Colvin’s rebuttal

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This morning, Richard Colvin delivered a 16-page letter to the Special Committee on Afghanistan, setting out additional evidence and rebutting his government critics. The letter is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some of the highlights.

First, Colvin counters the assertion by government witnesses that they were “not told” of the risk of torture. He summarizes the contents of six memoranda written by Canadian diplomats in 2006 warning of detainee abuse and describes a March 2007 interagency meeting in Ottawa.  According to Colvin, at this meeting, he informed 12 to 15 officials that:

“The NDS tortures people, that’s what they do, and if we don’t want our detainees tortured, we shouldn’t give them to the NDS.”  (The NDS, or National Directorate of Security, is Afghanistan’s intelligence service.)  The response from the Canadian note-taker was to stop writing and put down her pen.

He also details reports from the US State Department and the United Nations, confirming the systemic abuse of detainees in Afghanistan and use of torture by the NDS:

In other words, freely available documents from highly credible sources — including the United States Government and the United Nations — warned of “torture,” including specifically by the NDS.

(That is, Colvin is not merely a “Taliban dupe”, as some critics have suggested, unless the US State Department and the UN have been likewise duped.)

Colvin also challenges the idea that embassy reporting was based only on “second-hand” or “third-hand” evidence, noting that reports on detainees were based on information gathered from intelligence services, other embassies and diplomatic missions, and authoritative human rights bodies.  He further remarked that:

Diplomats traffic in information.  We seek out the most authoritative sources, build a relationship with those individuals, and report their information. . . . Information was cross-checked and triangulated.

Next, Colvin challenges the assertion made by witnesses that once the Canadian government was made aware of the risk of torture, steps were taken to prevent it from happening.  Colvin bluntly states:

All of this information — internal reporting from Canadian officials in the field, reports from the US and interventions with policy-makers — had no visible impact on Canadian detainee practices.  From February 2006 (when the Canadian battle group first deployed) to May 3, 2007 (when Canada signed a new Memorandum of Understanding on detainees that  gave us the right to monitor) our detainees continued to be transferred to the NDS, despite a substantial risk of abuse or torture.

. . .

Even after the new MOU was signed, Ottawa for the first five months did not send a dedicated DFAIT monitor to conduct the monitoring.  Monitoring in Kandahar was implemented by a rotating pool of officers, some on very short deployments.  As a result, Canadian detainees in NDS custody in Kandahar remained at risk of torture.  When a dedicated monitor was finally sent out in late October 2007, he quickly found conclusive evidence of continued torture.  This finally triggered a Canadian decision to stop transfers.

With respect to the allegation that Taliban detainees are trained to claim torture, Colvin points out, as deputy Task Force Afghanistan commander Lt. Cl. Tom Putt did in his testimony before the Military Police Complaints Commission, that the Afghans detained by Canada were largely “local yokels” — not literate, highly educated international jihadists like al-Qaeda terrorists.  According to Colvin, there is no Taliban equivalent to the al-Qaeda “Manchester manual”, which contained the instruction that upon capture, detainees should claim torture early and often.  Colvin also points out that of the four detainees he interviewed, none first alleged torture.

Colvin rebuts the notion that Canadian forces had no option but to hand over detainees to the NDS, setting out at three other viable alternatives proposed by the embassy, but ultimately rejected by the government.

He sharply counters the government’s testimony that Ottawa encouraged full reporting and that embassy reports were not censored, providing detailed examples of incidents in which David Mulroney, Arif Lalani, and Colleen Swords gave instructions to limit reporting on information that “conflicted with the government’s public messaging.”

He also addresses issues concerning his credibility, why he has spoken up the way has, and how information is provided to ministers and generals.

All in all, a measured, compelling, and strong rebuke to the spin that the government and its witnesses have been putting on Colvin’s original testimony.

Richard Colvin’s December 16, 2009 Letter to the Special Committee on Afghanistan (available from the CBC)

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