocked him with electricity. He showed us a number of scars on his legs, which he said were caused by the beating. He said he was hit for [redacted] days….

He and others told [redacted] that three fellow detainees had had their fingers “cut and burned with a lighter”….When we asked about his own treatment [redacted] he said that he was hit on his feet with a cable or a “big wire” and forced to stand for two days, but “that’s all.” He showed us a mark on the back of his ankle, which he said was from the cable. [Note: There was a dark red mark on the back of his ankle.] [Hat tip: Dawg’s Blawg & Voice from the Pack.]

Blatchford gloats that Colvin’s most prolific period as a memo-writier dates from a period in 2007 after Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith began filing reports on Afghan abuse of detainees arrested by Canadian soldiers. This may or may not be true, given that Blatchford is clearly missing half of Colvin’s 2006 reports (and God knows what else). It also shows remarkable intellectual flexibility, given that Blatchford believes nothing bad ever happened to the Afghans we arrested. The mere mention of Smith’s compelling reportage to the contrary must be embarrassing to her.

The redactions are interesting. Let’s call this fellow Detainee 1:

Redact 1-sc

And this fellow Detainee 2:


What exactly are the national security imperatives that prevent disclosure of what Detainee 1 was told after his several beatings, and what he alleged? Why is it vital to Canada’s security that we not know how many men interrogated Detainee 2, or for how long? He was allegedly threatened [blank] and, some time after the interrogation, told that he would not be [blank]. Why doesn’t the government want to fill in these blanks?

There is a bigger issue here than whether one gullible columnist wants to abet Harper’s  assassination of one diplomat’s character.  For weeks, the opposition MPs who constitute a majority in the House of Commons, our only elected federal institution, have been trying to get their hands on the relevant documents. For weeks Harper has put them off, promising eventual delivery while insisting that General Rick Hillier and Ambassador David Mulroney give their evidence before MPs had a chance to study the documentary record.

“The government has. and will continue. to make all legally available information available.” Harper told the Commons.

Now suddenly the unreleased documents turn up in a friendly (and not very sophisticated) columnist’s inbox. All the pious fretting about national security was, bluntly, a lie; the real concern all along was damage control—even when the issue at hand is Canadian complicity in torture.

Footnote: On the Globe’s website, conservative blogger Norman Spector pleads with Harper for the third time to call an inquiry into the torture allegations. Spector warns of a cloud on the horizon in the form of a Wall Street Journal report that Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, “is already conducting a ‘preliminary examination’ into whether NATO troops… may have to be put in the dock” over torture allegations.

Canadian army officer finds detainee policies ethically dubious

The National Post ferrets out a Canadian army officer’s surprisingly critical master’s thesis on Canada’s handling of Afghan detainees.

In an exhaustive critique, the author concluded Canada’s decision to hand over suspected insurgents to Afghan authorities with a history of abuse violated Canadian ethical values, could turn ordinary Afghans against foreign troops and likely increased the stress of this country’s combatants. The policy might even have contributed to the alleged mercy killing of a Taliban fighter by a Canadian soldier, she wrote.

Major Manon Plante’s thesis, completed this year as one of the requirements for a master’s degree from the Canadian Forces College, shows a level of candor the Harper government has thus far been unable to muster:

Based on the Afghan human rights track record and its primitive prison capacity, how the Government of Canada came to the conclusion that the Afghan authorities had the capacity to detain personnel is perplexing, The decision may have been legal but it appears that it may not have been the right ethical choice.

View Plante’s 122-page thesis in html, MSWord, or .pdf formats. Hat tip: Chris McCormick.

Kady smells a stonewall

The CBC’s Kady O’Malley brings prescient analysis—and that rarest of journalistic qualities, a political memory—to the Conservative scheme to fabricate a dastardly opposition “refusal” to hear diplomat David Mulroney rebut fellow diplomat Richard Colvin’s account of how Canada turned a blind eye to Afghan security officials’ torture of detainees our forces turned over to them. Here’s the plan:

  1. Refuse to turn over documents bearing on Colvin’s testimony. Invoke national security, of course.
  2. Have Mulroney show up, uninvited, and demand to be be heard immediately, before MPs have any opportunity to prepare for his testimony, let alone see the documentary evidence bearing on his behaviour in Afghanistan.
  3. Howl in phony outrage over the opposition’s refusal to let Mulroney “clear his name” after Colvin’s “completely unfounded” allegations.

O’Malley points out that this is exactly the same strategy the Harper Government used last year when a pesky Commons committee investigated illegal Conservative campaign financing.

Throughout that week of special mid-recess hearings in August 2008, a series of party-connected witnesses alternately failed to appear, citing improper service, or, in a few memorable instances, deliberately did so on days when they weren’t actually listed on the schedule, whereupon they would demand to be allowed to testify immediately. When gently but firmly rebuffed by the chair, they would storm out of the room to the waiting media throng, insisting all the way that they were being silenced by the tyrannical opposition majority.

In fact, I was sitting not more than a few inches away from the party’s then-political director, Doug Finley—now, of course, a senator—when he showed up, bright and more than a little early, three days before he was scheduled to appear. Squeezing himself in at the table alongside the scheduled witnesses, he informed the chair he was ready to take questions; after he was, entirely predictably, rebuffed, he very nearly had to be removed by Hill security when he refused to vacate the seat. When his name came up on the witness list later that week, however, he was nowhere in sight.

And how is her analysis holding up? So far Mulroney has asked to appear before the committee, and, unbidden, boarded a plane from China to Ottawa for that purpose. In the Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged MPs “not to muzzle” civil servants who want to rebut Colvin’s testimony.

Opposition members of the committee have asked to see cabinet minutes from the time, all memos to and from Colvin, and human rights reports given to the defence department. Harper says the government “has and will continue to make all legally available information available.”

Legally available. You know. The ones that don’t have to be withheld to protect national security.