OTTAWA — National Defence has a “Don’t ask, won’t tell” policy on Canadian soldiers wounded in Kandahar.
The department will release statistics on how many are injured, but only if the department is specifically asked about the information, say federal documents.
The army stopped reporting battlefield injuries to journalists on the ground late last year as part of a stepped up campaign to confuse the Taliban on what kind of damage it inflicted on the battle group.
As a result, the public didn’t hear about the injuries suffered by two soldiers until after they had died in hospital from their wounds earlier this year.
New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said the policy of waiting to be asked about the wounded flies in the face of the federal government’s pledge of accountability and gives the public a skewed view of the war.
“It’s a very sad thing when you find out at the end of the year that our soldiers are essentially reduced to statistics on an ask-only basis,” Harris said. “This is not accountability. When harm is being done to our troops, that’s important to know.”
The federal government says it’s responded to the “public’s right to know,” while maintaining operational security, by releasing the figures on an annual basis.
But a series of emails between policy officials and public affairs staff at National Defence last spring, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws, show that even when compiled annually and stripped of specific incident details, the government is reluctant to disclose the numbers.
“This information will be used reactively for media queries and statistics will be provided via e-mail to interested reporters,” wrote Christopher Williams, a ministerial liaison in the department’s public affairs branch on March 24, 2010.
He was answering a question from the Defence Department’s Parliamentary liaison after the issue of secrecy and the reporting of wounded was raised in the House of Commons last spring. That debate was spawned after a Canadian soldier, Cpl. Darren Fitzpatrick, died in an Edmonton trauma centre from injuries sustained in a roadside bomb blast.
The fact he was injured went unreported by the military at the time. The same thing happened in death of Cpl. Brian Pinksen, who succumbed to his wounds at the U.S. Army medical centre in Landstuhl, where severely wounded Canadian troops are flown for treatment.
The policy even makes some in uniform uncomfortable. Soldiers who spoke off the record said the growing number of wounded, traumatized or moderately injured — over 1,400 according to the last update — is a big story that is being underplayed.
Harris said there are ways National Defence can safeguard information without deliberately keeping Canadians in the dark. He’d be prepared to accept a news blackout on casualties on specific incidents, but urged the military to release numbers once a month, so the public can get a sense as to how bad the fighting has been — or how the situation has improved.
“That way we’re kept informed as to what the cost of the war is in casualties,” he said. “That seems to me to be something we’re entitled to know.”
But Capt. Christian Courtemanche, a spokesman for the military’s Strategic Joint Staff, the nerve centre of decision-making, said the Forces stands by its decision.
“The policy is to basically limit the information available,” he said.
The Defence Department relented last week on another set of statistics and released information on the number of Afghans captured by Canadian troops in the first seven years of the war. Those numbers have been at the centre of a legal and political battle over he handling of detainees.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay promised to also release those numbers on an annual basis.