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Second verse, same as the first

Last week, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) published a declassified version of its review into CSIS’s role in interviewing Afghan detainees. Shortly following media reports in early 2010 that CSIS was involved in interrogating prisoners captured by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, both CSIS and SIRC commissioned investigations into the matter.

According to the SIRC report, the CSIS study was designed to “form a chronology and general description of CSIS’s involvement in this issue, and to consider its involvement from the standpoint of CSIS’s legal risk.” The SIRC investigation, by its own description, sought to “review CSIS’s files to assess performance, and the efficiency and effectiveness of its policy and operations.”

Much has been made in the media of how the SIRC report has “cleared” CSIS of “wrongdoing in connection with the abuse of Afghan detainees.” In order to understand why this declaration is — put mildly — somewhat misleading, it’s necessary to make clear the limited scope of the SIRC review and to spell out what it is that the report doesn’t consider.

The SIRC review — and the “parallel” CSIS study — looked at the very narrow issue of what role CSIS played in interrogations of CF-captured detainees prior to their transfer to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s secret police. To that end, SIRC agreed with the CSIS study’s conclusions that, for example:

  • CSIS’s participation in the interviews of detainees in Canadian Forces custody was at the Canadian Force’s request;
  • the Canadian Forces were ultimately responsible for the transfer of prisoners/detainees to Afghan authorities. CSIS’s role was one of facilitation, when required, between the Afghan NDS and other Canadian entities such as the CF or DFAIT;
  • CSIS officers posted to Afghanistan had no first-hand knowledge of the alleged abuse, mistreatment or torture of detainees by Afghan authorities.

In essence, CSIS is saying that to the extent that their spies were present at interviews, it was at the request of the Canadian Forces. And at the end of the day, it the Canadian Forces were ultimately responsible for making the decision to transfer detainees to Afghan custody. Moreover, CSIS officers in Afghanistan had no “first hand knowledge” of detainee torture and abuse by Afghan authorities. (More on what “first hand knowledge” means in a bit.) In sum, CSIS is telling us that if anyone’s looking to see who’s responsible for delivering detainees to torture, then they should be talking to the CF. As we’ve seen repeatedly in the context of the Afghan detainee issue, “not my job” is a familiar refrain.

But these conclusions still leave important questions unanswered. The extensive redactions in the declassified SIRC report make it difficult to say for certain what was and what wasn’t considered by the Committee, but it suffices that the publicly available portions of the report do not indicate any investigation into, for example, what information CSIS had concerning NDS use of torture and abuse in its prison facilities, and whether CSIS shared (or should have shared) that information with the CF and other branches of the Canadian government responsible for detainee issues.

These are important questions, because even the scant information provided in the declassified SIRC report reflects a certain wariness on the part of CSIS in its dealings with the NDS. In summarizing CSIS’s relationship with the NDS, the unredacted portions of the SIRC report state that:

In the process leading up to seeking formal approval [to establish an arrangement with the NDS], CSIS undertook preliminary consultations with DFAIT officials [redacted]


[redacted] CSIS pledged to take a cautious approach and to closely scrutinize the content of the information provided to, or obtained from the NDS to ensure that non of the information exchanged could be used in the commission of acts which would be regarded as human rights violations.

The Service’s relationship with the NDS consisted of [redacted] exchanges of information, [redacted]


Notwithstanding this productive working relationship, CSIS’s assessment of the NDS was both cautious and measured.


CSIS continued to stress that most allegations of human rights abuse were unconfirmed, [redacted]


In the course of this review, SIRC found no indication that in the period during which they conducted detainee interviews, CSIS officers posted to Afghanistan ever had first-hand knowledge of abuse, mistreatment or torture of detainees by Afghan authorities.

[redacted] Our review found that CSIS made efforts to contextualize NDS-originating information in order to assess its importance and credibility.

(Emphasis added)

This language all reflects a worry that the NDS was an agency that could not be relied upon to adhere to basic human rights, and that there was a present, real risk that the NDS was engaged in human rights abuses.

CSIS was alive to these concerns, notwithstanding the reported lack of “first-hand knowledge” of torture or abuse. (The notion of “no first-hand knowledge” is something we’ve seen employed repeatedly by government witnesses before Parliament and the MPCC — as far as we’ve been able to discern, it merely means that Canadian officials and representatives did not actually see the act of torture taking place. From what we’ve observed, learning of torture through direct reports from detainees or credible human rights bodies, or even foreign governments does not, in this technical parsing of language, constitute “first-hand knowledge”, as the term is used by the Canadian government.)

And thus, the SIRC report concluded that CSIS had “ongoing human rights concerns” with the NDS, and understood that there was “the possibility that information provided to CSIS by [the NDS] could have been derived from torture.” Yet there is no discussion of whether these concerns, and the underlying evidence giving rise to these concerns, were passed on to the relevant decisionmakers responsible for formulating the detainee transfer policy, or for authorizing detainee transfers. Instead, SIRC’s only observation is that in light of these risks, “CSIS took care to emphasize the need to mitigate this risk by managing its relationship and exchanges of information with the NDS carefully.”

And while this may technically “clear” CSIS of wrongdoing so far as intelligence collection and exchanges go, it leaves unanswered the question of what CSIS knew which caused them to suspect the NDS of committing human rights abuses, and whether that information was shared with DFAIT or the CF. If it wasn’t shared with the other relevant branches of the Canadian government, why not? (Bureaucratic inefficiencies cannot excuse Canada from its duties under international law to prevent and eradicate torture.) If such information was shared with DFAIT and the CF, then was the nature of this intelligence such that it should have compelled Canada to stop detainee transfers to the NDS?

These are issues that the SIRC report doesn’t resolve, and unfortunately, aren’t going to be resolved by the MPCC process or the half-completed Parliamentary review of detainee documents, either. Detainee handling in Afghanistan was an issue that crossed government agencies — what Canada calls a “whole of government” approach. Review commissions like SIRC or the MPCC — mandated only to oversee the conduct of one specific agency — have neither the jurisdiction nor the capacity to engage in a fulsome and meaningful accounting of Canada’s detainee transfers. This report illustrates precisely why detainee handling cannot be reviewed in a piecemeal fashion, and why a full public inquiry is the only way to achieve any measure of accountability.